Rāhu, The Demon of Eclipses

Rahu, The Demon of Eclipses, Cambodia, 10th–11th century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Rāhu is an asura, the son of Simhikā, considered a planetary deity who represents the eclipses of the sun and the moon. He plays a number of roles in the myths, art, and religion of South and Southeast Asia. In Khmer art (from Cambodia and Thailand) and Cham art (from Vietnam), he is almost always shown in conjunction with other deities. This particular sculpture of Rāhu, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was once the eighth of a nine-deity set. This Rāhu takes a specific form shared by most Rāhu images in the art of Cambodia and Thailand. He has a fierce face with bulging eyes, a stylized frown between heavy eyebrows, a large, flat nose, full lips that are marked by lines of a moustache, and a beard. His hair bursts out from his fillet in ringlets, framing his face and accentuating his angry expression. Large earrings that rest on his shoulders are his only jewelry. Khmer art consistently depicts only Rahu’s head, with part of his upper body and a raised right arm exposed; his lower body is covered by a variety of repeated designs, often arranged in rows. In some interpretations of Khmer art, the deity is shown in a tornado of clouds in the sky. In this example, Rāhu is shown rising from a whirlpool caused by the churning of the Ocean of Milk in a scene in which he attempts to steal the nectar of immortality from the gods. Rāhu, disguised as a god at the time of the Churning of the Ocean, obtained possession of some of the Amṛta and proceeded to drink it in order to become immortal. Sūrya and Soma (the sun and moon), however, noticed, and brought it to the attention of Nārāyaṇa, who instantly cut off Rāhu’s head with his discus. As the head contained Amṛta it became immortal and came to represent the ascending nodes of the moon’s orbit. The body of Rāhu, according to the Puraṇic notion, was called Ketu, and represented the descending nodes of the moon. Rāhu also became the progenitor of the whole tribe of meteors and comets. Not having obtained his wish to become completely immortal, Rāhu naturally bore a grudge against Sūrya and Soma, and, whenever he gets the opportunity, he tries to swallow them, causing eclipses. An eclipse of the sun or moon has everywhere been regarded with dread, and in many parts of the world its advent still gives rise to a variety of rites, some of a threatening and others of a propitiatory nature.

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