Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part I, 5]

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


V. Silent Amalgamation

§ 25. We distinguish between two types of amalgamation, “silent“ and “explicit“. In the first type elements are combined which, although incompatible, can be recognized as such only by those acquainted with literary tradition. If the Jina Ṛṣabha for example wears a jaṭā (which is prescribed for Śiva and some other deities but not for a Jain ascetic), then we cannot recognize that the jaṭā does not properly belong to the Jina unless we already know it. But different is the case of the Hari-Hara-mūrti where Siva's jaṭā is joined together with Viṣṇu's mukuṭa. Here the amalgamation is accompanied by a violation of nature and of normal iconographic usage and is therefore evident from the “construction“ itself. Sometimes the intention to express syncretism is obvious although the construction is normal (Hari-Hara-Sūrya-Buddha, Sūrya-Nārayaṇa). Cases of this type have also been included into the chapter on explicit amalgamation.

Silent amalgamation concerns normally only minor elements, e.g. the hair-dress or a single hand-attribute, and it can therefore also be described as “transfer“, as an exchange of minor attributes between different figures. Only occasionally essential features are exchanged without a clear intention to express syncretism. We find for example Gaṇeśa with a jaṭā and dancing like Śiva (Banerjea, Pl. XV, 2).

It is often difficult to distinguish between silent amalgamation and non-epic representation. Lakulīśa, seated in meditation but carrying mace and trident, certainly demonstrates amalgamation (Banerjea, Pl. XXXIX, 1). But images which show Śiva slaying Andhakāsura and whirling Gajāsura (Rao, II, I, PI. XLVI f.) may also be called non-epic representations (see § 37).


§ 26. In certain cases transfer means only that the correct element (attribute etc.) is replaced by another element which stands in some relation to the first.

In contradistinction to Jinas 2-24, Ṛṣabha and Bāhubalin are normally provided with plaits of hair which hang down on the shoulders (the relevant biographical passages are found in the Kalpasūtra of Bhadrabāhu [p. 75, line 2 of Jacobi's ed.] and in Jinasena's Ādipurāṇa [36, 109]). In addition to the plaits Ṛṣabha and Bāhubalin may show a type of hair which differs from the curls found with Jinas 2-24 and which shall here be called “striped hair“ (It seems that plaits and striped hair were originally concomitant, but later on the striped hair could be replaced by curls). This striped hair can be replaced by the Brahmanical jaṭā or by some similar arrangement of the hair. Ultimately the jaṭā assumes on Orissan images the mukuṭa-like shape quite common in that region (Fig. 59: Ṛṣabha's jaṭā; Fig. 60: Siva's jaṭā). Thus the specific hair-dress of a particular Jina (and of his son Bāhubalin) is first replaced by the hair-dress of a Brahmanical ascetic and later on transformed into a sort of princely head-gear.


§ 27. Transfer by way of adding a new element occurs several times within the series of the 24 Jinas.

The plaits as well as the striped hair (but not both together and also not the jaṭā) have often been transferred from Ṛṣabha (and Bāhubalin) to the other Jinas. Reversely, the curls of the other Jinas have often been substituted to the striped hair of these two figures (see the previous §).

Supārśva's snake-hoods have probably been transferred to this Jina from Pārśva. The only traditional explanation for this feature which I could trace is contained in Hemacandra's Supārśvanāthacaritra. According to Hemacandra, Indra creates a nāga with 1, 5, or 9 hoods behind Supārśva whenever he preaches in the samosaraa [and hence the snake-hoods above the Jina's head]. Here the iconographic relation between Pārśva and Supārśva has nothing to do with the relation of the names. In reality two explanations are possible. Either Supārśva was from the very beginning a replica of Pārśva (replica as far as the name and the snake-hoods are concerned) or the similarity of the names was unintentional and gave, only later on, rise to the transfer of the snake - hoods by the artists.

U. P. Shah has directed attention to a type of Jina-image where the Jina is shown in princely dress (“Jīvantasvāmimūrti“). Tradition connects this type of mūrti with Mahāvīra alone [1], but a later text (Raja-sekhara Suri's Prabandhakośa [2]) mentions also a Jīvantasvāmi-Pārśvanātha-mūrti. The extant images do not show the characteristics of a particular Jina.


§ 28. A case of transfer in Hindu iconography has already been mentioned in § 6: the substitution of the Śivaliga for the pillar of the Narasiṁha-myth. Only because the “pillar“ was not exactly identical with a liṅga we had to include the case into the chapter on stereotype representation. In this § we shall discuss examples of transfer which demonstrate clearly amalgamation (see also § 50 [f], end).

By way of substitution or by way of addition the worshipping-nāga-motif has been introduced into representations of the Varāhāvatāra, the Trivikramāvatāra, and the Varadarājāvatāra (gajendramokā). The motif is found on the Varāha-relief at Udaygiri (and on other Varāha-images), on the Trivikrama-panel at Rājim (Rao, I, I, Pl. XLVIII), and on the Gajendramokṣā-panel at Deogarh (MASI, 70, Pl. X, a). At Udaygiri and Deogarh the nāga is represented in hybrid form; at Rājim we find a human worshipper seated on the coils of a snake which spreads its hoods behind his head. In this respect the last nāga agrees with the so-called Nāgārjuna at Nālandā (§ 44). But the nāga at Rājim is distinguished from the latter by the absence of hand-attributes and he should therefore not be separated from the common hybrid or animal nāga. Again the nāga of the Deogarh-panel differs from the other two in so far as his tail is wound round the legs of an elephant and in so far as he is accompanied by his consort. But all these differences do not stand in the way of a comparison.

