Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part I, 6]

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


VI. Explicit Amalgamation

§ 33. We have reserved for this chapter the description of those cases where the amalgamation is accompanied with a violation of nature or a violation of the normal iconographic plan (see § 25). Subject to amalgamation in this sense are, not only human figures, but also animals, hand-attributes, hair- and head-dresses, and “symbolic representations“. The character of the contamination is different for each category but there are nevertheless certain formal analogies, and it is because of them that we classify the material not according to the class of objects but according to the type of contamination. We distinguish three cases. Juxtaposition (two or more elements occupy a place which is meant for one element only: e.g. two attributes in one hand); combination (integral parts of different elements are joined together: e.g. the prongs of a trident and the head of an axe on one stick); mutual penetration (the elements lose their integrity in the amalgam: e.g. a lotus with features of a snake).

The background of the various formations is not uniform. Some go to the credit of the artists, some have a mythological or speculative basis; some are recognised by the texts, some are not. Amalgamation of figures can be explained as the reflection of syncretistic speculations in art. We may also compare syncretism of icons with syncretism in proper names: Gaurīśakara (proper name) corresponds to Ardhanārīśvara, and Varāhamihira (proper name) corresponds to Sūryanārāyaa.


§ 34. Juxtaposition. The Hari-Hara-mūrti mentioned in § 13 shows Hari-Hara flanked by the smaller figures of Buddha and Sūrya. Our classification of the icon (“explicit amalgamation in the form of juxtaposition“) is not implied by the form. The form would also have admitted of a different interpretation: Buddha and Sūrya might have been conceived as servants of Hari-Hara. But these two figures appear nowhere as subordinates of Viṣṇu or Śiva (for example in the sense in which Daṇḍa and Piṅgala are subordinate to Sūrya). On the other hand, amalgams of two out of these four figures are quite common. We mention only two cases: Buddha (= Buddhāvatāra) by the side of Viṣṇu, and Buddha (= Amitābha) on the head of Sūrya, Viṣṇu, or Śiva. For this reason we can call our image a quadruple icon showing four gods of equal rank.

Two of the eleven figures on the outer walls of the Gargaj Mahādev temple at Indor (§ 22), viz. No. 4 and No. 9, are provided with two vāhanas each. Figure 4 (“replica of Yama“) is accompanied by a bird and a buffalo. A bird is also shown along with figures 6 and 7. In the first case (figure 4) the beak of the bird touches the ground; in the last two cases the bird is shown in the familiar attitude of snatching at a fruit held in the hand of the human figure. The bird of figure 6 (Skanda) is a peacock; the bird of figure 7 (Varuṇa) has the same appearance and may be a misplaced peacock or a peacock which serves as a substitute for Varuṇa's hasa. In the light of these parallels it seems probable that the bird of figure 4 is also a peacock. [1] Figure 9 of the same temple is either an unusual form of the dikpāla Nirti or it is no dikpāla at all. The figure is female and has the following attributes:




lotus (both lotuses are similar to a chowrie)




In the case of this goddess the two vāhanas are lion and dog.

Juxtaposition of different hand-attributes has various aspects. Any two objects can be held in one and the same hand (fig. 76: bell and lotus). Again a lotus may serve as a receptacle for any hand-attribute (Khajurāho p. 29: thunderbolt placed on a lotus which is clasped by one hand). As long as such lotuses were not used for all the hand-attributes of a figure they retained their character as attributes. - Sometimes a hand carrying an attribute displays at the same time a particular mudrā. This case can also be called juxtaposition unless mudrā and attribute be invariably concomitant (so that the mudrā is no longer a separate attribute). Iconographic texts speak for example of tarjanī-pāśa-hasta (while describing Marīci and others) in order to indicate “that the noose which is meant for chastisement is placed in the same hand which is shown in the threatening pose; this interpretation is actually borne out by the images of the above goddesses.“ (Banerjea, p. 259).

