Vishnudharmottara Purana (Art and Architecture)

by Bhagyashree Sarma | 2021 | 59,457 words

This page relates ‘The Vishnudharmottara-purana: An Introductory Note’ of the study on the elements of Art and Architecture according to the Vishnudharmottara Purana: an ancient text whose third book deals with various artisan themes such as Architecture, Painting, Dance, Grammar, etc. Many chapters are devoted to Hindu Temple architecture and the iconography of Deities and their installation rites and ceremonies.

2. The Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa: An Introductory Note

The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is a voluminous purāṇa which is mainly divided into three parts called khaṇḍas. Each khaṇḍa contains chapters called adhyāyas. Though Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is not included in the lists of Upapurāṇas given by the Kūrmapurāṇa, Devībhāgavatapurāṇa and Ekāmrapurāṇa, the Bṛhaddharmapurāṇa includes this work in the list of Upapurāṇa.[1] It is important to note here that even though the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is regarded as an Upapurāṇa, it has great academic and social value. Before going to make an elaborate discussion on the contents of this great work, some information about the date, authorship, subject matter, meaning of the title, importance etc. of this work are taken up here for discussion.

1. Date and Authorship:

Whenever the context of the date of purāṇas comes forward, uncertainty prevails there. In the context of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa also a certain date of this work is not fixed anywhere. To know the exact time of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, we have to go through a long discussion. The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is seen to be influenced by Kālidāsa and this can be evidently proved from the fact that the 129th -137th chapter of the First khaṇḍa of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa containing the story of Purūravā and Urvaśī, which is the main theme of the drama named Vikramovarśīya of Kālidāsa. Moreover, in the 208th Chapter of the First khaṇḍa of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, it is found that the women of the royal palace became so excited to have a glance of Bharata, which episode is also described in the Raghūvaṃśa.[2] Thus, the influence of the Raghūvaṃśa can be seen on the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa. Hence, it can be assumed that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa cannot be earlier than 400 A.D. R.C. Hazra also agrees on it.[3]

Moreover, Matsyapurāṇa has contained various chapters such as chapter 115th -120th deal with the story of Purūravā and Urvaśī, chapter 208th -214th comprises the story of Sāvitrī etc. which are seen to be borrowed from the 129th -137th chapters of first khaṇḍa and 36th -41st Chapters of the second khaṇḍa of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa respectively. So, it can be assumed that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa must have been written not later than 600 A.D. R.C. Hazra also keeps his view point in the same way.[4] Again, in later period, various smṛti digest writers and nivandhakāras viz. Bhavadeva, Vijñāneśvara, Jīmūtavāhana, Aparārka, Aniruddhabhaṭṭa etc. also seem to mention the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa in various context of their works.[5] The Kālikāpurāṇa of 11th Century also seems to be concern about the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa.[6] Moreover, in the Dūrgotsavaviveka of Śulapāṇi it is stated that Bālaka[7] and Śrīkara[8] utilize the contents of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa in their treatises. According to P.V. Kane, the date of Bālaka is 1100 A.D and Śrīkara had flourished somewhere between 800 to 1050 A.D.[9] So, from this it can be assumed that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa gained a great popularity from 8th to 11th Century A.D. Moreover, the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa accepts ten incarnations of lord Viṣṇu, where this work accepts Kṛṣṇa avatāra and does not accept the Buddha avatāra. In this context an assumption arises that as Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa does not mention Buddha avatāra, this work does not belong to the earlier period of 500 A.D. as Buddha had been started to believe as an incarnation of Viṣṇu not very much earlier than 500 A.D.[10]

Again, According to P.V. Kane the 3.40 verse of Parāśarasmṛti is taken by the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa which is—

anāthaṃ brāhmaṇapretaṃ ye vahanti dvijātayaḥ /
pade pade
ṛtu phalaṃ cānupūrvāllabhanti te//[11]

From this, it can be assumed that the age of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa relates to the era after the Parāśarasmṛti i.e., 500 A.D. Priyabala Shah also agrees on it in the introductory note of her edition of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa.[12]

From the available information, it can be seen that the origin of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa cannot be earlier than 400 A.D. and later than 500 A.D. Bühler also states that the date of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa cannot be placed later than about 500 A.D.[13] R.C. Hazra also agrees on it.[14] So, it can be assumed that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa relates vaguely the first half of 5th century A.D. and it had been flourishing to the 10th century A.D. M. Winternitz also keeps his view point in the same way in his work History of India Literature.[15]

Different purāṇas contain different references regarding the authorship of the purāṇas. According to the Matsyapurāṇa, the authorship of all the eighteen purāṇas is attributed to Vyāsa, the son of Satyavatī.[16] The Vāyupurāṇa admits that Vyāsa, the son of Parāśara has composed the paurāṇikī kathā i.e., the ancient narrative stories.[17] Thus the tradition would attribute all of the purāṇas to Vedavyāsa. From this practice it can be said that as a purāṇa in nature, the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa also belongs to the collection of works authored by Vedavyāsa. As the tradition relates that there may be more than one Vyāsa, the same dictum can be applicable to the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa also.


The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa contains different aspects of knowledge. Along with the narratives, this work bears immense information in various fields of study. The first khaṇḍa of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa consists of 269 adhyāyas. The first khaṇḍa contains the discussion about various subject matters such as Geographical account, Astronomy, Astrology, Religion, Politics, Chronography and Genealogies of kings and sages and their stories. Among the legends, the story of Purūravā and Urvaśī is a remarkable one, which is depicted in the 130th -137th adhyāyas of the first khaṇḍa of this work. Moreover, the first khaṇḍa contains some rules and regulations of śrāddhas and vratas. The stotras, dedicated to various deities are also compiled in this khaṇḍa. The second khaṇḍa comprises 183 adhyāyas, where mainly various aspects of dharma and rājanīti are nicely discussed. Here, the rules and regulations of four āśramas viz. brahmacarya, gārhasthya, vanaprastha and sanyāsa are elaborately explained. Moreover, a few chapters of this khaṇḍa are devoted to Astronomy and Medicine. The third khaṇḍa contains 118 chapters which are dedicated to various contents such as Sanskrit and Prākṛt Grammar, Lexicology, Metrics, Poetics, Dance, Drama, Music, Painting, Iconography, Architecture etc.

3. The Title Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa:

As a specimen of Purāṇa literature, the term Viṣṇudharmottara obviously follow the word purāṇa. The term viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is an amalgamation of three words viz. viṣṇu, dharma and uttara. On the basis of the addition of the word viṣṇu here, this work is naturally included in the group of vaiṣṇavapurāṇas. The group of vaiṣṇavapurāṇa contains the purāṇas viz. Viṣṇu, Nāradīya, Bhāgavata, Garuḍa, Padma and Varāha. Again, the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas are divided into three groups viz. sāttvika, rājasika and tāmasika according to their qualities.[18] The vaiṣṇavapurāṇas possess the sāttvikaguṇa i.e., the quality of purity or goodness.[19] The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa also belongs to the group of sāttvikapurāṇa as it is a vaiṣṇavapurāṇa. Again, the word dharma is supposed to bear the meaning of quality[20] here. If the words viṣṇu and dharma are combined together, it comes as viṣṇudharma i.e., the quality of viṣṇu and in this way this work directly inclines to the quality of the Viṣṇupurāṇa. So, it can be said that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is an appendix of Viṣṇupurāṇa which has the similar qualities with Viṣṇupurāṇa.

Stella Kramrisch also agrees it the introduction of her work entitled The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa Part IIIA.[21] The addition of the word uttara i.e., subsequent[22] in the title Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa clearly shows that Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa was a later work and it obviously came after the Viṣṇupurāṇa. Considering the word uttara as to mean later, it can be said that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa had flourished during later period or so to say, it is closer to the modern period. The probability of being a composition of 5th to 7th century A.D. also proves this point of consideration.

4. Subject Matter and the Importance of the Tṛtīyakhaṇḍa of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa:

The Tṛtīyakhaṇḍa i.e., the third part of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is fully dedicated to the discussion of different Art forms and Architecture. Besides Art and Architecture, a few chapters contain the discussion about Sanskrit and Prākṛt grammar, lexicology, metrics, poetics etc. The elements of different Art forms are discussed here elaborately and thoroughly, which can be considered as a great significance of this work. A point to be noted here is that most of the purāṇas like the Liṅgapurāṇa, the Vāmanapurāṇa, the Viṣṇupurāṇa, the Agnipurāṇa, the Brahmapurāṇa, the Brahmavaivartapurāṇa etc. contain the subject matter related to various Art forms. But the discussion found here appears to be a bit haphazard.

Eight books that discuss the matter systematically are:

  1. the Matsyapurāṇa,
  2. the Agnipurāṇa,
  3. the Brahmāṇḍapurāṇa,
  4. the Nāradīyapurāṇa,
  5. the Garuḍapurāṇa,
  6. the Skandapurāṇa,
  7. the Bhaviṣyapurāṇa,
  8. the Vāyupurāṇa and
  9. the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa.

Among those the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa appears to be very pragmatic and systematic in this regard.

Though the whole work is regarded as very comprehensive, the Tṛtīyakhaṇḍa i.e., third part of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa appears to be a very special one. This part covers different Art forms viz. Music, Dance, Drama, Painting and Iconography and discusses each and every Art form in a very detailed manner. Moreover, Architecture remains a very pre-dominant concern of the third part of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa. The Architecture of Hindu temples of Indian Territory is nicely discussed in this work.

As it is already stated that the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa is an encyclopedic type of work, it bears a great importance both from content and context. In the perspective of the study of different subject matters like Astronomy, Astrology, Geography, Medicine, Politics etc., this work provides substantive information. As an appendix of the Viṣṇupurāṇa as well as a vaiṣṇavapurāṇa, this work has a religious aspect too. But basically, this work is totally free from Tāntric influence as it does not recommend tāntrik yantra as a medium of worship. Instead, this work promotes image worship and recitation of Vedic mantras both in vows and worship. R.C Hazra has offered his opinion in this line.[23] Along with different subject matters of different branches of knowledge, this work gives emphasis on different Art forms and Architecture. There are many purāṇas which possess encyclopedic nature. But none of these have proclaimed the topics of Art and Architecture in the way in which the third part of the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa has done. The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa gives the ideas of different characteristic features of Drama, different elements of Drama, its execution etc. Different elements of Music, the gestures and postures of Dance are also very elaborately discussed here. This work has a systematic discussion on Temple building and Iconography. Moreover, this work comprises fullest account of various branches, methods and principles of Indian Painting. Actually, the systematic and improvised discussion of each and every subject makes this work very prominent and authoritative. Thus, this work can be taken as a reliable guidebook of different subject it has discussed. From this discussion the title of the work appears to be apt and effective. It corroborated with the subject matter in almost all aspects.

Footnotes and references:


tathāpyupapurāṇāni kathayāmi……/ ….. viṣṇudharmottaraṃ tathā…….// Bṛhaddharmapurāṇa, 25.23-26


tatastadālokanatatparāṇāṃ saudheṣu cāmīkarajālavatsu/ babhūvuritthaṃ purasundarīṇāṃ tyaktānyakāryāṇi viceṣṭitāni// Raghūvamśa, 7.5


āṇ R.C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapur as, Vol.1, p.206


Ibid., p.210


Ibid., p.207


viṣṇudharmottare tantre bāhulyaṃ sarvataḥ punaḥ/ Kālikāpurāṇa, 92.2


…….viṣṇudharmottaravacanamātradarśinā bālakenātra viṣaye pūrvadine navamī kṛtyaṃ……/ Dūrgotsavaviveka, p.16, quoted by R.C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapurāṇas, Vol.1, p.209


…… viṣṇudharmottaravacanaṃ tu sandhipūjāviṣayaṃ iti śrīkaramiśraḥ/ Ibid., p.209


P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra, pp. 283-284 & 266-268


R.C. Hazra, Studies in the Purāṇic Records, pp.41-42


Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, 2.7.2


[...] Śrī-Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, Third Part, p.10


Indian Antiquity, Vol-XIX, p.408


R.C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapurāṇas, p.206


M.Winternitz, History of India Literature, Vol-1, p.580


Matsyapurāṇa, 50.73


parāśarasuto vyāsaḥ kṛtvā paurāṇikīṃ kathām/ sarvavedārthaghaṭitāṃ cintayāmāsa cetasi// Vāyupurāṇa, 104.20


Thaneswar Sarma, Saṃskrit Sāhityar Itivṛtta, p.106


M.Winternitz. The History of Indian Literature, Vol.1, p. 532


V.S Apte, The Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p.268


Stella Kramrisch, The Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa Part IIIA, Treatise on Indian Painting and Image Making Primary source edition, p.4


V.S Apte, The Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p.101


R. C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapurāṇas, Vol.1, p.218

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