Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part I, 3]

Posted: 02.01.2012
Updated on: 02.07.2015


The paper was published in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (S.K. De Felicitation Volume), Poona 1960, pp. 164-248.


Distinction in Indian Iconography

Part I: The Phenomena


III. Insufficient Indication of the Symbolical Value

§ 18. In order to distinguish a bull from a buffalo it will suffice to study the features of the animals represented. But if we have to decide whether a lion serves as the attribute of a particular person (e.g. of the Jina Mahāvīra) or whether it forms simply a part of the seat (sihāsana) and indicates merely royalty or holiness, then it is necessary to refer to exterior features, e.g. to the number and location of the animals represented. Two lions generally belong to the siṁhāsana, a single lion generally serves as a specific symbol (as in the case of Mahāvīra). Again a makara to the upper left and right of the main figure is decorative, a single makara on the pedestal is a specific symbol (e.g. for Gagādevī).

We are sure about the symbolical value of an element only if there is a strict general convention regulating number and place, or if the individual artist succeeds in making the symbolical value obvious in itself. But very often neither is the case and elements of different symbolical value are frequently represented in the same way. Even then there would not arise any difficulty, if the same element (e.g. the lion) were always used in the same sense (e.g. as general symbol of dignity). But such a restriction was not observed, which is only natural if one considers the great popularity of certain motifs (cf. also § 69b).

Lions for example are found as cihnas, as parts of the seat, on capitals and socles of pillars, on door-sills, as guardians flanking the entrance, in front of the temple draupadīratha at Mahābalipuram), in forest-scenes, and so forth. Each time the symbolical value is different and it disappears completely only in strictly decorative or strictly realistic compositions. An elephant in a hunting scene is of course not a symbol. But a lion by the side of an ascetic can be understood as a hieroglyph meaning “forest” or even as an attribute of the anchoret.


§ 19. In order to substantiate our statements we quote first of all a Buddha-image from Mathurā belonging to the Kuṣāṇa period. [1] The pedestal shows three lions, two at the corners (with their backs turned inwards) and one in the middle (facing the observer). Three lions in the same arrangement are carved on the pedestal of a medieval Jina - image (fig. 64). The outer lions indicate in both cases the siṁhāsana. The meaning of the central lion is doubtful in the case of the first image. No doubt, the lion figures sometimes as the cihna of the Buddha, the “Śākya-lion“, as is shown by a Buddha-image recently excavated at Sirpur. [2] But at Sirpur the central lion is clearly distinguished from the two lateral ones, whereas at Mathurā all three are identical in shape and posture. [3] The three lions below the Jina in Fig. 64 are also practically identical. But since the bull below the left Jina is a cihna (viz. of the first Jina Rsabha) [4] there can be no doubt that the central lion below the right Jina is also a cihna (viz. of the last Jina Mahāvīra). Here the context provides the clue for the identification, whereas the representation itself is ambiguous. In the case of the Mathurā image however no decision is possible. A general convention regarding the place of the cihna could of course remove all doubts, but neither does the cihna always appear in the centre nor is the symbol in the centre necessarily a cihna. [5]

A slab at Deogarh of which we reproduce the lower portion in fig. 63 shows the following three figures (from left to right): Jina Sabhava (cihna: horse), Jina Ajita (cihna: elephant), and Sarasvatī (vāhana: hamsa). [6] In the case of the two Jinas the cihnas are incised in the carpet hanging down from below the feet. But in the case of Sarasvatī the vāhana is shown in big size and bold relief on the bottom of the slab. Formally the bird of the goddess is coordinated with the lions of the siṁhāsanas but not with the cihnas. We admit that vāhanas are normally shown in bold relief whereas cihnas are often carved in low relief or simply scratched. But after all the symbolical value is the same in the case of the cihna and the vāhana, not in the case of the lions and the vāhana. Therefore a different arrangement would have been clearer.

A Jina-image at Deogarh [7] shows two animals on the pedestal: a lion to the left and a deer to the right. Both animals are ambiguous: the lion is the cihna of Mahāvīra or a defective indication of the siṁhāsana; the deer is the cihna of Śāntinātha or the defective form of an “antithetic group“ (consisting of a cakra which is flanked by two deer). The slab carries no inscription and the head shows the usual curls which are common to Jinas 2-24. We are, therefore, not in a position to find out the meaning of the two animals.

The image of a Hindu-goddess found in Almora District [8]shows two lions to the left and right of the lotus on which the goddess is standing. The animals are carved in the round and appear within the panel proper (not on the pedestal as in the previous cases). The iconography of the goddess is as follows:



snake (?)



varada (rosary?)




It is possible to take the lions in the general sense (cf. Banerjea, Pl. XL, 3: Śiva with two lions on the pedestal) or to take them as the animals which draw the deity's chariot (cf. Viṣṇudharmottara, III, 71, 8: Bhadrakālī is catu-sihe rathe sthitā).

Like the lion and the deer, the lotus-vāhana has sometimes no specific symbolical value and forms sometimes a regular attribute. Two figures on the outer walls of temple No. 12 at Deogarh are shown on a lotus: a four-armed figure with a chain in one hand (=Vajraśṛṅkhalā, the third vidyādevī) [9] and a two-armed figure which carries a chowrie in one hand while the other hand rests on the thigh [10]. Vajraśṛṅkhalā is expressly described as padma-vāhanā and varada-śṛṅkhalānvita-dakina-karā (Nirvāṇakalikā, p. 37/2), and it is therefore perfectly clear that the four-armed figure is the vidyādevī, whereas the two-armed figure has no name (is non-iconographic, see § 64).

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK