Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part II, 4]

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


XI. Association, Conventionalism and Variation

§ 69. Our classification was descriptive and did not take into account the factors which produce the phenomena. We suggest that three factors should be distinguished.

  1. Association. Association we call the tendency to connect different ideas or forms. [1] It should be understood in a positive sense (relating different things intentionally) and in a negative sense (not preventing the reduction of the distinctions). Association in the negative sense is found in art only.
  2. Conventionalism. We speak of Conventionalism where the same “type“ is used for different motifs, which may be represented independently (on differ­ent monuments) or collectively (on one and the same piece or on one and the same part of a structure). The ubiquity of certain standard - elements (tree, lotus, cakra, etc.) can also be regarded as conventionalism.
  3. Variation. Variation should here be understood as a tendency towards modification of the arrangement, size, number, and shape of the elements. This type of variation changes the iconography radically, while other variations (concerning the cast of the drapery, the ponderation, etc.) have no effect upon the characterization of the figures. Variation (as we take it) causes dissimilation as well as assimilation; assimilation through variation is, however, accidental.

It may be asked how far the three factors overlap each other, how far they can be called typically Indian, and how they are correlated with stereotype representation, amalgamation, and multiplication. It is not possible to answer all these questions, but we would like to demonstrate association, conventionalism, and variation with the help of simple examples. The one mentioned in (b) is taken from the Tell-kā-mandir and figured already as our example for assimilation (which is a descriptive category).


§ 70.

  1. Conventionalism involves a mere “loss of individuality“. Two forms which stand for different motifs follow the same type. Here we have to quote as examples the Jina- and Cakravartin-images mentioned in the Introduction.
  2. Association involves a “loss of individuality” and a “loss of identity“. Besides the regular rendering of a motif we find an irregular form; this irregular form is more similar to forms which stand for a different motif than to the other forms which stand for the same motif. The trident of fig. 18 (trident II) is more different from the trident of fig. 91 (trident I) than from the spear of fig. 17. Therefore the loss of individuality (trident II: spear) is accompanied by a loss of identity (trident I: trident II). The similar has become dissimilar and the dissimilar similar. The “oppositions“ (to use the term of the linguists) are not reduced as in (a) but distorted.
  3. Variation involves a “loss of identity which may be accompanied by a loss of individuality“. The scarfs of figs. 28 and 30 are completely different from the normal rendering and resemble certain vegetable objects (figs. 27 and 29).

To quote figs. 17-18 as examples of conventionalism is not possible because different forms of the trident (fig. 91) appear in the same series of wall-figures. Again we cannot quote figs. 18 and 91 as examples of variation because the similarity between figs. 18 and 17 is hardly accidental. - A second example of association is furnished by fig. 90 (also on the Telī-kā-mandir). The trident is partly transformed into a vegetable object. - In our drawings, the regular form (“trident I“ in the above example) has nowhere been reproduced, the only exception being fig. 91.


§ 71. In the last two §§ of this chapter we shall give a few examples of variation of the size and variation of the number.

Variation of the size. The three longish objects of different size which we have reproduced in figs. 1-3 are all flowers of the same type, called nīlotpala in iconographic terminology. [2] The three figures which carry the nīlotpala are Jain; their second hand-attribute is a chowrie (fig. 1), a book (fig. 2), and the varadamudrā (fig. 3). See also § 44 on the last figure, the “Jain Tārā“.

Figs. 4-5 show two forms of the triple parasol as it appears almost invariably above the head of the Jina. In the first case the roofs are only small offsets of the parasol-stick (stress on the vertical dimension), while in the second case the stick is not indicated and the roofs project beyond the head (stress on the horizontal dimension).

Figs. 6-7 show the makara as vāhana of Gagādevī. The first specimen is late medieval, the second specimen belongs to the post-Gupta period. In the course of time the vāhanas of the river-goddesses and of other deities became smaller and smaller; in the late medieval period the representation of the makara and the tortoise on the lower door-jambs was no longer common practice. But even from that period we meet occasionally with vāhanas of big size (Yamunā on a big tortoise; slab built in the west-side of the great wall at Deogarh: photo No. 1696).


§ 72. Variation of the number. Figs. 11-13 demonstrate duplication: in the first case a lotus-seat which is formed by two lotuses (cf. also § 60 on viśvapadma), in the second case a lotus with twofold calyx, and in the last case a thunderbolt with double set of prongs.

Figs. 8-10 show a triple noose, [3] a triple lotus (three flowers, not one flower and two buds as usual), and a triple snake. A triple lotus (three flowers placed one upon the other) which serves as a pedestal for a dancing Sarasvatī can be seen at Halebid (Rao, I, II, Pl. CXVI).

Sometimes the triple lotus of fig. 9 occurs side by side with the simple lotus, and the triple snake of fig. 10 side by side with the simple snake. The triple snake is no doubt derived from the many-headed theriomorph nāgas; but in the system of medieval iconography it is a variant of the simple snake of the Śiva iconography.

Share this page on:



Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK