Distinction in Indian Iconography [Appendix A]

Published: 27.01.2012

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

Appendix A: Elements of the theological systems [1]

Avatāra [2]

Series of incarnations of Viṣṇu. The number of incarnations included in the series varies; most popular is the following set of ten: Matsya (fish), Kūrma (tortoise), Varāha (boar), Narasiṁha (man-lion), Trivikrama, Paraśurāma, Rāghavarāma, Kṛṣṇa, Buddha, Kalkin (yet to come). Matsya, Kūrma, and Varāha can be represented in theriomorph or in hybrid form. The article mentions two avatāras which are not contained in this list: the Varadarājāvatāra (Viṣṇu comes as Varadarāja to the rescue of an elephant, and this act is called gajendramokṣā, "liberation of the elephant") and the avatāra as Nara and Nārāyaa.


Personification of Viṣṇu's weapon (or attribute in general). The āyudhapuruṣas appear singly, in pairs or grouped. They include Kaumodakī, Sudarśana (= Cakrapurua), etc. See § 50c.


Series of twelve mythical emperors, beginning with Bharata.


We have mentioned in the text Hiraṇyakaśipu (disembowelled by Narasiṁha), Anāhakāsura (slain by Śiva), Gajāsura (elephant; slain by Śiva), Mahiāsura (buffalo; slain by Durgā who is in this connection called Mahiṣāsuramardinī), Rāvaṇa (humiliated by Śiva), Kāliya (humiliated by Kṛṣṇa), Madhu (slain by Kṛṣṇa), Kaiabha (slain by Kṛṣṇa).


Group of eight gods (Aṣṭadikpālas), guardians of the four chief and the four minor quarters: Indra (E), Agni (SE), Yama (S), Nirti (SW), Varuṇa (W), Vāyu (NW), Kubera (N), Īśāna (NW). The Jains added two more: Brahma (zenith) and Nāga (nadir). - The Kṣetrapāla is worshipped as guardian deity of the locality.


Group of eight (Aṣṭagrahas) or nine (Navagrahas) astral gods, viz. Sūrya (sun), Soma (moon), planets, Rāhu, Ketu. The last two are represented as bust and nāga respectively (fig. 51), the others as ordinary human figures.


Series of twenty-four Jain saviours (also called Tīrthakaras); hence the word "Jainism". They appeared at great intervals to preach the Jain religion. The list includes Ṛṣabha (1), Ajita (2), Sabhava (3), Supārśvanātha (7), Śītala (10), Śāntinātha (16), Neminātha (22), Pārśvanātha (23), Mahāvīra (24); the last two are historical. Later speculation added to this series further series (of 24 each) which belong to different periods and different parts of the world.


Series of seven human Buddhas; the last Mānuibuddha is the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. They are distinguished in iconography by the different trees under which they attained enlightenment.


Group of seven (Saptamātṛkās) or eight (Aṣṭamātṛkās) Hindu goddesses, including Vaiṣṇavī.


The nāgas are snake-demons, represented as snakes or as combinations (in the widest sense) of a snake and a human figure. The abode of the snakes is Pātāla, one of the seven regions under the earth. Well known is the nāga Ananta (or Śea) who is represented in theriomorph form as the seat or couch of Viṣṇu (Viṣṇu Anantaśayana = Viṣṇu reclining on the coils of Ananta). Another famous nāga is Vāsuki who served as the rope in the churning of the ocean (Kūrmāvatāra).


Gaṅgā (standing on a makara) and Yamunā (standing on a tortoise). The two goddesses appear on the lower left and the lower right door-jamb of temples of the northern style. Under her name Jahnavī, Gaṅgā has also been included into the yoginī-group (§ 36).


Animal or any other object on which a deity is seated, riding or standing. Viṣṇu's vāhana is the bird Garuḍa, Śiva's vāhana is the bull Nandin, Durgā's (Ambikā's) vāhana is a lion, Skanda's vāhana is the peacock Paravāi.


Group of sixteen Jain goddesses, including Vajraśṛṅkhalā and Apraticakrā.

Yakṣa and yakṣī

Group of twenty-four gods and twenty-four goddesses in Jainism. Each Jina is attended upon by one yakṣa and one yakṣī (Ṛṣabha by Gomukha Yakṣa and Cakreśvarī Yakṣī; Brahma Yakṣa belongs to the 10th and Ambikā Yakṣī to the 22nd Jina).


Group of sixty-four Hindu goddesses.

Indian iconography is Hindu, Jain or Buddhist. In the case of Hinduism we can distinguish between Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava iconography, in the case of Jainism between Śvetāmbara and Digambara iconography, and in the case of Buddhism between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna iconography. Besides we may observe the difference between the iconography of the exoteric religion and the iconography of Tantrism, the esoteric and magic form of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.


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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK


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            Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
            1. Ajita
            2. Ananta
            3. Bharata
            4. Brahma
            5. Buddha
            6. Buddhism
            7. Cakravartin
            8. Digambara
            9. Dikpāla
            10. Graha
            11. Hinduism
            12. Indra
            13. Jainism
            14. Jina
            15. Kṛṣṇa
            16. Mahāvīra
            17. Makara
            18. Neminātha
            19. PK
            20. Poona
            21. Pārśvanātha
            22. Pātāla
            23. Supārśvanātha
            24. Vidyādevī
            25. Yakṣa
            26. Yakṣī
            27. Īśāna
            28. Śvetāmbara
            29. Śāntinātha
            30. Śītala
            31. Ṛṣabha
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