Juxtaposition (or combination) of different hair-dresses is very common, especially in the case of Jina-images. Here it is no exaggeration to speak of different “zones“ of the hair-dress: each zone may show a different arrangement of the hair, and the result is a conglomeration which can easily be represented in art but which is unimaginable in reality. We mention only the custom of placing a jaṭā on a head which is otherwise covered with dakināvartakeśa (curls). A medieval example of this arrangement has been reproduced in fig. 69, but the device is much older and can already be seen on a terracotta head of a “Bodhisattva“ from Kondāpur (G. Yazdani, History of the Deccan I/VIII, Pl. LIV, a).


§ 35. Combination of different human figures is found in various forms: four busts are joined together (caturmukhaliga); two vertical halves are combined (Hari-Hara and Ardhanārīśvara); three complete human bodies are combined by joining them with one common leg (Ekapāda). A trimūrti is in reality only a three-headed bust, but it looks like a threefold bust. This impression is created because the lateral arms are correlated to the lateral heads, thereby suggesting that they belong to a second and third bust to the left and right (cf. e.g. the trimūrti from Padhavli: Banerjea, Pl. XXXIX, 3).

The śarabha (tiger combined with elephant, [2] Pheru, p. 195 f.) and the kurkuasarpa (snake combined with cock, Pheru, p. 162 and 200) are examples of the combination of animals in iconography. Combinations of different beings as they occur among the vāhanas of the yoginīs at Bheraghat (MASI, 23, p. 79 ff., Nos. 21 and 80) seem to be local inventions.

Well-known examples of the combination of different hand-attributes are thunderbolt - cum - bell (vajraghaṇṭa) and trident - cum - axe. Both exist or existed as independent symbols: the vajraghaṇṭa is used even now in the Buddhist ritual and trident - cum - axe must have been an object of worship in early Hinduism (Banerjea, Pl. XI, 10). Both objects are artificial creations: the vajra-portion of the vajraghaṇṭa is merely a symbolical representation, and in the case of trident - cum - axe the head of the axe is fixed far below the prongs so that the implement cannot have served as a weapon. We reproduce trident - cum - axe of the Gupta Śiva at Mandasor (fig. 68); early representations of the amalgam are found on the coins of Wema Kadphises and others (Banerjea, p. 119; Pl. I, 16.19 etc.). Modern colour-prints also show combined attributes, e.g. axe -cum - goad or noose - cum - goad (fig. 67). These amalgams owe their existence to the imagination of some modern artist but are nevertheless in keeping with the iconographic tradition.

Different hair-dresses are also combined: fig. 70 shows a head which is covered with curls, while an indication of parted hair is seen right above the forehead.

An amalgam of samosaraṇa and sahasrakūa demonstrates the combination of “symbolic representations“ (Shah, Fig. 64). Here a sahasrakūṭa (square pillar covered on its four sides with miniature Jinas) is placed on the lower part of a samosaraṇa (three round terraces of decreasing diameter, placed one upon the other). In other words the upper portion of the samosaraṇa (a small shrine with four Jinas facing the four directions) has been replaced by a sahasrakūṭa.


§ 36. An image of Sūrya-Nārayaṇa from Jhalrapatan (now in the Jhalawar Museum) [3] can serve us as an example for the mutual penetration of different human figures. The god carries the following hand-attributes:




lotus (in both cases one flower and two buds)








All the attributes of the figure have to be divided between Sūrya and Viṣṇu. The boots, the garments (udīcyaveśa and avyaga, see Banerjea, p. 30 and p. 293 f.), and the attributes of the uppermost hands belong to Sūrya; the sevenfold snake-hood, the lotus-pedestal, and the remaining hand-attributes belong to Viṣṇu.

Gagā's vāhana, the makara, demonstrates mutual penetration of different animals in iconography (fig. 7). Gaṅgā (and her makara) are normally only seen on the lower door-jambs, but occasionally we find independent images of the goddess (MASI, 23, Pl. XXXb: Jahnavī from Bheraghat).

