Textual Sources

By Choodamani Nandagopal


According to Indian Shilpa canons, an image to be beautiful must be of contemplative mood. That is the higher criterion placed by the Indian Shilpacharyas to Indian sculptors. This is the distinguishing characteristic of Indian art of image making. The Sukraniti therefore prescribes, ‘the characteristic of an image is its power of helping forward contemplation and yoga. The human maker of images should be meditative. Besides meditation there is no other way of knowing the character of an image, even direct observation is of no use[1] .

The Indian perspective of sculpture is integrated with the integral vision of other arts and science. Vishnudharmottara purana enumerates, that he who know not properly the rules of citra, the art of painting, can by no means, be able discern the characteristics of image making, the pratima-lakshanam, without the science and art of dancing, the cannons of painting and sculpture are difficult to understand and without music dance can not be accomplished, thus for the proper appreciation of Pratima-lakshana, one must be acquainted with the arts and science of chitra, nrtya, sangeeta and gayana. Thus a shilpi or a sculptor has to have knowledge of other arts in order to broaden his understanding of all other arts and that enhances his creativity [2].

The sculptures are known by the word ‘silpa’ means to ‘create’. Several texts were written which can be brought under the category of silpa texts. The development of Hindu temple architecture is closely associated with the rituals. There are many texts known as ‘agamas’, which are like manuals for performing rituals in the system of worship. There are separate texts for Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina sculptures. In Hinduism itself there are texts on Shaiva (on Shiva), Vaishnava (on Vishnu), Sakta (on Shakti goddess) and other deities. These texts will give the details of iconography: the seating, standing postures, hand postures, the dress they should wear, the attributes they hold in hands, the type of head dress, jewellery they have to wear, the vehicles they use and such other things.

It is on one side interesting to know that a good number of silpa- texts, their names in other texts are found and on the other side it is alarming to know that all these texts are not found in their complete form. Some of them have chapters on some aspects and other aspects of minute measurements or the jewellery details or hand gestures are not found. Thus it is realized that a complete compendium furnishing all the information of image-making in one text is yet to be found. In Manuscript libraries like, Oriental Gayakvad Library in Baroda, Oriental Library, Mysore, Tanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library and such other libraries, parts or few chapters or only few folios are of the texts are found. These libraries tried to compile the information from these texts and published or preserved original and microfilm version of these texts. Another challenge is most of them are in archaic Sanskrit or Grantha script. It is still difficult to bring these texts in usable form.

The shilpa texts were originally in the shruti, the oral tradition, passing from a Guru to sishya, the disciple and later they have been written or compiled during the early Gupta period 2nd to 4th Century AC. Gnananad,, a senior and pioneering personality in the field of Iconography and sculpture from Karnataka is credited with good number of publication has brought the information on silpa vidya, the art and science of Iconography under four major sources and also tries to place them under historical dates: they are, 1. Silpasastra texts, 2. Agamas 3. Puranas and 4. Kosas or encyclopedias.

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Silpasastras – Texts on sculpture, architecture and iconography that were written for the purpose of image making are in use among the traditional sculptors. To name some of them, Manasara Shilpashastra by the sage Manasara, Aparajita Prchcha by Bhuvana Devacharya, Atreya Tilaka by Atreya Tilaka, Kashyapa Shilpa by the sage Kashyapa, Shilparatna by Srikumara, Sakaladhikara and Chitragastya by the sage Agastya, Mayamata by Maya, Vishvakarma Shastram and Sarasvatiya Chitrakarmashastra by the sage Vishvakarma, Devatamurthi Prakaranam, Mandana Shastra, Roopamandana, Prasadamandana by Mandana Sutradhara, Samarangana Sutradhara by King Bhoja are the Sipa texts providing technical information and serve as the hand book for learning and also as the texts with specific and authentic information for dependable references. Parts of these silpashastras are included in Agamas. The measurements, matrix and technical details are common to silpashastras, Agamas, and even to Buddhist and Jaina art of image making. Irrespective of various sects, all sculptors treat Silpa texts as primordial source for image making, both sculptures in general and icons in particular.

