With a wealth of materials, the exhibition explores the origins and varied manifestations of these fascinating figures. Originating in China as doglike comet beings (the Chinese characters for Tengu mean "heaven's dog") whose arrival portended war, Tengus were soon invested with birdlike attributes of wings and beaks, possibly through conflation with the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, which was introduced to Japan through Buddhism. The beak was later transformed into the characteristic long red nose.
Although all the explanations are in Japanese, there is still much for non-Japanese-speakers to enjoy, from elaborate mandalas and colorful scrolls to bugaku (dance) masks with swinging noses from the 10th century, as well as impressive statues of Tengu and associated figures. These include the aforementioned Garuda and En no Gyoja, a 7th-century hermit and ascetic whose legend became entwined with that of the Tengu.
The history of Tengu is a good example of the Japanese tendency to transform dangerous aspects of nature or the supernatural to something friendlier and cuter. From his origin as a harbinger of war, the Tengu gradually mellowed into a protective mountain spirit and then became a convenient marketing tool for various brands of goods. Having said that, the large Tengu masks at the entrance still have the power to reduce small children to tears.
8th October, 2010