Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part II, 3]

Posted: 16.01.2012
Updated on: 19.01.2012


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


X. Iconography

§ 63. In Indian archaeology, “iconography“ is normally understood as the science of the attributes of the gods or as the system of these attributes. This definition is suited to our present purpose; provided “attribute“ denotes every element which distinguishes, in a particular case, one figure (or impersonal icon) from another, or one class of persons from another. Iconography shall be understood as a symbolical system of communication. By the word “symbolical“ we exclude from the definition epic compositions, and by the word “communication“ we exclude decorative compositions (cf. the Introduction).

Iconographic“ differences are such as involve a difference in the identity of the figures on which they appear. The presence or absence of long hair on the head of a Jina implies that either the first Jina Ṛṣabha (characterized by long hair) or any of the other twenty-three Jinas (characterized by short curls) is meant. The difference in the representation or the elements which make up the difference can, therefore, be called “iconographic“.

Non-iconographic“ is the difference between a cakra and a lotus if these elements are represented beneath different Jina figures (cf. for example the slab with 24 Jinas described in § 6). Each of the 24 Jinas may be provided with a cakra or with a lotus, [1] and therefore the two elements are neutral with respect to the distinction of the individual Jinas.

On the other hand a lotus or a cakra help to distinguish a Jina or a Buddha from such figures where these elements are not found in this form (cf. § 31). Lotus and cakra can therefore be called “iconographic“ with respect to this general difference.


§ 64. Occasionally we have used the adjective “iconographic“ for figures with name and individuality (Viṣṇu, Mahāvīra, etc.) in order to distinguish them from decorative figures like śālābhañjikās etc. In this case the term qualifies the figure itself: it refers to the existence of individuality, not to its indication by attributes.

Iconography deals with all those elements which are relevant to the distinction of the figures (e.g. lotus and cakra). Whether these elements are “iconographic“ in a particular case can only be said after due consideration. Only those parts of the composition which are according to normal usage never “iconographic“, need not be taken into account. This is true for example of the hybrid animals or animal protomes which form part of the throne in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist iconography.


§ 65. Indian iconography has been described as a symbolical system of communication, and (as indicated in the title) we have undertaken to examine this system. On the other hand we have come to the conclusion that the form (represented by the monuments) as well as the contents (represented by the texts) are subject to change. A reduction of distinctions takes place in more or less the same form on both sides. But how can we examine distinction in a communicative system if there is not even adequate distinction in the contents to be communicated? We admit that there might have been periods where speculation and artistic representation were so instable and amorphous (Tantrism!) that one could not speak of “correct“ or “incorrect“ renderings of a motif. But normally the transformations were counteracted in art as well as in literature by scholastic tendencies which preserved the material from complete dissolution. A critical survey of the iconography of the monuments is therefore not impossible.


§ 66. We have stressed the fact that artistic and literary transformations are of the same type so that it often becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. This would not be true if it could be shown that the artistic transformations met aesthetic requirements. But there can be little doubt that Indian art is ancilla theologiae and that the artists are in principle loyal to the dogma. We often observe that the minutest details are rendered carefully for the sake of dogmatic correctness - even at the risk of marring the beauty of the composition. At the same time many changes are introduced which offer no aesthetic advantage and which are comparable to the literary transformations. It is therefore on the whole more appropriate here to call the artists the colleagues of the theologians than to construe an antagonism between aesthetics and dogmatics. This opinion is midway between the two extreme views of those who regard the artist as a mere copyist (translating mythology into stone) and of those who consider him a rebel who uses mythology as suitable material but feels no obligation to represent it correctly.

It is also not possible to explain away the artistic transformations as resulting from ignorance. We admit that in the case of late medieval and modern art it may become difficult to decide whether an incorrect representation reflects sheer ignorance or a particular type of transformation. But in earlier times the artists must have been familiar with the iconographic tradition.


§ 67. Forms which migrate from one country (culture) to another are likely to be used for more than one motif. But such changes in the meaning do not disarrange the various iconographic systems to which the forms belong. Forms which are similar or identical although they express different ideas cannot be confused as long as they belong to different iconographic systems. The systems are only affected by internal changes. In fact, our enquiry was only concerned with changes of this second type (the category may be stereotype representation or amalgamation), and the examples have been taken from Indian art only. [2] As a rule we have not even compared pieces belonging to different periods and provinces.

It can, however, be argued that many contaminations within the domain of Indian iconography are due to the coexistence of the three religions, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and that an exchange between Hindu and Jain iconography is, in principle, not different from contaminations between Indian and Greek iconography. But every student of Indian religion will admit that this is not so. The three pantheons of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism do not exclude each other in a strict sense; they rather exist simultaneously. Contaminations between Hindu and Jain gods are therefore not less astonishing and not less confusing than contaminations between different Hindu gods. - What we would call “migration of forms“ is demonstrated by figs. 55 - 58. The first and the last form (trimūrti and caturmukhaliṅga) are both of Indian origin; but the other two (temple-tower with four human masks in Kamboja and stūpa with the eyes of the Ādibuddha in Nepāl) appear each in a changed iconographic context. [3]


§ 68. In our study similarities of composition and scaling have been discussed only with respect to the “attribute type“ and the “panel-type“ which are both extreme cases of stereotyping. It is the art-historian rather than the student of iconography who has to investigate similarities of this kind. The two slabs of figs. 53-54, for example, are very similar in their composition. But although we referred to them in order to demonstrate the difference between stereotype representation and amalgamation we would not call them standard-examples for stereotype representation in iconography. Leaving aside several iconographic elements which are common to both pieces (the trees etc.) the characterization of the two groups is completely different.

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK