Classification in Indian Iconography [Part 6]

Published: 06.06.2012
Updated: 02.07.2015

§ 5. Documentation (Kṛṣṇa)

With the exception of the last section, the following documentation covers selected motifs from the larger field of Kṛṣṇa iconography. Specimens later than ca. 900 A.D. have - as a rule - not been included.

§ 5.1 Post-Kaṃsavadha Panels

[Here and in other parts of the Documentation we use the oblique to separate the place of provenance from the collection where the piece is kept. Absence of the oblique indicates that the panel is in situ.]


? / Berlin Museum of Indian Art. H. Härtel (and others), Katalog 1971, No. 98. Same episode as No. 4 below. Identification by K. Bruhn. Our Fig. 1.


Badami, Cave No. 3. MASI 25, Pl. 23d. Pārijātāpaharaa (Harivaṃśapurāṇa II, 68 foll.). Kṛṣṇa is shown three times.


Deogarh, Gupta temple. MASI 70. Pl. 19c. Kṛṣṇa and Sudāman (Bhāgavatapurāa 10, 80-81).


Garhwa / State Museum Lucknow. N. P. Joshi, Cat. Brahm. Sculptures Lucknow, 1972, Figs. 11-12. Fight between Bhīma and Jarāsandha (Sabhāparvan).


Paharpur. MASI 55, Pl. 27c. Mithuna, but also identified as Kṛṣṇa-and-Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa-and-Satyabhāmā.

At Deogarh, Kṛṣṇa is shown in human form, while Viṣṇu ideograms (Viṣṇu 4-armed) appear on the panels of Berlin, Badami (left, centre, right), and Garhwa. Kṛṣṇa-Viṣṇu is standing (Deogarh, Garhwa), seated on a simple seat (Berlin, Badami - left), and seated on Garuḍa (Badami - centre, Badami - right).

§ 5.2 Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara Two-Armed (one panel = one episode)

[For the episode refer to Harivamśapurāna II, 15 foll.]


? / Bharat Kala Bhavan. Fragment. According to K. S. Desai, pp. 128-29 (see § 4) this shows "in all probability" Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara.


?/N.Y. Acc. to K. S. Desai, p. 130 (see §4), the relevant piece is similar to No. 11 below.


Badami, temple on the northern fort. H. Goetz, Fig. 3 (see § 4).


Bhenswaha, rock-cut panel. Mentioned: The Century, 31-8-1974, p. 12.


Deogarh /? Indian Archaeology 1958/59, Pl. 75 D. Unearthed by K. Bruhn. Compare No. 13 below.


Jatipara / Indian Museum. ASIAR 1921/22, Pl. 36e.


Kanchi, Vaikunthaperumal temple. A. Rea, Pallava Architecture, 1909, Pl. 78, Fig. 3 (?) The form-motif (Kṛṣṇa's posture) occurs repeatedly at Kanchi (see A. Rea), but identification is difficult.


Kara / Allahabad Museum. Pramod Chandra, Stone Sculpture in the Allahabad Museum (1970), Pl. 63.


Karusa, Mahādeva's Cave. Mentioned: J. Burgess. Cave Temples of India, 1880, p. 421.


Khotan / Central Asian Collections, Hermitage, Leningrad. JISOA, New Series 2. 1967-68, pp. 69-70.


Mahabalipuram, Kṛṣṇamaṇḍapa. MASI 33, Pl. 28a. The raised arm is reminiscent of the "royal gesture": J. M. Rosenfield. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans, 1967, pp. 175-76, Fig. 159 (Nagarjunakonda). Also compare C Sivaramamurti, Amaravati Sculptures, Madras 1956, Pl. 33, 1b (Amaravati); J. Ph. Vogel, Indian Serpent-Lore, London 1926, Pl. 7b and pp. 151 foll., (again Amaravati, note the cows and cowherds)


Mandor / Sardar Museum, Jodhpur. ASIAR 1905/06, pp. 135 foll.


Mathura City / Arch. Museum, Mathura. A. K. Coomaraswamy, Hist, of Indian and Indonesian Art, photograph in the Kusāna section. The dating has been corrected by various scholars.


Phnom Da / Lyon-Stocklet Coll., Brussels. P. Dupont, La statuaire pré angkorienne (Artibus Asiae Suppl. 15), Pl. 5A and 7B.


Phnom Da / Musee A.-Sarraut, Phnom Penh. P. Dupont, op. cit. Pl. 8A.


Rang Mahal, near Suratgarh / G.G. J. Museum, Bikaner. ASIAR 1917/18, Pl. 13, 1.


Srideb / Bangkok Museum. Mentioned: B. P. Groslier, Hinterindien, Baden-Baden 1960, p. 73.


Undavalli cave. Mentioned: C. Sivaramamurti, Early Eastern Chālukya Sculpture, Madras 1957, p. 18, line 1.


Varanasi City / Bharat Kala Bhavan. ASIAR 1926/27, Pl. 46 D (condition before partial restoration)


Vat Koh / Musee Phnom Penh. P. Dupont, op. cit. Pl. 1A.

§ 5.3 Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara Two-Armed (one panel = several episodes)


Badami, Cave No. 2. MASI 25, Pl. 12 D (1).


Badami, Cave No. 3. MASI 25, Pl. 25 b (1).


Badami, northern fort, gateway. ASIAR 1928/29, Pl. 8b.


Gwalior Fort, Caturbhuja temple. See our Fig. 5.


Osian. Lalit Kalā 8. 1960, Pl. 4, Fig. 11 (top right).


Osian. Mārg 12.2 (1959), p. 54, Fig. 3.


Osian. R. C. Agrawala, p. 347 (see § 4). Reference only.


Pattadakal, Kāśīviśveśvara temple. A. M. Annigeri, Guide, Dharwar 1961, p. 33. Reference only. Photograph by Nagaraja Rao.


Pattadakal, Virūpākṣa temple. H. Cousens, Chālukyan Architecture, Calcutta 1926, Pl. 46. See our Fig. 4. The motif of the raised right hand (compare the "royal gesture" mentioned above in § 5.2) occurs three times.

[§ 5.2-3: It should be mentioned here that V. S. Agrawala has listed in his Mathura catalogue no less than eight small-size panels showing Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara: Cat. Brahmanical Images in Mathura Art, Lucknow 1951, pp. 18-22.]

§ 5.4 Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara Four-Armed and Six-Armed


Ellora, Cave No. 15 (Daśāvatāra), south-east corner of the hall. See our Fig. 2. This is the only known instance of a six-armed Kṛṣṇa-image of the early period.


Ellora, Cave No. 16 (Kailāsa). Photograph by G. v. Mitterwallner.


Paharpur. MASI 55, Pl. 28c.


Pattadakal, Mallikārjuna temple, face of a pillar on the southern side of the hall. H. Cousens, Chālukyan Architecture, Pl. 39 and 48. See our Fig. 3.


Pattadakal, Pāpanātha temple. Photograph by Nagaraja Rao.

[A classification of all the early Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara panels would hardly produce more than pseudo-divisions. It should, however, be mentioned that the northern artists depicted the mountain in a realistic manner, while it was treated cursorily in the South.]

§ 5.5 Kṛṣṇa Four-Armed and Six-Armed

Five cases are mentioned in § 5.1 (Kṛṣṇa-and-Arjuna, Pārijātāpaharaṇa) and another five in § 5.4 (Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara). To these we have to add one instance of a four-armed Kṛṣṇa Kāliyadamana:


Ellora, Cave No. 16 (Kailāsa). Gupte/Mahajan, Ajanta, Ellora … (Bombay 1962), Pl. 92, right. Another panel in the same cave, showing Viṣṇu-on-Garuḍa, is similar (assimilation etc.). See op. cit. Pl. 97 left and also our pp.40-1.

§ 5.6 Subdued Nāga, Kistna Area (Māndhātā etc.)

[Supplement to Graph 8.]


Amaravati/Madras Government Museum. C. Sivaramamurti, Amaravati Sculptures … (Madras 1956), p. 223 (line 18) and Pl. 33, 1c.


Amaravati/Madras Government Museum. C. Sivaramamurti, op. cit. p. 217 (line 4 from bottom) and Pl. 58, 4.


Gummudidurru /? ASIAR 1926/27, Pl. 35b.

(44 foll.)

The motif was particularly popular at Nagarjunakonda. See MASI No. 71, pp. 32 foll., and Pl. 37 A, 37 B. Also compare MASI No. 54, Pl. 30c and 37a.

§ 6. Explanation of Terms

It seems advisable to add a few coordinated remarks for the general reader.

The division of Indian Iconography mostly follows the three great religions, and this distinction is on the whole helpful. Subdivisions are often based on individual gods etc.: Viṣṇu iconography as a part of Vaiṣṇava iconography, Jina iconography as a part of Jaina iconography.

Jaina iconography mainly consists of series: 24 Jinas (p. 33), 24 symbols, 24 attending goddesses, 24 attending gods (p. 34), 16 Mahāvidyās. The Jina motif is very similar to the Buddha motif, but any of the 24 Jinas could become an object of worship and there was considerable emphasis on the series as such. Our term "gods etc." covers gods and goddesses as well as Jinas and Buddhas.

Viṣṇu iconography is normally classified on the basis of the various avatāra lists, more particularly of a list enumerating ten avatāras. As a rule, an avatāra ("incarnation") is clearly separated from the god as such (i.e. Viṣṇu), whereas more neutral terms like "form", "aspect", "mūrti" (employed for all gods, also for Viṣṇu) refer in most cases to motifs which are clearly connected with the basic appearance of the god. The following avatāras have been mentioned in this article: tortoise, fish, boar, man-lion, Karivarada, Kṛṣṇa, Balarāma, Rāma Dāśarathi. In art, tortoise, fish, and boar may be rendered in animal form (theriomorphic) or in hybrid form (therio-anthropomorphic: human figure with the head of an animal).

Viṣṇu originally had three standard attributes (to be more correct: standard hand-attributes), viz. "conch", disk, mace. Later on the lotus was added. The bird Garuḍa is the mount of the god. - Kṛṣṇa is a wanderheld, and his relation to Viṣṇu is not very close. Many episodes from his life have been depicted in early sculptural art, giving sometimes rise to very popular motifs: Kāliyadamana (Kṛṣṇa subduing the Nāga Kāliya), Govardhanadhara (K. lifting up Mt. Govardhana), Keśisūdana (K. slaying the horse-demon Keśi), Veṇugopāla (K. playing the flute). The first part of Kṛṣṇa's biography ends with the slaying of the king Kamsa, an event which is however hardly shown in art.

Nāga worship was a religion in its own right and produced an intriguing variety of snake motifs. Nāgas or snake demons had one or more hoods (derived from the cobra). They were theriomorphic or therio-anthropomorphic, and there was - as an additional feature - a certain tendency towards concurrent appearance of the animal and the human element. Here we shall merely add that in certain cases a theriomorphic Nāga was represented behind the Buddha, the Jina, or the god Viṣṇu. This Nāga always had several hoods which formed a halo-like element ("hood-circle") behind the head of the Buddha (etc.) appearing in front of him.


German Scholars on India - Contributions to Indian Studies, Vol. II

Compiled by PK


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