Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Indian Iconography in an Historical Perspective with

V. Sivarama Krishnan


The word ‘Icon’ originally meant a religious painting considered sacred in the Eastern Orthodox Churches’. Amplifying this meaning, the World Book Encyclope­dia (Vol. 10, 1990) says: “Most icons are portraits of God, Jesus Christ, or saints. They are painted according to rules estab­lished by church authorities and are intended to convey the heavenly glory of the holy subjects portrayed. Thus, icons appear more stylized than realistic.” The popular Indian conception of an icon is that of a deity or saint represented in stone or metal (or, if one may add, sensibly represented) which is devoutly worshipped. The Sanskrit term ‘Vigraha’, used in many other languages as such, is the nearest approximation to it. There is an implication of something solid in this conception. Iconography would then mean knowledge or study of images par­ticularly held as objects of worship.

It is a truism that Indian art is essen­tially religious in character and inspiration. Indian iconography, says Jitendra Nath Banerjea, “is nothing but the interpretation of the religious art of man”, Grunwedel, in his ‘Buddhist Art in India’, remarks: “The religious character, so deeply rooted in the national life of the Indian races, has also contained the guiding principle in their art”. E. B. Havell looks upon Indian art as “a price­less possession because it still retains the spirituality which modern Europe has almost entirely lost”. While Sri Aurobindo’s ‘spiri­tual’ interpretation of Indian art is taken to be natural as from a Yogi of his stature, it is Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy’s religious view of Indian art that has commended itself to art critics, given Dr. Coomarswamy’s scientific ground and long residence in the west. His aesthetics is of a piece with his metaphysics and his mind is “essentially priestly and scholastic in character” (Dr. Niharranjan Ray). Prof. R. Srinivas ob­serves: “Indian art has always been consid­ered a path of realisation of the Ultimate Reality. It is spiritual in outlook, idealistic in expression, and sublime in interpretation. It is not merely a matter of sensuous enjoy­ment, not a luxury to be enjoyed by the lei­sured rich class of people, not something to amuse oneself with. It has a deeper basis and a more exalted aim. It was considered to be as vital for human progress as Devo­tion, or Knowledge or Love”. The Indian sculptor took what he found ideally beauti­ful in nature, synthesized the elements of beauty in his work, infused in it a sense of proportion and rhythm and imbued it with the suggestion of the Supreme. The divine principle is the pillar, as it were, around which everything (including Indian art) revolves.2

Not all scholars and connoisseurs of art are agreed that Indian art is religious in inspiration and aspires for spiritual fulfilment Dr. A. L. Basham, in his popular work, ‘The Wonder that was India’, says: “In our opin­ion the usual inspiration of Indian art is not so much a ceaseless quest for the Absolute as a delight in the world as the artist found, a sensual vitality and a feeling of growth and movement as regular and organic as the growth of living things upon earth.” (page 347) Dr. K. M. Munshi shares this view and asserts that Indian art is certainly not other­worldly like the Christian art of mediaeval Europe nor its purpose is necessarily to in­duce an inner vision.3 Whatever view one takes, it is undeniably true that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, and if piety were mixed with the creative effort of the artist and the aesthetic appreciation of the ‘sahrudaya’, the gain in terms of the spirit is wordless. The artist creates primarily for himself. But when his work kindless in oth­ers emotions and intuitions analogous to his own, though perhaps of a less intensity, he, being a man as well as an artist, finds com­fort in this confirmation of the fact that the core of his experience corresponds to something deep-seated in universal human­ity.4 The universal element in art makes for its perennial appeal, as do Indian icons.


