The Matsya Purana (critical study)

by Kushal Kalita | 2018 | 74,766 words | ISBN-13: 9788171103058

This page relates ‘Art in the Matsyapurana’ of the English study on the Matsya-purana: a Sanskrit text preserving ancient Indian traditions and legends written in over 14,000 metrical verses. In this study, the background and content of the Matsyapurana is outlined against the cultural history of ancient India in terms of religion, politics, geography and architectural aspects. It shows how the encyclopedic character causes the text to deal with almost all the aspects of human civilization.

Part 3 - Art in the Matsyapurāṇa

The Matsyapurāṇa has carried a long discussion on architecture which has been summarized on the previous discourse under different heads. Through the discussion the point which captivates the mind the most is that architecture is a kind of art where a bare land and all the things needed for construction like wood, brick etc. are transformed altogether into a fully developed house or building. From laying the foundation to planting trees in the garden, from the proper measurement of the wall to the specific measurement for each maṇḍapa or garbha, everywhere the touch of an artist could be seen. The minutest variation in the specified measurements could have changed the actual scenario of the whole process. Therefore, architecture found in the Matsyapurāṇa can be regarded as one form of art. But, as it has elaborated about the decorations to be done in the pillars and doors and also to the different idols of god, the necessity for separate discussion on both the art and architecture is felt.

Pillars (stambha) and Doors:

The Matsyapurāṇa has given a clear description of the measurements and decorations of pillars of houses.

The Suprabhedāgama divided it into five types, viz.,

  1. śīkara,
  2. candrakānta,
  3. saumukhya,
  4. priyadarśana and
  5. śubhaṅkaī.[1]

It is said in this Purāṇa that lotuses, creepers, leaves, earthen pots, mirror etc. should be engraved beautifully on the stambhas.[2] The pillar should be divided into nine parts and on the lowest part the carving is to be made on these pillars. Above it ghaṭa (pot) should be carved in one part, and on another part lotus should be made. Next to that pot on the above beautiful carving should be made. The upper most part of the pillars should be left in a clean and polished square. [3]

The main door of a house should be painted with the ornamental works containing pitchers, lotus-creepers etc. The other doors of the house should not be decorated more than the main entrance door.[4] Vāstu drawn with nails, weapons, leather, ashes, burnt wood, bones of horns, skull, etc. are regarded as inauspicious. According to Matsyapurāṇa it brings grief and calamities.

Installation of the images of deities:

According to the Matsyapurāṇa, karmayoga consists in the installation of the images of deities and their worship. The installation of images of deities with proper worship is equal to yajña.[5] This worship includes art of singing, dancing, recitation of mantras, sculpture, painting, architecture and a number of other arts and practices, which together make the complete form of devatārcana.[6] The Matsyapurāṇa has given elaborate description of making of the images of deities. Regarding the image of Viṣṇu it is prescribed that His head should be in the form of an umbrella and his neck, like a conch. He should have high nose, large thighs and arms.[7] The idol of Lord Viṣṇu may be eight armed, four armed or two armed. Eight-armed lord Viṣṇu holds a sword, an arrow, a club and lotus in the right hands and a bow, a shield, a conch and a quoit in the left hands. The image of lord Viṣṇu with four hands holds a club and a lotus in the right hands and a conch and a quoit in the left hands.[8] The image of Kṛṣna incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu is made with a club in the left hand and a conch or quoit in the right. The image of earth should be painted between his legs and the saluting Garuda is to be place on the right side. Devi Lakṣmī with auspicious face and lotus in Her hand is to be placed on the left side of Kṛṣṇa.[9]

The Matsyapurāṇa has dealt with the image of the Ardhanārīśvara, which is an image of combined body of Lord Śiva and Pārvatī that brings prosperity. The Śivanārāyaṇa is another combined form of Lord Śiva and Viṣṇu in which Nārāyaṇa is made in the left part and the Śiva is made in the right part. The Matsyapurāṇa also gives the idea of making the images of various forms of Nārāyaṇa, viz., Varāha, Nṛsiṃha, Vāmana, Matsya and Kūrma[10] and of Brahmā, Kārtika, Ganeśa, Śūrya, Dharmarāja and various other gods and goddesses.[11]


