Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part II, 1]

Posted: 16.01.2012
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 II: The Theory


VIII. Stereotype Representation, Amalgamation and Multiplication

§ 51. The three terms which form the title of this chapter have been used repeatedly in the article, but except for a few remarks in the Introduction (on stereotype representation and amalgamation) and in § 47 (on multiplication) no attempt has been made to render them precise.

(a) By stereotype representation we mean that two or more pieces (i.e. concrete forms or simply “forms“) follow the same pattern (= abstract form or “type“). This kind of relation is demonstrated by figs. 54/53 (Nara-Nārayaṇa at Deogarh - Buddha with Ārāa Kālāpa from Pagan). The word “type“ can, of course, denote a close relationship between two or more out of several forms which represent the same motif, but here we are only interested in the fact that forms which represent different motifs follow the same type. Chapters I-II deal with stereotype representation in its narrower sense, chapters III-IV and §§ 48-50 of chapter VII with stereotype representation in its wider sense.

(b) By amalgamation we mean that two “forms“ are contaminated, e.g. two different hair-dresses (curls and jaṭā) in fig. 69. Again, such amalgams are relevant only in so far as the forms contaminated represent different motifs. See chapters V-VI (amalgamation in its narrower sense) and § 48 of chapter VII (amalgamation in its wider sense).

(c) If taken in its narrower sense, multiplication means that a person (or thing) gives rise to the formation of a type so that he or she (it) becomes a member of a plurality of identical persons (things): e.g. § 47 No. 1. In its wider sense, multiplication simply means that a person (thing) gives rise to the formation of one or more similar or identical replicas: e.g. § 47 No. 7. See §§ 40-47 of chapter VII.


§ 52. It would be easy to add further definitions to this rough description of the main categories. We could discuss in detail the classification and the measure of overlapping of the categories (and subcategories). We could compare the different forms of similarity (in the case of stereotype representation, relationship between different forms following the same type; in the case of amalgamation, relationship between the amalgam and its constituents). We could distinguish between transformations within the same system (multiplication of the Jina: § 47 Nos. 1-2) and transformations outside the system (multiplication of Viṣṇu: § 47 Nos. 5 and 7).

We could show how the character of the discrepancies between monuments and texts differs in each category and subcategory (see § 57 below). We could distinguish between categories (or subcategories) where the transformations go mostly to the credit of the artist (e.g. assimilation) and others where the transformations are mostly the work of theologians (multiplication). Last but not least, it would be worthwhile to discuss how far the same categories can be used in iconography and in literature. [1] But since it is the main object of the article to make known the phenomena we cannot insist on these purely theoretical questions. However some mention about the overlapping of the categories seems to be unavoidable (§ 53). So much more so as the mutual overlapping of the phenomena is responsible for the fact that we are to discuss in one and the same article transformations which, at first sight, have nothing in common.


§ 53. While comparing stereotype representation and amalgamation on the one hand with multiplication on the other we can distinguish between pure cases of stereotype representation (a), pure cases of amalgamation (b), pure cases of multiplication (c), and mixed cases (multiplication plus amalgamation: d).

  1. Example for figures: Nara-Nārayaṇa - Buddha and Ārāḍa Kālāpa (figs. 53 f.). Example for attributes: trident-spear (figs. 17 f.).
  2. Example for figures: Hari-Hara (§ 23). Example for attributes: vajraghaṇṭa (§ 35).
  3. Example for figures: representations of the 24 Jinas (chovīsī,). Example for attributes: Saptamātṛkās at Kumbhakoam (§ 42). See § 47.
  4. Example for figures: Varāha and other avatāras of Visnu with Krsna's cakra etc. Example for attributes: Saptamātrkās at Belur (§ 43). See § 47 end.


§ 54. We do not claim that our observations are indispensable for the work of identification. Misinterpretations which did occur in the early days of Indian archaeology have generally been corrected by now, and those which remain cannot necessarily be removed with the help of our principles. Moreover the article deals with similarities in general and not only with those which may give rise to misunderstandings. What we wanted to show is the coordination of the forms.

Our method is therefore contrary to the common approach which puts the stress on identifications. Interrelation of forms expressing different ideas means that identifications are of little or no value. It means that the form is primarily determined by other forms and that the motif is no longer the decisive factor. See also § 46.

We are also of opinion that the symbolic aspect of Indian iconoplastic art should not be overestimated. Due to the many transformations the symbolic character of the elements has largely disappeared. It is no doubt possible that mythology changes and that the iconographic patterns are changed accordingly. But if iconographic changes are introduced without regard for mythological facts we can no longer call the iconographic elements “symbolic“. If the thunderbolt of some ancient storm-god appears in the hand of a goddess, we may identify her on account of this attribute (provided such a deity exists in the iconographic lists); but we can no longer call the thunderbolt a symbol since the relevant goddess is no longer associated with storm and thunder. The attribute does not indicate the character or the deeds of a well-defined deity but is part of the material which constitutes the figure. - Our criticism is of course directed against symbolic interpretation in the narrower sense. If we take the word in its wider sense we can call every identifying element - however artificial its connection with the other constituents of the figure - “symbolic“.


§ 55. We shall not try to ascertain the regional and chronological distribution of any of the transformations. Their intensity varied in the course of time, and differences may also exist between the “northern style“ and the “southern style“, between Hindu, Jain, and Mahāyāna art (see also the end of Appendix A). Still we think that the transformations are best studied in the medieval period and we have therefore largely quoted specimens of that time. That most of the examples are taken from Central India has little effect on our conclusions; only a few minor features may be restricted to that area.


§ 56. The transformations which are discussed in this article have been noticed repeatedly by scholars. Albert Grünwedel says with reference to Gandhāra art:

It is therefore evident that we have always to study the development of the types and that these types - alone or in the form of compositions - can be used for the representation of different persons and different events.“ (op. cit., p. 90; the sentence is spaced in the original text).

On p. 116 of the same work we read:

“ … besides slabs where the figures are numerous, a scriptio plena as one might say, there is often found a defectiva which retains the main design but curtails the rest, thus frequently omitting just what is most important“.

Jeannine Auboyer says on p. 21 of her book Arts et styles de l'Inde (Paris 1951):

Here too [i.e. in symbolism; amalgamation of icons had been discussed in the preceding paragraph], a unification takes place, a change from plurality to unity; many symbols, all rendered in plastic form, remould each other and become similar (beaucoup de symboles … se recoupent et s'égalent les uns aux autres) … “.

Syncretism of icons has attracted the attention of scholars since the earliest days of Indology (see A. Foucher, Etude sur l'iconographie Bouddhique de l'Inde, Paris 1900, p. 172 ff.). Recently the subject has received systematic treatment on pp. 540 ff. of Jitendra Nath Banerjea's work on The Development of Hindu Iconography.

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK