What is a dragon? Is it a real animal or a mythical one? Is it a benevolent being or malevolent? It is a bit of both. Salar Jung Museum’s dragons provide the proof.
In China, the first mention of a dragon was made during the reign of Fuhsi (2852 to 2337 B.C). Chinese antiquarians believe that the dragon had its origin in a species of alligators still found in lower Yangtze valley, which bury themselves in the mud in winter only to reappear with the warmer weather. They became therefore, to the early Chinese, objects of worship symbolising the coming of rain and spring.
The ‘snaky’ appearance of the dragon probably led some Chinese experts to link up the dragon worship in China to the snake worship in India. The dragon is essentially a biological mosaic, combining in itself the features of a number of other animals. Represented in art in many forms and every degree of stylisation imaginable in the periods preceding the Han dynasty, the dragon came to assume palatable and recognisable form in the art of the Han period (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.).
Increasingly, it began to be portrayed in the following nine resemblances or forms which in course of time became standardised: (1) The head of a camel (2) The horns of a deer (3) The eyes of a rabbit (4) The ears of a cow (5) Neck of a snake (6) Belly of a frog (7) Scales of a carp (8) Claws of a hawk and (9) Palm of a tiger.
In addition to these features, the dragon sports whiskers on each side of its mouth and a beard under its chin. There is a ridge of scales along its back, some eighty-one in number. Functions and provenances divide the dragons into some separate groups. There are dragons capable of causing damage also. In southern China, especially in Canton, typhoons are believed to be caused by the passage of a ‘bobtail dragon’ and it is said that on such occasions this animal is actually seen passing through the air.
However, in its beneficent and useful aspect only the dragon is represented and revered in China. Especially during Han period, the dragon was assigned a cosmic role. It was worshipped in the company of tortoise, phoenix and tiger as a supernatural being. These four holy animals were held in high esteem as the presiding deities of four seasons — Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn — and also the four ends of Earth. At times the dragon was shown hunting the sacred pearl, adorned with the ‘Yang’ and ‘Yin’, representing male and female elements in nature.
It is natural therefore that an important animal like dragon should have been adopted by the Chinese rulers as their emblem. The dragon used by emperors and princes of the highest rank is distinguished by five claws.
In the West and the Near East, however, an opposite view is prevalent.
In Christian art the dragon came to be symbolic of sin and paganism and as such was depicted prostrate beneath the heels of saints and martyrs. St. Michael and St. George are represented killing the dragon. In the ancient Egyptian religion, the dragon was the great serpent of the World of Darkness vanquished by Ra.