'Makara' is a Sanskrit word which means "sea dragon" or "water-monster". In Tibetan it is called the "chu-srin", and also denotes a hybrid creature. It is the origin of the word for 'crocodile' in Hindi, मगर (magar), which has in turn been loaned into English as the name of the Mugger crocodile, the most common crocodile in India.
Josef Friedrich Kohl of Würzburg University and several German scientists claimed that makara is based on dugong instead, based on his reading of Jain text of Sūryaprajñapti. The South Asian river dolphin may also have contributed to the image of the makara.
Another theory that exists is that the creature is indeed an Alligator gar. This gar has had the ability to reach up to 14 feet in length and in history has been given the reputation of being aggressive. This fish has the head of an alligator and the body of a fish.
During the Vedic times when Indra was the God of heaven, Varuna (the Vedic water god) became the God of the seas and rode on makara, which was called "the water monster vehicle".
Makara has been depicted typically as half mammal and half fish
. In many temples, the depiction is in the form of half fish or seal with head of an elephant. It is also shown in an anthropomorphic (abstract form) with head and jaws of a crocodile, an elephant trunk with scales of fish and a peacock tail. Lakshmi sitting on a lotus is also a depiction in which she pulls the tongue of the elephant shaped makara is meant to project Lakshmi's image as the goddess of prosperity, wealth and well being. It represents a necessary state of chaos before the emergence of a new state of order.
Makara is also the emblem of Kamadeva, the god of love and desire. Kamadeva is also known as 'Makara-Ketu' which means "having the makara for an emblem" It is the tenth sign of the Zodiac, called rāśi in Sanskrit, which is equivalent to the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (goat symbol).
In Hindu iconography, Makara is represented as the vahana ('vehicle') of Ganga, the river goddess. A row of makara may run along the wall of a Hindu temple, act as the hand rail of a staircase, or form an arch above a doorway.
The leading Hindu temple architect and builder Ganapati Sthapati describes Makara as a mythical animal with the body of a fish, trunk of an elephant, feet of a lion, eyes of a monkey, ears of a pig, and the tail of a peacock. A more succinct explanation is provided: "An ancient mythological symbol, the hybrid creature is formed from a number of animals such that collectively possess the nature of a crocodile. It has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and the flexible body of a fish, and the swirling tailing feathers of a peacock."
Traditionally, a makara is considered to be an aquatic mythical creature. Makara has been depicted typically as half mammal and half fish. Some traditional accounts identify it with a crocodile, specifically Gharial because of its long extended snout. It is depicted with the forequarters of an elephant and the hindquarters as a fish tail. Crocodile was also a form which was used in the earlier days which was shown with human body.
In many temples, the depiction is in the form of half fish or seal with head of an elephant. It is also shown with head and jaws resembling a crocodile, an elephant trunk with scales of fish and a peacock tail. Other accounts identify it with Gangetic Dolphin having striking resemblances with the latter, now found mainly in Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary. Others portray it as a fish body with an elephant's head. The tradition identifies the makara with water, the source of all existence and fertility.
In the medieval era of South India, Makara was shown as a fifth stage of development, symbolized in the form of an elephant head and body with an elaborately foliated fish tail. Most myths maintain this symbolism of this stage in the evolution of life. (Note makara in fifth row of animistic carvings in temple wall at right.)
In a Hindu temple, the Makara often serves as the structural bookends of a thoranam or archway around a deity. The arch emerges up from the jaws of one Makara, rises to its peak, the Kirtimukha (the 'Face of Glory'), and descends into the gaping jaws of another Makara. Varuna is also depicted as a white man sitting on the monster makara. As a marine monster, it is also shown with the head and legs of an antelope, and the body and tail of a fish. A makara made in iron shows the monster in the form of half stag and half fish. These elements are variously joined to form one of the most common recurring themes in Indian temple iconography. In Indian art, the makara finds expression in the form of many motifs, and has been portrayed in different styles. Makara figures are placed on the entry points (Toranas) of several Buddhist monuments, including the stupa of Sanchi, a world heritage site. It is found guarding the entrances to royal thrones (see Distribution below).
In the Tibetan Buddhist format it evolved from the Indian form of makara. However, it is different in some ways such as, "display of lions fore paws, a horse's mane, the gills and tendrils of a fish, and the horns of a deer or dragon. From its once simple fishtail, sometimes feathered, now emerges as a complex spiraling floral pattern known as makara-tail design (Sanskritmakaraketu)".
In Tibetan iconography, it is depicted in the Vajrayana as a weapon of strength and tenacity. The Vajrayan weapons which have makara symbolism are; axe, iron hook, curved knife, vajra, and ritual dragon, in all of which the theme is "emergence of the blade from the open mouth of the makara".
Its symbolic representation in the form of a makara head at the corner of temple roofs is as water element which also functions as a "rainwater spout or gargoyle". It is also seen as water spouts at the source of a spring. The artistic carving in stone is in the form of identical pair of makaras flanked by two Nāgas (snake gods) along with a crown of Garuda, which is called the kirtimukha face. Such depictions are also seen at the entrance of wooden doorways as the top arch and also as a torana behind Buddha's images.
The Newa art of Nepal uses this depiction extensively. In Newar architecture, its depiction is; "as guardian of gateways, the makara image appears on the curved prongs of the vast crossed-vajra that encompasses the four gateways of the two-dimensional mandala. Of the three dimensional-mandala this crossed-vajra supports the whole structure of the mandala palace symbolizing the immovable stability of the vajra-ground on which it stands."
The temples of ancient Java is notable with the application of kala-makara as both decorative and symbolic elements of temple architecture. Kala is the giant head, often took place on the top of the entrance with makaras projected on either sides of kala's head flanking the portal or projecting on top corner as antefixes. Kala-makara theme also can be found on stairs railings on either sides. On upper part of stairs, the mouth of kala's head projecting makara downward. The intricate stone carving of twin makaras flanking the lower level of stairs with its bodies forming the stair's railings. These types of stairs decorations can be observed in Borobudur and Prambanan temples. Makara's trunks are often describes as handling gold ornaments or spouting jewels, while in its mouth often projected Gana dwarf figures or animals such as lions or parrots.
Makaras are also a characteristic motif of the religious Khmer architecture of the Angkor region of Cambodia which was the capital of the Khmer Empire. Makaras are usually part of the decorative carving on a lintel, tympanum, or wall. Makaras are usually depicted with another symbolic animal, such as a lion, naga or serpent, emerging from its gaping open mouth. Makara are a central design motif in the beautiful lintels of the Roluos group of temples: Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei. At Banteay Srei, carvings of makaras disgorging other monsters were installed on many of the buildings' corners.
Lord Vishnu's earrings are shown in the form of Makara; but makarakundala can also decorate Shiva's ears. Its contemporary usage is as ornaments in the form of bracelets in hollow silver ware inlaid with jewels for eyes and ears, which is given as a wedding gift to the bride. Makaras' jaws are made of pearls which are stated to possess aphrodisiac properties
Stone sculptures of the mythological Makara and its ancient place in the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism are widely spread throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia. Examples from ten countries are shown below:Makara sculptures throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia
Some cryptozoologists suspect the legend of the Makara may be based in fact, and associate it with the Trunko sighting on South Africa's Indian coast. Some ancient sketches of Makara do tend to resemble modern illustrated renditions of the prehistoric mammal Ambulocetus. A more reasonable identification of the creature is that with the South Asian river dolphin; an animal, which, though now endangered, was once abundantly found in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system and with which the Makara shares several visible similarities.
'Makara' is the Sinhala term for dragon, an important figure in Sinhala Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. It is depicted on toranas in temple architecture and objects of prestige such as in kastanes.
Since ancient time, easterners believe that Makara is one of watery creatures and even from the pre-era of the field of Buddhist art, Makara has been depicted both in work of literature and stone carvings. Makara gained a distinctive position in the Sinhala Buddhist culture - a special place not given in Buddhist artwork in other countries.
In Sinhalese ancient artwork Makara has been an invented creature; it is made up of body parts of six or seven animals such as the trunk of the elephant, jaws of the crocodile, ears of the mouse or ape, extruding teeth of wild swine, the tail plume of the peacock and feet of the lion.
It is obvious that the Sinhala artists attributed a special symbolic meaning to Makara by adding the picture of Makara around the said stone carving. In addition to that, the Sinhala artists have given more opportunities for Makara to enter into the art world.
The dragon balustrade is another kind of stone carvings which portray the Makara (dragon). These artworks used to decorate the entrance of Buddhist stupas, temples and Bo trees. There are two balustrades at main entrance of Lankatilaka Viharaya in Kandy and they are sometimes called Gajasinha balustrades (ගඡසිංහ කොරවක් ගල්) because of the shape of the Makara there.
The guard-stone (මුරගල) has given a highest place to Makara. Over the head of the gatekeeper carved in there, the figures of Makara can be seen.
Sinhala-buddhist artists considered Makara as the symbol of posperity and self-sufficiency so they were not hesitant in portraying the sign of Makara in the entrance arch gateway to the religious places, such as temple, stupa or bodi. Precious examples for the above are Temple of the Tooth and Lankatilaka Temple in Kandy. Examples for the arched gateway with Makara over the image of Lord Buddha can be seen in Ridi Viharaya. and Dambulla cave temple.
A figure of Makara has been carved to the handle of a temple key of Gadaladeniya Temple built in 1344 in Diggala in Kandy District.
Since at least the 14th century, people of the Karava (කෞරව) cast in Sri Lanka use a flag with the symbol of Makara which is called Makara flag in their ceremonies along with their ancient clan names like Varuna and titles such as Aditya.
There are two modern literature works with the title of Makara in Sri Lanka.The collection of short stories titled Makara (මකරා) in Sinhala language is authored by Gunarathna Wikramage and published by the prominent book publisher in the country, Godage International Publishers and the book won the Godage Literal Award for best short stories collection in 2007.
The other is a short story titled Makara written by Sri Lankan writer Anandasiri Kalapugama.