Category Archives: Iconography

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sacred Lotus Symbol

The lotus is an iconic flower, originating in Southern Asia, which has claimed a place as a prominent symbol in ancient history, remaining as such today. It is through a combination of religious and symbolic connotations, nutritional and medicinal applications, and sheer aesthetics and laudability in its natural life cycle that have facilitated the lotus’s significance. While there are many species of lotus flowers across Asia, the Hindus’ Sacred Lotus is scientifically known as the Nelumbo nucifera. This perennial flower grows in the muddy waters of shallow pools throughout Asia (Kew n.d.). It possesses a unique nanostructure of its leaves which provides an uncanny self-cleaning ability, allowing the flowers to emerge from the mud without tarnish (Kew n.d.). This natural trait has facilitated symbolic reference towards the flower; rising out of the mud, untouched by the filth, resonated with ancient thinkers, philosophers, and religious peoples. Furthermore, beyond its life cycle, the lotus holds many unique properties which benefit human nutrition and health. Studies have found that this ancient plant, consumed throughout Asia, is highly nutritious and retains a number of medicinal properties from gastrointestinal regulation to bad breath remedy to insomnia reduction (Zhang et al 323,324). The relevance to health and wellness worked well with the divine reference in ancient Vedic scripture, where the lotus gained connections to the gods, to build the foundations of an icon.

Even as far back as the holy sruti texts of the Rgveda, the lotus finds its home in Hinduism’s spiritual origins. One translation of the Rgveda expresses the first mention of the lotus in the form of a metaphor (RV 5.LXVIII.7-9). The verse seems to describe a well wish for an unproblematic delivery of a child. One interpretation is that the metaphor of the wind ruffling the lotuses evokes auspiciousness in regard to the delivery (Garzilli 295). The lotus also appears in connection to the birth of Agni in Rgveda hymn XVI (Garzilli 300). There Agni is recognized as one of the two most worshipped gods of the scripture alongside Indra, God of Thunder. This initial reference to birth and divinity can be seen as a starting point for the symbolism of the lotus in later literature and practice. Although its presence in the sacred text elevates it to a status of divinity, its connection with the gods does not end with Agni and the Rgveda; rather it appears again and again throughout Hindu scripture.

Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, one of the most renowned gods in the Hindu pantheon, and she appears in each of Visnu’s reincarnations as his wife, should he have one. She is seen by the followers of Visnu as the “mother of the world” (Kapoor 1083), and maintains a close connection with the lotus, having her abode within the flowers themselves (Mahabharata LXVI). The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism details the story of her birth: from the great churning of the sea, Laksmi was brought forth inhabiting the lotus and was “…covered in ornaments and bearing every auspicious sign…” (Kapoor 1083). She held lotus flowers in each hand and was called the Goddess Padma, meaning Lotus. Laksmi holds many names and many titles, just as the sacred flower does; she is the goddess of wealth, auspiciousness, fortune and luck. The auspiciousness of the lotus may be due in part to the connection between the flower and the great goddess of luck. Indeed, followers of Vaisnavism, one of the main sects of Hindusim, hold Laksmi in high regard, believing she is the very power of Visnu to govern and protect the universe (Encyclopedia of Asian History 1988). As the goddess of the Lotus, this symbol becomes specifically significant to the Vaisnavas, although its significance is by no means confined to them.

Beyond the auspiciousness and fortune of the lotus in its connection to Laksmi, the creator god Brahma ties in early references of the lotus to the concept of rebirth. Though there are many stories regarding the origins or birth of Brahma, one depicts the god being born on a lotus flower from the navel of Visnu, the great unifying principle (Coulter and Turner 105-106). In fact, it is common for Hindu gods and goddesses to be depicted sitting on a lotus throne, as a gesture of divinity, purity, and a power (Lee and Nadeau 69). Even beyond its connection to the creator god, the lotus is one of Visnu’s four attributes, standing as a symbol of creation (Timalsina 70). Furthermore, the sacred plant and deity, Soma, is believed, by some, to be the Sacred Lotus (MacDonald 150-152). Referenced in the Rgveda, (RV 8. XLVIII.3-4,11) Soma is deified, worshipped, and even expressed as offering immortality.  There are numerous theories on the true identity of Soma and the Lotus would indeed be a likely candidate with its medicinal properties and previously established connection to the divine.

Each of the factors mentioned have played a role in the Sacred Lotus becoming an icon of Hinduism. The flower’s natural life cycle and biological properties make it both admirable and valuable. Its presence in the Vedas and its connection to popular deities, including its potential identity as a deity (i.e. Soma), make it sacred and spiritual; these aspects, and more, have elevated the wild flower of Asia to an icon of the Hindu faith. And yet, beyond its religious connotations, the sacred symbol of the lotus has spread, with the Hindu tradition, into the very culture of India.

In Indian art and architecture there are 8 symbols of auspiciousness. Among other key symbols like the conch shell (sankha) and the wheel (cakra), the lotus (padma) is incorporated into Indian art, bearing powerful symbolism in regard to divinity, purity, and auspiciousness (Gupta 30). Throughout numerous temples and shrines erected to worship various gods such as Siva and Surya are stone carvings, motifs, and statues accents by the image of the lotus (Harle 139, 144). Beyond the presence of lotus imagery, there is a further, subtle connection between Hindu architecture and the lotus in the very structure of Hindu temples. Rising up in tiered domes, or buds, the temples are said to resemble Mount Meru, a sacred cosmic center in Indian religions (Gupta 30). The mountain itself holds extensive symbolic reference to the cosmic lotus, standing as point of origins of creation and divinity (Mabbett 71,72). The intertwining of lotus imagery and symbolism into such a vast range of concepts as mountains to temples to health to the divine creates a picture of the depth of the symbol’s place in Hinduism.

As the powerful symbolism of the lotus transcends the centuries, it ultimately finds its place in the modern day as an icon for businesses, a symbol of peace or tranquility, a reference to Indian religion, and more contemporarily so, as an image of a movement sweeping Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a popular political party in contemporary India with a unique platform of defining “. . . Indian culture in terms of Hindu Values. . .” (Britannica 2014). The party poses the lotus as their logo, utilizing the religious symbol to gain the favor of Hindus (Malik and Singh 321). For the Hindu population, standing behind a banner bearing the Sacred Lotus of India, a central icon in the ancient tradition, may mean standing behind Hindutva, or Hindu national identity, embodied in the sacred meaning of the lotus. This connection between the divine flower and the national identity of India reveals just how deep the roots of the lotus symbol are. Even before the rise of the BJP party, the lotus held the title of national flower for its sacred symbolism, according to the Government of India (Government of India 2016). The connection between the Indian subcontinent and the lotus, beyond any single faith, expresses the significance of the flower even beyond its place as a religion icon.

To this day, the lotus stands as a symbol related not only to Hinduism, but also to numerous other religions, historical and modern alike. The lotus appears historically in ancient Egyptian religion where it held connections to birth, including that of the sun god, Ra (Renggli 220), and was used as an apparent hallucinogen (Sayin 291). Buddhists adopted symbolic meanings of the lotus very similar to the Hindus, viewing it as a representation of one’s personal journey through the muddy waters of samsara towards blossoming, pure and perfect, into Nirvana (Prasophigchana 103-104). The lotus is also representative of enlightenment through the idea that those who have attained it will rise above the world like a lotus rises above the muck and filth. Jains also view the lotus as a sacred symbol of purity and power. Within the tradition are 14 auspicious dreams and eight auspicious marks, the lotus claiming a place in both lists (Fischer and Jain 22). The Jains also maintain the portrayal of their founders (tirthankaras) as seated or standing on lotus blossoms, as seen Hinduism with respect to their gods (Lee and Nadeau 69). As the religions of India spread across the globe, the iconic image of the lotus continued to diversify and grow, maintaining its significance while transforming with the times. From the Rgveda to Indian Politics, the sacred flower of Hinduism has certainly left its mark on history and continues to do so today.


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Garzilli, Enrica (2003) “The Flowers of Rgveda Hymns: Lotus in V.78.7, X.184.2, X.107.10, VI.16.13, and VII.33.11, VI.61.2, VIII.1.33, X.142.8. Indo-Iranian Journal. Volume 46, Issue 4: 293-314. Dordretch: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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Gupta, Swarajya Prakash (2002) Elements of Indian Art. 29-30. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Harle, J.C. (1994) The Arts and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

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Mabbett, I.W. (1983) “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” Chicago Journals. Volume 23, Issue 1: 64-83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo Nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany. Volume 58: 147-150. Texas: Economic Botany.

Mahabharata. “SECTION LXVI. Sambhava Parva.” Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-96).

