Why Gandhiji’s Three Wise Monkeys are Part of a Temple in Tokyo

An unlikely Indian connection at a UNESCO site in Japan.  
Monkeys Temple Japan
The three monkeys carved on the door of Toshogu’s stable are believed to be guardians of the resident sacred horses. Photo: Trupti Devdas Nayak

On a recent autumn trip to Tokyo, I jumped at the opportunity to escape the sometimes overwhelming energy of the city to take in the charming serenity of nearby Nikko. An important centre for Shinto and Buddhist worship, Nikko is famous for the opulent Toshogu Shinto shrine and Rinno-ji Buddhist temple at Nikko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex has about a hundred buildings, with the man-made architecture blending seamlessly with the natural landscape of forested mountain slopes, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. I especially wanted to see the intricate Yomeimon, Japan’s most famous gate. A National Treasure, it is also called the Twilight Gate (higurashi-no-mon), because it is said that one can gaze at it mesmerised all day and night and never tire.

On arriving in Nikko, I entered a different world, a landscape of brilliant red maples and golden yellow gingko trees. The Shinto shrines were captivatingly different from anything I had seen before. The Twilight Gate is part of the Toshogu shrine, which was built in 1617 to honour the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The path to the shrine is marked by a tall torii, or sacred bird gate. Past this, is the five-storey gojunoto pagoda, where red tiers towered over me. Next, is the karamon gate, painted all over with white chalk powder.

Temple Japan

A splendid forest complements the beauty of the Toshogu shrine and its double-storeyed Yomeimon gate. Photo: Trupti Devdas Nayak

Finally, I stood in front of the Twilight Gate. It was an arresting sight. Over 500 carvings showed traditional scenes and stories with imaginary animals, emperors, and wise men. Carved in deep relief, white dragons caught my eye as they seemed to come alive, lashing their tails high above the heads of awestruck visitors. I watched hypnotized as the beasts writhed and roared, their mouths wide open, spewing flames above me. I must have indeed lost track of time, because it was much later that I realized that there was more to see.

Unfortunately the main building of Nikko’s other famous sacred building, the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple, was under renovation and completely covered. Disappointed, I wandered back towards Toshogu to see if there was anything I had missed. A lot of people were  standing in front of a somewhat drab chocolate-brown structure. Wondering what made this building special, I looked up at the carvings of lots of monkeys. The building was once a stable for the shrine’s sacred horses. Monkeys are considered the guardians of horses, which is why they were carved alongside panels all around the building.

Scanning the panels, my gaze suddenly met the gibbous eyes of three monkeys in different poses. One clung to its ears, sealing them, the second covered its mouth, and the third had its hands over its eyes. I realised I was looking at Mahatma Gandhi’s Three Wise Monkeys. He was known to treasure a small sculpture of these three monkeys—a gift brought by visitors from China—amongst all of his meagre possessions. Growing up in India, these amiable monkeys had appeared to my childish eyes to be the ultimate embodiment of virtue with their trademark gestures. But I had never given much thought to their origin.

Praying Temple Japan

A visitor seeks blessings in front of an enormous bronze incense burner at Nikko’s Rinno-ji temple. Photo: Trupti Devdas Nayak

A quick Google search revealed that in Japan the monkeys are known as Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, and embody the principle, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” And that this carving at Toshogu is said to be the oldest known representation of these figures, dating back to circa 1636. A 17th-century sculptor, Hidari Jingoro, is attributed with carving the three monkeys at the Shinkyusha stable, along with several other exquisite panels covered with vibrant flowers and birds in bold colours.

The idea of the monkeys and their message is believed to have come from the Confucian Code of Conduct. This simple moral message resonates across cultures and countries, and has now become an integral part of children’s education all over Asia. Marvelling at the serendipity of my discovery, I remembered that the Japanese Shinto religion is all about seeking and finding connections between past and present. I had simply stumbled onto one such link, which transported me back to my childhood. The three monkeys of Toshogu gazed back at me mutely, as I entreated them to help me remember their advice far into the future.

Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Three Wise Monkeys”.

A ginkgo tree in fall colours adds to the serenity of the Toshogu shrine. Photo: Trupti Devdas Nayak

The Guide

Orientation Nikko is located in northern Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture, 150 km/2 hr north of Tokyo. Toshogu shrine and Rinno-ji temple are open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (Apr-Oct) and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (Nov-Mar). Toshogu shrine entry ¥1,300/₹855; Rinno-ji Temple entry ¥400/₹263. During autumn, the countryside is awash in beautiful fall colours.

Getting There To travel from Tokyo to Nikko, visitors can board a Shinkansen on the Japan Railways Nikko line, with one transfer at Utsunomiya. Other options include the limited express Nikko from Shinjuku or the Tobu Railway Limited Express Kegon from Asakusa (duration 2 hr; frequency hourly; tickets ¥1,250-2,700/₹800-1,750 one-way).

Guided Tours Tours pick up and drop visitors from their hotel in Tokyo, and allow several hours to explore Toshogu shrine and Rinno-ji temple. They usually include other stops like Kegon Falls, Japan’s third-highest waterfall, and Lake Chuzenji, as well as a Japanese lunch (¥15,000/₹9,875 per person).

  • Trupti Devdas Nayak is a writer and photographer who loves sharing stories about her travels and adventures. She has trekked in Machu Picchu, backpacked in the Grand Canyon, and snorkelled with sharks in the Bahamas. She tweets as @TruptiDevdas.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?