My first encounter with the Makara was on a gateway of the Sanchi stupa. It featured a man wrestling with a serpentine monster geared with tusks of an elephant. Little was I aware of the creature and its significance in the Indian scheme of tradition. All of a sudden, it appeared in bas-reliefs and sculpture in lands as far as Japan. This set me thinking about the concept of Makara as a marine being that suddenly became a decorative motif all throughout Asia.
The Makara is a mythical creature which resides in the depth of the waters, where it lives in a state of elusive isolation. Like all mythical creatures, the Makara too has many fantastical descriptions. But most plastic representations portray it to be serpentine with a mouth of a crocodile and tusks and snout of an elephant.
So what makes this creature such a poignant representation in classical art? If we have to quote the scriptures, the Makara is an auspicious creature with a potency to offer protection. Because of this quality, it is widely depicted on temple lintels, on prows of boats, and even on the handles of Malaysian daggers.
In India, the Makara is always depicted on temple portals where it is used as a decorative motif. These portals are called as the Makara Toranas. The Makara on this is visually very different from the ones that one sees on the Bharut medallion or on the Sanchi gateway. Here you see them emerging from foliate motifs bearing a more stylised appearance than those from Sanchi which are more austere and are more naturalistic depictions.
The Chandi kavyas of Bengal speak of ships flaunting Makara shaped prows. An artistic depiction of this is found in the Ajanta caves which date to 5th century CE. The Makaras on the prows were placed by seafarer for the very same reason they were place in temple, viz., to offer protection from the terrors of the sea.
The Makara was not confined to India alone. It travelled to all those places where the Indian culture took root. Here too the Makara took on the same talismanic qualities that it represented in the mainland India. In South East Asian shadow puppetry, a Gunungan bearing the Makara motif is displayed on the screen before or towards the end of the screening of the puppet play. This act reiterates its talismanic character of the Makara which bears the same import in the Indian parlance.
Moving northwards to China and Japan, the Makara motif and essence is absorbed albiet through a different name. In these countries, it is called the Chiwen and Sachihoko respectively. The Chiwen or Sachihoko were placed on classical Chinese and Japanese palace and temple as finials hoping it would offer protection from fire and storms. Here also, the motif bears the same talismanic significance as it did in India.
Today, when I look back at my trip to Sanchi, gazing at the Makara on the gateway and see the Sachihokos beautifying the palaces and temple of Japan, I am truly amazed at how much of India’s culture has flown through the waves of the oceans.