The Dvārapāla (dvāra = gate, pāla = protector) are the gate-keepers in Hindu and Buddhist temples and sanctuaries. They are always placed in pairs, at the entrance of temples and at the doorway to the garbha-griha (sanctum).
Each god or goddess has his or her own set of Dvārapālas. They frighten away the evil spirits and are connected with the Nagas.
Sculptures in Java and Bali are usually carved from andesite stone and portray the Dvārapāla as fearsome danava with a bulky physique in semi-kneeling position and holding a club. The largest stone statue is in Java, a Dvarapala of the Singhasari period, which is 3.7 meters tall.
The Shilpa Shastra texts that deal with temple architecture (Devalaya Vastu) – after describing the temple layout, structure and other aspects with particular reference to the attributes and disposition of the deity to be installed in the temple – make mention of the nature and function of the Dvarapalas to be placed at different locations in the temple complex.
The Dhyana Slokas also present graphic details of the form, substance and attribute of the deity and his or her attendants. These verses are meant for contemplation and guidance of the Shilpi (sculptor).
The nature and appearance of the Dvarapalas of Vishnu temples are described in the Isvara Samhita and in the Pushkara Samhita. They are seen with the emblems of Vaishnavism like the tilaka on their foreheads and urdhvapundra on their faces, arms, chest etc.
They carry in their upper hands the shankha (conch) and in the lower hands, the gada (mace) and a pasha (noose, or coil of rope). They stand erect, cross-legged, leaning on their mace as if they were resting. The gestures of their fingers and the look in their eyes caution one to behave properly in the presence of the divinity.
The Dvarapalas of the female deities who represent the Panchatattva are fearsome-looking females, modeled after the ugra aspect of their mother deity. They carry cutlasses and tridents, wear garlands of skulls and sport wild unkempt hair. Quite often they are portrayed with flashy eyes, long protruding teeth and tongue spread out of the open mouth.
The guarding deities are the sthula (physical) representations of certain symbolic concepts.
For instance, the outermost avarana (enclosure) of Bhupura Chakra (the earth stretch), has four dvara (gates):
• Eastern gate = The way of the Mantras
• Southern gate = The way of Bhakti (devotion)
• Western gate = For the performance of Karma-Kanda (rites and rituals)
• Northern gate = The way of Jnana (wisdom)
The 4 doors of the Ganapathi temples are guarded by 4 sets of Dvarapalas:
• Avijna – Vijnaraja (East)
• Suvakthra – Balavan (South)
• Gajakarna – Gokarna (West)
• Susoumya (Soumya) – Shubadayaka (Abhaya ) on the North
Those are called Ashta-Prathihari (detail of 8 guards). All of them are short statured, having cruel looks and carrying fearsome weapons.
The Dwarapalaka in the Ayyappa temple shows a finger meaning that “God is one“. The Dwarapalaka on the left shows the finger towards the Lord directing the devotee to have his mind set on the Lord.
Similarly, the Dvarapalas in a Shiva temple take after Virabhadra (the ferocious aspect of Shiva). They look fierce with bulging eyes, protruding curved sharp canine teeth, horns and with their threatening stance and fearsome weapons. They have thick mustaches, bushy eyebrows and hairy abdomen.
They wear the emblems of Shiva, such as the stripes of ash, animal hides, long flowing unkempt hair etc. They carry a trident, mace, broad-sword and a noose. They look ferocious, gesture ominously and stand planting firmly a foot on the mace.
The features of the Dvarapalas of Shiva are described in the uttarardha (latter part) of the Kashyapa Shilpa Sastra.