- For the social group or caste amongst the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka, see Kinnaraya
In Buddhist mythology and Hindu mythology, a kinnara is a paradigmatic lover, a celestial musician, half-human and half-horse (India) or half-bird (south-east Asia). Their character is clarified in the Adi parva of the Mahabharata, where they say:
- We are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate. We are eternally husband and wife; never do we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved ever-embracing. In between us we do not permit any third creature demanding affection. Our life is a life of perpetual pleasure.
In Southeast Asian mythology, Kinnaris, the female counterpart of Kinnaras, are depicted as half-bird, half-woman creatures. One of the many creatures that inhabit the mythical Himavanta. Kinnaris have the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan. She is renowned for her dance, song and poetry, and is a traditional symbol of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment.
Nomenclature, orthography and etymology
In Burma (Myanmar), kinnara are called keinnaya or kinnaya (ကိန္နရာ [kèɪɴnəjà]). Female kinnara are called keinnayi or kinnayi (ကိန္နရီ [kèɪɴnəjì]). In Shan, they are ၵိင်ႇၼရႃႇ (Shan pronunciation: [kìŋ kǎ ràː]) and ၵိင်ႇၼရီႇ (Shan pronunciation: [kìŋ nǎ rì]) respectively. Burmese Buddhists believe that out of the 136 past animal lives of Buddha, four were Kinnara. The kinnari is also one of the 108 symbols on the footprint of Buddha. In Burmese art, kinnari are depicted with covered breasts. The Myanmar Academy Awards statue for Academy Award winners is of a kinnari. The kinnara and kinnari couple is considered the symbol of the Karenni people.
In Cambodia, the kinnaras are known in the Khmer language as kenar (កិន្នរ, កិន្នរា; IPA: [kaːeˈnɑː] or IPA: [kenˈnɑraː]). The female counterpart, the kinnari (កិន្នរី; IPA: [kenˈnɑrej]), are depicted in Cambodian art and literature more often than the male counterparts. They are commonly seen as support figurines for the columns of post-Angkorian architecture. They are considered a symbol of beauty and are skilled dancers. The kinnari is a character archetype in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, appearing as mischievous groups that have a strong allurement. A classical dance titled robam kinar depicts kinnaris playing in a lotus pond.
Kinnaras are one of the exotic tribes of Ancient India mentioned along with Devas (including Rudras, Maruts, Vasus and Adityas), Asuras (including Daityas, Danavas and Kalakeyas), Pisachas, Gandharvas, Kimpurushas, Vanaras, Suparnas, Rakshasas, Bhutas and Yakshas. They along with others, were inhabitants of the Himalaya mountains. The people of the Gangetic Plain looked upon them with wonder and considered them as super-human.
In particular, the word Kinnara (literally means "what human?" in Sanskrit) is related to the word Kimpurusha (meaning "what man?" i.e. hermaphrodite, half man-half woman). Legends have it that the original Kinnaras were the troops of Ila, the unfortunate King who was transformed into a woman by means of a curse. Later he/she became a wife of the divine hermit and god of the planet Mercury, Budha, while his former soldiers were turned into kinnara by the hermit Budha.
Kinnaras were mysteriously linked with horses. Puranas mention them as horse-headed beings. Puranas mention about an Asura with a horse head, who was known as Hayagreeva (which in Sanskrit means the horse headed one; Haya = horse and greeva = head) This Asura was killed by an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who took the similar form of a horse-headed human figure.
The epic Mahabharata mentions Kinnaras, not as horse-headed beings but as beings who were half-man and half-horse i.e. like a Centaur. Mahabharata and the Puranas describe regions north to Himalayas as the abode of Kinnaras. Another reference in the epic considers them as a sub-group of Gandharvas.
The images of coupled Kinnara and Kinnari can be found in Borobudur, Mendut, Pawon, Sewu, Sari, and Prambanan temples. Usually, they are depicted as birds with human heads, or humans with lower limbs of birds. The pair of Kinnara and Kinnari usually is depicted guarding Kalpataru, the tree of life, and sometimes guarding a jar of treasure. A pair of Kinnara-Kinnari bas-reliefs of Sari temple is unique, depicting Kinnara as celestial humans with birds' wings attached to their backs, very similar to popular image of angels.
The Kinnari, (usually spelt 'Kinnaree' as noted below) (Thai: กินรี) in Thai literature originates from India, but was modified to fit in with the Thai way of thinking. The Thai Kinnari is depicted as a young woman wearing an angel-like costume. The lower part of the body is similar to a bird, and should enable her to fly between the human and the mystical worlds.
The most famous Kinnari in Thailand is the figure known as Manora (derived from Manohara), a heroine in one of the stories collected in "Pannas Jataka" a Pali tome written by a Chiangmai Buddhist monk and sage around AD 1450-1470. This is supposed to be a collection of 50 stories of the past lives of the Buddha, known to Buddhists as the Jataka. The specific tale about Manora the Kinnaree was called Sudhana Jataka, after Prince Sudhana, the bodhisattva who was also the hero of the story and the husband of Manora.
It has been speculated that the stories of Manora/Manohara told in Southeast Asia might related to the stories of the Cowherd and the Celestial Weaver Girl, popular in China, Japan and Korea.
The story inspired a dance called Manorah Buchayan, which is one of the most esoteric among the high classical dances of Thailand, as well as the "Norah" dance of southern Thailand.
Thai Airways International publishes a monthly magazine with the title Kinnaree.
The male counterpart of the female Kinnari is a Kinnon (Thai: กินนร).
In Tibet the Kinnara is known as the 'shang-shang' (Tibetan: ཤང་ཤང, Wylie: shang shang) (Sanskrit: civacivaka). This chimera is depicted either with just the head or including the whole torso of a human including the arms with the lower body as that of a winged bird. In Nyingma Mantrayana traditions of Mahayoga Buddhadharma, the shang-shang symbolizes 'enlightened activity' (Wylie: phrin las). The shang-shang is a celestial musician and is often iconographically depicted with cymbals. A homonymic play on words is evident which is a marker of oral lore: the 'shang' (Tibetan: གཆང, Wylie: gchang) is a cymbal or gong like ritual instrument in the indigenous traditions of the Himalaya. The shang-shang is sometimes depicted as the king of the Garuda.
- Ghosh, Subodh (2005). Love stories from the Mahabharata, transl. Pradip Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Indialog. p. 71
- Headley, Robert K. (1997). Modern Cambodian-English Dictionary, Dunwoody Press
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