Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part I, 4]

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


IV. Insufficient Indication of the Group

§ 20. As we have said repeatedly, the differences between the figures are often not marked sufficiently or the differences shown by the artists are not identical with those prescribed by the texts. In order to render their reliefs nevertheless understandable the artists could have distinguished the groups as such, so that there would not be any confusion between different groups or between a group and other gods in general or between gods in general and figures without individuality. Such a distinction would not be necessary if the place and the form of representation followed a strict convention: that is, however, not the normal case (cf. § 18 and § 69c). The distinction is of special importance if the same god occurs twice or thrice, e.g. Śiva as God, as Ketrapāla, and as dikpāla.

Although it is technically not difficult to bring a group (class) into relief, we find little or no effort on the part of the artist to set off the groups. This is true for idols with their numerous subsidiary figures as well as for the statues on the outer walls of the temples. Members of the same group are separated and members of different groups brought together.


§ 21. Fig. 14 shows the lower portion of an image of Pārśvanātha. Here the Navagrahas form neither one continuous row on the pedestal nor two vertical continuous rows to the left and right. Three and three appear of course in the ordinary way to the upper left and right of the Jina, but the remaining three are completely isolated from these. One is seen above the lion of Ambikā, and two (Rāhu and Ketu [1] ) are shown by the side of the great female attendant figure to the left. The last three form a group which is similar to the group consisting of Ambikā, the child, and the lion. (Cf. Also § 13). - Equally insufficient is the indication of the group-nature of the avatāras of Viṣṇu on the image published in MASI 23, Pl. XL, b (medieval Viṣṇu-image at Sohagpur).

The following figures are carved on the lintel of the inner door-way of temple No. 12 at Deogarh:

A Jain goddess, a female chowrie-bearer, the grahas 1-4 (No. 1 = Sūrya), a male chowrie-bearer, a standing Jina, a seated Jina, a standing Jina, a male chowrie-bearer, grahas 5-9 (Nos. 8/9 = Rāhu/Ketu), a female chowrie-bearer, the Jain goddess Sarasvatī (Arranged from left to right, the projected figures being underlined).

Practically it is only by counting that the visitor can distinguish the Navagrahas from the chowrie-bearers (see fig. 51 showing grahas 5-9 framed by two chowrie-bearers). - The lintel of the door-way of the larger Sas Bahu temple (Fort Gwalior) shows on the whole the same arrangement, but the chowrie-bearers are slightly projected as compared with the Navagrahas, so that the composition becomes more intelligible. - Cf. also the Introduction on theriomorph Varāhas.


§ 22. The eight dikpālas are always arranged on the four corners of the temple. The importance of such a convention is clear from the iconography of the Pārśvanātha temple at Khajurāho. Here the dikpālas are represented on the outer walls of the structure and on the outer walls of the garbhagṛha. The dikpāla Īśāna of the outer set is not identical with the Īśāna of the inner set. On the other hand we find on the outer walls of the garbhagṛha (and above the eight dikpālas) eight related figures - possibly Ksetrapālas [2] - which are all identical and similar to the outer Īśāna (but different from the inner Īśāna). Needless to say it is only the arrangement which enables us in this case to decide which figure is a dikpāla Īśāna and which not.

Quite different is the case of the star - shaped Gargaj Mahādev temple at Indor. On its outer walls we find the following eleven figures:

  1. Indra,
  2. Agni,
  3. Gaṇeśa,
  4. unidentified figure,
  5. Yama,
  6. Skanda,
  7. Varua,
  8. Vāyu,
  9. Nirti (?),
  10. Kubera,
  11. Īśāna.

In addition to these we find two different Kṣetrapālamūrtis of Śiva to the left and to the right of the door-way. On account of their place and on account of their iconography they can be distinguished easily from Īśāna, the dikpālamūrti of Śiva (No. 11). It is however difficult to decide which of the two figures 4-5 represents the dikpāla Yama. They have the following attributes:



fillet (with skull fixed in it)

khavānga / ka


jaṭāmaṇḍala (with skull?)

sword (?) / noose.


Figure 4 is accompanied by a bird (to the proper right) and a quadruped buffalo (to the proper left); figure 5 has only a quadruped buffalo. Figure 5 shows more conformity with the usual form of the dikpāla Yama than figure 4; we shall therefore take the first of the two figures as a replica of Yama and the second figure as Yama proper. It is not possible to assign any function to figure 4, e.g. to call it an “attendant” of Yama. No doubt attendant figures like the āyudhapuruas and the human (hybrid) forms of Nandi, Garua, and Ananta share very often iconographic features with their respective masters. But the descriptions given by Rao (II, II, p. 526 f.) for Yama's attendants are not in agreement with our figure 4, and normally only the attendants of the higher gods like Śiva and Viṣṇu can be represented on separate slabs.

Since it was not possible in the case of the star-shaped vimāna of this temple to arrange the eight dikpālas on the four corners, one would have expected the artist to have devised some other method to bring the group into relief. Instead he has made the identification still more difficult by changing the normal succession and by introducing the misleading figure 4.


§ 23. It is obvious in some and probable in many cases that the attributes of many-armed gods represent the combined iconography of two or more deities (A, B, C). But only very few many-armed icons are constructed in such a way that one can distinguish easily the attributes belonging to a constituent A from those belonging to a constituent B (C, etc.). This could have been achieved easily by the introduction of vertical or horizontal separation lines (e.g. attributes of A to the left and attributes of B to the right; or attributes of A in the upper arms and attributes of B in the lower arms). In fact a modern colour-print of Dattātraya shows the following arrangement of the attributes:


foremost arms:

rosary / water-jar



middle arms:

trident / amaru



back arms:

cakra / conch




But such a picture (which is an exception even in modern times) does not reflect the spirit of ancient Hindu or Jain iconography, and the same is true of the highly systematical Mahāyāna icons described by H. Pott (India Antiqua, p. 288). The most systematic icon of the earlier periods is the Hari-Hara-mūrti. Medieval representations of Hari-Hara follow on the whole the detailed descriptions of the iconographic texts which prescribe different hand-attributes, different head-dress, etc. for the two halves of the icon (proper right = Hara or Śiva; proper left = Hari or Visnu).


§ 24. We cannot discuss the insufficient indication of the groups without mentioning that the groups themselves are often not represented correctly: some of the members may be missing or misrepresented. The lack of indication cannot therefore be separated from the lack of interest in the group as such, and this is true for groups in the narrower sense, for classes, and for the different strata in an amalgam (see the previous §).

From here we can proceed directly to a general discussion of unity (or want of unity) in Indian iconography. The iconography of a temple or of a single icon (central figure with subsidiary figures) may form a unit, and in that case the individual figure does not only stand for itself but forms also an integral part of the whole. The character of unity is, however, largely absent in medieval art, and the resulting looseness of the composition has two different aspects. On the one hand we often find no conformity between the individual elements, e.g. between the main idol, the wall-figures and the figure on the so-called dedicatory block (in the centre of the lintel). There may be, for instance, a mixture of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava figures. On the other hand the general elements (e.g. celestials, elephants, and chowrie-bearers in the case of an icon) are often so rampant that we cannot expect anything like a dominant motif: a chowrie-bearer is neither Śaiva nor Vaiṣṇava.

As a consequence it would be possible in many cases to change the figure on the dedicatory block of a temple (or even the symbol on the pedestal of an icon) without creating any irregularity. This implies that an identification is strictly speaking only valid for (or relevant to) the identified element itself. That a part forms the key for the identification of the whole or any other part of it can never be taken for granted; it has to be established for the relevant type of monument before it is used as a methodological principle.

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