Indian iconography has been the sub­ject of study by a long line of scholars/crit­ics from the 18th century. The Danish mis­sionary of Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg, may be said to be the pioneer in this field because of his work ‘Genealogy of South Indian Gods’ brought out in 1714. In 1785, George Foster came out with his book, ‘Sketches of the Mythology and Customs of the Hindus’. This was followed in 1810 by Moore’s ‘Hindus Pantheon’, revised later in 1864 by Rev. W. O. Simpson. Col. Vans Kennedy added to the extant literature on the subject his ‘Ancient and Hindu Mythol­ogy’ in 1831. John Dowson brought out ‘A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology’ in 1879. W.J. Wilkin’s ‘Hindu Mythology’ was the last of such works in the 19th century. T. A. Gopinatha Rao, Superintendent of Ar­chaeology, Travancore State, broke new ground in the second decade of this century (1914 & 1916) with his two-volume, four­-part (each volume in two-parts) with his ‘El­ements of Indian Iconography’. What spurred him to undertake this work - a truly monumental effort considering the time he lived in with hardly any facilities of the mod­em means of quick transport and photo­graphic reproduction - was the observation of Fergusson of the Archaeological Survey of India that very little had been done for the illustration of mythology. Fergusson said: “It would be a legitimate part of the duty of the Archaeological Surveys to collect ma­terials on a systematic plan for this object, and the production of illustrations has now become so easy and inexpensive (this must be taken as a comparative statement with reference to the earliest times) that photo­graphs from original materials of a satisfac­tory class might readily be published to sup­ply this most pressing desideratum.

The details of the emblems and sym­bols of the numerous divinities of the pan­theon could also be collected, along with the delineations, by those familiar with such symbols. All this could easily be accom­plished, and it is consequently hoped it may before long be accomplished. Gopinatha Rao accomplished this task with rare per­severance, making pen-and-ink sketches himself wherever photography was not pos­sible.

Gopinatha Rao’s volumes were fol­lowed by H. Krishna Sastri’s ‘South Indian Gods and Goddesses’, B. C. Bhattacharya’s ‘Indian Images’ part I, J. Dubreuil’s ‘South Indian Iconography’ and N. K. Bhattasali’s ‘Buddhist and Brahmancial Sculptures in the Dance Museum’. J. N. Banerjea’s ‘The De­velopment of Hindu Iconography’, published by the university of Calutta in 1941, is an­other landmark in the fields of iconographic studies. Banerjea both supplements and complements Rao’s ‘Elements’ and one ad­ditional merit of his book is his treatment of coins and seals as useful material for the study of Hindu iconography. In recent years, quite a number of publications have come out on the subject but almost all of them draw heavily on Rao’s and Benerjea’s standard work.

The primary sources of knowledge about iconography and iconometry are the Aagamas and the Tantras, both terms of­ten used synonymously. They fall into two broad divisions, Pancharaatra (Vaishnava) and Saiva. These religious treatises contain much else than rules or canons about iconography. Each aagama is divided into four parts or paadas viz. Charyaa, Kriyaa, Yoga, Jnana. It is really the second section, namely the kriyaa-paada that contains relevant ma­terial about iconography. If special rel­evance to Vishnu images is the pancharaatra ‘Vaikhaanasa Aagama’, Aagamas such as Suprabheda, Kirana, Kaamika and Amsumadbhada throw light on Saiva icons.

The aagamas and tantras relevant to the study of icons belong to the period be­tween the 9th and the 12th centuries. This does not mean that there were no signifi­cant sources of knowledge earlier. There were the puranas-Matysa, Agni, Padma-­and the upa-puranas, Vishnu-dharmottara, forming part of Vishnu purana/Garuda purana. There were also individual writ­ers like Varahamihira of the 6th century A.D. whose work is called ‘Brihatsanihita’. Varahamihira refers to such ear­lier writers as Nagnajit and Vasishtha. An interesting point made by Benerjea is that much of the vast ancient literature on the subject is lost to us. He says: “The Indi­ans of ancient times possessed a common trait of character, which led them to incor­porate their own independent achieve­ments into systems and to merge their own individuality into greater corporate wholes in order that their own experiences in par­ticular fields of knowledge would have greater authority and sanctity to rest upon”. It would appear that they rejoiced in their anonymity and passed off their works in the name of the mythical sages such as the saptarishis - Atri, Bhrigu, Kutsa, Vasishtha, Gautama, Kasyapa and Angirasa.

The historical development of the In­dian icono-plastic art is not a steady rising curve. It developed from about the 2nd century B.C. and declined from about the 10th century A.D. The factors that con­tributed to the development of this art are the following as stated by Benerjea:

1. Sectarianism arising from the bhakti cult and sectarian rivalries and jeal­ousies - i.e. Vishnu, Siva, Surya, Ganapati, Devi, Skanda and other minor deities. 2. Gradual increase of the deities in the pan­theon. 3. Foreign contact especially with the Greeks. 4. Evolution of the tantras. 5. Gradual canonisation of the modes for the making of icons. 6. Royal patronage.

Gopinatha Rao mentions two causes for the ‘decadence’ of the icono-plastic art:

1. The entrance of the trantric ideas into the worship of the Hindus and the Buddhists. (The need to make the images with numerous heads, hands and so on, rep­resenting the various attributes of God, made for ‘unavoidable unnaturalness and clumsi­ness’.

2. The hard and fast rules laid down in the aagamas and the tantras for the making of images. “The artist become handi­capped, and his imagination had no free­dom of action”.

Banerjea, however, takes Rao to task for giving out the second as a reason for the decadence. He says: “It would be doing an injustice to the compilers of these practi­cal guidances based on the experience of generations of artists if we remark that ‘The most potent cause that injuriously affected Indian icono-plastic art is the hard and fast rules laid down in the aagamas and the tantras of the making of images.’


From an historical perspective Indian iconography forms but a small part of In­dian art. Following V.S. Agrawala, the his­tory of Indian art may be classified as fol­lows:­

A. North Indian

1. c 2500 - 1500 B.C. - Vedic and Epic periods. 2. 325 - 185 B.C. - Maurya period. 3. 185 -72 B.C. – Sunga period. 4. 200 B.C. – A.D. 200 - Satavahana pe­riod. 5. A.D. 1-175- Kushana period. 6. A.D. 320 - 600 - Gupta period. 7. A.D. 600 - 1200 - Pala and Sena dynasties of Magadha and Bengal.

B. Deccan

1. A.D. 550 - 642 Chalukya Dy­nasty. 2. A.D. 757 - 973 Rashtrakuta Dynasty.

C. South India

1. A.D. 600 - 750 - Pallavi Dy­nasty. 2. A.D. 985 - 1120 - Chola Dy­nasty.


1. Vedic and Epic periods ­- Scholars differ on the question whether idols were worshipped in the age of the Vedas and the Epics. Max Muller asserts that “the religion of the Veda knows no idols”. H.H. Wilson remarks in his preface to his translation of the Vishnu Purana: “.....the prevailing character of the ritual of the Vedas is the worship of the personified elements, of Agni, of fire; Indra, the firmament; Vayu, the air; Vanma, the water; of Aditya, the Sun; soma, the Moon, and other elementary and planetary personages. It is also True that the worship of the Vedas is for the most part domestic worship, consisting of prayers and oblations offered-in their own houses, not in temples - by individu­als for individual good, and addressed to unreal presences, not to visible types. In a word, the religion of the Vedas was not idolatry”. Wilson significantly adds: “It is not possible to conjecture when this more simple and primitive form of adoration was succeeded by the worship of images and types, representing Brahma, Vishnu, Siva and the other imaginary beings, constituting a mythological pantheon of most ample ex­tent; or, when Rama and Krishna, who ap­pear to have been originally real and his­torical characters, were elevated to the dig­nity of divinities”. As against Max Muller and Wilson, Bollenson and S.V. Venkateswara adduced textual support to the view that images played a very promi­nent part in the religious practice of the early Vedic Indo-Aryans’. Keeping in view both the opposed views, J. N. Banerjea’s view seems to be conclusive. He says: “In most of the early authoritative Brahmanas, which lay down meticulous details of the mode of performing the various sacrifices, there is practically no reference to the idols of the gods which would certainly have been ex­plicitly mentioned if they were found neces­sary. In the subsequent period of the his­tory of India, when the divine images had come to play a requisite part in the religious lives of her people, they are clearly de­scribed as such in the contemporary literature”.

2. The Maurya period (325­ - 185 B.C.) - This is the period of the Yaksha and Yakshini images of Parkham (Mathura) Bharatpur, Pawaya near Gwalior, Rajghat near Varanasi, Kausambi, Patna, Vidisa and Sisupalgarh in Orissa. The Mauryan stone sculptures, which have a mirror like polish, have a special place in the history of Indian art. The lion capital of the Sarnath Pillar (3rd century B.C.), as V. S. Agrawala points out, is the highest expression of symbolism in Indian art”.

3. The Sung period (185 – 72 B.C.) - The Buddhist stupas of Bharhut and sanchi are the glories of this period. The Yakshini figures reveal the consummate craftsmanship of the Sunga artists.

4. The Satavahana period (200 B.C. - A.D. 200) The stupas of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda and the sculptures in both places are ‘truly inspired works and display a mastery in which de­tailed ornamentation and elegance of figure sculpture are joined in a rare harmony’.

5. The Kushana period (A.D. 1- 175) - To this period belongs the Mathura school of art; The Buddha image was the greatest contribution of the Mathura artists. Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Vishnu, Surya, Siva, Kartikeya, Saraswati and Lakshmi emerged during this period.

6. The Gupta period (A. D. 320 - 600) - The Time-Life publication, ‘Historic India, has an introductory paragraph on the Gupta age which is worth reproducing. It reads: “All great peoples enjoy certain prolonged moments of supreme vigour and delicate organization, when shared attributes combine to create a splendid culture. For Europeans, such a moment occurred in the Renaissance or, going further , in the “Glory that was Greece”, and the “Grandeur that was Rome”. For the Hindus of India, the greatest of all ages took place between A.D. 320 and 467, when a dynasty of kings called the Guptas ruled the northern part of the subcontinent. During those years peace, prosperity and material well-being prevailed to a degree unmatched in India before or since. Hindu literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and science reached creative peaks. At the time, in the worlds of one historian, India was “possibly the happiest and most civilized region in the world. It was an age in which the ruling passion of life was the realization of both physical and moral beauty”. The Hindu temple as an independent structure came up during this period. The seated Buddha delivering the first sermon at Sarnath is another masterpiece of this period. The Varaha A vatara of Vishnu and the life-size image of Vishnu in Mathura Museum are contributions of this age.

7. The  Pala and Sena Dynasties of Magadha and Bengal (A.D. 700-1200) - This period is notable for a variety of stone sculptures and bronzes.


1. The Chalukyas (A.D. 550 - 642) - The temple of Aihole, Badami and Rattadakal belong to this period. The temples have ‘mandapas’ adorned with richly carved lintels, beautiful images and trellis work of ingenious designs. There are figures in bold relief of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva which are now in the Bombay museum. The influence of the Gupta art and of the Pallava art is seen here, as in the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal (A.D. 720) is said to have been built in imitation of the Kailasanatha temple of Kanchi. The Aihole temple contains the figure of Vishnu on Ananta and, as V. S. Agrawala points out, it represents the best of the Chalukya art.

2. The Rashrtakutas (A.D. 920) - To this period belongs the kailasa temple at Ellora and the Mahesamurti at Elephanta. There are other sculptures of Siva, Parvati and Ardhanareeswara. About the Trimurti, Percy Brown has said: “Few works of sculptures excel the mag­nificent treatment of this colossal triple bust in which the whole essence of the creed is concentrated in forms of marvellous refine­ment and subtlety, curved and full and alive; in the white heat of his passion the sculp­tor seems to have melted the very sub­stance of the rock and infused into it some­thing of his soul”.


1. The Pallavas (A.D. 600-750) - The Pallavas (Mahendravarman and Narasimhavarman), subjects of song, leg­end and historical fiction, are associated with the Mahabalipuram rock-cut caves (mandap), monolithic temples (ratham) and open-air carving in relief on rock surface (tirtham). The Kalisanatha temple at Kanchipuram has served as a model for the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy observes: “Seventh century Pallava sculpture is of a very high order; it differs chiefly from that of the Gupta period in the great slenderness and the freer movements of the forms, a more oval face and higher cheek bones. The di­vine and human figures are infinitely gracious and in the representation of animals excels all others.”

2. The Cholas (A.D. 885-1120) - The imposing temple towers of Thanjavur, Gangaikond cholapuram, Madurai, Srirangam, Rameswaram and other temples of Tamil Nadu and the non­pareil bronzes of Gods and Goddesses, par­ticularly of Siva - Nataraja belong to this period. Of the Nataraja image, Ananda Coomaraswamy observes: “The Nataraja is a perfect visual image of becoming in ad­equate complement and contrast to the Buddha type of pure being. The movement of the dancing figure is so admirably balanced that while it fills all space, it seems, never­theless, to be at rest in the sense that a spin­ning top or gyrostat is at rest”.

Before we conclude this part of the review of Indian Art, reference may be made to the Hoyasala School (A.D. 1050 - 1300) represented by the temples of Somnathpur (Kesava), Belur (Chennakesava), and Halebid (Hoyasaleshwara). The temple at Halebid marks the climax of Indian archi­tecture and its most prodigal sculptured mag­nificence. The minute carving with exquis­ite ornamentation is a distinguishing feature of the Hoyasala sculpture.


There is such a variety of images that attempts have been made to classify them. The following are some of the classifica­tions:­

A. In terms of Position

1. Chala - moveable. 2. Achala - ­immoveable. 3. Chalaachala - moveable and immoveable.

B. Moveable

1. Kautuka - beras – for worship (Mula vigrahas). 2. Utsava-beras - for taking out in procession. 3. Snapana - beras - for daily services.

C. Immoveable (Dhruva­beras)

1. Sthaanaka - standing. 2. Aasana - sitting. 3. Shayana- reclining.

(only Vishnu images should be rep­resented in a reclining form).

Each of the above representations is divided into 1. Yoga - Worshipped by those who seeks self-realisation. 2. Bhoga - Wor­shipped by those who seek enjoyment. 3. Veera - Worshipped by those who seek military prowess. 4. Aabhicharika - Wor­shipped for inflicting defeat and death on enemies.

D. Based on shape.

1. Chitra - round with all limbs. 2. Chitraardha - figures in half-relief. 3. Chitraabhaasa - images painted on walls and cloth.

E. Attitudes

1. RaudraorUgra-terrific. 2. Santa or Saumya - pacific.

Among the images of Vishnu, the Vishvarupa, the Nrisimha and Parasurama are considered to be Ugra-murtis.

F. Based on surrounding dei­ties

1. Uttama - Superior. 2. Madhyama - middling. 3. Adhama - inferior.

“The shayana form of Vishnu may have its temple facing any cardinal point. If the temple faces the north, the head of the reclining image must be to the east; if it faces the south, the head must be placed to the west; in temple facing east and west, the head must be to the south. This means that in cases in which the temples face the north, the south or the east, the head of the reclin­ing figure of the deity is to the left of the worshipper; and only in the case of temples facing the west, the head of the deity is to the right of the worshipper.”

The ‘Sahasranama’, which is found in chapter 149 of the Anusaasanika parva of the Mahabharata (described as the fifth Veda and the Book of Life) celebrates the 1000 names of Mahavishnu, in 107 verses. These names are not empty sounds but based on the guna’s or attributes of the Lord – Yaani  naamaani gunani. Adi Sankara, who has written a commentary of Vishnusahasranama, says that loving utter­ance and meditation on the thousand names has a two-fold merit - it is easy and secures the purushaarthaas of Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha. The first two words of the 1000 litany are: Visvam Vishnu - the Lord is the Cosmos. He is everything.

The precise stage at which Vishnu emerged as a deity fit for worship is not known. But from all available accounts, one may infer that the Gupta age (4th/5th cen­tury) could be considered as significant for this purpose. Though all the four Vedas mention ‘Vishnu’, He is not looked upon as an important deity. The Rig Veda hymn 1.154 beginning with ‘Vishnorukam..’ iden­tifies Him with the sun striding the seven re­gions and covering the universe by means of three steps. He is meditated up in a daily prayer as ‘Savitru - mandale - madhyavarti’ - as Narayana residing in the orb of the sun. He is also referred to as one of the Adityas - sons of Kasyapa and Aditi. “Vishnu owes to Indra his blue colour, his names Vaasava and Vaasudeva and his relations to the hu­man heroes, as Arjuna, Rama and Krishna, which have become of great importance for his entire history”(Weber). There are 14 Vaishnavopanishads.

Vishnu is depicted in the standing, sit­ting and shayana postures as well as in the forms of his ten avataaras or manifestations. According to Gopinatha Rao the Vaikhanasaagama is the principal text fol­lowed as a guide by sculptors for making Vishnu images.

While the famous temples of the south dedicated to Vishnu are well-known ­Tirupati, Srirangam, Thiruvanthapuram, Udupi, etc. - Gopinatha Rao mentions the following as outstanding sculptures:­

1. Madhyama yogasthaanakamurti - ­Mahabalipuram. 2. Bhogasthaanakamurti-­Madras Museum. 3. Adhama Bhogasthaanakamurti – Tiruvottiyur (stone). 4. Bogasthaanakamurti - Tadpatri (stone). 5. Sthanakamurti - Mathura Museum. 6. Yogaasana-murti - Baagali (stone). 7. Bhogasthaanamurti - Baaadaami (stone). 8. Madhyama Bhogaasanamurti – Ellora (stone). 9. Bhogaasanamurti - Daadikkombu. 10. Adhama Veeraasanaamurti - Aihole (stone). 11. Madhyama Yogashayanamurti ­Mahabalipuram. 12. Madhyama Yogashayanamurti - Aihole (stone). 13. Uttama Bhogashayanamutti - Rajasthan (stone).

(These are numerous bronze images of Vishnu in the Madras Museum.)

Twenty-four images of Vishnu are found in the Hoyasala temple complex of Belur, more or less alike, with a slight difference in regard to the holding of Sankha, Chakra, Gadha and Padma in different hands. The names as given in Rupamandena are: 1. Kesava, 2. Narayana, 3. Madhava, 4. Govinda, 5. Vishnu, 6. Madhusudana, 7. Trivikrama, 8. Vamana, 9. Sridhara, 10 Hrishikesa, 11. Padmanabha, 12. Damodara, 13. Samkarshna, 14. Vasudeva, 15. Pradyumna, 16. Aniruddha, 17. Purushottama, 18. Adhokshaja, 19. Nrisimha, 20 Achuta, 21. Janardana, 22.Upendra, 23. Hari, 24. Sri Krishna.

The Dasaavataara images are too nu­merous to mention here but the exquisite craftsmanship displayed in sculpting the images cannot but strike the viewer.

There are also images of ‘minor’ mani­festations of Vishnu - Kapila, Yajnamurti, Dhanvantri, Dattatreya, Vaikunthanatha, Visvarupa, Lakshmi-Narayana, Hayagriva, Aadimurti, Jalashayin, Dharma, Varadaraja, Ranganatha, Venkatesa, Pandarinaatha or Vithoba, Jagannatha, Nara-Narayana or Hari-Krishna, and Manmatha.

The field of iconographic study is vast, and the more one delves into it, the more is the excitement. One cannot ask for a bet­ter reward from life than the ‘Ananda’ one gets from studies of treatises on iconogra­phy and visits to temples where they are in­stalled and public places like museums where they are displayed.

Avinayamapanaya Vishno
damayamanah shamaya
bhootadayaam vistaaraya

O Vishnu, take away my arrogance (absence of humility)
keep in check my mind,
pacify the senses going after the mi­rage of sense objects
Make expansive (my) compassion for the creatures

Ferry me across the ocean of samsara: (cycle of births and deaths).


1 J. N.Benerjea, ‘The Development of Hindu Iconography’, page 3.
2  Vasudeva S. Agrawala, ‘The Heri­tage of Indian Art’, page 8.
3 K. M. Munshi, ‘Swan Love and other Kulapati’s Letters’, page 153.
4 N. Raghunathan, ‘The artist and His Audience’, article in ‘Ripeness is All’, page 86.

            (Paper presented at the National Seminar on ‘Indian Iconography with special reference to the icons of Vishnu’s held under the auspices of the Karnataka Haridasa Scientific Research Centre, Ban­galore, on July 7, 1994.)

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