Chola sculptors portrayed gods and goddesses within a defined iconographic tradition, however, within that tradition was the freedom to aspire to capturing the beauty of the ideal human body.
In the time of the Cholas, temple and administration activity took place within the same complex (note 1). The artists lived and worked at court and ideal human beauty was all around them. In a sense, when you look upon the sensual bronze forms of beautiful gods and goddesses you are also seeing dancers, courtiers, and aristocrats of the royal Chola court.
Their homeland is, of course, deep in the tropics, rendering any practical considerations for clothing unnecessary. For royalty, divine or mortal, it was the quality of the fabrics and jewels which set them apart and above.
Both sexes, both mortal and divine, wore similar garments and decorated their bodies with alankara in gold and jewels. The basic clothing was fine cotton or silk arranged around the hips and legs in various ways (see the Glossary for more information). The wearing of gold jewellery, precious stones and pearls was an important indicator of status, and remains a priority even today in Indian culture. Bodies were decorated in gold and precious stones. Nudity was deemed natural and it was only lack of adornment which was considered vulgar (note 2).
For dieties and royalty, headgear (makuta) conveyed subtle information regarding status. Crowns could be either worn separately, or hair could be arranged to resemble a crown with the addition of gold and jewels (jatamakuta). For example, Uma’s hair often in braided dreadlocks, the style of an ascetic, and bound with jewels arranged to look like a crown (jatabandha) while Lakshmi and Saraswati wear kiritamakuta, actual golden crowns. Unbound hair, such as Kali’s, denote wildness, even danger.
The adornment on the Chola Bronzes you see in museums and galleries is sculptural, whereas when they are seen in temples and in processions they will be almost completely covered in fine fabrics, jewels and flower garlands. The former are inert metal objects, breathtakingly beautiful, yes,but they fulfill no spiritual purpose other than inferred. The latter are metaphors in bronze, ritually consecrated and ready for their transformation into the bodies of gods and goddesses.
Note – 1 The sculptors were an integral part of that life and often trained as dancers and musicians to give them a more well-rounded arts background.
Note 2 – The arrival of British colonialism values changed all that, for women certainly. You may be interested to know that in south India the sari had been worn until the 18th century without a blouse (ravike or choli). When support was needed, a breastband (kuchabanda) was worn, sometimes with the assistance of a necklace (mala).
The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.
A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.
Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.
We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.
Brahma (not to be confused with similar terms; Brahman and brahmin) created good and evil, night and day, and gods, demons, ancestors and humans from formless Brahman. It is said the universe was created when Brahma awoke and opened his eyes and will end when he goes back to sleep at the end of his day – a period of 4.32 million human years – the universe will end. Brahma is an abstract metaphysical ideal of a god, and lacks the earthy dramatic myths and legends of other deities, although he does feature in other god’s mythology. He is the bestower of boons upon various demons, boons which invariably create problems requiring divine intervention (and new opportunities) for other gods and goddesses to add to their legends. Brahma is thought to be aloof and unapproachable and isn’t worshipped with the devotional ardour of Shiva, Shakti or Vishnu. It is believed his work is done, and it is the various manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti which have the power to power to affect our lives. On the next turn of the Wheel of Time, however, after the weary universe is destroyed by Shiva Nataraja, it is a reborn Brahma who will create the world anew. While his image is venerated somewhere in most major temples, only a handful of the half a million or so temples in India are dedicated solely to Brahma.
Brahma is believed to have created The Vedas, dispersing them in the four cardinal directions from his four mouths, although most of the credit ought to go to his wife, Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge.
Brahma is typically depicted in iconography as standing, his weight evenly upon both feet (samabhanga). He has four faces whose mouths disperse The Vedas in the four cardinal directions and four arms. In one hand he holds The Vedas, in the second he holds rosary beads (mala) symbolizing time, in the third he holds a ladle (sruva or shruk) symbolizing the means to feed a sacrificial fire, and in fourth a water jug (kamandalu) symbolizing the means from where all creation originates. In paintings, he is often depicted with the white beard of a sage. His vehicle (vahana) is a swan or goose.
Of the entire Hindu pantheon, it is Ganesha characteristics are most human. He is a calm, pure, benevolent deity inspiring neither fear nor awe, while his kind smile, carefree manner and child-like enthusiasm for sweet rice balls (laddus), define the relaxed aura surrounding him. Ganesha is the most popular and approachable of the Hindu gods, worshipped as the Lord of new beginnings and remover of obstacles, and therefore honoured before the start of any endeavour, ritual or ceremony. Largely a secular divinity, Ganesha is associated with no fussy rituals or rigid taboos. He is loved and worshipped by everyone, and all receive his protection and royal blessing.
There are many myths surrounding Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Uma, and about how he got his elephant head. According to one legend, the Uma made her son, Ganesha, out of the dead skin she scraped off her body as she bathed. She posted Ganesha at the door of her bath and instructed him to let no one enter. Uma’s husband, Shiva, returned home after several years of meditating to find an unknown boy guarding the door to the bath. Ganesha refused to let him enter. Shiva lost his temper and cut off the boy’s head. Uma, devastated, insisted that her son be returned to life. Shiva then offered to give Ganesha the head of the next being that appeared, and when an elephant approached, Ganesha received its head and was brought back to life. To pacify Uma further, and compensate for the act of killing own son, Shiva bestowed upon Ganesha the powers of a god and blessed him that henceforth no activity will begin without invoking his name and blessing. Since then, it is said, no new venture – from a schoolchild opening a new notebook to an opening of a shop, from the foundation of a building to entering a new home – is deemed complete without puja directed to Ganesha.
As for Ganesha’s physical characteristics, just as in every Hindu icon, they symbolize an attribute. The size of his head is said to represent wisdom and learning, his large ears symbolize the ability to hear every prayer he is offered, and small eyes signify the ability to concentrate as he meditates. His defining characteristic is his trunk, and its symbology is extensive. For example, it is believed to be auspicious for a Ganesha image in the home if the trunk is bent to his left, indicating a more cooling feminine energy and ideally touching a bowl of laddus, representing material prosperity. He should be also be seated, so he doesn’t wander away from home. On the other hand, Ganesha’s temple icons ought to have his trunk to his right, a more fiery and dynamic energy, and helpful for expediting gratification of one’s prayers. Ganesha is usually shown with four arms. With his trunk he reaches for a bowl of the laddus he loves, while his hands hold; a string of prayer beads, an elephant goad, sometimes a snake, and his broken tusk; all heavily symbolic. Temple sculptures of Ganesha are usually found at the beginning of a sequence of deities on the exterior walls, placed there to eliminate obstacles faced by the worshipper on his or her spiritual path.
A favourite hymn dedicated to Ganesha is; ‘O ye who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish and accomplish always, all my errands free from obstacles’.
Ganesha is also identified with the sacred mantra, the syllable Om, and believed to be its personification. His animal-vehicle (vahana) is the rat which, though small by contrast, will gnaw through any obstacle. This comparison suggests that there are two ways to remove obstacles; like an elephant trampling everything in its path, or a rat finding its way through small openings to achieve the same goal. In the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, rats are fed milk and grain and believed to be destined for reincarnation as holy men (sadhus).
Ganesha – The Beloved OneTerry Curell2019-11-18T17:17:22-08:00
Brahman is the basis, source and support of everything in the cosmos (Brahmanda). Its nature is Absolute Being (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda). Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, and everything that ever was, is now, or ever will be. Brahman is the Ultimate Reality.
Using mere words to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail; therefore, Hinduism has developd a reductive device to help us approach and feel connection to that which cannot be comprehended in its entirety.
First, the principle of Brahman is divided into two realities; Brahman itself – eternal, absolute, the ultimate reality. And Maya, our perceived reality which in fast is an illusion living, dying and being reborn on the wheel of time (samsara).
The second reductive device is the concept of Brahman divided into aspects deemed male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti), personified as individual gods and goddesses, each with their particular set of responsibilities and temperament, and each embodied in a unique human-like physical form (note 1). For example, when Shiva embodies the Purusha principle, it is Uma who embodies the Prakriti.
“Ye yatha mam prapadyante tanstathaiva bhajamyaham.”
“I come to you in whatever form you worship Me.”
Bhagavad Gita 4:11
Generally speaking, deities such as Uma, Shiva or Vishnu are not divine in their own right – and here is an important point – they are specific physical manifestations of Brahman (note 2). A metaphor might be Brahman as a vast cosmic diamond, and individual gods and goddesses as facets of that diamond rather than individual diamonds.
Note 1 – Gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in formless state and leave that plane to inhabit human form only when a physical body is required by us mortals for worship or to deal with a problem such as a demon, for example.
Note 2 – Followers of sects such as Saivites or Vaisnavites (the Great Gods, or Mahadevas) or Shaktics (the Great Goddesses), however, may argue their chosen god or goddess is Supreme over all other concepts or manifestations of Brahman.
Krishna is as well-loved today as he was in the time of the Cholas. However, it is Murugan, Shiva and Uma’s second son, who fulfills the role of eternally youthful hero, protector, philosopher, teacher and friend in south India. Krishna as Supreme Being is a sect popular in the north, entirely separate from the Vaishnavite belief that Vishnu is supreme, and has spread worldwide with the Hare Krishna movement.
Krishna is Vishnu’s eighth incarnation, unique in that he chose to be born as a mortal as a newborn. Krishna was exchanged at birth with a cowherd’s daughter to escape the clutches of an evil demon king, Kamsa (note 1). Childhood stories tell of his mischievous nature, but also illustrate the close bond between Krishna and his foster mother, Yashoda. Young Krishna spent a happy life with his foster parents playing boyish pranks (often including butter theft) (note 2), and later as a youth when he used his flute to seduce village girls (gopis) (notes 3 and 4). His favourite was Radha, his foster sister and childhood lover, although they did not marry. Theirs was a pure love and came to symbolize the unconditional love between devotee and deity; a relationship related closely to Bhakti, an intimate, personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.