Malik, Yogendra K. and Singh, V. B.  (1992) “Bharatiya Janata Party: An Alternative to the Congress (I)?” Asian Survey. Vol. 32, Issue 4: 318-336. DOI: 10.2307/2645149

Prasopchigchana, Sarunya (2011) “Symbolic Representation in Buddhism.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology. Volume 4, Issue 2: 101-111. Cluj-Napoca: International Journal on Humanistic Ideology.

Renggli, Franz (2002) “The Sunrise as The Birth Of A Baby: The Prenatal Key to Egyptian Mythology.” Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health. Volume 16, Issue 3: 215-235. Forestville: Association for Pre & Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Rgveda. “HYMN LXXVIII. Aśvins.” Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896).

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sayin, H. Umit (2014) “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants During Religious Rituals.” Neuroquantology. Volume 12, Issue 2: 276-296. Bornova Izmir: Nova Science Publishers.  DOI: 10.14704/nq.2014.12.2.753

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2012) “Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.” International Journal of Hindu Studies. Volume 19, Issue 1: 57-91

_____ (1988)”Vaishnavism.” Encyclopedia of Asian History. Charles Scribner’s Sons (1988). World History in Context.

Zhang, Yi , et al, (2015) “Nutritional composition, physiological functions and processing of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) seeds: a review.” Phytochemisrty Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 3: 321-334. Netherlands: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s11101-015-9401-9


Recommended areas of Research:

Padma (Sanskrit word for Lotus)

8 symbols of auspiciousness

Visnu & Laksmi

Mount Meru


Nelumbo nucifera


Useful Websites:


Useful Books:

The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by James C. Harle

Elements of Indian Art by Swarajya Prakash Gupta



Article written by: Jessica Knoop (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its contents.



Murti is a Sanskrit term that typically refers to sacred images of Hindu deities. However, the term also represents an anthropomorphic embodiment or a manifestation of different forms of a deity that illustrate the infinite attributes and aspects that are beyond the perception of our senses (Sugirtharajah 74). In this way, murtis serve as images of deities that do not only help Hindus establish and enhance a legitimate relationship with God, but it also allows the worshipper to concentrate the mind and attend to the deity with a deep sense of respect, adoration and meditative awareness. In fact, the Hindu ritual tradition darsana, which translates to ‘seeing’, is a central form of worship in which crowds of people in India gather at temple sights to simply stand in the presence of a murti and gain the blessings of the divine by seeing the deity and be seen by it. Understanding the importance of murtis in the Hindu religion allows one to realize that the act of worship in the religion is not just a matter of making devotional offerings and praying, but it also involves a deep focus on expressing honor and affections for the deities (Eck 36).

The origin of murtis goes back to Vedic times but evidence of this cannot be verified with solid affirmations because many of the scripts and literature of the Indus Valley culture is still a mystery until today (Banerjea 42). However, many scholars have debated over the question of whether Vedic Indians made images of their gods (murtis) and whether they knew and practiced image worship or not. From a negative perspective, scholars like Max Muller argued that image worship was not known during the period of Vedic Indians. In fact, other scholars went as far as to say that images, idols, and temples were not even mentioned in the Rgveda (the earliest existing literature of the Indo-Aryans). From the complete opposite perspective however, other scholars used specific passages, mainly hymns that contained anthropomorphic descriptions of different deities (Banerjea 48), from the same Rgveda text to suggest that the practice of making murtis was well known among the early Vedic culture (Banerjea 43). Though the issue is still controversial and not much is of certainty because very little literature of the Vedic period survived, it can be argued that it was not until the fourth century CE that the notion of murtis became to be systematically and officially accepted (Tartakov 6240). It is important to note however, that prior to the fourth century murtis worshipping may have been practised by early settlers. [For further details on the origins and development of image worship (murtis) in India see Banerjea (2002)]. Why the notion of murtis even began has many reasons, a few of which are as follows: first, murtis took the same role that the sacred fire (agni) takes in Vedic rituals to create a union with the divine. That is, just as the fire was a way of transporting sacrifices from a worshipper to the God Agni, a murti was the medium in which the worshipper transferred his devotion with a specific deity. Secondly, murtis were also a way of practicing worship in one’s own home, especially for women at the household stage of life (Banerjea 78). And lastly, murtis were established for temples and public altars where it became common to use them in public worship, festivals, and celebrations.

Certainly not all murtis depict the same god nor does it depict every god in the same way. In fact, the same deity can have more than one murti that reflects different aspects, features, and roles of it. For example, the god Siva is depicted in his daksinamurti as a teacher; but in another murti, he is standing as Pasupati protecting animals and humans (Kramrisch 4323). Additionally, the metaphysics of these murtis are of great importance because Hindus use a wide variety of distinct features that are significant to the deity it represents. In fact, the precise shape, posture, dimension, material, colour and gender vary from one murti to another, and each of these aspects symbolizes a (usually divine) feature of the deity that it characterizes. There are also specific instructions and implements that must be followed when creating a murti, such as the system of measurements and units of proportions for each body part. “The appropriate postures, the appropriate number of arms, the gestures of the hands, the emblems and weapons to be held in the hands, and the appropriate animal mount” (Eck 39) are all specified to be done in certain ways in ancient Hindu texts such as the silpasastras (‘texts of artists’). [Also see ‘canonical manuals of Hindu religious art’ for further information about the instructions of creating a Murti]. Also, in the ancient Vedic text, Bhavisyapurana, seven main types of materials from which murtis can be used are mentioned: stone, metals such as gold, silver and copper; wood, earth or clay, sand, paint, and gems (Banerjea 209). In this way, it is evident that the notion of murtis certainly has a complex system and very detailed work is put in every feature of a murti. Hindus do not simply paint an image of a god and worship it, which is a common accusation usually applied to Hindus by Western religions, but they developed a whole system that is based on the human sense of vision (going back to the idea of darsana) (Eck 33). In fact, the essence of this system has roots which are deeply connected to the divine realm and it cannot simply be ignored or dismissed when learning about Hindu worship.

Throughout India, Ganesa (or Ganapati) is one of the most popular Hindu deities that is worshipped and is represented with many forms of murtis. The name Ganesa simply translates to ‘the lord of hosts’ and he is worshipped for being wise and having the power to remove obstacles; thus many Hindus invoke his blessings at the beginning of any life endeavours such as starting a new career or even buying a new house (Kramrisch 4326). Even though Ganesa is visible in numerous different murtis, there are common features that are usually employed in his classical murtis that make him unique. To begin with, he is in the form of a human but has the head of an elephant; this half human half elephant form represents the cosmic and human dimensions of existence (Sugirtharajah 93). His large round human-like pot-belly is the entire world of creation and it is also a symbol of Ganesa’s prosperity. His elephant head is sometimes disfigured where the tusk is broken and most commonly he is depicted with only one tusk, but sometimes more. More importantly however, according to many sources when the Mahabharata was transmitted by Badarayan Vyasa, he asked Ganesa to record down the oral transmission. So Ganesa is said to have broken off his tusk to write with so that in return Vyasa would narrate the epic in one continuous sitting without pausing; and that is why many of his depictions show a broken tusk (Bae 46). Furthermore, in Mumbai many Hindus worship the god Ganesa each year for ten days leading up to the final festival. In the festival, a large murti of Ganesa is brought to be celebrated and offered prayers to while at the same time ritually disposing the murti in a body of water (Eck 42). This divine festival again illustrates that murtis are an embodiment that become a valid vehicle to allow for a transitory union with the divine, but once the deity departs the murtis, it is no longer appropriate or valid to worship it and in fact it must be disposed of in certain ways (See Bae 45-50).

Another popular deity that is commonly worshipped throughout India is Visnu, the preserver and sustainer of the universe. Like Ganesa, Visnu is popularly depicted in a variety of murtis where his posture is sometimes standing, sitting or reclining. Actually, in South India each murtis, with a different posture, occupies its own space in many of the three-storied temples, and are sometimes each worshiped separately (Kramrisch 4325). The common features in most of his murtis however are his anthropomorphic form and the four arms with each holding a white conch, a rotating wheel, a golden mace and a lotus flower. As is usual with most Hindu murtis, each of these items has an enormous significance and symbolizes the main characteristics of the god. The white conch signifies the origins of existence and the elements of creation (Bae 103), the rotating wheel is a symbol of the cycle of time (i.e. the cycle of birth and death) and it is also believed that Visnu has used the rotating wheel to conquer demons and preserve the world, hence he is known as the sustainer of the universe (Sugirtharajah 79). In the third hand, the golden mace is held and it is symbolic for Visnu’s power and authority as it is a weapon of destruction; and lastly, the lotus flower is the purity and perfection as it is commonly used with many Hindu goddesses (Bae 103).

Ganesa and Visnu are only two common deities among the thousands other gods and goddess that are worshipped in Hinduism, and already numerous types of murtis have been created just to embody and manifest each deity. This clearly indicates that the concept of this type of worship is regarded with a high degree of devotion, seriousness and importance; in fact, great respect, honor and devotion must be firmly present when treating and worshipping any murti of any deity. Moreover, a murti of a supreme lord “may be seen, bathed, adorned, touched, and honored” (Eck 35) by any of its devotees. In fact, it is common to find in a home of a strictly devotional family, sometimes even in temples, that murtis are treated in the same way that a servant would treat his master. That is, “gestures such as bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and in the Hindu world, touching the feet of revered superior” (Eck 35) are consistently performed during a worship. Another important practice that is also mandatory during the worship of a murti is making offerings of sacrifices such as flowers, food, cloth, and incense; also, some deities require that the sacrifice be of meat, liquor, and/or be smeared with blood. The act of making these offerings became a significant part of worship because it was inherited down from the Vedic fire ritual of Agni; in which throwing sacrifices into the fire was a mandatory part of the ritual. Overall, the notion of murtis is an important one in the Hindu religion; in order for sincere worshipers to establish a true union with the divine deity, they must be able to firmly focus their attention on that deity. The way that this state of concentration can be perfected is through the human sense of vision, in which a Hindu is able to see the divine in a physical form and more importantly also be seen by it.




Bae, James H. (2003) In a world of Gods and Goddesses: The Mystic Art of Indra Sharma. Novato: Mandala Publishing.


Banerjea, Jitehdra Nath (2002) The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.


Eck, Diana L. (1981) Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg: Anima Publications.


Kramrisch, Stella (2005) “Iconography: Hindu Iconography” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 4323-4327. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.


Sugirtharajah, Sharada (1994) “Hinduism” In Jean Holm and John Bowker, Picturing God, p. 70-109. New York: Pinter Publishers.


Tartakov, Gary Michael (2005) “Murti” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 6239-6240. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Badarayan Vyasa




Ganesa/ Ganapati

Hindu worship

Hindu deities



Lotus flower






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic




Article written by: Maye Awad (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Animal and Plant Iconography

Iconography can be defined as the study of images (paintings, mosaics or sculptures) of deities or saints that are worshipped by the followers of a religion (Banerjea 1, 2, 6). It involves examining the various art forms, noting the types of images used and interpreting the meanings of the various images (Banerjea 2). Especially in the Hindu tradition, these images are diverse and vary from region to region and across time, such that there are many differences in the images associated with particular deities. Studying the images that followers of a particular religion create, especially those recovered from archeological excavations, can give us great insight not only into the types of gods and goddesses worshipped but possibly the ways in which they were worshipped and values important to the society (Banerjea 7, 8, 175; Nagar 129).

Depictions of animals and plants in the Hindu tradition date back to the Indus Valley Civilizations in the cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Many of the clay seals and coins created during this period, some believed to be as much as four or five thousand years old (Banerjea 158), incorporate some combination of animal, plant and human images (Nagar 4). Among these are images of male and female figures surrounded by animals and/or plants or taking full- or part- animal form (Nagar 4). In particular, one terracotta seal depicts a three-faced (trimukha) male figure sitting down in a forest setting, wearing a horned headdress and surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros, a buffalo and two deer (Nagar 55, 57; Banerjea 159). This figure is thought to be an early representation of Siva, an important god that is still worshipped today and is often referred to as the “Lord of the Beasts” (Nagar 60). Other seals have been found that show a male figure that is standing by or on an acacia tree attacking a tiger and another with a male figure holding two tigers by their throats on either side of him (Nagar 62, pl. 51). Another seal shows a feminine deity – known as the Tree Goddess – standing with two tree branches on either side of her and a composite animal made up of a bull and a goat, with the face of a human standing nearby (Banerjea 168; Nagar 48). A number of forest deities (most often female) are also thought to have worshipped in ancient India (Nagar 101-104; Zimmer 69), including: the Tree Goddess, a goddess said to have a complexion as green as grass, another with a lighting-bright complexion, seated on a lotus and others with their arms wrapped around the trunk of a tree. In addition, trees were given human form and characteristics, often as dryad-like figures (Nagar 104). Snake or serpent deities (Nagas and Naginis) also likely had followers in ancient India (Nagar 94; Banerjea 347); these gods and goddesses are often portrayed as multi-headed, with jewels on their hoods, two-tongued and having hands (Banerjea 348).

