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If you travel through Southeast Asia, you’re likely to see carvings of strange animals throughout temples and other architecture you see, as statues, in paintings, in decorative doorways, and more. These animals might look similar to real-world animals, but there’s something a bit mystical about them. These are the creatures of the Himmapan Forest, a legendary location important to both Buddhist and Hindu mythology.
The Himmapan Forest
The legendary Himmapan Forest (Himavanta) is said to be located somewhere in the Himalaya Mountains between India and Nepal. The forest, however, is not accessible to mortal humans. It lies beneath the Buddhist heaven, and it cannot be seen or entered by mortals. The Himmapan Forest appears in a number of important Buddhist and Hindu texts. Perhaps the most important is the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic poem written in India over 2,000 years ago, and its Thai version, the Ramakien.
The Ramayana tells the story of Rama (the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu) and his wife Sita. Exiled from his kingdom, Rama arrives in the Himmapan Forest, which is full of demons and mythical animals. After Sita is kidnapped, Rama allies with a number of creatures, most notably a group of flying monkeys, in order to rescue her. Throughout the tale, Rama, Sita, and the other characters interact with many amazing creatures. The Ramayana became highly influential in both Buddhist and Hindu literature and culture, and so Himmapan Creatures also spread far and wide throughout Southeast Asia.
The creatures of Himmapan Forest are an interesting mix of the familiar and the extraordinary. Many of them are creatures that combine the forms of multiple animals. Features come from a wide range of animals, including deer, lions, horses, rhinos, elephants, cattle, monkeys, dogs, birds, fish, crocodiles, and crabs. The kochasri, for example, is a lion with an elephant’s trunk, and the asura waypuk has an eagle’s bottom half and a giant’s top half.
As this shows, a number of the creatures have human features. Even those who do not often have humanoid intelligence and can speak with the human characters of mythology. While many of the creatures mix the features of real-world animals, some are purely made up. Others incorporate mythological creatures such as dragons. In art or architecture, you may see different interpretations of the same animal. This is because depictions come largely from descriptions in ancient manuscripts, and over time artists have interpreted them differently.
Where to See Himmapan Creatures
If you are interested in Hindu or Buddhist art or architecture, you will likely see Himmapan creatures quite frequently. They are present in illustrations, murals, artifacts, statues, decorative stonework, and more. If you are traveling in Southeast Asia, you can see Himmapan creatures while visiting palaces, temples, and museums. From anywhere, you can find examples of creatures in any illustrations of the Ramayana or other ancient Hindu texts.
You may also wish to visit himmapan.com, which contains an excellent breakdown of the different kinds of Himmapan creatures and examples of how they appear in artistic depictions. If you take a look through some of these images before traveling, you’ll be able to identify Himmapan creatures at various sites throughout Thailand, India, Laos, or other Southeast Asian countries.
- Campbell Joseph. Oriental Mythology (The Masks of God Book 2). Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2014, 634p.
- Buck William. Ramayana: 35th Anniversary Edition. University of California Press, 2012, 464p.
© 2020 Sam Shepards