Agamas: Agamas are primarily ritualistic in nature and followed in temple precinct and also in domestic rituals. They are given higher importance while building a temple. The word ‘Agama’ literally means a well-structured and traditionally communicated wisdom. The agamas had an earlier oral tradition communicated through generations of craftsmen and priests. It has also a later tradition, consisting of hundreds of texts and manuals meant for craftsmen and priests3. The agamas are categorized under Shaiva, Vaishnava and Shakta, with a channelized procedures and prescriptions in creating, consecrating and worshiping the icons. Most of the information on iconography is compiled from the shilpa texts. There are eighteen Shaivagamas, The two Vaishnavagas namely, Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra, Shaktagama and several related tantragamas are recorded according to the tradition. While understanding from the context of rituals and symbolism, the sculptor refers the Agama texts. Hence these texts are of importance only next to shilpa texts for a sculptor.

Puranas: Some of the information and detail references are also available in the Purana texts. There may be possibilities of not getting the entire shilpa texts. In such conditions the Puranas come as handy as the sources of several kinds of texts are documented in Puranas. The earliest of the Puranas are Agnipurana, Padma Purana, Matsya Purana are some referred by the sculptors as complementary texts to Silpasastras.

Kosas or Sangrahas: In Indian knowledge systems of yore, along with the independent texts on concerned arts like Natyashastra, Brhaddeshi, Shilparatna or Samarangana Sutradhara, encyclopedias were compiled time to time. To begin with, Vishnudharmottara Purana belonging to 4th century AC has separate chapters on shilpa, nrtya, sangeeta, chitra and vastu along with more than 30 chapters covering the fields like gems, jewellery, language and treatment of birds, horses, elephants, polity, and many such subjects have been dealt. Similarly Varahamihira’s Bruhatsanhita in 7th century along with other subjects there is a chapter on sculpture, architecture and iconography. Some other vishvakoshas are, the Manasollasa or Abhilashitartha Chintamani written by the Chalukyan Emperor Someshvara from Karnataka in 12th century AC, Shivatatva Ratnakara by Keladi Nayaka Basavaraja in 17th Century AC and lastly Sri Tatvanidhi by Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore in 19th century, all these are the koshas having an important chapter on the art of sculpture and iconography. This is how the ancient knowledge has been handed over to the generations in our country.

Apart from all these textual references, the art of sculpture and iconography are created by skillful and knowledgeable artisans following their own guruparampara passing on from guru to disciple. They follow the techniques, measurements, attributes, hand gestures, the type of ornaments, and postures through their predecessors and preserve these manuals contained with key-sketches, drawings and measurements. These manuals serve as practical hand books for sculptors to execute their art works that make them to adhere to the canons of iconography. The sculptors are the creators of divinities; understanding and contemplating on philosophical and metaphysical contents are of extremely significant for them.


Indian iconography is largely based on canons of image-making and in particular following certain measurement is a primary concern for a shilpi. In making the images each part of the body is measured in relation to the concept of the image for instance, Shilparatna, a shilpa text prescribes that the image of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshvara are to be created in uttama dashatala measure. The measurement ranges from dashatala (ten measures) to ekatala (one measure) and prescribed to different kinds of images. The science of the measuring of the icons is known as Iconometry, the talamana. A misunderstanding or the miscalculation of talamana is a major flaw in creating an icon and such images are not worthy to worship.

The Dashatala images: The dashatala images are to be created in three categories namely Uttama dashatala, Madhyama dashatala and Adhama dashatala.  The images to be created in Uttama dashatala are Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ardhanarishvara, Dattatreya, Vasudeva, Buddha and Mahaveera, The images to be created in Madhyama dashatala are, Uma, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, Bhudevi, Saptamatrukas, and Sri Rama. The images to be created in Adhama dashatala are Indra, Agni, Varuna, Ashvini, Skanda, Virabhadra, Kshetrapalaka, Ishana, Sasta, Surya, Chandra, Yama, Vayu, Chandikeshvara, Dvadasha (twelve) Adityas, Ekadasha (eleven) Rudras, Maharshi Bhrugu, Markandeya, Arya, Lakshmana.

The Navatala Images: The Navatala images are also categorized as Uttama navatala, Madhyama navatala and Adhama navatala. The images to be created in Uttama navatala are, Devas and Devis, Ashta murtis, Ashtavasua, Lokapalaka, Niruti, Kubera, Manmatha, Nagendra, Garuda, Vasishtha, Vishvamitra, Bhargava, Guru, Shukra, Shani and Rahu, Ketu. The images to be created in Madhyama navatalas are, Ashtamurtis, Yaksha, Apsara, Marutagana and Vidyadharagana. The images to be created in Adhama navatala are, Asura, Siddha, Gandharva and Pitru.

Ashtatala images: humans forms, Kashyapa, Bhrugu, alvars. Saptatala images: Human forms and Rishis. Madhyama saptala images are Agastya and Hanuman. Shattala images are dwars,

Panchtala images: Uttama panchatala images are, Vinayaka, Balaskanda, Vamanamurti. Madhyama panchatala images are Bhutas. Adhama panchatala images are of Balakrishna type. Chatushtala images are Monkeys and palakas. Tritala images are Kinnaras and Kimpurushas, Dwitala images are Matsyvatara murti and such other images and finally ekatala murti images are Tortoise, koormavatara, headless torsos and others. Apart from these ten types the eleventh one is recognized as Navardhatala. The images of Sita, Satyabhama and Rukmini should be fashioned according to the navardhatala measurements. This has 12 X 91/2 or 114 parts. It falls midway between the navatala and adhamatala scales. For images to have divine aspect, the shilpi has to be particularly concerned about four important features: body, face, eyes and nose4. A procedure of taking measurements of images is considered as talamana, the grammar of measurements, which includes the detail assessment and analysis of each and every part including of minute details of the distance between the corner of the eyes to the edge of the eyes, the chin, and the forehead to the tip of the years and so on. Even the rear side of the body is also measured in such details.

Rite of Akshimochanam

Manasaram explains that the consecration of images of Gods, Goddesses and devotees are done after the eye opening ceremony. After creating the image with all aesthetic and artistic perspectives, philosophical intuition and divine intentions as well as following the science and art of talamana, specifications of iconography, the silpi has infused with his own soul into the image. Yet the image is not worthy for worship until the ceremony of opening of the eyes of the image is performed. The final divine and sacred task has to be fulfilled by the silpi, this is known as kannu teresuvudu or nayanomilan or akshimochanam through a ritual according to the agamas and shilpa texts. The text Uttarakaranagama cautions that, images with closed eyes when worshipped bring destruction and annihilation, and the images with opened eyes benefit the growth and progress of the land. The eye portion is marked and the shape is given before bringing the image to garbhagriha.

The pupil and cornea are defined clearly, the time and space is specified, Then following an elaborate ritual process the shilpi or sthapathi invokes the Virat Vishva Brahman and reaches the image with a golden needle and chisel opens the right eye of the idol with the surya bija mantra, since the eyes of the divine images are considered as Surya and Chandra. Then the left eye is opened with Chandra bija mantra, if the third on the forehead has to be opened, the Agni bija mantra is chanted. Then with a sharp chisel the pupil and cornea of the eye is drawn clearly. Then the navadvaras, the nine openings of the body namely, the ears, mouth, nostrils, genitals and fingertips are opened similarly. During the ceremony, a curtain is drawn because; no one is allowed to see except the sthapathi or shilpi. The sthapathi should pray to Lord as ‘Perfect, pure being, arise and come to reside in this body, so that the patron and the people may be protected and their sorrows alleviated’ 5.

When the eye of the icon is opened, the object on which the first sight falls is very significant and auspicious. The rear part of the cow is shown to the Lord first known as godarshana, followed with stalks of green paddy, young maidens, in those days they were devadasis, the married women called as sumangalis, nine types of grains, the navadhanya, a mirror, an ascetic, Vedic scholars, devotees and lastly the patron. With every offerings of this, the dasa darshana, ten auspicious offerings, it is customary to draw the curtain. Some believe that the Lord should see himself in the mirror.

The texts give a detailed and convincing explanation on the standing, sitting and reclining postures of the images in the section of Pratima Lakshanam. The characteristics of the icons largely depends on the way they hold their hands – the Mudras, the types of weapons – Ayudha they hold, the types of attributes such as auspicious symbols, musical instruments they represent, and the vahanas they mount. Apart from these, the texts give the list of special jewels, costumes, head-gears and garlands that each icon to be created with specifications.

Hand Gestures – Mudras

Mudras’ are the hand poses and gestures created by fingers and palm play a very important role .This is because it is through them that the image speaks. This helps the worshipper to connect and make a perfect rapport with his or her ‘ishta-devata’, the god of his/her choice. A thing made of non-living matter such as stone or metal is by itself is dead and mute. However with the use of recognizable forms through the specific poses and gestures, they speak and communicate with the devotee. This language of poses and gestures, mudrashastra is to be learnt from the iconographic texts which contain certain canons, epigraphs and devotional poems.

According to ‘Tantrashastra’ Vishnu has 19 mudras (sankha, chakra etc); Shiva has 10 mudras (trishula, linga etc); Ganapathi has 7 mudras (elephant tooth, modaka etc)   and similarly the other deities also have specific mudras.