Composite animal forms are quite commonly depicted on items found at Harappan and Mohenjodaroan sites (Nagar 73). There are human-animal forms, animals with human heads or faces, humans with horns, multi-headed animals, and other composite animals (Nagar 73-79): half human-half serpent (nagas), half human-half bull and half woman-half tiger are the most common human-animal forms found on ancient Indian clay seals; elephants, ox-like creatures, goats, rams, tigers and composite forms of these animals are those depicted with human faces; a male figure with a tail, two horns and a bow in one hand was found on a copper tablet in Mohenjodaro and other similar figures have been found on terracotta pottery and seals; an example of the multi-headed animals has the body and head of a urus-like animal (a now-extinct large cattle species) with two additional heads – that of an antelope and a short-horned bull; composite animals include chimera-like animals consisting of bison, unicorn and ibex parts. There are also portrayals of animals themselves on clay seals and figurines: unicorn-like figures, humped and humpless bulls, buffalos, goats, lions, tigers, serpents, crocodiles, peacocks, doves, monkeys (including one of a monkey holding a baby), rhinoceroses, and elephants (Nagar 7-8, pl. 42-50). Plant and vegetation designs, including lotuses, palmyra, date palms, acacias and other trees, are also commonly seen on ancient seals associated with goddesses or being carried by human figures (Banerjea 173).

Plant and animal images are so connected to Hindu deities that they are often identified by or differentiated between by the images around them (Banerjea 134). Deities are also depicted as having multiple arms in which they hold a range of objects, including various plants or flowers.

Animal Forms: Some Hindu deities currently worshipped that date back to the Vedic period have animal manifestations. The god Visnu is a prime example; of his ten incarnations (avataras), five are animal or part animal – the Fish (Matsya), the Tortoise (Kurma), the Boar (Varaha), the Man-Lion (Narsimha) and the White Charger (Kalki) (Swali 22). The goddess Sri-Laksmi is thought to take the form of a golden antelope adorned with gold and silver garlands (Banerjea 134) and the great god Siva frequently takes the form of his bull mount Nandi (Banerjea 535). The pot-bellied, child-like god Ganesa, the son of Siva and his consort Parvati, is a particularly well-known and much adored figure in modern India (Nagar 10). He has an elephant head in all of his depictions (Zimmer 70; Banerjea 357) and is also depicted holding a radish, with a tiger skin garment and a sacred thread made of a snake (Banerjea 360). Hanuman, the monkey deity of the Ramayana epic, is another god in animal form. Garuda, Visnu’s vehicle, is usually represented as a large bird-like figure with wings, human arms, legs of a vulture and a beak-like nose (Banerjea 531; Zimmer 75).

Vahanas: Depictions of gods and goddesses in the Hindu tradition typically include an animal, or sometimes a plant, that sits beneath and carries the deity’s human form; this is called their vehicle or vahana (Zimmer 70). Some of these vahanas, which are representative of the character and the energy of the deity they are seated beneath (Zimmer 70), are listed below.

Agni: ram (Banerjea 485)

Brahma: swan (Banerjea 514) or a lotus (Zimmer 51)

Durga/Devi: lion/tiger (Zimmer 48,70)

Ganesa: rat/mouse (Zimmer 70)

Indra: white elephant called Airavara (Zimmer 48, 53)

Krsna: sometimes he is seated on a horse made out of gopis (Swali 29)

Kubera: a crouching man (Zimmer 70)

Laksmi: lotus (Zimmer 92)

Parvati: lion (Banerjea 469; Zimmer 70), alligator/iguana in some medieval images (Banerjea 172, 501)

Siva: white humped bull named Nandi (Zimmer 48; Banerjea 135)

Skanda (who is said to be another of Siva’s sons): peacock (Banerjea 365)

Surya: a chariot pulled by seven horses (Banerjea 516) or a lotus (Banerjea 137)

Visnu: eagle/Garuda (Zimmer 76) or a serpent called Ananta (Zimmer 37, 59)

Yama: buffalo (Nagar 81)

Other Associated Images: Aside from their animal forms or vehicles, there are often certain images that commonly appear in representation of deities, only a few of which are listed here. A bull is sometimes seen alongside Parvati as she is one of Siva’s consorts and the bull is Siva’s mount (Banerjea 407, 470). As mentioned above, Siva is called the Lord of the Beasts and has many animals surrounding him as well as a necklace and bracelets made from snakes (Nagar 94; Zimmer 183). The goddess Laksmi, when in her human form, is bathed by two elephants and surrounded by lotus flowers (Banerjea 375).

A number of animals and plants have certain significance in the Hindu tradition and are commonly represented in religious art. Some of these and their images are discussed below.

Lotus: The lotus is a particularly common and important motif in Hindu art. Deities are often depicted sitting on lotus flowers (including Laksmi, Brahma and Surya) or holding lotus flowers (Banerjea 304); in fact, this is one of the most common items they are shown to hold in sculptures (Banerjea 138). The lotus flower, also called padma, is said to represent the sun, creativity (Banerjea 138, 304) and enlightenment (Zimmer 146) and is associated with the creation of Brahma and the universe (Zimmer 90). Many representations of the god Visnu show a lotus projecting from his navel, which carries Brahma on its petals (Zimmer 61).

Monkey: Monkeys are regarded as sacred in modern India and may have been regarded as sacred in ancient times as evidenced by the relatively large number of models of monkeys that have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization sites (Nagar 86). Hanuman, the much-loved monkey god discussed above is an example of the special place that monkeys have in Hinduism; he is described as being a loyal servant (of Rama in the Ramayana) skilled in magic (including the ability to change size), grammar and healing and statues of him are situated at the entrances of forts, towns and villages (Nagar 87).

Bull: Due to its close association with the god, Siva’s followers often worship the bull but the bull is also thought to have had its own cult in ancient times (Nagar 87). It is a symbol of strength and fertility (Nagar 56, 87).

Swan/Gander: As the mount of Brahma, the gander or swan is a symbol of freedom from the cycle of rebirths (samsara) and also of the divine essence and the “creative principle” (Zimmer 48). It is even said that when a Hindu attains liberation, he or she attains the rank of “gander”/hamsa (Zimmer 48).

Snake/Serpent: Images of serpents (nagas) are also common in Hindu art and have a number of symbolic meanings. Some of these include water (Zimmer 37), life energy, guardianship and cleverness (Zimmer 63). They are often associated with images of eagles with the two in opposition as the former represents more earthly qualities and the latter the heavens and freedom (Zimmer 75).

Tree: Trees are worshipped in the form of goddesses but some are also considered sacred in and of themselves, and are worshipped in their natural form (Banerjea 173; Nagar 104). Pipal (Ficus) or nimba trees are regarded as holy or sacred to Hindus and idols are placed underneath them (Zimmer 72; Nagar 98). There is one particular tree (the asoka tree), which is said only to bloom if a girl or young woman touches or kicks it (Zimmer 69). In the creation of the universe, one of the forms of the “life-maintaining element” is sap from a cosmic tree (Zimmer 34). To Hindus, ancient and more modern, trees symbolize beauty, knowledge, life and fertility (Nagar 98, 103; Zimmer 69).

Elephant: Elephants, too, are a common motif in Hindu art and have been an important part of Indian society. Kings sought to own and domesticate elephants and they were used for battle and ceremonial purposes to carry people. According to myth, elephants came into being at the very beginning of time, with Indra’s mount Airavata being the first elephant to emerge from the cosmic egg held by Brahma. Elephants are also said to “support the universe at the four quarters and the four points between” (Zimmer 103, 104). In addition to Airavata, the two elephants associated with Laksmi and the elephant-headed god Ganesa are both prominent representations of elephants in Hindu art. Elephants, partly because they are associated with Laksmi (the Lotus Goddess of fortune and prosperity) and partly due to their long life span, are symbols of fertility, good harvest and other “earthly blessings” and thus must be treated with care and worshipped (Zimmer 108, 109).



Banerjea, Jitendra N. (2002) The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Chawla, Jyotsna. (1990) The Rgvedic Deities and Their Iconic Forms. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Nagar, Shantilal (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period v.1. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Rao, T.A. G. (1914) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Madras: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Swali, Nalini (1984) “Metamorphosis in Myth.” MARG 36(2): 21-30.

Waghorne, Joanne P. (1991) “Vahanas: Conveyers of the Gods” MARG 43(2): 15-28.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1946) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Hindu deities

Hindu art



Indus Valley Civilization

IVC seals and figurines

Animal symbols

Tree Goddess












Animal worship

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jenna Woodman (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.