Stylized garlands (J. keman), such as these, are thought to have their origins in the fresh flowers that were offered to nobles in ancient India. They were later adopted by Buddhism and used as decoration (J. shôgon) that hung on the crossbeams of temple halls. In Japan, ornaments made of leather, metal, wood, precious stone, silk, and other materials were used as substitutes for fresh floral garlands (J. kemanshiro). There are many examples of such objects in wide, round fan-shaped forms.
These stylized garlands, made of leather, originally belonged to Kyôôgokoku-ji Temple, more commonly known as Tô-ji, in Kyoto. Today, thirteen ornaments remain, all of them fashioned in openwork leather, which were lacquered, primed with white clay, and then decorated with polychrome patterns. The thirteen can be roughly divided into two types based on their motifs. One type has two Kalavinkas (J. Karyôbinga, paradisiacal birds with human heads) facing each other on a ground of hôsôge, imaginary Buddhist flowers, made to look like real flowers. The center shows a bow reminiscent of that which would have bound together fresh flowers. The Kalavinkas hold floral baskets containing blossoms to scatter on the buddhas and bodhisattvas in praise. In the other type, the bow is placed at the center with floral tendrils and arabesques (J. karakusa) covering the entire surface.
The thirteen pieces exhibit individual differences in style. Since there are at least three or four distinguishable styles in both garland types, it is difficult to believe that these ornaments originally formed one set. The superior stylistic treatment exhibited in Stylized Garlands numbers 7 and 8, seen in the use of the red lines on the bodies of the Kalavinka and the delicate cut gold leaf on the robes, reflects traditional techniques of Buddhist painting of the Heian period (794-1185). On the ornaments with only floral tendrils and arabesques, a gradation technique called ungen zaishiki (in which several shades of similar hue are closely brushed together) and delicate patterns of cut gold leaf were applied.
The iconography of two Kalavinkas facing each other on a ground of floral tendrils can also be found on the gilt-bronze openwork garlands of Chûson-ji Temple in Iwate Prefecture, which are presumed to date from the first half of the twelfth century. The resplendent examples in the Nara National Museum are thought to have preceded the Chûson-ji pieces. Although there is no record as to the hall in which the former garlands were used, they are believed to have been produced sometime in the eleventh century.