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A torii (“bird abode”) is a gate most commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, symbolically marking the transition from the profane to the sacred. It may originally have been some kind of bird perch (such as the Korean sotdae, poles with wooden birds on top, which are commonly grouped at the entrances of villages to ward off evil spirits and bring the villagers good luck, and similar objects in other shamanistic cultures in China, Mongolia, and Siberia). In both Japan and Korea, single poles represent deities (“kami” in Japan, “hashira” in Korea), and birds were often believed to have magic or spiritual properties. Bird motifs from the prehistoric Yayoi and Kofun periods associated birds with the dead, and texts like the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki” contained stories like that of Yamato Takeru, who, in the form of a white bird, chose his burial place after he died. This relationship between birds and death could explain why no visible avian trace remains in today's torii, since in Shinto belief death brings defilement. (Also, despite the plain meaning of “torii,” the word may also have been derived from “tōri-iru” (pass through and enter). In the 19th century historians developed the hypothesis that in the 8th century Shingon (“True Word”) Buddhism founder Kūkai adapted the gates from the Great Stupa in Sanchi in central India in order to demarcate the sacred space used for the homa ceremony, but the evidence is inconclusive. Whether torii arrived in Japan with the introduction of Buddhism or already existed there is widely debated, but at one time they were routinely found at temple entrances; for instance, Shitennō-ji, founded in Kyoto in 593 (the oldest state-built temple in Japan), has a torii straddling one of its entrances. (The original wooden one burned in 1294 and was replaced by a stone one.) Many Buddhist temples still include one or more Shinto shrines dedicated to their tutelary kami and have a tiny torii marking its entrance, and until the late 19th century, torii were routinely adorned with plaques carrying Buddhist sutras. Torii are documented as early as 922, but the oldest extant one dates to the 12th century. It was traditionally made of wood or stone, but modern ones may be reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel, or other materials. It is usually unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel. Since Inari is the kami of fertility and industry, Inari shrines typically have many torii, gratefully donated by people who have been successful in business.(Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of them, each bearing the donor's name.) The Japanese torii, the Chinese paifang [the two words are different readings of the same characters], the Korean hongsal-mun, and similar structures in Thailand probably all derive from the Indian torana gates used by Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists. The earliest archaeological evidence of a torana dates back to the Sanchi stupa built in the 3rd century BCE. The functions of these various gates are similar but their architectural styles differ. However, many Indian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultural practices are inter-related. For example, Benzaiten is derived from the Hindu divinity Sarasvati and unites Shinto and Buddhist elements; halls dedicated to her can be found at shrines and temples alike, all with a torii in front. The goddess herself is sometimes portrayed with a torii on her head. As another example, the Siddhaṃ script disappeared from India by 1200 but is still written by monks in Japan.
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