In none of the three cases has the nāga been traced in any mythological text, but the nāga at Udaygiri (and at some other places) conforms to a description given in the Viṣṇudharmottara (III, 106, 46; not quoted by Rao), where it is said that Varāha puts his foot on Śea's coils. But neither the literary nor the artistic tradition is unanimous regarding the nāga-motif in the Varāhāvatāra. There is for example a Southern form of the motif where the nāga is theriomorph, his head appearing under Varāha's foot (cf. Kāliya in Kṛṣṇa's Kāliyamardanamūrti); this form agrees with the description of the Śilparatna (Rao, I, II, pratimālakaāni, p. 30). Again we find representations in the North where the stalk of the lotus on which Varāha puts his foot is flanked by two hybrid nāgas; here we can compare the nāgas to the left and right of the stalk of the lotus on which the Buddha is seated. It is not possible to trace all the ramifications of the motif; but even without a detailed discussion we can say that the nāgas are most probably in all these cases an artistic innovation.

In the case of the other two avatāras the nāga is not mentioned anywhere and its representation is restricted (as far as we know) in both instances to a single piece. The panel at Deogarh is the only specimen where the crocodile of literary tradition (Bhāgavatamahāpurāa 8, 2, 29: nakra) is replaced by a nāga; the representations of the gajendramokṣā which we find in the South are in harmony with the texts and show a crocodile (Sivaramamurti, p. 41). Again it is only at Rājim that we find the nāga in the Trivikramāvatāra. Sivaramamurti explains this nāga as an indication of Pātāla (op. cit. p. 42). That would practically mean that any nāga (and any lotus) can be taken as an indication of the chthonic (or aquatic) associations of a myth.

But unless it is quite clear that nāgas and lotuses are only indications of the scenery (as in the case of the lotuses on the Gajendramokṣā-panel at Deogarh), it is safer to explain lotuses and nāgas which are not referred to in the myth by transfer. It is however not impossible that the chthonic or aquatic character of a myth encourages such a transfer: the element of a particular scene is utilized, in a different context, as a mere indication of the scenery (cf. § 14).

Whether the nāga was adopted for all three avatāras independently or whether it spread from one avatāra to the others cannot be decided here. Nor can we rule out the possibility that mythological references to the nāga will be found some time in the future. But such references would only reflect a later development; we are in any case concerned with transfer, whether the innovation is due to the artists or to the mythologists.


§ 29. Addition and substitution as described in the previous §§ do not yet give a complete idea of the various forms of transfer or silent amalgamation. Transfer is not only at the root of occasional elaborations or modifications of the motifs, it is also the normal way to create new gods. Although we cannot analyze satisfactorily each of the innumerable gods and goddesses, we can see at a glance that they owe their existence to a permanent reshuffle of the material. Elements like cakra, lotus, multiple snake-hood, triple head, etc. which belonged originally to one or few figures occur later on as attributes in uncounted combinations. It seems as if every possible combination of the available attributes has been utilized for the creation of a new deity. The elements were nevertheless not assembled at random. On the contrary, existing gods were modified by the introduction of new attributes (which were either added to or sub­stituted for the existing attributes); thereby new deities came into being. In all these cases transfer is largely a literary process.


§ 30. Certain attributes, especially hand-attributes, have been transferred to “non-iconographic figures“ (i.e. to figures without individuality: § 64). One of the figures on the outer walls of the Pārśvanātha temple at Khajurāho carries a conch (Viṣṇu-Kṛṣṇa's attribute) in one hand, while the other hand rests on his hip (Khajurāho, p. 21). There cannot be any doubt that this figure is “non-iconographic“. Such cases of transfer are all the more misleading, since many people are inclined to “identify“ non-iconographic figures even if they carry no attributes at all.

The opposite case is also possible. Elements found with non-iconographic figures may spread to iconographic ones and give the impression of “attributes“. Many non-iconographic figures on the outer walls of temple No. 12 at Deogarh carry a chowrie, and this is probably the reason why one of the iconographic figures (Ambikā?) [3] was also provided with a chowrie.


§ 31. If an attribute (e.g. the lotus-pedestal) spreads to more and more figures, it looses gradually its attribute-character and becomes a general element (see § 8). It must, however, be borne in mind that in certain constellations even a seemingly general element may have distinguishing value. Amongst the 112 figures on the outer walls of the Tell-kā-mandir we find one figure which is standing on a lotus. [4] This is a Jina (an unexpected figure on a Hindu temple!), and we can therefore conclude that the lotus-pedestal was regarded as an attribute of the Jina. Figures 15 and 21 of the same temple are seated on a lotus, but here the lotus is carved very realistically and the motif is therefore different (see the next §). In certain cases the distinguishing value of an element that had become general was artificially restored. According to the Nirvāṇakalikā (p. 37 f.) four out of the sixteen vidyādevīs are seated on a lotus (the other twelve goddesses have an animal or human vāhana), and this tradition is confirmed, as far as Vajraśṛṅkhalā is concerned, by her representation on the outer walls of temple No. 12 at Deogarh (§ 19). The same text prescribes lotus-seats also for eight out of the twenty-four yakṣīs (but only for one yakṣa: Brahmayakṣa) and describes the twentieth yakṣī simply as bhadrāsanārūhā, i.e. as “seated on a throne“. Lotus-seat and throne are in these cases regular attributes.


§ 32. The Jain artists had always an uneasy conscience when introducing new elements into the iconography of the Jinas. They felt that such motifs were not legitimate and preferred to render them in an inconspicuous way. The lotus-pedestals or -seats of the Jinas are with a few exceptions highly stylized, the lotuses on the uṣṇīṣas are inconspicuous, and the lotuses in the hands are stylized and often very small. The only exception to our rule is the jaṭā which is sometimes even larger than in Hindu iconography.

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK