Jesse Brauner

In parts of Asia, the tiger supplants the lion as the so-called “King of Beasts”. Its ferocity and majestic appearance have given it important symbolic meaning in cultures throughout the continent.

In the Chinese system of the cardinal directions - where four specific creatures guard the points of the compass - the tiger is associated with the West and the element of metal (sometimes this role is filled by the Ki-Lin, a mythical Chinese creature similar to a unicorn). A symbol of strength and courage, the tiger is closely associated with military prowess. As the third animal of the Chinese zodiac, people born during the Year of the Tiger are said to be brave and determined. Sometimes the tiger is paired with the Chinese dragon, representing Yin to the dragon's Yang (other times, Yin is represented by the Feng-Huang, or Chinese phoenix).

In Hinduism, tigers are associated with the deities Shiva and Durga, and the animal’s reputation for ferocity plays an important role in both cases. As the ultimate ascetic, or religious renunciant, Shiva is often portrayed either wearing a tiger skin or sitting on one. This symbolizes his conquest of the rampant appetites and desires that plague other beings. The fierce goddess Durga was created by other Hindu deities to destroy evil demons. In that capacity, she carries a different weapon in each of her ten hands and is often portrayed riding a tiger.

While the tiger's association with ferocity is plain for anyone to see, there is another, more complex side to their symbolic meaning. Despite their deadly reputation, or rather because of it, tigers are also key symbols of protection. Female tigers are extremely aggressive in defending their young, and in China, images of tigers are placed on graves. This is done in the hope of frightening off malevolent spirits who may want to harm the dead. In Buddhist belief, the tiger symbolizes senseless anger on the one hand, but is also seen as a creature of awareness and confidence, merging together the diverse symbolism associated with this mighty animal.

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