Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part I, 8]

Posted: 09.01.2012
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


VII. Related Phaenomena (2)

§ 49. Repetition of the same pattern in compositions of decorative character. In later Nepali bronzes different elements of the same image (lotus, ear-ornaments, pendants, ornamentation of the crown) often follow the same pattern. The repetition of decorative patterns on the same image (or on several images of the same type) is also found in Indian art proper. But leaving aside highly decorative styles like Hoysala art, the assimilation is normally restricted to minute elements of the ornamentation and of the dress. Cf. Also § 43.


§ 50. Overlapping. In this § we shall discuss some cases where an object in the background is partly covered by another object which is shown in front of it. The peculiarity of the composition makes it sometimes difficult to restore the portion which is covered; there are even cases where different objects appearing in the background are likely to be confused.

(a) Parasol, tree, and snake are normally shown behind the figure to which they belong so that only the upper portions (roof of the parasol, crown of the tree, hoods of the snake) are fully visible. The lower parts (stick of the parasol, stem of the tree, coils of the snake) are sometimes partly visible: stick (fig. 4) and stem (fig. 53 f.) above the figure and coils on the sides of the figure (fig. 81); sometimes they are completely covered (fig. 86; Sivaramamurti, Pl. XV, C; Sivaramamurti, Pl. III, A). The roof of the parasol and the crown of the tree may even be shown at some distance above the head without any indication of the stick or of the stem (fig. 15). Sometimes it is not even possible to imagine the coils of the snake. Banerjea reproduces an icon from Rajshahi where the body of the figure is set against an opening in the slab (Pl. XLVIII, 4). A sevenfold snake-hood appears above the head of the god but there is no indication of the coils of the snake, neither on the sides of the body nor between the legs. We are hardly supposed to imagine the coils behind one of the legs, and it is also unlikely that the snake-hood ends in a short tail fastened to the backbone (a type of representation which is found at Sāñcī). The snake-hoods without tail can therefore be compared with the detached parasol-roofs and tree-tops.

The overlapping is avoided where the stick or the stem appear to the left or to the right of the figure (fig. 41; Rao, II, I, Pl. LXXVIII). The final portion of the tail of the snake is sometimes shown by the side of the legs of the figure (the central portion between the hoods and the tail being covered by the Jina's body); see photo No. 1682 showing a Pārśvanātha-image as Deogarh.

(b) Sometimes a curious round object appears on the head of Kaumodakī, the personification of Viṣṇu's mace (Sivaramamurti, Pl. XVIII, A-C). Its true character becomes clear in the case of a Viṣṇu-image in the Sāñcī-Museum [1] where a heavy cylindrical object (the mace) is shown behind Kaumodakī. Its top corresponds to the “round object“ of the other three specimens, which has therefore to be explained as the knob of Viṣṇu's mace. This knob was misunderstood by the artist who created the Viṣṇu-image from Bihar (Sivaramamurti, Pl. XVIII, C). He represented the knob as an indistinct round object on Kaumodaki's head and showed the mace to the proper right of the female (and visible in its full length) - the same attribute was rendered twice. - An Anantaśayana-image at Modi [2] shows also nothing but the knob of the mace; it appears on the side of the right upper arm which is bent and supports the head.

(c) The attributes of Anantaśayana can be arranged in three different ways:

  1. They are attached to the āyudha -“puruṣas“ (these include, of course, the female Kaumodakī).
  2. They are lying on the ground to the left and right of the god.
  3. They are carried by Viṣṇu in his hands.

In the first two cases the hands are empty, and this is probably reminiscent of the prototype, the representation of the Buddha's nirvāṇa. Later on the type was brought into agreement with the general iconoplastic convention and the attributes were shown in the hands. Here we are only concerned with two specimens which belong to the first category: the Anantaśayana-panel of the Gupta temple at Deogarh [3] and a later copy of this composition, the Anantaśayana-panel of the Varāha temple at the same place. [4]

The six figures below the panel proper have already been identified as Madhu, Kaitabha, and four āyudha - purusas, but the attributes represented along with the figures were not recognized by the scholars. The figures are (from the proper left to the proper right): Kaumodakī (mace), Sudarśana (cakra), Paficajanya (conch), and Nandaka (sword). The names are also used for the respective objects. On the head of the first figure appears the knob of the mace in the form of an āmalaka. The upper half of the cakra (laid edge - wise and seen from the edge) is seen on the head of the second figure. The third figure carries on his head the round portion of a conch which looks like a part of the head - dress but is on account of its coils better explained as the attribute (cf. Visnu's conch on the Gajendramoksā - panel of the Varāha temple [5]). In all three cases the attribute is not partly covered by the body but it is represented in fragmentary form on the head. This type of representation can probably be derived from “overlapping“, [6]but it is not identical with it. Only the last attribute is rendered in a realistic way: the fourth figure draws with his right hand the sword from its sheath. But the same figure carries a lotus on his head, and this lotus can be taken as Visnu's lotus-attribute. [7]

The four attributes mace, cakra, conch, and lotus which are the standard symbols of the later iconoplastic art appear already in the hands of the Viṣṇu from Taxila (Banerjea, Pl. XXI). That the sword has not the function of an attribute in this case is unlikely (cf. the sword-attribute lying to the right of the Anantaśayana from Aiholi: Stella Kramrisch, The Art of India, Pl. 62). We can therefore quote the fourth figure as an example of “explicit amalgamation“ (one āyudhapurua standing for two attributes).

In the case of the relief on the Varāha temple, the four head-attributes are little more than uṣṇīa-like projections on the heads. Still, the knob of the mace and the coils of the conch can be recognized (the coils are here even more clearly distinguished from the head than in the case of the first relief).

The late Pt. M.S. Vats has noticed in his monograph on the Gupta temple at Deogarh (MASI, 70) the peculiarities of the four head-attri­butes without offering the correct interpretation. He says about the mace:

“ … but unique is the treatment of the hair of Kaumodakī … in so far as her hair is combed back in large tresses and tied first by a string into a top-knot giving an āmalaka-like effect and then arranged at the back in dhammilla fashion“ (p. 37).

He describes the lotus and the cakra as follows:

The place of this tiara [i.e. of the tiara of the first and second warrior] [8] in the case of the third and fifth warriors [Nandaka and Sudarśana] […] is taken by a strong, thick cord which threads in front above the forehead a full-blown flower ornament in the case of the former and by a vertically worn biconical foliated ornament with raised rims at the points where the cord passes through the tubular hole in the latter. […] The last ornament is unique and presumably represented more than a half-disc in plan“ (p. 36).

The object identified by us as a conch-fragment is explained by Pt. Vats as a “peculiar tiara“ (p. 36 ). [9] He identifies the four figures [10] as personifications of the four “principal“ weapons of Viṣṇu, viz. Kaumodakī, Sudarśana, Śārga (bow; in our interpretation the personified conch Pañcajanya), and Nandaka (p. 15). He does, however, not state why figures 2 and 3 should represent Sudarśana and Śārṅga respectively.

(d) An image in the Gwalior Museum (photo No. 716 of the Museum) shows Viṣṇu surrounded by representations of the ten avatāras. Behind the fish (representing Viṣṇu's Matsyāvatāra) there appears a tree, flanked by two standing garland-bearers. A head (with jaṭā) seems to be carved on the stem of the tree; actually this head belongs to an ekamukhaliga placed before the stem so that only the crown of the tree remains visible. This interpretation is supported by two parallels. A plain liṅga between two worshippers appears behind the fish on a Vāmanāvatāra-image in the Gwalior Museum (Photo No. 3185). And a slab in the Bikaner Museum shows an ekamukhaliṅga between two human figures and under a “canopy“ (H. Goetz, The Art and Architecture of Bikaner State, Oxford 1950, Fig. 6). Here the lower part is broken, but it can be surmised that originally a fish was carved on the bottom of the panel.

(e) It is not always clear whether an element is hidden from view or non - existent. A relief on a pedestal at Sārnāth shows a cakra which is placed on (or situated to the rear of) a lotus. [11] In the case of a pedestal at Kārlī it is the other way round: a lotus is placed on (or is situated to the rear of) a cakra. [12] We do not know whether we have to imagine, in the first case behind the lotus-stalk a pillar to carry the cakra, and in the second case behind the pillar with the cakra a stalk to carry the lotus. Probably the second object has to be imagined in both reliefs.

(f) Overlapping is not always due to the fact that too many objects are arranged on the vertical middle-axis of the panel. If ascetics are represented in rows it is the practice to show between each of two complete figures a third one in such a way that only its head becomes visible above the shoulders of the other two. [13] If the representation is careless and the state of preservation bad, one cannot distinguish between such heads and the leaves (indication of the sacred tree) as they often appear between two figures.

The four Ṛṣis represented behind Viṣṇu's fish-avatāra and the Navagrahas represented below the Jina are sometimes reduced to mere heads. For the Ṛṣis compare Fig. 36 with Fig. 37, for the Navagrahas compare in Lalit Kalā 1/2 (p. 55 ff.) Figs. 8, 9,10,18, 19 with Figs. 11-14. Strictly speaking the term overlapping applies only to the case of the Ṛṣis, but practically both cases are closely related. - Although the left-most figure in Fig. 37 appears to be bearded, it is doubtful whether the artist intended to show Ṛṣis. But the two big slabs found at Garhwā (Allahabad Dt.) make it clear that the four male figures behind the fish were originally Ṛṣis (Jas. Burgess, The Ancient Monuments … of India, Pt. II, Pl. 244 f.). One of the slabs shows four Ṛṣis engaged in churning the ocean (Kūrmāvatāra), and the other depicts in a similar composition four Ṛṣis standing behind a fish (Matsyāvatāra). The four Ṛṣis behind the fish may of course represent the seven Ṛṣis alluded to in one version of the myth (Rao I, I, p. 126), but even this is quite uncertain. The substitution of Ṛṣis for the gods and Asuras in the Kūrmāvatāra has hardly any textual basis. Only the Ṛṣis represented at Udaygiri (along with the hybrid Varāha) and on the bodies of theriomorph Varāhas are the same as those mentioned in the purāṇa. Cf. § 28.


§ 50a. Substitution as an instrument of variation. Substitution as described in § 5 means that different compositions follow the same scheme with the result that an element A of one composition corresponds (in place and form) to an element B of the other composition. Here the general scheme determines the place and the form of the elements but not their selection.

In other cases, an element is introduced as a substitute for a similar element simply because the artist wanted to relieve the monotony created by the repetition of the same iconographic type. We find for example on the outer walls of the Telī-kā-mandir an iconographic type with abhayamudrā or rosary or lotus as attributes of the proper right hand (and with trident or mace in the proper left). [14] The distinction of the first three attributes is difficult because of the similar position of the hand in all three cases and because of the inconspicuous form of the rosary and the lotus. Here substitution is, in the first place, not a peculiar treatment of different elements (A, B) which are determined by the respective motifs, but a selection of formally related elements for the sake of variation and without regard for the meaning.

The examples of § 7 have been collected without respect to the distinction between substitution of the first type (= stereotype representation; §§ 6 and 13) and substitution of the second type (= selection).

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK