(‘Science of preparing Icons or Images,’ ‘Iconography’)


Whether it is the fear of the unknown, or the mystery of death, especially of one’s parents and ancestors, or, an admiration for the great heroes who had sacrificed their lives for a cause dear to their heart, worshipping some sort of symbols and icons in their honour, is an established fact in the history of human civilisation. Devastating diseases or the furies of nature too might have contributed to the concept of some controlling forces being deified and appeased. Such ‘gods’ could have been represented originally by heaps of stones or pillars or even some crude figures.

Thus might have originated the science of iconography, called ‘Mūrtiśilpa-śāstra’ in Hinduism.

Vedic Gods

Though the gods and godlings of popular Hinduism of the masses might have originated thus, the Vedic deities of the classes were not. If the Vedas, the basic scriptures of Hinduism, describe their gods in a particular way, they have to be accepted unquestioningly since they are considered as the revealed word of God Himself, through the great ṛṣis, the sages renowned for their mystical experiences. There is nothing odd or fantastic in this belief since many a world-religion too claims the same infallible divinity for its scripture.

The gods of the Vedas have wonderful forms and their own peculiar characteris-tics. However, their worship through their images—as we have today of the deities like Śiva, Devī, or Viṣṇu—was not, probably, in vogue.

Vedic Literature on Image Worship

Anyway, there is enough evidence to believe that the science of mūrtiśilpa or iconography did exist even in the Vedic period. The beautiful description of the bodies, limbs and weapons of the gods (vide Ṛgveda 8.29) and the clear mention of the sage Tvaṣṭā as a devaśilpi (an architect of the gods) should lead us to the conclusion that there must have existed competent sculptors who could fashion the icons out of solid physical materials as per the visions of the sages.

The Vājasaneyī Saṁhitā (1.15.16) refers to the Sun as ‘hiraṇyapāṇi’ (‘one with a golden hand’). The Kāṭhaka Saṁhitā (22.11) refers to a sage Devala who lived by preparing images. While the Sāmaveda (1.9.5) refers to an image, there is a reference to a temple in the Atharva-veda (2.2.2). Other Vedic works like the Ṣaḍviṁśa Brāhmaṇa (5.10), Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and Taittirīya Āraṇyaka refer not only to the images of gods but also to the sculptors like Tvaṣṭā.

By the time of the śrautasūtras and the gṛhyasūtras, worship of deities through images in temples seems to have been fairly well-established (vide Bodhāyana Gṛhyasūtras 3.7).

Evolution of Icons

Apart from the images of various gods, honouring or worshipping several icons and symbols like the śivaliṅga, the śrīcakra, various yantras as also kumbhas (pots filled with water) gradually appeared in the Hindu religious firmament over the centuries. Starting of various sects and cults by new religious leaders, and their diffusion, as also the growth of the āgamas and tantras may have been an important factor in this development. This naturally gave a fillip to the old science of mūrti-śilpaśāstra or Hindu Iconography.

Literature on Iconography

With the popularity and evolution of image worship, voluminous literature on this science and art grew over the years. Some of the more important works are:

  • Bodhāyana Gṛhyasūtras
  • Bṛhatsaṁhitā
  • Kāraṇāgama
  • Mānasāra
  • Mayamata
  • Śilparatna
  • Śilpasaṅgraha
  • Śilpasāra
  • Śukranītisāra
  • Suprabhedāgama
  • Vaikhānasāgama
  • Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa

Images for Worship—Public and Private

Though the establishment of images in temples and their worship became common, it had its effect on the devotees visiting the temples, gradually inducing them to have private shrines in their homes and have images there for worship. The general rule is that these images should be small in size, of the size of the thumb of the worshipper.

The images in the temples can, of course, be of any size; but, should be big enough to be seen by a large number of devotees.

Materials for Making the Images

The images fixed permanently in the temples—called ‘acala’ or ‘dhruvabera’—are made of stones like granite, soapstone or marble. The other images like utsava-mūrtis (processional images) or the ones worshipped at home, are made of metal, precious stones, wood or clay. Though images are sometimes prepared out of ivory also, they are not considered as fit for worship. Metal images, made of silver or gold or pañcaloha (alloy of five metals) are most common.

Wooden images are seen only in two temples: the Jagannātha temple at Purī (in Orissa) and the Trivikrama temple at Tirukkoilūr (in Tamil Nadu).

Dhruvabera Images

The permanently fixed images—called dhruvabera or acala—are of three types: the sthānaka (in the standing posture); the āsīna (in the sitting posture); and the śayāna (in the reclining posture).

The images of most of the gods and goddesses in the temples are of the first type.

Many images of the Devī, the images of Gaṇapati and Narasiṁha are of the second type.

Only the images of Viṣṇu like those of Padmanābha and Raṅganātha are of the last type.

According to another classification, the dhruvaberas can be of two types: ugra (fierce) and śānta (serene). Certain aspects of the Devī like Kālī, Narasiṁha, Paraśu-rāma and Gajahā (Śiva) belong to the former group. Temples of these deities are, normally, built outside the village or the town. All other images which do not exhibit the fierce aspect, are classed among the latter group.

Vāhanas or Mounts

Almost all the major deities of Hinduism are also associated with their vāhanas (mounts or carrier-vehicles). For instance, if Viṣṇu has Garuḍa (eagle) as his vāhana, Śiva has his Nandi (bull) to ride. Haṁsa (swan) for the fourfaced Brahmā, Siṁha (lion) for Devī (Durgā), Mūṣaka (rat) for Gaṇapati and Mayūra (peacock) for Subrahmaṇya are other examples.

The relation of a specific vāhana to a specific deity is often based on mythological legends.

Iconographically, these vāhanas are merely indicated on the pedestal of the image. Sometimes, they may be independently sculptured and installed in front of the main image.

During festivals, the utsavamūrtis may be carried on these vāhanas, which are separately prepared and housed in their own sheds in temples.

Sculpturing of the Images—The Tālamāna System

Since Śivaliṅgas and images of mātṛdevatās (mother-goddesses) have been unearthed in the Indus Valley Civilisation, one can surmise that Hindu Iconography has been an ancient science which existed even as early as 3000 B. C.

Hinduism considers, as in other fields of life, the sculpturing of images, especially of gods and goddesses, as a sacred religious act. Hence, the śilpi or the sculptor, is expected to bind himself with dīkṣā or initiation and certain vows.

Unlike the human beings who can be seen and closely observed by the sculptor at the time of sculpturing the image, the gods are invisible to the physical eyes. Hence, the one and only source and support for his work of art is the dhyānaśloka (verse describing the features of the deity) of that particular deity. These dhyāna-ślokas describe the features as revealed in the mystic vision of the ṛṣi to whom the revelation came. That is why the sculptor is commanded by the śāstras to lead a well-regulated and pure life as per the prescribed norms (the same as dīkṣā), repeat the dhyāna-śloka mentally as much as possible and pray to the deity to reveal his/her form. Gradually the revelation comes. The form seen in such revelations is called ‘mantra-mūrti’. It is this form that the sculptor ultimately reproduces outside in stone or other material.

This dīkṣā is of two types: ekāṇḍa and pakṣa. The former applies to such cases where the sculptor works continuously until the image is completed. When that is not possible, and the work has to be done intermittently, the latter mode is adopted. However, even in the latter case, mental devotion and seriousness of purpose have to be kept up.

When all the rules pertaining to dīkṣā are meticulously observed, the sculptor will succeed in infilling the image with a subtle power of life as it were.

The most important aspect of sculpturing an image is a thorough knowledge of pratimā-māna-lakṣaṇa (the special characteristics and relative measurements of an image—or iconometry). A concept basic to this science of measurement or iconometry is that the face of a human being (from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin) is almost of the same length as that of the palm of that person (from the top of the middle finger to the base of the palm, just above the wrist). This is technically called ‘tāla’. This tāla is subdivided into 12 equal parts, each such part being named ‘aṅgula.’

All the parts of the image to be sculptured are expressed in terms of this tāla and aṅgula. Hence the name ‘Tālamāna System’.

While describing the mānas or the dimensions of an image, some works like the Mānasāra (55.9) use the following technical terms: pramāṇa (breadth); parimāṇa (circumference); lambamāna (measurement taken along the plumbline); unmāna (thickness or diameter) and upamāna (interspaces).

The well-known work Bṛhatsaṁhitā (68.7) classifies the human beings into five types according to their heights. Out of these only the first known as ‘haṁsa’ and the last as ‘mālavya’ are important. The height of haṁsa is 96 aṅgulas (or aṣṭatāla) and that of mālavya 108 aṅgulas (or navatāla).

The Tālamāna System prescribes sixteen varieties of tālas for different types of beings including animals, goblins and demons. Out of these only a few, the more important ones, may be described:

  1. Ekatāla (one tāla): lion’s head (in motifs); Kūrma or Tortoise incarnation of Viṣṇu.
  2. Dvitāla (two tālas): Matsya or Fish-incarnation of Viṣṇu.
  3. Tritāla (three tālas): bhūtas or goblins, attendants of Śiva.
  4. Pañcatāla (five tālas): boys; hunchbacks; Gaṇapati; Vāmana.
  5. Ṣaṭtāla (six tālas): Gaṇeśa; Varāha; Kumāra (Subrah-maṇya).
  6. Aṣṭatāla (eight tālas): sages; human beings (both male and female).
  7. Navatāla (nine tālas): gods like Indra and asuras or demons.
  8. Daśatāla (ten tālas): Aṣṭa-dikpālakas (eight guardian deities of the quarters); the twelve Ādityas; the eleven Rudras; goddesses like Lakṣmī and Pārvatī; the trinity, viz., Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva.

According to another version, all human beings should be represented in saptatāla (seven tālas), goddesses in aṣṭatāla (eight tālas) and gods in navatāla (nine tālas).

Tālas greater than this (eleven to sixteen) are to be used for deities like Narasiṁha, Skanda and Hanumān, goddesses like Caṇḍī, wicked giants and some fierce goddesses as also great dānavas like Mahiṣāsura and Rāvaṇa.

One point has to be specially noted here. Even though the various treatises on Hindu Iconography give general rules, patterns and directions, the sculptor still has plenty of freedom either regarding the depicting of the facial features or the ornaments or dresses and implements. That is why any two images of the same god in the same posture sculptured by two different artisans—say, Gaṇapati—will not be absolutely identical !

Kirīṭas, Mudrās and Āyudhas

Another factor which embellishes images is the way kirīṭas (crowns and hair-dos), mudrās (poses of arms and hands) as also the āyudhas (weapons, implements and other objects held in the hand) are sculptured.

The kirīṭas, shown on the heads of images of Viṣṇu as also of kings, are generally simple but tall, the top being either flat or capped with a jewel.

The karaṇḍamakuṭa is a variation of the kirīṭa, less in height and appears more like a vessel with a wide mouth. There are stripes of decreasing diameters. Such crowns are generally shown on the heads of the images of goddesses.

The jaṭāmukuṭa is the hair itself arranged in the fashion of a crown. Images of Śiva are shown with this type of crown.

Mudrās are poses of fingers or of hands expressing a variety of sentiments. It is quite likely that the śilpaśāstra (icono-graphy) texts have borrowed the various mudrās from the texts of nāṭyaśāstra or dancing.

These mudrās may be saṁyukta (poses with both hands joined) or asaṁyukta (poses with one hand only). The total number of the mudrās varies from 35 to 39. However only 8 to 10 mudrās are most commonly used. Some of them are: abhayamudrā (assuring protection), varadamudrā (offering boons), vyākhyānamudrā (teaching) and namaskāramudrā (obeisance).

Though the word ‘āyudha’ means a weapon, it is used in the works of iconography, in a more technical sense indicating anything held in the hand.

The following are some of the āyudhas or weapons shown in the hands of the deities: triśūla (trident); śūla (spear); vajra (thunderbolt); aṅkuśa (goad); pāśa (noose); cakra (discus); dhanus and bāṇa (bow and arrow); khaḍga (sword) and kheṭaka (shield); gadā (mace) and so on.

Other objects are: ḍamaru (small hand-drum); darpaṇa (mirror); kamaṇḍalu (water-pot); pustaka (book); akṣamālā (rosary); ghaṇṭā (bell); khaṭvāṅga (magical wand); padma (lotus); śaṅkha (conch); modaka (a kind of sweet); dālima (pomegranate); ikṣu (sugarcane); bhagnadanta (broken tusk); cintāmaṇi (wish-yielding gem); sruk (ladle); pānapātra (vessel for drinking) and so on.

Most often, these weapons, implements and objects, can indicate which deity the icon represents, since they are invariably associated with that deity. For instance: Śiva with triśūla and ḍamaru; Sarasvatī with pustaka and akṣamālā; Gaṇapati with bhagnadanta and modaka; Lakṣmī with padma; Brahmā with kamaṇḍalu; Viṣṇu with śaṅkha and cakra; Skanda (Subrahmaṇya) with śūla; Balarāma with hala (plough) and so on.

One more feature that is to be noticed in the sculptured images is the number of heads and arms. Most of the gods have four arms. Goddesses like Durgā have eight or ten or even eighteen arms. If Brahmā, the creator is shown with four heads, Śiva is, sometimes (as pañcānana), sculptured with five and Ṣaṇmukha (as the very name indicates) with six.

Though, on the face of it, these images may appear queer or even grotesque, they are highly symbolic, indicating supreme power or supreme-intelligence. If the national flag of a country can reflect the past glories and present aspirations of the people of that country or a cross, the supreme sacrifice of Christ for the good of mankind, why not concede that these images also can stand for the supreme power and intelligence of the Supreme Lord in that form?

Idolatry and Image-Worship

This naturally takes us to the topic of image-worship which is often dubbed as idolatry by self-proclaimed iconoclasts, forgetting that they too are practising their own brand of the same!

No Hindu ever worships an image or prays to it believing that itself to be God or the deity! His prayers are addressed to God Himself, the image serving only as an aid to his imagining the Divine Presence within himself. Some of the scriptures declare that the worship of images in only the kindergarten of religion and urge the votaries to gradually rise to the level where they can feel the Divine within oneself and also see him in all.

However, there is also another view expressed by the purāṇas, the āgamas and the tantras. According to this, when an image is prepared strictly as per the dictates of the scriptures, and is properly consecrated, it becomes ‘alive’ as it were, radiating the subtle presence of the deity in it. It is akin to an electric bulb start burning as soon as the line is connected to the source of electrical energy. If this view is accepted—as felt by many a great mystic and saint while visiting such temples where the images have been properly installed and consecrated—then, the worship offered even to such a physical image is accepted by the deity residing in it.

Other Related Rites

Some of the more important rites and rituals to be conducted before the image is deemed fit for worshipping in the temple are: jalādhivāsa (keeping the image immersed in water for 3 days); dhānyādhivāsa (putting the image for rest on grains for another 3 days); śayyādhi-vāsa (making the image lie down on a specially prepared bed for 3 more days); netronmīlana (‘opening’ the eyes of the image by marking the pupils of the eyeballs with a golden needle); aṣṭabandha (adhesive paste of eight substances like lac and perfume, spread at the place where the image is to be fixed) and prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā (the ceremony for infusing the life-force of the deity).

It may also be mentioned here, though in passing, that the dimensions of a temple, especially the garbhagṛha or the sanctum, are closely inter-related with the height of the image. Works like the Mānasāra and the Bṛhatsaṁhitā give many details regarding the construction of temples.

Four Styles of Hindu Iconography

Right from the period of Indus Valley Civilisation, Hindu Iconography has been continuously growing and evolving. Experts in its historical evolution have recognised four distinct styles in it. They may be listed as follows: 1) The Madhurā style; 2) The early Cāḷukya and the Pallava styles; 3) The later Cāḷukya and the Hoysaḷa styles; and 4) the styles developed in Bengal, Assam and Orissa.

In the first two styles, simplicity and naturalness are evident. The third is characterised by heavy ornamentation and finesse of sculpturing. The last strikes the viewers with round faces, large fish-shaped eyes, wide foreheads and thin lips.


Every science and art of the Hindus, even if they appear to be secular in character, are basically related to the spirit, either as its expression or as an attempt at leading to it. Mūrtiśilpaśāstra or the science of images—iconography—is no exception. More than the external beauty, it is the feeling of devotion that an image arouses in the minds of the votaries that is important.

A beautiful image can rouse our admiration. If the image has the likeness of the deity revealed to a ṛṣi (mystic, sage) and is further consecrated ceremonially by proper religious rites prescribed in the scriptures, its power to awaken our innate divinity will be tangibly felt. Further, visits of saints (as part of their pilgrimage to holy places) will enhance this power to such an extent that these temples and images will become an unfailing source of inspiration for generations.

If God does not dwell in such images, where else will he?