Hasta Mudras or hand poses: These include Abhayamudra, Varadamudra, Jnana-mudra, Vyakhyana-mudra, Namaskaramudra, and Dhyanamudra among others. These are principal hand gestures which are common to Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Buddhist and Jaina traditions.

Sarira Mudras or standing postures: These include Samabhanga – body remains straight. Abhanga – body is slightly bent forward or backward, as in the pose of Rama, Tribanga – the tri-flexion bending of the body as in the pose of Krishna and lastly, Atibanga– body is twisted in many ways to show the movement as in the pose of Nataraja. The icons are shown in various ways of standing. Though these are recommended basically for Hindu Gods, the first two standing postures such as standing erect and standing with one side shift, are also found in Buddhist and Jaina traditions of making images.

Asanas or Sitting postures: These include ‘ardhaparyanka, Paryanka, Bhadra, Dhyana, Kurma, Lalita, Vamalalita, Pralambapada, Simha, Sopasraya, Svastika, Utkutika, Vajra, Vira, and Yoga. These are the seating postures and positions that recommended by the texts and applied to the image according to the features of the image. There are also different types of pedestals for each deity with special design and measurements. The pedestal designs are seen with simple to ornate designs.

Vahanas or Mounts: A number of gods and goddesses are shown with their vahanas, the mount or vehicles. There is generally one mount for one deity but not always. The mount is closely identified with the god or goddess. These vahanas are generally animals birds and planets but sometimes humans also. For example the Garuda vahana for Vishnu, Hamsa for Saraswati, Makara for Ganga, Simha for Mahishamardhini, Nandi for Shiva, Horse for Surya, Rat for Ganapathi, Peacock for Kartikeya, Elephant for Indra are few to mention.

Head Gears and Jewels: The Gods and goddesses in Hindu Iconography are adorned with elaborate head gears and different kinds of jewels with symbolic meaning.

Mukutas or Head Gears: There are different kinds of ‘mukutas’ (crowns) for different deities and portrayal of kings and queens etc. In the Manasara twelve kinds of mukutas have been listed. They also distinguish one category of gods from the other. Some mukutas are Alakacuda, Dhammila, Jatamukuta and Karanda.

Abhushana, the jewels: There are different specifications according to ‘Shilpashastra’ of different ornaments. Gods like human beings are shown wearing various kinds of ornaments. Sometimes these are also helpful in identifying the deities. Karnabhushana or ear ornaments such as karnavali, karnika. Kantabhushana or neck ornaments such as Hara, kaustubha, Nishka. Vaksabhushana or chest ornaments such as Channavira, Srivatsa, Yajopavita. Katiabhushana or hip ornaments such as Kanchidama, Katibandha, Mekhala . Padaabhusana or feet ornaments such as Manjari, Mundari. Bahu or Bhuja abhusana or armlets and wristlets such as Angada, Kankana. Nasa abhusana or nose ornaments such as vesara, mukura.

Paridhana: Gods are also known by their special dresses. These are known as ‘Paridhana’ or dress. These are of two kinds: Katibandha, the belt of cloth or metal tied at the hips. Udarabandha, the part of loin cloth or a separate piece of cloth used as a belt round the belly. Dhoti, one piece of long cloth which cover the lower body fully and upper body partially. There is a special dress for the Buddha known as Antaravasaka, the Innermost garment, Uttarganga, garment covering the antarvasaka, Samghayi, the robe on the shoulders also called civara.

The image making is an art when the features are chiseled in all details keeping in mind the attributes, jewels, head dress, postures, prabhavali, the halo or the specially designed and articulated prabhavali, the arches around the image add beauty and grandeur to the icons. The image making is also a science when the anatomical measurements, calculation in terms of talamana and adding to the proportions. This will add to the perfection of the stature and balancing act of the icons. The image making is also an aesthetic experience to a sculptor or sthapathi when he has sound knowledge of iconography in all its comprehensiveness. He infuses soul and light into the icons without even not mentioning his name anywhere and thereby surrendering to the divinity. The entire process of image making is the journey into another world of contemplation and soul searching experience.

Notes & References:

  1. Phanindranath Bose, Principles of Indian Shilpashastra29-30
  2. Vishnudharmottara Purana Part III, Chapter 2
  3. K. Ramachandra Rao, Agama Kosa
  4. Ganapathi Sthapathi, Indian Sculpture and Iconography: P 295-96.
  5. Ibid P 111