The Matsyapurāṇa has said that the height of deva, dānava and kinnara should be of 9 tālas.[12] One tāla means the stretch between the thumb and middle finger.[13] The materials used for making images are gold, silver, copper, gems, iron, brass, compound of copper and bell metal, sandalwood etc.[14] A household image should not be bigger than one cubit and a temple image in a royal place should be of 16 cubits.[15]

The Matsyapurāṇa has also described the measurements of various limbs of the images of gods and goddesses. Further, this Purāṇa furnishes with the meanings of different measurements used in this context. The unit here is a trasareṇu (triad). The measure of a trasareṇu is that of a speck of dust seen in the ray of the Sun.[16]

This measurement follows thus:

8 trasareṇu= 1 bātāgra
8 bātāgras=1 likhya
8 likhyas=1 yuka
8 yukas=1 yaba
8 yabas =1 finger

Now, according to the Matsyapurāṇa,

- The head of the deity is of fourteen (14) fingers in length and the forehead is to be made of 4 fingers in breadth.
- The face of an image should be divided into nine (9) parts.
- The neck is to be made of four fingers in length.
- The middle of the neck is to be twenty four (24) fingers and its height should be eight (8) fingers.
- The space between the chest and neck should be of one (1) tāla.
- The mouth should be made of two (2) fingers and the thickness of the lips should be made in one (1) fingers.
- The lips upper and lower should be sympatric and half the finger.
- The cheek is to be made of two (2) fingers.
- The corner of the mouth should be fiery in ship.
- The eyes are to be made of two (2) fingers in length and breadth is to be one (1) finger.
- Eyebrows are to be made of half a finger in breadth and it should be like the curvature of a bow.
- The space between the eyebrows is to be two (2) fingers.
- The pupils should be one fifth of the eye and it should be in reddish colour.
- The nose should be straight and even.
- The nostrils should be made of half a finger in circumference.
- The bridge and lower part of the nose should be of one (1) finger.
- The ears should be of six (6) fingers in length.
  [In addition, it should be banned like the eyebrows and the flanks of it should be two (2) fingers.]
- The navel is to be made of one (1) finger.
- The thighs are to be made of two (2) fingers.
- The middle of the thigh should be twenty eight (28) fingers and above of that it should be thirty one (31) fingers.
- Knees and feet are to be made of four (4) fingers each.
- Length of feet should be fourteen (14) fingers and length of toes should be three (3) fingers.
- Ankles are to be made of two (2) fingers; in the front, it should be sixteen (16) fingers, and in the middle, it should be fourteen (14) fingers.
- The shoulders should be made of six (6) fingers.
- The length of the arms should be sixteen (16) fingers.

Thus the Matsyapurāṇa has given the measurements of the images of the deities. The limbs of goddesses should be made slender and shorter.

The images of Rāmacandra, Varāha, Bali, Narasiṃha should be of ten (10) tālas. The image of Vāmaṇa should be of seven (7) tālas.[17] In this Purāṇa the specification of the different limbs of the image of Śiva is also given. The thighs of the images should be large and beautifully round. The arms and the shoulders should be of the colour of polished gold. In addition, the arms should be like the trunk of an elephant. The hands should be long so that it can touch the knees. He should have straight and matted hair and the forehead is to be marked with the crescent of the moon. He should have a crown and the face is to be like a youth of sixteen years of age. Eyes of Śiva should be big and extensive. The image should be represented wearing the skin of tiger. The image is to be decorated with garlands necklaces, armlets, earrings and most importantly serpents. The sword should be in the left hand of the image and axe in the right hand.[18] Trident śakti and a staff should be placed on the right side of the image while in the left side a skull, snake and a staff with a skull at the top (khatvāṅga) should be placed. The image of Śiva in dancing posture should be made with ten arms wearing the skin of elephant. His image with sixteen (16) hands represents the symbol of the destruction of Tripurā. Image of Śiva with four hands is known as jñāna and with eight hands, is known as Yogeśvara. Then Bhairava image of Śiva should have aquiline nose, sharp teeth and dreadful appearance.[19] Matsyapurāṇa instructs not to install the images of Bhairava, Varāha, and Narasiṃha in dwelling houses.[20]

