The mighty Garuda has his earliest reference in Vedas, where he has been invoked by the name of Shyena. In Vedic literature Shyena had brought nectar to earth from heaven; in 'puranas' the bird that brought it is Garuda. Thus, Shyena and Garuda are the same. Garuda has an independent Upanishada and a 'purana', namely, Garudopanishada and Garuda-Purana, devoted to him. This depicts Garuda's legendary magnitude and leads the mind to deduce that Garuda could be the name of a race of birds instead of an individual being.
As the legends have it, Garuda was born to Vinata by sage Kashyapa. He was the younger brother of the illustrious Aruna. It is said that Valakhilyas did great penance so that Indra was born. Later they gave the fruit of their penance to Kashyapa who handed it over to Vinata. She bore an egg and thereby Garuda who, straight from the egg, rose on his wings and stormed the sky with a terrific speed. Later for people's relief he reduced his pace and lustre. His brother Aruna was born without legs. He hence carried him on his back and placed him eastward, where by the power his penance Aruna swallowed sun and released him only when gods mediated and made them friends. Sun then nominated Aruna as his vehicle.
The most popular Garuda legend relates to his stealing 'amrat' from Indra's capital for his mother's release. Her mother Vinata was enslaved by Kadru, his step-mother, who had defeated her, though by deceit, in a wager. She demanded 'amrat' as ransom for her release. Garuda flew to Amaravati, Indra's capital, for securing 'amrat'. Gods' army obstructed him, but after defeating them all he reached the well containing 'amrat'. There rose flames of fire all around. He extinct the fire by flapping his wings, beguiled the dragons on guard, brought 'amrat' and sought his mother's release, though without giving Kadru and her serpent sons any 'amrat' and answering her deceit in her own terms. It was during this event that he met Vishnu who was highly impressed by his honesty, as he had not even touched 'amrat' despite being in its possession for quite long. Vishnu wished that Garuda became his 'vahana', the vehicle. Garuda agreed but on condition that he was held higher to Vishnu and became immortal without drinking 'amrat'. Vishnu accepted and placed him on his flag. Later all Vishnu temples had as an essential element a Garudadhvaja in front of sanctum. The 'dhvaja', usually a tall pillar, enshrined upon it Garuda on an altitude higher to that of the enshrining deity.
This inflated Garuda with ego. Once Indra blessed the serpent Sumukha with immortality. Garuda treated serpents as his food and Indra's boon deprived him of it. He hence not only quarreled with him but also challenged and boasted that he was mightier even to Vishnu. For purging him of his ego Vishnu just pressed one of his fingers on his person. Garuda felt unbearable pressure and prayed Vishnu for relief. Vishnu released the pressure but to keep Garuda reminding of the event garland-like placed serpent Sumukha on his breast.
This metal-cast of Garuda manifests this legendary Garuda tradition quite elaborately. Though born of his step-mother, the great serpent Shesha was his brother and loved and protected him. In this icon the great serpent holds his hoods over Garuda like a halo. The serpent Sumukha lies on his breast. He has towering heights but with his folded hands he is the image of humility and service. Despite his human form and figure, as described in texts, he has a bird's beak, nails, forehead and feather. His entire body bears a fur like look. May be, the caster wished to cover it by feathers or by fur like garment. This magnificent brass-statue has been cast by lost wax technique and is an excellent example of craftsmanship.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.
Of Related Interest:
Lakshmi-Narayana on Garuda (Brass Statue)
Garuda (Silk Painting)
Garuda Coral Pendant (Sterling Silver Pendant, Made in Nepal)
Garuda Coral Ring (Sterling Silver Finger Ring)
Garuda (Copper Sculpture)
Garuda (Comic Book)