According to mythology, Krishna was not only divine but heroic as well. As a boy, he defeated the snake king, Kaliya when the serpent poisoned the Yamuna River. In the epic poem ‘Mahabharata’ he helps the Pandavas against the Kauravas, two families in a war of succession. In the poem, Krishna is depicted as divine charioteer to the troubled hero, Arjuna, as Krishna delivers his celebrated treatise ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ on life and dharma. This speech persuaded Arjuna that it was his duty, his Dharma, to fight against his kinsmen.
Krishna is depicted as the beautiful smiling youth with skin the colour of the sky, plays the flute, wearing a peacock feather in his curly black hair and a flower garland around his neck.
Note 1 – Many respected scholars accept that Krishna was an actual person, living in the period between 3200 and 3100 BCE.
Note 2 – As a playful tot, he is known as Balakrishna.
Note 3 – In his cow herding, flute playing aspect he is known as Venugopala B-VNST21 and B-VNS28.
Note 4 – Divine playfulness (Lila) is an important concept in Hindu mythology which not only as it applies to Krishna but other gods as well. Depending on which deity is believed to be Supreme Being, the world is created simply because it is that deity’s will. It is God at play.
Krishna – The Philosopher KingTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:41:38-08:00
Murugan is the second son to Shiva and Uma after Ganesha and the most masculine and fierce of the Hindu pantheon (note 1). Murugan is often referred to as God of the Tamils and is arguably the most popular deity in south India (note 2). As revered general of Shiva’s armies, Murugan is the beautiful and eternally youthful bestower of blessings.
Murugan’s origins are probably a composite of the north Indian warrior god, Skanda, and an ancient Tamil hero, Subrahmanya. His mythology is told in the Skanda Purana which tells mostly of his birth and youth. The following is one of many legends of his conception;
“Once married, Shiva and Uma honeymoon at Shiva’s home atop Mount Kailash. Their lovemaking shakes the cosmos, and the gods become fearful, wondering what a child born of two such powerful deities will be like. Led by Vishnu, the entourage travels to Kailash and wait patiently for the newlyweds to emerge. Many years pass yet Shiva and Uma continue as before. Agni (God of Fire) disguises himself as a dove and enters the bedchamber. Uma reacts. Shiva withdraws. A drop of his semen falls to the floor. Agni eats the drop. Uma is enraged at the interruption and curses the gods so that all their wives would be barren. Agni, meanwhile, is unable to bear the heat of Shiva’s fiery seed and flies to the banks of the Ganges to cool off. This particular location happens to be where wives of seven sages have come to bathe (note 3). They’re feeling cold and approach the heat. Agni drops the seed, and it enters the wives, who become pregnant. When the sages find out they scold their wives, who place the embryo on a Himalayan peak. Thus is born Murugan. Shiva and Uma are delighted. Murugan’s six mothers are smitten by the newborn baby god and argue amongst themselves over who is to breastfeed him. Murugan solves the problem by creating five additional faces, one for each of his mothers.”
Murugan’s first wife is Devasena, daughter of Indra through an arranged marriage, and she represents heaven. His second wife, Valli, the gypsy huntress, he keeps hidden in the hills. She represents Earth and theirs was a love match. The characteristics of his wives complete Murugan as he spends his time equally on earth and in heaven.
In Murugan’s iconography, he is dressed as a warrior with 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute, most of them weapons, such as Vel, the lance given to him by his mother, Uma. His vehicle (vahana) is Paravani, a blue peacock, who often holds a serpent in its claws symbolizing the destruction of ego.
Note 1 – Murugan is also known in the south as Karthikeya, Subrahmanyan, Shanmughan and Swaminathan; in northern India, Skanda, Kumara, or Karttikeya.
Note 2 – Three of the six busiest and richest temples in south India are dedicated to him.
Note 3 – The seven wives are said to be the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as The Little Dipper.
Shiva’s nature is as complex and mysterious as Hinduism itself. He is Tripurantaka, Destroyer of Cities, yet also the serene Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, gentle, generous and benevolent, residing within everyone as pure consciousness. Perhaps it is this wild, unpredictable nature which led orthodox Vedic tradition to favour Vishnu over Shiva, but in south India it is The Auspicious One who inspires the most ardent devotion (note 1).
In addition to Tripurantaka and Adiyogi, Shiva manifests in many different forms. He is Somaskanda, loving husband to Uma and father to sons Ganesha and Murugan; Ardhnarishvara, half-male half-female, embodying the cosmic duality of male and female principles; Dhakshina, Lord of the South and Great Teacher; Veenadhara the Lord of Music; and Bhikshatana, the Enchanting Mendicant (ascetic beggar).
However it is Shiva as Nataraja, The Great Lord of Dance which is his most widely known manifestation and it is in this form he is most ardently worshipped. As Nata (dance) Raja (lord), Shiva dances the ecstatic cosmic dance during which he performs the five essential acts as creator, preserver, eradicator of ignorance, bestower of reassurance, and ultimate destroyer (note 2).
Many of Hinduism’s most important concepts, as well as several of its spiritual, ascetic, tantric and ritual traditions, derive from early Saivite belief and practice. As a manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, Shiva exists on a higher plane, although he graciously takes human form from time to time, enabling devotees to make darshan (a visual connection) or to facilitate Bhakti (personal devotion). Shiva is an imposing sight in his physical form. He is covered in the ashes of the cremation ground, symbolic of his outsider status in the pantheon, the dreadlocks of his ascetic role as Lord of Yoga are knotted atop his head, adorned with a crescent moon, a skull, wild cassia blossoms, and a tiny figure of the goddess Ganga (note 3). In his forehead, Shiva’s vertically placed third eye indicates fiery energy (note 4). Wrapped around his waist is a tiger skin, while serpents representing his power over death, coil around his arms. Nataraja projects immense cosmic power as he bestows a delicate abhaya of grace and reassurance; “Fear not, I am here.”Justifiably this iconic icon has come to represent more than Shiva as Lord of Dance but Indian spirituality as a whole. Though the concept originated with the Pallavas in the fifth century, it was Chola’s artists and craftsmen under royal patronage who brought Nataraja to life in the 11th century.
While his human form varies widely according to his manifestation, within the innermost sanctum of Saivite temples, it is the lingam, Shiva’s non-figurative pillar-like symbol, which universally represents the eternal Shiva. The lingam is often depicted with a horizontal disk encircling the base representing Shakti, the Divine Goddess, and also serves to collect the libations poured upon it in worship.
Shiva acting alone may perform his cosmic acts protecting the world from evil, but it is only in combination with divine female energy in the various forms of Shakti, the Great Goddess that He bestows grace upon the individual soul. In Hinduism, and indeed in most ancient religions, female and male energy is considered interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the divine whole. In a temple setting, sculptures of Shiva as Nataraja are always accompanied by Uma. In the metaphysical sense, she completes him.
In the Saivite holy family, Shiva and his consort, Uma, have two sons, Ganesha and Murugan and each with their ardent following. While the elephant-headed, Ganesha, is well-loved throughout India, it is Murugan who is known as the God of the Tamils.
Note 1 – Shiva’s devotees, known as Saivites, often wear three vertical stripes upon their foreheads, symbolic of Shiva’s trident, or trishula. A red dot denotes Shakti energy. As a bindi, this red dot is often worn on a woman’s forehead for the same reason.
Note 2 – Nataraja is popularly known as Shiva the Destroyer, though to think of Shiva as ’destroyer’ in the contemporary sense misses the essence of Nataraja’s role. Dictionaries define ‘destroy’ as ending the existence of something, yet according to Indian philosophy, nothing ceases to exist. The cosmos and everything in it exists in a circular state, transforming from one state to another in an eternal cycle of creation, existence and re-creation. Shiva’s role is of critical importance in this Cosmic Cycle, this Wheel of Time. He is its agent of transformation, without which Brahma would have nothing from which to Create and Vishnu would have nothing to Preserve. To use contemporary terms, Nataraja might better be described as Shiva the Resetter, or possibly Shiva the Cosmic Rebooter. If this concept sounds like the Big Bang Theory, you’re not alone.
“Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
Note 3 – A figure of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the Ganges River, refers to the story of how this celestial river originally fell to earth in a torrent, but Shiva agreed to break its descent by catching it in his hair.
Note 4 – One of the many tales of Shiva and Uma tells of Uma playfully approaching Shiva from behind and covering his eyes with her hands. Suddenly darkness engulfed the entire world, and all were in fear, god and mortals. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva, a third eye appeared, and the light was restored to the world. Another legend has the god, Kama (roughly equivalent to the Greek god Eros, or cupid) approaching Shiva as He was deep in meditation with the aim of facilitating a connection with a yearningUma. Startled out of his contemplation, Shiva incinerated the hapless Kama with fire from his third eye.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state, however, if a puja ritual preparing the icon to receive the deity is carried out correctly, and if the worshipper has a pure heart, the god or goddess may descend into the lifeless sculpture animating it with a small fraction of its of divine essence. This is an act of grace on the part of deity and enables direct and reciprocal connection by touch or sight. Should this connection occur the worshipper experiences a moment of ecstasy – Darshan. The term is also applied to the sight of a particularly revered object or person, such as one’s guru.
Darshan is not a ritual to be undertaken lightly. There are apocryphal tales of unwitting bystanders incinerated by a god’s gaze the moment the deity entered the icon.
Darshan – To See and Be SeenTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:31:55-08:00
Adi Shakti is First Mother, the dynamic force of Brahman and source of all power and consciousness. Adi Shakti is Mother of all that is divine and mortal. See also; Shakti.
Lord of Yoga
Shiva as Adiyogi is the first yogi or guru who "teaches in silence the oneness of one's innermost self (Atman) with the ultimate reality (Brahman).” Stella Kramrisch, “Manifestations of Shiva”. See also; Yoga, Brahman and Atman.
Tamil Vaishnava poet saints
Alvars were Tamil saint-poets who, between the 6th and 9th centuries, wandered south India expressing deep personal devotion (Bhakti) to Vishnu through poems and songs of longing and ecstasy. The Bhakti Movement quickly spread throughout the rest of India as worshippers rejected formal ritual, caste and theosophy to express their devotion in sensual mysticism. Some of Bhakti’s most active proponents were women, such as the saint Mirabai and the poetess, Andal. Their Saivite counterparts are known as Nayanars. See also; Bhakti, Nayanars and Bhakti.
Dance of Bliss
As Nataraja, Shiva performs Anandatava (tr; bliss dance) dancing a weary world into extinction in preparation for Brahma the Creator to fulfill his role. This is all part of the Hindu cyclical nature of the cosmos and everything in it.
Anantha is a serpent floating upon the ocean of the changing world forming a bed for Vishnu. Five, seven, but more commonly a thousand-headed serpent, often with each head ornately crowned. Anantha is also known as Sesha - endless - as he is believed to remain in existence even after the end of the Kalpa when Nataraja destroys the world.
dwarf of ignorance
Apasmara (also known as Mushalagan) is a dwarf-demon manifesting spiritual ignorance. Shiva as Nataraja manifests spiritual knowledge and the two are locked in a neverending struggle. Nataraja will forever suppress Apasarma for if the dwarf (ignorance) is slain, knowledge becomes devalued. In iconography, Apasmara is portrayed offering the anjalimudra of adoration as he is trampled by Nataraja’s right foot.
One of the 63 Nayanars, or Saivite saints, who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the sensual metaphors of their hymns influenced how the divine couple are portrayed in bronze. See also; Alvars, Sambandar and Sundarar.
Arjuna is the mortal charioteer who receives Krishna’s divine guidance in the epic, Bhagavad Gita.
Vedic gods responsible for moral principles. Mitra (contracts), Aryaman (guardian of guest, friendship and marriage), Bhaga (sharing) or Varuna, the supreme Asura (or Aditya). In later Vedic texts the asuras became demons. See also; Devas.
Ayyanar, or Shasta, is a guardian folk deity common to villages of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Some believe he is the son of Shiva and Mohini, a lesser known female avatar of Vishnu. Ayyannar is often depicted riding a horse, white elephant or tiger, upon which he patrols at night. Ayyannar is a Dravidian term meaning; respected elder.
The Supreme Beggar
Shiva’s in his role as Supreme Renouncer. In a rage, Shiva had severed the fifth head from Brahma’s shoulders and to atone he wandered as a beggar for a time. He is depicted nude with four arms, while cobras writhing about his hair and waist. The front right holds grass (kusaa) for the deer leaping playfully at his side, while his front right holds a skull cap (kapala) made of Brahma’s skull used as a begging bowl. His back hands hold traditional Shiva attributes, a drum (damaru) in his right, his trident (trishula) in his left. Unique in Hindu iconography he wears wooden sandals (paduka). Bhikshatana is often depicted as being followed by love-sick women, many of whom let slip their clothing in their lust for him.
Bhu Devi is the Earth Goddess and, along with Lakshmi, wife and consort to Vishnu. When Bhu Devi was abducted by the demon, Hiranyaksha, Vishnu took on the form of Varaha, his boar avatar, and dove into the cosmic ocean to save her. After lifting her on his tusks, Varaha vanquished the demon with his disc-weapon (chakra). See also; Lakshmi, Vishnu and Varaha.
Brahma, as Creator of all living beings, emerged as the first differentiated consciousness from Brahman, The Ultimate Reality. In this role it is his consort Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge who brought order to Brahma’s formless creation. Although Brahma is equal in status with Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, he isn’t worshipped with their devotional ardour. It is believed Brahma’s work is done and it is Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti with the power to change our world now. See also; Saraswati, Shiva and Vishnu.
One of the Hindu goddesses representing a destructive aspect of Devi, The Great Goddess
Dakshinamurti is Shiva’s manifestation as teacher of yoga, music and the wisdom found in the sacred texts. Especially popular in south India.
Devas are ancient Vedic gods controlling the forces of nature, such as fire, air, wind, trees, water, etc. For example, Indra (weather), Agni (fire), Apa (water), Vayu (winds), and Naksatra (stars). See also; Asuras.
A sculptural group when God and Goddess are together.
Shiva as Slayer of Elephant Demon
Shiva’s aspect as slayer of the elephant demon, Gajasura. There are several Puranic myths about Gajasura’s origins but they all agree that a demon transformed into an elephant, Shiva as Gajasurasamhara, many armed and filled with rage, appears and slays the demon, flays the skin and wears it as he performs his victory dance. Uma and Murugan are commonly portrayed looking on.
In northern Indian mythology Gana is a member of Shiva’s ghost entourage.
Remover of Obstacles
Ganesha, or Pillai as he was/is known in south India, is the son of Shiva and Uma though his origins may be much older than the Puranic myths indicate. Ganesha is well-loved by Hindus as he quietly listens with his elephant ears to every prayer before passing it on to other dieites and their respective spheres of influence. He was blessed by his father giving him all the knowledge and power to remove all obstacles (material and spiritual), fear or self-doubt from our minds, and worshipped before beginning of any important task. Ganesha is also known as Ganapati and Vinayaka. See also; Shiva, Uma, and Murugan.
The River Ganges personified
The divine personification of the Ganges River. Bathing in the Ganges washes away sin and facilitates Moksha. Incarnation of Mother Goddess. Sister of Uma. See also; Mari Amma.
Garuḍa is depicted as the mortal enemy of snakes and thus symbolizes courage. Snakes represent factors such as ignorance obstructing the spiritual path. See also; Unnati and Naga.
embodiment of the Gayatri Mantra
The Gayatri Mantra, dedicated to Savitri, god of the five elements, is the most widely known and possibly the most ancient of Hinduism’s sacred chants. It is so important the mantra embodies as the goddess, Gayatri. This YouTube video by Deva Premal is our favourite interpretation; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw
young cowherding women
Typically girls and young women tasked with herding cows.
white swan or goose
The swan vahana of Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge and Music.
Rama’s devoted friend
Hanuman, the monkey-general, is the Hindu ideal of loyalty and service. He demonstrates these qualities in the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, when he works unfailingly to help Rama defeat his demon enemy, Ravana, and rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon king.
avatar of Vishnu
From Wikipedia In Hinduism, Lord Hayagriva is an avatar of Lord Vishnu. He is worshipped as the god of knowledge and wisdom, with a human body and a horse's head, brilliant white in color, with white garments and seated on a white lotus. Symbolically, the story represents the triumph of pure knowledge, guided by the hand of God, over the demonic forces of passion and darkness.
King of Heaven
The foremost diety of early Vedic belief, Indra was the god of the monsoon, in the form of rain and wind, and war. All concerns very important to the early Hindu society. His weapons is the vajra, or thunderbolt. His vahana, or mount, is the cow Kamadhenu.
Kali is both a maternal figure and a fearsome destroyer. According to some Hindu stories, She was born of the wrath of Durga and Uma, embodying the most frightening aspects of destruction. To many of her devotees, Kali is a beloved mother goddess who initiates the natural process of death and renewal.
The Bhagavata Purana (Chapter 16, Canto 10) tells a story of Krishna subduing Kaliya a giant poisonous naga, or snake, who had been bothering the gopis, or cowherds, along the banks of the Yamuna River. See Krishna Kaliya for more detail.
Vishnu’s 10th incarnation, Kalki is expected to arrive at the end of Kaliyuga, the twilight of this age of strife, "when all kings will be thieves." He will be riding a white horse and brandishing a flaming sword, to root out all the evil of the present dark age. Kalki heralds a new golden age will begin when only pure souls exist.
God of Love and Desire
Kama is the god of love and desire, represented as a young, handsome green-skinned man carrying a bow and quiver of arrows. His bow is a stalk of sugarcane with a string of honeybees, and his arrows are decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers; ashoka, white and blue lotus, jasmine and Mango tree. Kamadeva’s vahanas and attributes are a cuckoo, a parrot, humming bees, the season of spring, and gentle breezes. All symbols of spring, when his festival is celebrated as Holi, Holika or Vasanta.
A swallowing fierce monster face with huge fangs, and gaping mouth, quite common in the iconography of south India. As a decorative element on the lintel of temple doorways or gates they symbolize the reabsorption of entering a temple. Not to be confused with Simhamukha, or Lion Face, which leads the worshipper to Brahman.
The Philosopher King
Vishnu’s 8th and most popular incarnation; Vishnu descended to be born as Krishna, a cowherd who later killed several demons. As a youth, Krishna loved to play the flute and seduce the village girls, but as he grew older he had one particular favourite, Radha. Their relationship has come to symbolise the ideal bond of love between the gods and humans known as bhakti. Later he helped the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war against their evil cousins. On the battlefield he revealed divine knowledge in the form of the Bhagavad Gita to his friend, Arjuna. Krishna is well loved by all Hindus as the conduit between gods and mortals. See also; VIshnu, Radha,
Vishnu’s 2nd incarnation assumed the form of a tortoise who held the Mandhara mountain from beneath as the gods and demons used it to churn the oceans for the sake of amrit, the elixir of life.
A quality, characteristic or identifying mark. An example would be the triangular birthmark upon Vishnu’s chest.
Goddess of Wealth and Happiness
Also known as Sri or Sri Devi, Lakshmi embodies Shaktic energy as the Goddess of Wealth and Happiness. Lakshmi is a Mahadevi, a Great Goddess. Hindus ask blessings of Lakshmi for the health of their families and success in their business ventures. She, along with Bhu Devi, The Earth Goddess, is consort to Vishnu and his creative force. See also; Vishnu and Bhu Devi.
Shiva’s third eye is a powerful source of fiery energy. For examplte, Kama, the god of human love, is sent by the gods to gently wake Shiva from one of his long mediations. Shiv is startled when struck by one of Kama’s love-arrows and while his two eyes remain closed, his third eye hits Kama with its fiery energy, instantly incineratiing Kama. Kama’s grieving wife begs Shiva to restore Kama back to life, but rather restore Kama to corporeal form, disperses Kama’s love throughout the universe.
A mythological crocodile-like creature, auspicious symbol of abundance, life-giving waters and the primal energy of life. Commonly featured as the source of fire on the Nataraja prabhamandala. The vahana of Ganga.
A south Indian folk manifestation of Shakti as Mother, Mari Amma, or Durga as she is known outside of south India, is the warrior aspect of the Great Goddess Devi. She is slayer of demons, protector of the village, and curer of diseases. See also; Shakti, Devi, Uma and Kali.
Vishnu’s 1st incarnation assumed the form of a fish to recover the The Vedas from a demon and return them to Brahma for their completion. Matsya also rescued Manu (the primal man) from a flood that inundated the whole earth by carrying his boat to the top of a mountain.
peacock vahana of Murugan
Mayura is the peacock vahana of Murugan, representing pride, arrogance and notions of superiority, all of which which need to be controlled to maintain the spiritual path of darshan. See also; Murugan and Darshan. .
necklace of skulls
The transient nature of all phenomenon in the material world, the false personalities we assume for creating identity and the myriad forms that egoism (ahaṅkāra) takes.
Ganesha, like the rat, penetrates even the most secret places.
Symbolises all those factors such as ignorance that obstruct the spiritual path. Mortal enemy of Garuda, whose weapon against ignorance is Vedic knowledge.
Shiva's vahana, or transport, is Nandi, a white bull and symbol of happiness and strength. Nandi is the source of the term; 'sacred cow’. Saivite temples typically have a sculpture of Nandi in the courtyard facing the sanctum containing the Shivalingam and represents Nandi’s eternal devotion to his master.
Vishnu’s fourth incarnation and a man-lion. Vishnu helped his young devotee Prahlada when he was tortured by his demon father, Hiranyakasipu for intense devotion. Listening to the calls of his young devotee, Vishnu sprang out of the pillar of a building as Narasimha and slew the demon.
Each planet has it’s own diety with appropriate qualities, attributes and characteristics. The Cholas were very accomplished astronomers and kept close watch on the heavens. Naturally they were looking at the night sky hrough the lens of Hinduism.
Tamil Saivite saints
The Nayanars were sixty-three Saivite poet-saints of south India who lived between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. They are best known for expressing deep personal devotion (bhakti) to Shiva through poems and songs of longing and ecstasy. Their ten, perhaps twelve, Vaishnava counterparts are known as Alvars. The Bhakti Movement quickly spread throughout India, and in the 14th to 17th centuries, a bhakti resurgence swept through central and northern India as worshippers rejected ritual, caste and philosophy to express their devotion for their chosen deity in erotic mysticism. See also; Alvars and Bhakti.
Vishnu’s 6th incarnation. A forest dwelling hermit armed with an axe, connotes completion of the basic development of humankind. In another story Parasurama, again with his axe, saves Brahmins from the tyranny of arrogant Khastriyas (warrior caste) who grew wicked and tyrannical, neglecting the upholding of the Dharma and protecting the people.
Lord of Animals
Shiva as Lord of Animals dates from about 3500 BC.
Point of divine femail energy.
Geographic points where divine female energy (or Shakti) is particularly concentrated. See also; Shakti
The life giving element for all living things in the material world. The spiritual essence within the bodies of the gods and goddesses. In iconography the smooth rounded aspect of their bodies is an example of their prana. See also; Caitanya.
Vishnu’s 7th incarnation and central figure in the historical epic, Ramayana, an allegorical tale of Dharma and dharmic living though model characters; Rama, Sita and Hanuman.
The giver” of bliss, of peace, of happiness.
The rhythms of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Sama and Yajus.
breaking a branch of sala tree
Originally an ancient tribal belief that young women had the ability to bring a tree to flower by touch or song. The term now applies to a sculptural temple figure of a young woman under a stylized tree in various poses, such as dancing, grooming herself or playing a musical instrument. Her female physical characteristics, such as breasts and hips, are often exaggerated. Images of salabhanjika are positioned in both Hindu and Buddhist temples at points of transition from the secular to the sacred space. As auspicious guardians they bless the worshipper’s journey to the central shrine of the temple. See also; Dohada and Yakshi.
The sounds of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Rik and Yajus
Sambandar is one of the 63 Alvars, Saivite saints who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the imagery invoked by their hymns and poems influenced how The Divine Couple have been depicted in Chola Bronzes. See also; Alvars, Appar and Sundarar.
Goddess of Knowledge and Music
Saraswati is Goddess of Knowledge and Music and embodies those qualities in her role as embodiment of Shaktic energy. Her Vedic origins are the banks of the extinct Saraswati River in the Thar Desert where she is believed to be the keeper of the river of knowledge that flows from her consort, Brahma. Saraswati personifies civilized behavior, refined tastes and artistic talent. She is wife to Brahma and as such created the knowledge and wisdom which brought order to Brahma’s formless creation. See also; Brahma.
Symbolises the sexual energy latent within the lowest chakra (muladhara) at the base of the spine. Also the control of anger, the worst of all negative emotions.
A massive coiled serpent symbolizing the sleeping universe.
Lord of the Auspicious Neck
Shiva’s role as savior of the world when he consumed the lethal Halahala poison released when the oceans were churned by the serpent Vasuki. Shiva drankd the poison and held it in his throat thereby allowing the nectar of immortality to rise and save the world.
Like the kirttimukha the Simhamukha is often carved into the lintel of temple doorways and gates but while kirttimukha is a swallower, simhamukha leads worshippers to Brahman, The Immensity. Simhamukha is also associated with solar and lunar eclipses. The prabhamandala on icons such as Shiva as Nataraja may include a simhamukha. See also; kirttimukha.
As powerful predators lions instill fear and therefore used to symbolise fierce power. Most commonly seen as Narasimha and Yalis. See also; Narasimha and Yali.
The Holy Family
Somaskanda is a Tamil concept of the Holy Family found in south India. Originating with the pre-Chola Pallava culture it depicts Shiva, Uma and a young Murugan (Skanda). Occassionally they are joined by his elder brother, Ganesha.
Symbolizes the way things are; endless and complex. Without beginning and end.
Symbolizes teaching The Truth. A parrot repeats exactly what it hears without clarifying, modifying or distorting.
One of the 63 Alvars, or Saivite saints, who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the imagery from their hymns influenced how the Great God and Goddess are depicted in the arts, particularly icons. See also; Alvars, Appar and Sambandar.
A temple sculpture depicting a young woman embodying feminine beauty and sensual grace. They normally embody thirteen specific types, such as tree goddess (Salabhanjika), and celestial dancer, (Apsara). As temple figures their spiritual function is to represent a creative aspect of Shakti, The Divine Feminine. See also; Prakriti and Shakti.
Daughter of the Mountain
Uma, or Parvati as she is known outside of south India, is a principal manifestation of Shaktic creative energy. She represents the divine feminine, embodying beauty, grace and wisdom. In pre-Aryan Vedic times she was venerated as ascetic Himalayan goddess but over time she was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon as the primary manifestation of Shaktic spiritual power in her new role as Shiva’s consort. She is the interdependent feminine prakriti principle to Shiva’s male purusha principle. Uma was born to lure Shiva from the life of the ascetic into the more active realm of husband and father. She represents the ideal wife and mother, a perfect balance of purity and sensuality. See also; Shakti and Shiva.
Queen of Knowledge
Unnati is Garuda’s wife and helpmate in the battles against the evils of ignorance.
Vishnu’s 5th incarnation took birth as a dwarf to slay the demon Bali and restore the heavenly kingdom of Indra back to him (note; Vamana is Vishnu’s first human form). With one step he covered the whole earth. With another he covered all of heaven and with his third he pushed Bali's head deep into the nether world.
Vishnu’s 3rd incarnation assumed the form of a boar and slew the demon Hiranyaksha when he carried away Bhu Devi, Mother Earth, to the nether worlds. See also; Bhu Devi.
Ashes are the diverted power of procreation. Kama was destroyed and turned into ashes by the ray from the third-eye of Shiva. Symbolizes the Ultimate Metaphysical transience of everything not divine.
Known to the Cholas as Mayon, the Dark One, Vishnu is preserver and protector of dharmic stability and order. It is said that whenever there is imbalance between good and evil on earth, Vishnu as the preserver will reestablish the balance. One of the ways he does this is to incarnate himself here on earth, something which lessens his power not at all. He has incarnated (with Lakshmi by his side) nine times with the tenth to come. See also; Lakshmi, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurma, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki.
Shiva as Rider of The Bull
Shiva as a common farmer (albeit a farmer wearing princely jewellery) resting his elbow on a (missing) Nandi. Usually accompanied by Uma. According to tradition, the ultimate boon sought by a Shiva devotee is that he be set free from the shackles of life and allowed to remain forever in the presence of Shiva. While granting this boon Shiva assumes the form of Vrishabhavana.
The methodology of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Rik and Sama.
ancient forest spirit
Yaksha, mythical nature spirits of early indigenous origin. Generally benevolent and known for their beauty and charm, yakshas could be mischievous, capricious, sexually rapacious, sometimes murderous subterranean guardians of treasures hidden in the earth. They are also powerful magicians and shape-shifters, and often worshipped as guardians of villages, and water sources such as springs and wells. Their worship, together with popular belief in serpent deities, or nagas, feminine fertility deities, and mother goddesses (female yakshas are known as yakshis), predates the The Vedas, although yaksha worship coexisted with priestly Vedic practice. They were also prototypes for the attendants of gods and kings in later Hindu and Buddhist mythology and art. See also; Salabhanjika.
A yali is a grotesque temple ornament similar in purpose and meaning as a gargoyle in that it serves as a demonic symbol of the ugly and imperfect; a counterpoint to the beauty and perfection of the divinities inside the temple. There are no specific references to yalis in mythology, rather they represent the darker side of human nature against which the devotee must struggle. They usually serve as a cornice bracket with their back to the temple as its protectors. The body of a yali is usually a lion or tiger but is often portrayed with the torso or head of an elephant or bird. We have a Yali sculpture on offer but it is not shown in Our Gallery.
Lord of Yoga
Those who believe Krishna alone is Supreme Being believe it was Krishna, not Shiva, who created yogic philosophy and techniques and therefore referred to as Yogeshwara. The practice of Yoga is central to experiencing the divine through deep meditation, therefore its importance requires that Krishna be credited with its creation.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu MythologyTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:49:00-08:00