The Matsyapurāṇa warns that one should be more careful in making the limbs of an image. It should not be made lesser or greater number of limbs than usual.[21] The Matsyapurāṇa thus clarifies that different defective limbs of an image brings different problems for both the carpenter and the owner of the image.[22]

Pedestals (pīṭhikā):

The Matsyapurāṇa gives details of making pedestals where the idol of Gods and Goddesses are placed. The pīṭhikā or the pedestal is divided into sixteen parts. The first part remains under ground. This is known as bhūmi-praviṣṭa. The earth is taken in four parts and these four parts are known as jagatī. The next part is named vṛtta and it should be covered with coating. The next one of vṛtta is paṭala. Above it, the three parts are for the neck. Another three parts are known as kaṇṭha-paṭṭa, the next two parts are named urdhapaṭṭa and the last two parts are paṭṭikā.[23] According to V.S.Agrawala, these terms are used in the period of Gupta dynasty. Since then these became more elaborate and the names were also changed.[24]

The Matsyapurāṇa describes ten (10) kinds of pedestals, viz.,

  1. sthanḍilā,
  2. vāpī,
  3. yakṣī,
  4. vedī,
  5. maṇḍala,
  6. pūrṇacandrā,
  7. vajrikā,
  8. padmā,
  9. ardhaśaśi
  10. and trikoṇā.

Sthanḍilā is square in shape and without any girdle or circular boundary. Vāpī is with two girdles, yakṣī has three girdles. Vedī is rectangular in size. Pūrṇacandrā is with various colours and is with two girdles. Vajrikā has three girdles and six corners. The shape of padmā is shorter below and is with sixteen corners. Ardhacandrā is like the bow in shape. Trikoṇā is triangular like the upper part of a trident. It should be one-half of the liṅga, its water channel should project by onethird part and its breadth also should be the same.[25] If the image of god is made of stone then the pedestal should also be made of stone. Moreover, if the God is made of earth then the pedestal is to be made of earth. Same in case of wooden god or god made of mixed materials.


All the architectural references of the Matsyapurāṇa make it clear that people of that period had attained a considerable degree of development in the field of architecture. It can also be said that they have proper knowledge of construction of temples, houses and other monuments. In the present day also we need such kind of knowledge about architecture and sculpture which not only help us for proper utilization but also for the progress of the modern science of architecture. Going through this study it is noticed that the ancient ideas of the architecture are always for the healthy life. They were very concerned about the advantage and disadvantage of planned construction which may prosper or spoil the life and the decision of construction was made on the basis of it. Modern architecture, it seems, looks only at the beauty of construction and ignore the idea of healthy life. If we go through the ideas of architecture of the ancient times found in the epics and Purāṇas as well as in other Vāstuśāstras we will surely make a combination of healthy and beautiful life by taking the right architectural decision.

Footnotes and references:


Cf., Prasanna Kumar Acharya, Architecture of Mānasāra, Manasara Series, Preface, p. XXVIII


Matsyapurāṇa, 255.4




mūladvārāttathānyattu nādhikaṃ śobhanaṃ bhavet// kumbhaśrīparṇivallībhi rmūladvārantu śobhayet/ Ibid., 255.18-19


Ibid., 258.3


Cf., Vasudeva S. Agrawalla, Matsyapurāṇa -A Study, pp. 353-354


Matsyapurāṇa, 258.5




Ibid., 258.10-12


Ibid., 258.28-39


Ibid., 258.40-68


Ibid. 258.16


Prasanna Kumar Acharya, An Encyclopaedia of Hindu Architecture, Manasara Series Volume VII, p. 195


Matsyapurāṇa, 258.20-21


Ibid., 258.22-23


Ibid., 258.17-18




khetakaṃ vāmahaste tu śaṅkhañcaiva tu dakṣine// Ibid., 259.8


Ibid., 259.12-13




nādhikāṅgā na hīnāṅgā kartavyā devatāḥ kvacit/ Ibid., 259.15


Cf., Ibid., 259.16-21


Ibid., 262.2-3


Cf., Vasudeva S.Agrawala, Matsyapurāṇa -A Study., p. 363


Matsyapurāṇa, 262.4-12

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