Applied Iconography

By GB Deglurkar

Applied Iconography – – – A concept

The impact of iconography on the attitude, inclination and customs of a society is not so far realized fully. If properly understood the potential of iconography in this respect it would not be difficult then to know its effect on the day to day life of the image-worshippers. Quite a few of them can be discerned through the images of particular type.

Such images which have an impact on the practices of a society are taken in consideration here to elaborate this concept to which I prefer to call Applied Iconography.

  1. In the Rani-ki-vav, a seven storied stepped well at Patan in the Mehsana district of Gujarat are seen literally hundreds of images perching on the walls and the bridges connecting various stories. Among these are fifteen images depicting Parvati performing penance for getting Siva as her spouse. In this situation she is shown standing on lizard with one leg raised above the ground suggesting her steadfastness. This aspect of Parvati is known as Tapasyarata Parvati. Her determination to get Siva at any cost is emphasized. The dowager queen who built this well intend to convey her wish to get the same departed king as her husband in the life after her rebirth. Her longing for her husband is allegorically suggested with the help of multiple images of one and the same theme.
  2. Another example comes from the same spot. The circular portion of the said Vav where water is stored consists of various stone rings boasting various sculptures including images of gods and goddesses. But on the ring immediately above the water level has the images of Ashtavasu that is the sons of sacred river Ganga. They are shown offering namaskara to Ganga, their mother. In fact this is to suggest that the water here is nothing but Gangajala which is sacred to the Indians.

Both the images described above obviously are not meant for worship. In fact they just convey that the love and regard of the queen is as steadfast as that of Parvati and the water in the vav is as sacred as the Gangajala itself.

  1. More noteworthy than these is a particular type of image known as Gaurihara image. As has been described above Parvati’s steadfast love and keen desire to marry Siva is indicated by depicting lizard (Godha) underneath her feet. In this case she is to be referred to as Gauri (Godhasana bhaved Gauri). Siva is to be known as Hara when Parvati becomes Gauri. And according to the prevalent practice the composite name should become Gauri-hara. In Maharashtra generally bride is supposed to offer worship to this deity prior to the acceptance of bridegroom as husband. The implied intention is to suggest that the bride should follow Parvati as role-model.
  2. There is an image known as Kalyanasundarmurti which depicts the marriage of Siva-Parvati. In this depiction a lady (Parvati’s friend) is shown holding a leg of Siva to get assurance from him of treating Parvati well in the wedded life. Wonderfully enough such images are found mostly in North India where this practice is being followed by the bride’s friend by stealing shoes of bridegroom to receive reward from him as a token of an assurance.
  3. The image of Kartikeya is to be viewed on the background given in the Puranic story. It can be deducted from it that he was basically a leader of a promiscuous tribe where marriage manual of ethical values of married life were not observed. He was elevated to a position of Siva’s son in the process of absorbing the entire tribe into a sophisticated society. Even then he continued his old habit and tried to molest women. These troubled women lodged complaints of his misbehaviour to Parvati who took resort of a trick. She used to appear herself in the place of a lady troubled by Kartikeya. Ultimately he realized his misconduct. This trait of his lingered in the minds of people even to this day at least in Maharashtra where darshan of this was tabooed.
  4. In the Udaygiri caves near Bhopal a huge image of Nrvaraha is seen lifting the mother earth on his shoulder. Chandra Gupta ii of the Imperial Gupta-s is credited of carving these caves. It is presumed that he intended to depict his victory over the mighty Shakas through this image symbolically. It clearly shows as to how the colossal image is made use of to depict the might of the emperor with which he rescued the mother earth from the clutches of the powerful enemy.
  5. The images of Hanuman trampling Panauti underneath the feet point out that he controls Saturn’s ill vision. That is why people worship Hanuman on Saturdays, the day of the Saturn otherwise there is no reason to worship him on Saturdays. The same reason can be cited in the case of his worship on Tuesdays as the practice is in vogue in other parts of the country.
  6. Outside the Garbhagriha of the temples of the ancient period a gargoyle in the form of crocodile face through which abhishekjala is drain out is seen. This is to let the devotees know that the water is Gangajala for Makara is the Vahana of Ganga.
  7. In the sabhamandapa of the temples of medieval period figure of a tortoise is often seen. Tortoise controls its organs. It can hide those and can also take those out. Through this figure of a tortoise it is suggested to the devotees that while in the temple for a darshan of Lord they should control their Shadripus that is, mada, matsar, moha, ahankara, etc.
  8. Teerthawatarapatta: This type of slabs contain a scene not actually related to any god but to a sacred place (teertha). There is no text which explains such scenes. However the purana-s can render some help in deciphering these. One such sculptured slab from Madhya Pradesh now displayed in the British Museum, London referred to an described by N.P. Joshi contains an attempt of suicide which is taken as an sacred or pious act. Dr. Joshi while describing the Prayagapatta have given all the details of the contains and with the help of the Padmapurana and the Skandapurana has identified it as an attempt to suicide in the confluence of Ganga-Yamuna and Saraswati at Prayaga which is taken as an act of piety. (Devapattas, Eastern Approaches, Ed. T.S. Maxwell, 1992, pp 133-40)
  9. Varanasi Shilpapatta: on a stone slab found at a place in Madhya Padesh a scene of Varanasi is carved in which the sacred river is shown flowing on the bank of which an image of river Ganga is carved along with the images of various gods and goddesses which are to be found at Varanasi. Dr. Joshi on the basis of the description in Aparajitaprichcha and Skandapurana makes it clear as to how the devotees who being themselves at a far distant place are unable to go to Varanasi can accrue Punya by taking darshana of this shilpatta (Radhakumud Mukhji Memorial Lecture Series 2002-3, pp. 57-58, Lucknow).
  10. Naming the deity after doner’s name: we very often come across the deity installed in the sanctum named after donor’s name like Someshvara, or after the name of the place like Koppeshvara, Panchaleshvara, etc. or in the case of Vaishnava deity the Vishnu images are chosen after the name of an installer e.g. the image of Madhava if it is installed by a donor by name Madhava as at Parvti at Pune or the name of a person in whose memory it is installed, e.g. a shrine of Janardana Vishnu which is installed in memory of Janardana, younger brother of Peshva Madhavrao who died young.

I hope these examples are sufficient to prove that iconography, apart from worship plays an important role in day to day life of the image worshippers hence I name this phenomena as Applied Iconography.

G.B. Deglurkar, Pune