Reference Library

Reference Library

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.

Reference Library2021-08-29T11:50:07-07:00

Puja – Devotional Worship

Puja – Devotional Worship

Anyone who has spent time in India knows it can often be a full spectrum sensory experience, and that is something especially true of its spiritual life; the fragrance of incense, flowers and burning lamps, the sharp ring of bells, mantras chanted softly in the dark, the vivid colours of garlanded icons, all fully involve the senses of the worshipper, enhancing the experience of connecting with the Divine.

Ritual worship requires a material object to focus the mind; a tree, a lingam, or a bronze sculpture of a favourite deity, any material object deemed sacred by the worshipper (note 1). When the devotions are directed toward an icon, it is treated as an honoured guest. Water and flowers are gifts of honour and devotion even the poorest can afford, and these offerings, in addition to prayers and the chanting of Mantras, are intended to ensure the deity feels welcome and appreciated (note 2). Once the worshipper has endeared himself to the deity with devotion and sincerity, worship intensifies with prayers expressing praise and gratitude.

Puja; Just as it is today, Puja was the central act of worship in the Chola period. Puja offers the solace of a ritual that calms the mind. Lamps, flowers and bells awaken the inner senses and subtly direct a quiet heart towards an experience of God. Whether performed softly at home, or part of a lengthy, elaborate ritual involving scores of priests, the common elements of Puja are the same. When performed at home;

  • A lamp is lit, and a beautiful icon is revealed – sight,
  • Incense and flowers are offered (note 3) – smell,
  • A bell or bells are rung – sound,
  • An offering of water or yajna (vegetarian food or sweets) – taste (note 2),
  • Lamps circled three or more times clockwise before the icon, heat from the lamps – touch.

Temple worship is somewhat more elaborate than the simple daily pujas performed at home and follows the rituals set out in the Agamas, Tantras and ritual manuals (paddhati) such as the Kamikagama, codified in the time of the Cholas.

  • The icon is ritually bathed (abhiseka) and sandalwood paste, sesame oil and curd rubbed onto the deity’s ‘body’,
  • Then it is dressed in new clothes, and adorned with a fresh sacred thread (valayajnopavita), gold, jewels and fragrances, as well as having a dot of red turmeric applied between the eyebrows,
  • Offerings of sweets and cooked rice are made accompanied by a cacophony of ringing bells. Once blessed, these offerings are now deemed yajna, or consecrated, and taken away at the close of the ritual to be consumed by the devotee.
  • The curtains are drawn and devotees have the opportunity to experience Darshan, a powerful connection through reciprocal eye contact between devotee and deity,
  • The climax of temple puja is when the priests wave a camphor lamp in a circular motion in front of the deity accompanied by the blowing of conches and loud drumming. The priest will then offer the lamps to the devotees who may cup their hands over the flames and ritually bathe their eyes and faces accepting the god’s light and warmth unto themselves. They then accept a thumb of white ash or turmeric upon their foreheads or tie a red thread around their wrist, the left for females, right for males. With that, the temple puja is over.

It is believed by some that if an icon does not receive puja regularly, it may lose its appeal for the deity. The rates at which icons lose their ‘charge’ varies between individual gods (Shiva and Kali, for instance, require more than less dynamic gods, say Ganesha or Hanuman), or whether the icon is situated in a temple or a private home. Temple pieces require more ‘recharging’ than home sculptures due to the greater demands placed upon them by multiple supplicants.

Aarti; another important ritual synonymous with Puja is Aarti, an offering of light, usually from oil lamps, of songs or chants. The Ganga Aarti at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills is a particularly spiritual and uplifting experience. It’s an informal affair, commencing with the singing of hymns (bhajans), prayers, and a purifying fire ritual (hawan) dedicated to Agni, the fire god. At the Aarti’s conclusion, children sing hymns as small lamps (diya) are lit and set into the Ganges to float away into the darkness.

Pranapratishtha; If you purchase a sacred sculpture destined to become part of your spiritual practise, once it arrives, you may want to perform a consecration ritual (pranapratishtha), which symbolically awakens Brahman’s essence within your sculpture.

Note 1 – friends were travelling through Rajasthan a few years ago and came upon a shrine to a fellow who had crashed his motorcycle. For some reason, the truckers deemed the motorcycle ‘auspicious’ and started leaving offerings of cigarettes and alcohol. Hindu theology says that everything animate or inanimate holds within it a spark of Brahman’s divine essence and is therefore worthy of veneration, even a Royal Enfield motorcycle.

Note 2 – traditionally, each god prefers specific flowers for puja. Lakshmi prefers pink lotus; Saraswati likes white; Bhu Devi, blue. Vishnu likes lotuses, of course, but is also fond of tulsi leaves (which should never be offered to Ganesha). Kali, Ganesha and Hanuman prefer any flower in red, while Shiva and Uma enjoy white. Marigold and red hibiscus is everybody’s favourite.

Note 3 – coconuts will often be offered, as well. They symbolize the ego whose hard shell must be broken to access the goodness within. As the centre of community life, temples are a magnet for commerce and worshippers can purchase a puja ‘kit’ of traditional offerings.

Puja – Devotional Worship2019-11-07T16:27:14-08:00

Shiva – The Destroyer

Shiva – The Destroyer

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.”

Fritjof Capra; “The Tao of 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 yearning  Uma. Startled out of his contemplation, Shiva incinerated the hapless Kama with fire from his third eye.

Shiva – The Destroyer2019-11-07T16:52:25-08:00


Hindu Temples

Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.

Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit. 

Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam

Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;

  • They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
  • The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
  • A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several. 
  • A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes. 
  • Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master. 
  • The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture. 

Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.

Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.

Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.

Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti. 

Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.



Glossary of Terms – Hindu Ritual

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Ritual

Hindu RitualAartioffering of lightNormally the conclusion of ritual worship, or puja, aarti is the offering of light, usually oil lamps, to one or more deities. Aarti may also be an offering of song or chant. See also; Puja and Mantra.
Hindu RitualAnandablissAnanda is the blissful state reached upon completion of moksha, oneness with Brahman. Ananda is deemed many hundreds of times stronger than any ecstasy experienced in our mortal existence. See also; Moksha.
Hindu RitualArchanaformal temple ritualPuja performed by a priest in a temple.
Hindu RitualChaksunmilanopening of the eyesA Chola Bronze is only able to fulfill its role as a spiritual image when its eyes are ritually opened in the ritual known as Chaksunmilan. Initially it is the last task to be completed by the craftsman before it is considered finished. It is also the final ritual when the piece is consecrated in the temple or home. Once chaksunmilan is complete the sculpture is believed able to receive divine worship and bestow grace in return. See also; Pranapratishta.
Hindu RitualDarshanto seeWhen proper rituals are performed the deity, which normally exists in a Brahmanic formless state, descends into the icon, bringing the bronze to life. Cold sculpture becomes sacred icon. On the part of the deity, this is an act of grace and allows direct and dynamic connection between the worshipper and the deity. Eye contact may be only momentary but when connection is made, the believer receives the god’s blessing in a moment of ecstasy. See also; Pranapratishtha, Puja, Bhakti and Nyasa.
Hindu RitualDashahrafestivalAn autumn festival where craftsmen worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice. In ancient times carpenters offered prayers and sought forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood. The tree was considered to be a living being and the axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to it.
Hindu RitualDevadasiservant to the godsA woman attendant in the temple whose duties were to serve the gods, either in a housekeeping role or as part of ritual worship. From a young age girls were taught classical dance, hymns or poetry. The position brought high status and they often married well, their daughters would often following their mother in temple service. Devadasis were banned from temples by the Indian government in 1988.
Hindu RitualDiwalifestival of lightsDiwali is the Festival of Light, a celebration renewing the allegiance of us mortals to the gods rather than demons. It’s a time for family and friends, new relationships, fresh possibilities and opportunities. According to tradition people put small oil lamps outside their door on Diwali, guiding Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth, into their home to bless them. See also; Lakshmi.
Hindu RitualDohadafeminine force of fertilityA belief in the blooming of trees and flowers through contact with a young woman through the touch of her hand or foot, or the sound of her voice in song. The young women are known as salabhanjika and over time images of them became ornamental carvings, often as a bracket figures. See also; Salabhanjika and Yakshis.
Hindu RitualGayatri MantraPrayerThe Gayatri Mantra is the most widely known of the Hinduism’s sacred chants and for most Hindus, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. Translated to English; “Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat”
"O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions, we contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.” Click here to listen to our favourite interpretation;
Hindu RitualMantraconsultWhether chanted, whispered or thought, Mantras are syllables, words, phrases or sentences charged with metaphysical energy. Tantric in origin, Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the deities. In Tantrism, Mantric energy is guided by yantras, deity-specific geometric shapes. A favourite for Shailja and I is the Gayatri Mantra sung by Deva Premal; See also; Yantra, Tantra.
Hindu RitualNyasaestablishing a deity’s presenceThe ritual of establishing the presence of one’s chosen deity by touching the limb of sacred image then touching one’s own limb in turn, one by one. See also; Bhakti, darshan and pranapratishta.
Hindu RitualPavalimpu Sevatemple ritualThe ritual of putting the deity, in the form of an icon (murti), to sleep for the evening.
Hindu RitualPrana PratishthatransmogrificationPrana means ‘life giving element’ and pratishta means ‘installed’ or ‘consecrated’. Pranapratishta is a ritual where the soul-less metal icon becomes the literal embodiment of the divine. When the worshipper comes before the statue and begins to pray, faith activates the divine energy within every object, and at that moment, the god or goddess is present. The worshipper sees the divine and is seen in return, in the belief known as . See also; Upasana,
Hindu RitualPrasadagraceFood or other offerings, which after being presented to God, are considered sanctified, reflecting the recognition that when human beings make offerings to deities, the initiative is not really theirs. They are actually responding to the generosity that bore them into a world fecund with life and possibility. The divine personality installed as a home or temple image receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus differ as to whether this is a real or symbolic act, gross or subtle) and offering the remains to worshipers. Some Hindus also believe that prasada is infused with the grace of the deity to whom it is offered. Consuming these leftovers, worshipers accept their status as beings inferior to and dependent upon the divine. An element of tension arises because the logic of puja and prasada seems to accord all humans an equal status with respect to God, yet exclusionary rules have sometimes been sanctified rather than challenged by prasada-based ritual.
Hindu RitualPujaworship ritualPuja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals.The purpose of the puja ritual is an offering to the divine and the granting of a blessing in return. Puja can be a simple daily devotion in the home where the icon is treated as an honoured guest and offered refreshments and sweets, flowers or coconut milk, or puja could be a complex many-layered temple ritual undertaken over many days. The focus of the ritual can be a sacred symbol, such as a lingam and yoni, or an icon representing the deity. See also; Bhakti and Darshan.
Hindu RitualRasaessenceEvery art form in India is meant to arouse rasa in the beholder or listener. According to the Natya Sastra, entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder and bliss, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
Hindu RitualSomaritual hallucinogenic drinkA Vedic ritual drink conferring immortality. A great favourite of the deities for its hallucinogenic properties.
Hindu RitualUtsavafestivalA festival where icons of gods and goddesses, usually housed in the temples, are borne in procession outside the temple walls to be worshipped directly by ordinary citizens.
Hindu RitualYajnasacrificial ritualThe essential element of Vedic ritual is sacrifice to the divine fire (Agni) of offerings such as cooked food, grain, fruit, ghee, oil, water, milk, honey, wood of varous kinds, incense, leaves, kusa grass, prayers, chants, etc. Everything sacrificed to the sacred fire (Agni) is believed to be distributed by Agni the god equally to the other deities. While important Vedic rituals must strictly follow the scriptures, simple daily sacrifice (puja) is performed by individuals without diminishment. See also; Devas, Vedas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu Ritual2019-11-07T16:35:44-08:00

Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras

Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras

AchalaImmovable stone iconIconographyBefore the creation of bronze icons portable enough to be carried in procession, sacred sculptures - Achala - were carved in stone and fixed in place within temple grounds. See also; Mulamurti, Utsavamurti.
AnugrahaBestower of a BlessingIconographyThe generic term used in iconography when a deity, usually Shiva, is portrayed bestowing a direct blessing upon an individual. The deity’s hand is placed on the head of the recipient while another gestures abhayamudra. See also; Abhayamudra.
BhadrapithapedestalIconographyA icon’s base featuring a square base below a round base. One shape denotes one specific aspect, while two shapes indicate multiple aspects.
Bhangastanding postureIconographyThe curving of the body and a standing pose defined by how the figure supports their weight.
Chakra (Hinduism)discusIconographyA solar symbol and wheel, a symbol of the Dharma rotating and spinning its beneficial influence outward in all directions. Also symbolises the cycle of Samsara; repeated birth and death turning endlessly and from which we desire to be liberated. As a weapon of Vishnu, it cuts through ignorance and when thrown it cuts through demons. It's speed is faster than the speed of the mind, thus representing the cosmic mind which destroys our enemies in the form of the afflictive emotions.
DevakoshtasnicheIconographyA wall niche for sheltering a sacred sculpture. See also; koshta
Iconsacred artIconographyA sacred symbol in the form of a painting or sculpture embodying a spiritual truth worthy of veneration and contemplation. “It is impossible for the human being to worship, meditate or praise a deity without form. Therefore the Lord should be worshipped through an icon” Parama Samhita 3:7
KirttimukhaFace of GloryIconographyA swallowing fierce monster face with huge fangs, and gaping mouth, quite common in the iconography of south India. Symbolic of Time and a reminder that everything is impermanent and subject to constant change. Time is the great destroyer and takes from us all that is precious and separates us from our loved ones. 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.
Kolamsacred geometric patternIconographyKolams are symbolic, symmetrical, line drawing patterns made from white rice flour or other powders. They are re-created each morning by homemakers outside homes throughout the Chola homeland and believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and Happiness.
LingamsignIconographyThe iconic pillarlike form of Shiva predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent Hindu deities or the Buddha. Lingam actually means; 'sign', 'mark' or 'symbol. It is Shiva’s pillar of light at the center of the world rooted in the dark netherworld and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. As such the lingam in part represents fertility but the phallus aspect has been overdone by western scholars. The same limitation applies to the yoni, which in truth symbolises transcendent feminine divinity. The yoni is commonly adjoined with the lingam as an object of veneration, symbolic of the duality of Hindu theological principles. See also; Shiva and Svayambhu.
Mulamurtifixed iconIconographyA fixed icon in a temple’s central sanctum, usually carved in stone. The tradition began within cave temples before transitioning to free standing temples under the Pallavas and Cholas. See also; Dhruvabera
Padmapithalotus pedestalIconographyA sacred sculpture’s plinth or base representing the origin of all life, including that of the gods. A double lotus (vishvpadma) indicates high status, representing the heavens with petals point upwards, while our mortal realm is represented by lotus petals facing down. See also; Vishvapadma
ParivaradevataentourageIconographySubsidiary deities when other gods and goddesses are depicted as a group.
Pavailakkutemple ornamentIconographyA bronze lamp donated to the temple crafted with the likeness of a young girl from the donor's family. By making such a gift the donors and their families gain a permanent place in the temple.
PithapedestalIconographyOne shape denotes one specific aspect. Two shapes multiple aspects. Octagonal - initiation ritual. Hexagonal - God is relaxed and being entertained. Round - meditation throne. Square - intended for bathing. See also; Bhadrapitha.
Srivatsaendless knotIconographySymbolises the way things are; endless and complex, without beginning or end.
Svayambhuspontaneous generationIconographyThe principle of spontaneous regeneration, wherein an object is not created by another agency but is ‘self-born’. Some lingamms are believed to be Svayambhu. See also; Padma
Swastikasymmetrical geometric crossIconographyA sacred and auspicious symbol in first the Indus Valley Civilization, then Mesopotamia, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Byzantine, early Christian artwork and even North American indigenous cultures. The swastika’s sacred symbolism endures despite its having been co-opted by the Nazi party in 1920.
Talameasurement unitIconographyThe unit of measurement of the talamana system used to define sacred beauty in icons. Based on the hand
Talamanameasurement systemIconographyDerived from the Shilpa Sastra, talamana is the system which defines measurement, proportion and geometry as it applies to the creation of icons.
Upasanasitting nearIconographyThe Upanishads tell us of the importance of meditation on our spiritual path. Upasana (upa + asana) means ‘sitting near’ and refers to the act of meditation. Upasana can also be translated as worship, contemplation, devotion (bhakti), puja, etc. Upasana is also a term applied to the image of a Devi positioned near an image of a Deva. See also; Bhakti and Puja.
Utsavamurtisymbolic image of godIconographyA consecrated processional icon, usually in bronze, specifically created as transportable as opposed to a fixed immobile temple figure of a mulamurti. Early utsavamurti were wooden and later bronze when casting techniques were advanced enough for monumental sizes. See also; Achala, Darshan, Mulamurti (fixed).
Vishvapadmadouble lotus pithaIconographyHigh status gods and goddesses are often seated upon the double lotus base, vishvapadma.
Yantrasacred geometric patternIconographyYantra is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a deity and treated and worshipped as that diety. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and the yantra directs that energy. Tantra is the written philosophy and practice for directing and channeling mantric energy to guide the devotee’s spiritual path. Yantra, Mantra and Tantra are interconnected. While similar in shape and purpose, mandalas represent the entire universe rather than a specific deity. See also; Kolam, Mandala and Mantra.
Yogapattammeditation aidIconographyA cirucular yoga meditation band worn around the waist and around one or both knees. See also; Aiyanar, Narasimha Yoga and Yogeshwara.
AlankaraadornmentAlankara (adornment)Sculpture and paintings representing divine and semi-divine figures are adorned with the lavish jewelry, clothing, and hairstyles of their creator’s royal court. Alankara enchants and pleases the eyes of the beholder as it enhances the subject’s inherent grace and exquisite nature. An unadorned figure is considered diminished and unworthy of veneration. Complete nudity is considered unforgivably vulgar, with the exception of ascetics or Jain ‘skyclad’ figures.
AnantajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Armband coiling around the upper arm.
Antariyalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A long white or coloured strip of fine cotton or silk worn through the legs, tucked at the back and loosely covering the legs, then flowing into long pleats at front of the legs. When worn by a deity or royalty, the antariya is richly patterned or pleated, and usually accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle. See also: Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
Ardhorukalower garmentAlankara (adornment)Unpleated, diaphanous fine cotton or silk, knee-length, lower body covering. See also; See also: Antariya, Dhoti, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
AvatansajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Jewellery worn over the ears but not supported by the earlobes.
BahuvalayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Jewellery worn draped over the right shoulder, falling outwards towards the bicep. See also; Keyura.
BindicosmeticsAlankara (adornment)Married Hindu women commonly wear a decorative and auspicious vermilion dot or bindī denoting Shakti on the forehead. See also; pottu (or bottu) and tilaka.
Channaviracross beltAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes the prosperity of the wearer.
Dhammillahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot lower or off the side. Symbolizes deference to accompanying deity.
Dhotilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by both men and women the dhoti, or veshti, is usually around 4.5 metres (15 ft) long, wrapped around the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked at the base of the back. Can be cotton of various quality or silk, richly patterned or pleated, and may be accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle if worn by a deity or royalty. Derived from the older antariya. See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi, Veshti, or Mekhala.
Dukulalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A pleated, diaphanous, close fitting, fine cotton or silk leg covering worn by goddesses. See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
HarajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace or amulet. See also; mala.
Jatahair styleAlankara (adornment)Dreadlocks representing an ascetic aspect.
Jatabandhahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot of braided hair decorated with jewels.
Jatabharahair styleAlankara (adornment)Large mass of braids tied up on the side. Shiva as Daksina Murti.
Jatamakutacrown of hairAlankara (adornment)A crown of lavishly decorated dreadlocks similar to Kiritamukuta. Shiva but not as ascetic with skull or crescent. Brahma’s jatamakuta is jewelled.
Jatamandalahair styleAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes terrifying aspect.
Jvalakeshahair styleAlankara (adornment)Worn straight up or around the head like flames. Commonly seen in Kali iconography.Agni and Kali.
Kacchalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A pleated, diaphanous, close fitting, fine cotton or silk, leg covering. See also; Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Dukula, Lungi and Veshti..
KankanajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Bracelet
Kapardahair styleAlankara (adornment)Shiva’s penitential matted dreadlocks wound around his head like a snail’s shell. Often decorated with snakes.
KarandamukatacrownAlankara (adornment)Conical crown in the shape of a mountain.
KatibandhabeltAlankara (adornment)More of a hipband than a functioning belt. Often decorated with images of lion’s heads and snakes.
Katisutralower garmentAlankara (adornment)An elaborate and complex arrangement of lower sashes. Part of the waistband drops in front of the knees and is knotted at the sides, showing both a a loop and the sash end. The long ends of a second sash fall down the sides of the body. A katisutra also refers to single banded sash or belt worn by female deities.
Keshabandhahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot of unbraided hair decorated with jewels.
KeyurajewelleryAlankara (adornment)shoulder jewellery. See also; Bahuvalaya
KiritamakutacrownAlankara (adornment)Highest of crowns, literally and metaphorically. Conical cylinder topped with a knot or point. When worn by a goddess she is of equal rank as the highest gods at that moment.
Kuchabandhabreast bandAlankara (adornment)A breastband, often supported by a necklace. Goddesses dwelling on the heavenly plane are typically portrayed bare breasted, while Bhu Devi, as Goddess of the Earth exists within the Earth. She and Lakshmi are often depicted together and to differentiate the two, Bhu Devi wears a kuchabandha.
KundalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Earrings shaped like mythical sea monsters symbolizing the tow methods of pursuing knowledge; intellectually (sankhya) and intuitively (yoga). See also; makala, and yoga.
Lungilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Lungis are a long lower garment sometimes sewn into a tube shape like a skirt and tied to the left. Made of various qualities of cotton or silk. Aso known as kaili, charam or saaram. Evolved from from the longer antariya. Rarely worn by women. See also; See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dukula, Kaccha, Veshti, Mekhala.
MakatacrownAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes royalty.
Makutahair styleAlankara (adornment)
MalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace or amulet. Also hara.
ManjirajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Ankle jewellery, often with bells, and an important element in temple dance.
MekhalabeltAlankara (adornment)An eight strand belt worn by female goddesses. Signifies protection and fertility. Used in special rituals either calling for rain or to prevent flooding.
PadasarasjewelleryAlankara (adornment)Anklets
PadvalayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Ankle bracelet.
PatrakundalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Simple circular or leaf shaped earring
Pitambaragolden garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by Vishnu, his light shines through this golden garment just as the Veda’s light of truth radiates through their holy words.
Pottu (or Bottu)cosmeticsAlankara (adornment)Similar to a bindi, a pottu is worn by married Hindu women in south India. Usually between the eyebrows rather than further up toward the hairline as in the north. See also; bindi
RatnamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of precious stones
RudrakshajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Worn as a necklace (mala), rudraksha are believed to protect the wearer, functioning much the same way as a Christian rosary. Composed of the seeds of the rudraksha tree (elaeocarpus ganitreus), they are associated primarily with Shiva, less so with Brahma and Saraswati. Rudraksha are believed to retain a Mantra’s energy after it’s recited. See also; Mantra.
SankhyajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Earrings shaped like mythical sea-monsters (makara) representing the two methods of pursuing knowledge; intellectually (sankhya) and intuitively (yoga).
ShirastrakaturbanAlankara (adornment)Turban of cloth or braided hair tied in a knot on the front. Worn by subsidiary deities, demons and celestials.
Siraschakradisc of feathersAlankara (adornment)When worn by mortals it is simply a hair ornament of white egret feathers shaped into a wheel and worn at the back of the head. When worn by a deity it represents the nimbus of light emanating from divine beings when taking human form.
SkandamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of skulls.
Tholl ValaijewelleryAlankara (adornment)Armband
TilakacosmeticsAlankara (adornment)A mark worn on the forehead as a sign of spiritual devotion. The shape is an indicator of devotion to a certain deity. For example, a 'U' shape tilaka usually denotes devotion to Vishnu, while Shiva devotees often wear it in the form of three horizontal lines.
UdarabandhagirdleAlankara (adornment)A ribbon worn between chest and waist. Used also as a support band in yogic meditation. Typical worn by Shiva as Nataraja, Krishna and Ganesha.
ValayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Bracelet
Valayajnopavitasacred threadAlankara (adornment)Ganesha’s sacred cord of snakes.
VanamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of flowers
Veshtilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by both men and women, the veshti, or dhoti, is usually around 4.5 metres long, wrapped around the waist and the legs, then knotted at the waist. Can be cotton of various quality or silk, richly patterned or pleated, and if worn by a deity or royalty, it may be accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle. See also; Antariya, Mekhala.
Yajnopavitasacred threadAlankara (adornment)A long circular cord worn crossing the left shoulder and falling in a curve across the torso and around the right hip. A symbol of learning and adulthood worn by deities and the three upper castes.
AdarsamirrorAttributesRepresenting the principle that the material world is merely a reflection in the mirror of a pure mind. All is reflected, yet it is not held. The whole universe is a reflection of Brahman, The Immensity, yet is only a tiny fraction of Brahman’s creation.
AgnifireAttributesRepresenting destruction, energy in its purest form but also creation.
Ankushaelephant goadAttributesAttribute symbolizing the incentive to persevere in spiritual practice and apply its teachings. Also the control of anger. The spiritual path is arduous and difficult but if we are committed then Ganesha will prod us by means of the Goad, and guide us to our moksha.
Ayudhasymbolic attributeAttributesAn object held in a icon’s hands defining the nature, character and functions associated with that particular deity. If the icon itself is a symbol of the deity the ayudha adds another layer of symbolism.
BanaarrowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama. See also; dhanus.
Camarafly whiskAttributesAttribute symbolizing obedience to the law, particularly ahimsa, the highest principle of Dharma. Also symbolizes following the teacher and tradition.
ChakradiscusAttributesPrimarily an attribute of Vishnu, or Lakshmi the chakra symbolizes; the wheel of Dharma which spins its benefits in all directions; the endless circle of samsara - birth and rebirth of all things; and finally as a weapon whose speed is faster than the speed of the mind.
ChattraparasolAttributesAttribute symbolizing royal protection.
Chintamatiwish fulfilling jewelAttributesSymbolizes the mind, the precious jewel of the perfected mind in which all wishes and aims are accomplished.
ChuridaggerAttributesAttribute symbolizing the spiritual path as the dagger’s razor's edge, needing to be travelled with great care. As a weapon, churi symbolizes the ability to subdue demons or other enemies.
Damaruhand drumAttributesAttribute symbolizing how the universe was set in motion by the regular drumbeat rhythm of the damaru (a theme common to indigenous cultures throughout the world). The damaru’s two joined halves may also be an allusion to male and female principles. In the case of Nataraja when the two halves part the sound ceases and the universe dissolves. In Tamil the damaru is known as udukkai. See also; Nataraja.
DandastaffAttributesAn attribute of Murugan/Kartikeya symbolizing the ability to drive away demons.
DhanusbowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama. See also; bama.
Dhanus and Banabow and arrowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama.
Dhvajabanner or flagAttributesAttribute symbolizing the bearer is a source of charity and safety to all sentient beings. An indication of the triumph of the Dharma.
DhvajaflagAttributesMaking oneself known to others as a source of charity and safety to all sentient beings. An indicator of the triumph of the Dharma.
Durvalawn grassAttributesAssociated with Gaṇeśa, it is the symbol of indestructibility and regeneration offered in pujas for prolonging life. Also grass represents the delicate choosing of the Dharmic path as demonstrated by an elephant's ability to pluck individual blades of grass or push over a tree.
EkadantatuskAttributesAttribute symbolizing compassion. When Ganeshai acted as a scribe for Vyasa, it was on the condition that he would not interrupt the recitation of the Mahabharata. When his quill broke Ganesha broke off his own tusk in order not to interrupt a work that would benefit so many people. Thus out of great compassion for beings the Lord was prepared to mutilate himself.
GadaclubAttributesAttribute symbolizing Karma’s strength and power, The gada is thus the symbol of intellect and the power of knowledge; the essence of life from which all physical and mental powers come. Gada is also a symbol of sovereignty representing the law of Karma by which all humans are governed.
GhantabellAttributesSymbolizes feminine energies. The bell's ringing is said to welcome gods and drive away evil. Also used in battle to confuse the enemy with its clamour.
GhantjabellAttributesSymbolizes impermanence. The phenomenal world which is impermanent and evanescent. Creation of the transient world through sound - perceived but not held or kept.
JapamalarosaryAttributesAttribute symbolizing spiritual practice. A physical prompt and concentration aid for the Mantra Om Nama Sivaya.
Kamandaluwater potAttributesSymbolizes the causal waters from which all creation has sprung. The heart of the devotee should be ready, like the jar, to contain and hold the life-giving waters of truth and universal well-being. See also; Brahma.
KapalaskullAttributesAs a bowl fashioned from a human skull it is associated with esoteric Tantric ritual and therefore commonly seen in images of Kali and less often in the iconography of Shiva. As a complete skull the kapala represents the deity’s immortality as the vanquisher of death. For worshippers it is confirmation that death has no meaning for the true believer. See; Kali and Nataraja.
Kapalamalagarland of skullsAttributesAttribute symbolizing impermanence and the traces left behind by the dead. Also the false self-images we use to validate ourselves to feed our egos and desires.
KhadgaswordAttributesAttribute symbolizing wisdom cutting through the illusion and ignorance hidden within all of us. Like a scabbard, it needs to be withdrawn with skill and used with care and precision.
Khatvangaclub with skullAttributesImpermanence, dissolution, also symbolizes the 8 mystical powers obtained through yoga meditation.
KhetakashieldAttributesSecurity, defence and protection. Deflection of negativity and assault by others.
Kumudablue lotusAttributesAttribute symbolizing victory over the spirit of self; the ability to leave wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge behind and open to spirituality. This in addition to the powerful symbology of a lotus of any colour. Typical attribute off Bhu Devi. Also known as utpala.
KuntaspearAttributesAttribute symbolizing the focus of concentration applied during meditation aimed at the goal of perfection. Focussed attention at eliminating the inner demons of delusion, anger, greed etc. See also; sakti.
Kusaasacred grassAttributesMentioned in the Rig Veda for use in sacred ceremonies. Also woven as a seat cushion for icons and priests. Attributed most often to Brahma as source of the Vedic rituals.
Laddus/Modakaround sweet rice ballsAttributesAttribute symbolizing the rewards of a wise life, food, clothing and shelter and the wise are not attached to them. Typical of Ganesha who is never shown eating laddus.
Maheshwarthird eyeAttributesOne day Uma snuck up behind Shiva and playfully placed her hands over his eyes. Sudden darkness engulfed the world and all beings trembled in fear. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva; a third eye appeared there giving light back to the world. Attribute of Shiva and his son, Ganesha.
MalachiselAttributesRepresenting meditation and spirituality.
MrgaantelopeAttributesAttribute symbolizing the soul longing to reach Shiva-hood. The origin may hark back to ancient animist beliefs in a sacred natural world.
MuralifluteAttributesMost commonly associated with Krishna, but also Ganesha, the murali symbolises the melody of love. It’s made of bamboo, with six holes and about 12 fingers long. An ancient flute, today it’s associated with Indian classical music.
PadmalotusAttributesPerhaps the penultimate symbol of purity and beauty, the lotus grows in the mud of endless reincarnation (samsara) but rises and opens to the sun immaculate and pure. A lotus bud symbolizes potential; an open lotus, actualization. The way in which water beads up and rolls off the lotus represents how negativity and distraction fail to adhere to the pure of mind and body. An attribute of Uma, Lakshmi, and Bhu Devi. See also; Svayambhu.
ParasuaxeAttributesAttribute symbolizing non-attachment. To progress on the spiritual path one must cultivate non-attachment to the desires of the material world. The noose held in the one hand needs to be cut with the axe of non-attachment in the other.
PasanooseAttributesAttribute typically made of three strands symbolizing the three bonds binding us to the cycle of rebirth; ignorance (avidya), action (karma), and old patterns (vasana). It also has three other meanings; attracting oneself to the Dharma, tying oneself by the constraints of Dharma and destroying all obstacles to one's spiritual evolution.
PasharopeAttributesAttribute symbolizing an attribute of Ganesha as Ganapati.
Purnakhumbafilled vaseAttributesSymbolizes fullness, and spiritual perfection which overflows to serve all beings.
PustakabookAttributesAttribute symbolizing intellectual pursuit of knowledge and study of the Dharma through The Vedas; the formal learning of all knowledge and theory.
Rhytondrinking vesselAttributesShaped like a ram. Used for drinking the blood of demons Durga has killed.
SaktispearAttributesAttribute symbolizing the destruction of the dark side of human nature. See also; kunta.
Salipallavarice shootAttributesSymbolizes the bounty of nature, fertility and abundance.
Sankhaconch shell trumpetAttributesWhen a sankha is blown it produces the sacred sound; OM. The sankha’s shape is a spiral and represents diffusion of dharmic teachings which start at one point and evolve into ever increasing spirals throughout the universe. All forms of the universe are the effects of this primal sound. The sankha is most often associated with Vishnu and Lakshmi.
Sarpayajnopavitasacred cord as a cobraAttributesA cobra worn as a sacred cord by Shiva as Ascetic (Bhikshatana).
ShrivatsaVishnu identifierAttributesAn identifying triangular or rhomboid mark worn by Vishnu on the right side of his chest.
Srukladle or spoonAttributesSymbolizes the principle of sacrifice. For something to be created or achieved; resources, energy, or time need to be sacrificed. A fundamental principle of Hindu worship ritual. See also; puja.
Sulashort handled stabbing tridentAttributesAttribute symbolizing
TrishulatridentAttributesShiva’s most well known symbol and his weapon of choice. With Surya’s assistance it was created with material from the Sun but with an eighth of its heat.
VeenaluteAttributesThe veena was created by Shiva as an aid to an elevated level of meditation and when played well induces a meditative, trance-like state. When held by Saraswati it represents learning and wisdom. The veena’s origins dates from 1500BCE and its spirtual importance is mentioned in early Tamil texts as well as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, The Vedas and the Puranas.
AbhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBody bent side to side, Weight on one leg. hip pushed out to one side. Symbolizes deep in thought.
AbhayaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasUsually the right hand, palm raised and facing outwards. Signifies blessing, reassurance and protection. “Fear not, I am here”. An ancient mudra demonstrating that the hand is empty of weapons and thus an offering of friendship and peace. In the Gandharan tradition, abhaya was sometimes used to indicate that Buddha is preaching.
AlidhapadaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth feet on the ground. LEFT leg back straight. RIGHT leg in front. Knee bent. Shiva’s aspect as Archer - Destroyer of Three Cities. See also; Alidham and Pratyalidham.
AnjaliHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth palms held together at the chest and level with the heart chakra signifies; “I see and salute the divine essence in you”. An anjali touching the forehead is a greeting.
ArdhacanadraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPalm up and cupped or flat as if holding fire, either in the palm directly or in a fire dish. See also; Agni and Nataraja.
ArdhaparyankasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg, usually the left, tucked upon the seat. The other leg dangles.
AsanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPosition of the legs when seated. Along with mudras and attributes, asanas are an important part of a complex visual vocabulary communicating identity, attitude and characteristics of the god or goddess.
AtibhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to tribhanga but the side to side bends of the body are exaggerated. Symbolizes impending violence. Typical of Shiva in his destructive aspect. See also; tribhanga.
BharatanatyamClassical DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOriginating in south India, Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees flexed out, combining intricate footwork with a sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas from sacred Hindu texts. Many of the mudras and hastas of Chola Bronzes are inspired by Bharatanatyam. See also; Hasta, Asana and Mudra. For a top contemporary dancer see;
BhujangalalitaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg bent at the knee and resting on the ground. Other leg lifted ABOVE the level of the knee
BhujangatrasaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg bent at the knee and resting on the ground. Other leg lifted AT or BELOW the level of the knee
BhumiparsaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe right arm resting on the the right knee, the hand palm inward, reaching toward the ground. Bhumiparsa, loosely translated as “touching the Earth” represents the moment of the Buddha's awakening as he claims the earth as witness to his enlightenment.
CaturaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRight foot resting on the ground. Left foot upraised with toes touching the ground.
ChandrakalHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIndex finger pointing upward and thumb at right angle forming a crescent. Represents Chandra, the moon, symbol of intelligence and intellect. Chandrakal can also symbolize a shield and therefore a defensive gesture.
DamarumudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe literal gesture of holding a damaru, a small, thin-waisted, double drum. See also; Nataraja.
DharmachakraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth hands are held against the chest, the left hand facing inward covering the right hand facing outward. Dharmachakramudra represents setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma, thus the mudra identifies the Buddha as Teacher.
DhyanamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn a position of deep meditation, the right hand rests within the left in the figure’s lap, both palms facing up. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Yogamudra.
DvibhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasStanding with the body bent side to side twice. Signifies a beneficent mood.
GajahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSymbolizes ultimate strength and power, the arm is held across the chest and straight like an elephant’s trunk. Also known as dandahasta.
HastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPosition of the arms. See also; mudras.
HastavastikaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArms crossed in front of the chest suggesting total deference to a higher ranking deity.
JnanaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHand level with the heart, palm up. Thumb and finters, usually the ring finger, forming a ring. Represents the great wisdom of the god depicted. Also known as chinmudra.
KaranaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRight hand at or near the heart. Palm facing outward. Middle and ring finger bent towards the palm with the thumb holding them in position. Index and little fingers remain straight. Signifies repelling demons or fear and anxiety.
KartariHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHand raised, index and middle finger holding some sort of attribute, such as a weapon or deer. Without an attribute present, the Kartarimudra represents a deer antler, which in turn symbolizes the contradiction in all things.
KatakaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasUsually the right hand, the index finger and thumb held as if holding a padma, or lotus. Indicates the deity, usually a goddess, invites the worshipper to offer the gift of a flower. Can also be seen as forming a ring or a lion’s ear.
KatyavalambitaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe hand resting palm down, bent up at the wrist and against the hip indicates the deity will ease the worshipper’s sorrow.
LalitasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe seated pose of royal ease in which one leg is folded so that the foot rests on the seat and the other leg hangs down.
LolahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasA non-symbolic pose where the arm hangs like the tail of a horse at the side of the body.
MudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSymbolic hand gestures with special meaning often seen in artistic depictions of the Hindu and Buddhist images. See also; Gestures and Postures.
NataStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWild ecstatic dance of Shiva as Nataraja. Also; Tandava.
Natya SastraSacred TextBhangas, Asanas and MudrasAn ancient foundational treatise defining the guiding principles of classic temple dance, as well as its theory, body poses (hastas), gestures (mudras), expressions, symbolism and standards. Codified some two thousand years ago it remains virtually unchanged from when it was written by scholar Bharata Muni. See also; hastas, mudras and Shastriya Nritya
NrityamurtiStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWeight on one leg, slightly bent. Other leg supported by the foot against the inside of the thigh of the standing leg.
PadavastikaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHip pushed out to one side, weight on one leg. Other leg crossed lightly in front supported by the toes. Symbolizes benevolent tranquility and relaxation. Typical of Krishna playing his flute.
PadmasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn yoga the lotus position. Legs are crossed. Feet upturned. Symbolizes deep meditation. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Yogamudra.
PatakahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArm outstretched to the side like a bird representing the power of flames in a fire. Strength.
PratyalidhamStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth feet on the ground. LEFT leg back straight. RIGHT leg in front. Knee bent. Shiva’s aspect as Archer - Destroyer of Three Cities. Also Alidhapada and Alidham
SamabhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasNo bending. Standing straight, weight equally on both feet or one knee slightly bent. See also; sthanubhanga
SthanubhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasNo bending. Standing straight, weight equally on both feet. Also samabhanga.
SukhasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasResting comfortably.
TandavaStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWild ecstatic dance of Shiva as Nataraja. Also; Nata and Nyamurti
TarjanimudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRaised index finger as a threat or warning. In a multi-limbed figure it can convey menace or wrath when used by a left hand of a rearward set of hands.
TribhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to atibhanga but a side to side pose with the weight on one leg, the head and lower body slanting in one direction and the torso moving in the opposite direction. Symbolizes generous demeanour and potential movement. See also; atibhanga.
UttarabodHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHands together level with the heart, index fingers touching and pointing upwards with the remaining fingers intertwined. Symbolizes supreme enlightenment as direct connection to the divine principle. Common in Buddhist iconography.
VajramudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasErect index finger of either hand held in the fist of the other. Signifies the importance of spiritual wisdom. The raised index finger is knowledge and the fist protects it. Common in Buddhist iconography.
VaradamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPalm down and facing the believer, indicatiing the god is preparing to grant a desire, blessing or reward.
VirasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to Padmasana but crosslegged. Often left leg bent resting on the seat. Right leg hanging. Hero position while battling demons.
VismayaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArm raised. Palm facing back. Expresses surprise or wonder when deferring to another deity of higher status.
VitarkaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWith the hand palm out and held over or near the heart, the thumb and index form a ring while the other fingers remain erect. Vitarka signifies pure wisdom or judgement. When stretched toward a believer vitarka indicates the god or guru wishes to offer instruction. When not near the heart vitarka is also known as jnana or chinmudra. Common in Buddhist iconography.
YogamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn a position of deep meditation, the right hand rests within the left in the figure’s lap, both palms facing up. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Dhyanamudra.
YogasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasLegs crossed. Feet touching the ground. Knees up and supported by a belt or loop (yogapatta). Possibly only one leg supported. Symbolizes an ascetic aspect. See also; Narasimha,
Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras2019-11-08T05:34:33-08:00

Chola Bronze Iconography

Chola Bronze Iconography

“Without a form how can God be meditated upon? If God is without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality.”

Vishnu Samhita Ch 29, V 55-7

When Brahman (God) is without form, the form which enables Hindus to focus their devotions is either an abstract aniconic form such as a lingam, yoni or yantra; or figurative – such as a Chola Bronze.

Lingam and Yoni; The aniconic pillarlike form of the lingam predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent divinity (note 1). In the Saivite and Shaktic traditions, the lingam is Shiva’s column of light at the center of the world, rooted in the dark netherworld, breaking through the surface of the earth and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. The yoni (tr; womb, origin, source) is the female, regenerative equivalent of the lingam and represents the Divine Feminine principle of Shakti. The lingam and yoni together represent the regenerative power of the universe through the union of male (Prakriti) and female (Purusha) natural, divine power.

Yantra; A Yantra (tr; machine) is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a particular deity and worshipped as that deity. Yantras predate Vedic belief by many thousands of years and closely associated with Shakti worship. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and direct mantric energy towards the deity. While Yantras and Mandalas are similar in appearance and both are metaphysical devices created to aid meditation practice, Yantras are specific to a deity, or the home of a deity, while Mandalas represent the cosmos as a whole.

An ancient tradition in south India is the kolam, an auspicious geometric pattern similar to the yantra and mandala. The kolam is applied to the ground outside the entrance to private homes and are refreshed each morning. Kolam are believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune.

Figurative Sculpture; In Hindu mythology, it is believed gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state and leave this state only when a physical body is required to perform a heroic deed, or when a worshipper requires a material focus for worship. If certain rituals are performed the god’s spirit may mystically descend and enter into a sculpture created in its human form (murti). For the time it takes to perform puja, the bronze figure becomes the god or goddess. Doing so is an act of grace on the part of the deity and having a physical form enables the god to bestow a blessing upon the worshipper with a gesture or eye contact (Darshan). and it is the clean, simple, visual vocabulary of iconography which makes it possible.

The challenge for Chola artists was to craft sculpture worthy of the gods. As a material metaphor of a divine entity, it must be aesthetically and technically perfect and when royal patronage put all the resources of the empire at the artist’s disposal, the iconic Chola Bronzes were created. The artists worked within the temple complex and in most cases, were also trained in music and dance. Then as now, dance brought to life the god’s stories, not only through body language (bhangas and hastas) but subtle hand gestures (mudras) as well (note 2). A dancer tells the god’s story with their body, the sculptor tells it in bronze.

For those new to the idea of gods and goddesses as sexual beings, the sensuality of Chola Bronzes can be unsettling. Prudery was unknown to the Cholas, indeed to most pre-colonial Indians, who believed the body’s senses were a gift from the gods. The intense sensual stimulation of sex was the greatest of those gifts and connection with one’s beloved while making love was believed to be spiritually akin to the feeling of connection between worshipper and deity during the ritual of Darshan. In addition, the ecstasy of sexual release was deemed similar to Darshan’s moment of bliss when the worshipper and divinity became visually connected.

As Chola artists created their sculptures, they were guided by the firm hand of sacred texts, the Shilpa Sastras. Every aesthetic and technical detail was followed to the letter (note 3). The units of measurement are the angula, or a finger width, and the tala, the distance from the chin to the forehead. Twelve angulas equal one tala. The artist creates a figure using an ancient system where the head is one tala high; the neck is four angulas, the torso three talas, and so on. The figure’s eyes, for example, are to be shaped like a small fish or lotus petal; the eyebrow like an archer’s bow; the lips shaped like lotus blossoms; the chin like a mango stone; and the arms like an elephant’s trunk or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapered like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion. The female should have full breasts, a narrow waist like a drum (damaru), and generous hips, all symbolizing nature’s abundance and the female procreative powers. Goddesses are slightly shorter in stature and slender, while in a grouping of deities, lesser gods and juveniles are proportionally smaller.

As they blend characteristics of both the divine and the human, a Hindu god’s body appears soft, without muscle definition, because it is filled not with blood, muscle and bone, but with prana, the sacred breath of life and evokes the serene otherworldliness of spiritual beings who have passed beyond the physicality of the human body. The way the gods stand or sit or hold their hands conveys messages to the beholder of assurance, blessing or protection. Multiple arms and hands hold symbolic attributes such as flowers or weapons, all conveying information as to the deity’s qualities or responsibilities. The head of an animal, such as a boar or an elephant, places the deity in myth and legend. But tradition – and the Shilpa Sastras – specify these figures must also blend supernatural characteristics with the ideal beauty of earth-born men and women and the artists need to look no further than the royal court around them for inspiration. They would be surrounded by beautiful, youthful, semi-nude men and women, adorned in fine silks and lavish jewellery (note 4). For royalty, divine or mortal, the wearing of jewels and silk sets them apart and above. In a tropical environment, minimal clothing was natural and only lack of adornment (alankara) was considered vulgar.

Note 1 – The lingam is the central fixed point in Creation and any figurative forms are deemed secondary. For example, while the galleries and outer courtyards of a Saivite temple may contain multiple images of Shiva in his various aspects (Nataraja, Tripuravijaya, etc.) the centre of temple worship in the innermost sanctum is the Lingam.

Note 2 – Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees splayed, intricate footwork and sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas. For a top contemporary dancer see;

Note 3 – The Shilpa Shastras formalized how Chola bronzesmiths related the perfection of the natural world to the perfection of the gods. In addition to the creation of their iconic bronzes, the Shilpa Shastras also directed the arts of painting, temple architecture, mural carving, jewellery making, music, dance, poetry, medicine, carpentry, even the erotic arts.

Note 4 – Chola Bronzes worshipped in temples are never seen unadorned except by their attendant priests. Except for their faces and perhaps their hands, their bodies are hidden beneath garlands, silks and jewellery. 

Chola Bronze Iconography2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism

It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.

He is the one, the one alone, in Him
all deities become One alone.” 

Artharva Veda

Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.

These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00