Figs. 71-73 show the mutual penetration of snake and lotus (the lotus is originally threefold: a middle stalk with a full-blown flower and two side-stalks with buds). We also find a snake-head as the end of a cornucopia. [4] In the last case the artists were possibly inspired by decorative animal-heads appearing on implements etc. (see § 7).

Figs. 62 - 59 - 60 show the gradual change of a jaṭā into a mukuṭa. This is an example of assimilation (§ 2), but in the case of fig. 61 elements of a mukuṭa are introduced into the jaṭā, and it may be better therefore to speak of mutual penetration. It is however not possible to call the object in fig. 61 simply a mukuṭa; the horizontal tiers are always typical of the jaṭā.


§ 37. While discussing many-armed icons (Acta Orientalia VII, p. 92) A. M. Hocart noticed already that two different types have to be distinguished. The figures of the first type carry attributes which all belong to the same class of objects: weapons (and overpowered enemies). Those of the second type carry heterogeneous attributes, e.g. cakra and lotus combined. In the last case each object belongs originally to a different context. In principle both types can also be distinguished amongst two-armed figures.

One may ask whether the “heterogeneous“ attributes in the hands of a figure refer to different occasions in the biography of one and the same god, to different aspects of one god, or to different gods. But in Indian mythology it is not always possible to distinguish between “occasion“, “aspect“, and “person“ (§ 25). The same action can be ascribed to different gods, and different aspects of the same god may be relatively independent. It seems therefore appropriate to link up the phenomenon as such with amalgamation as described in this chapter and in the previous chapter.

A positive demonstration can be given for a number of medieval icons (cf. Banerjea, p. 540 ff.). The analysis of the early icons is however difficult because we do not know the iconography of the preceding phase. Viṣṇu's cakra and conch can be traced back to the Harivaśa but the exact nature of his association with mace and lotus is not known.


§ 38. Quite different is the question whether there exists some special connection between amalgamation and the development of many-armed figures as such. [5] They are in form and function related to amalgams like Hari-Hara and one could imagine that the same forces which produced those amalgams were to some extent responsible for the propagation [6] of many-armed figures.

There is no difference in principle between Hari-Hara (two vertical halves of different gods joined together) and a four-armed figure, if we take the different pairs of arms on account of their different attributes as different in quality. In that case a four-armed figure would show the pairs of arms of two different gods combined. Here it is of course no longer possible to speak of multiplication of arms; for multiplication means repetition of one and the same element in identical form.

Like cult amalgams, many-armed figures (especially those of the second type) are more or less “non-epic“ (see the Introduction). More than two arms are not directly engaged in one and the same action, arms which neither carry some object nor display a particular mudrā are comparatively rare, and celestials without individuality (drum-beaters etc.) have only two arms. [7] All this shows the non-epic character of the “multiplication“ of arms. Only in the first type (see § 37) we find sometimes a certain coordination of the arms. This is especially true for Śiva's Rāvaṇānugrahamūrti where all arms of the demon are engaged in one action, viz. in the attempt to uproot Mt. Kailāsa. But this is an extreme case and seems to be without parallel.


§ 39. We mentioned already that the analysis of many-armed figures is not easy because of our insufficient knowledge of the historical background. The very character of these figures presents another difficulty in this matter. It has already been pointed out in § 23 that a clear separation of the various layers of attributes is generally missing. Here we can add that only a minority of figures have as many pairs of arms as heads. And even where numerically one pair of arms is coordinated with each head we find no clear coordination of the respective head- and hand-attributes. In other words all those features which could be expected if many-armed figures had been devised mainly in order to express amalgamation are absent. It is therefore doubtful whether amalgamation has had any direct effect upon the formation of this type of icons - as suggested in the previous § -, and these doubts are not removed by the fact that in many other cases too Indian iconoplastic art is not very systematical.

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK