By Swami Harshananda
Murtiśilpaśāstra literally means ‘Science of preparing Icons or Images,’ ‘Iconography’.
Whether it is the fear of the unknown or the mystery of death, especially of one’s parents and ancestors or an admiration for the great heroes who had sacrificed their lives for a cause dear to their heart, worshiping some sort of symbols and icons in their honor, is an established fact in the history of human civilization. Devastating diseases or the furies of nature too might have contributed to the concept of some controlling forces being deified and appeased. Such ‘gods’ could have been represented originally by heaps of the stones or pillars or even some crude figures. Thus the science of iconography, called as ‘Murtiśilpaśāstra’ in the religion would have originated.
Though the gods and god-lings of popular religion of the masses might have originated thus, the Vedic deities of the classes were not. If the Vedas, the basic scriptures of religion, describe their gods in a particular way, they have to be accepted unquestioningly since they are considered as the revealed word of God Himself, through the great ṛṣis, the sages renowned for their mystical experiences. There is nothing odd or fantastic in this belief since many world-religions also claims the same infallible divinity for its scripture. The gods of the Vedas have wonderful forms and their own peculiar characteristics. However, their worship through their images as we have today of the deities like Śiva, Devi, or Viṣṇu was not in vogue.
Vedic Literature on Image Worship
Anyway, there is enough evidence to believe that the science of murtiśilpa or iconography did exist even in the Vedic period. The beautiful description of the bodies, limbs and weapons of the gods and the clear mention of the sage Tvaṣṭā as a devaśilpi should lead us to the conclusion that there must have existed competent sculptors who could fashion the icons out of solid physical materials as per the visions of the sages.
The Vājasaneyi Samhitā refers to the Sun as ‘hiraṇyapāṇi’. The Kāthaka Samhitā refers to a sage Devala who lived by preparing images. While the Sāmaveda refers to an image, there is a reference to a temple in the Atharvaveda. Other Vedic works like the Sadvimśa Brāhmana, Taittirīya Brāhmana and Taittirīya Āranyaka refer not only to the images of gods but also to the sculptors like Tvaṣṭā. By the time of the śrautasutras and the grhyasutras, worship of deities through images in temples seems to have been fairly well-established.
Evolution of Icons
Apart from the images of various gods, honoring or worshiping several icons and symbols like the śivaliṅga, the śrīcakra, various yantras and also kumbhas gradually appeared in the religious firmament over the centuries. Starting of various sects by new religious leaders, and their diffusion, and also the growth of the āgamas and tantras may have been an important factor in this development. This naturally gave a fillip to the old science of murtiśilpaśāstra or Iconography.
Literature on Iconography
With the popularity and evolution of image worship, voluminous literature on this science and art grew over the years. Some of the more important works are:
Images for Worship - Public and Private
Though the establishment of images in temples and their worship became common, it had its effect on the devotees visiting the temples, gradually inducing them to have private shrines in their homes and have images there for their worship. The general rule is that these images should be smaller in size. To be very precise, it should be of the size of the thumb of the worshiper. The images in the temples can be of any size but should be big enough to be seen by a large number of devotees.
Materials for Making the Images
The images fixed permanently in the temples are called ‘acala’ or ‘dhruvabera’. They are made of stones like granite, soapstone or marble. The other images like utsavamurtis or the ones worshiped at home are made of metal, precious stones, wood or clay. Though images are sometimes prepared out of ivory also, they are not considered fit for worship. Metal images, made of silver or gold or pañcaloha, are most common. Wooden images are seen only in two temples:
- The Jagannātha temple at Purī in Orissa
- The Trivikrama temple at Tirukkoilur in Tamil Nadu
Classification as per Movement of the Image
The permanently fixed images which are called dhruvabera or acala, are of three types:
- The sthānaka - These images are in the standing posture. The images, of most of the gods and goddesses in the temples are of this type.
- The āsina - These images are in the sitting posture. Many images of the Devī, the images of Gaṇapati and Narasimha are of this type.
- Śayāna - These images are in the reclining posture. Only the images of Viṣṇu like those of Padmanābha and Raṅganātha are of the last type.
Classification as per Expression of the Image
According to another classification, the dhruvaberas can be of two types:
- Ugra - It represents a fierce posture. Certain aspects of the Devī like Kālī, Narasimha, Paraśurāma and Gajahā belong to this group. Temples of these deities are built outside the village or the town.
- Śānta - It represents a serene posture. All the other images which do not exhibit the fierce aspect are classed among the latter group.
Vāhanas or Mounts
Almost all the major deities of the religion are also associated with their vāhanas. For instance:
- Viṣṇu has Garuḍa as his vāhana
- Śiva has his Nandi to ride.
- Haṅsa is the mount for the four-faced Brahmā.
- Simha is the ride accounted for Devī.
- Muṣaka for is the mount for Gaṇapati.
- Mayura is the ride for Subrahmaṇya.
The relation of a specific vāhana to a specific deity is often based on mythological legends. Iconographically, these vāhanas are merely indicated on the pedestal of the image. Sometimes, they may be independently sculptured and installed in front of the main image. During festivals, the utsavamurtis may be carried on these vāhanas, which are separately prepared and housed in their own sheds in temples.
Sculpturing of the Images
The Tālamāna System
Since Śivaliṅgas and images of mātṛdevatās have been unearthed in the Indus Valley Civilization, one can surmise that iconography has been an ancient science which existed even as early as 3000 B. C. Religion considers, the sculpturing of images, especially of gods and goddesses, as a sacred religious act. Hence, the śilpi or the sculptor is expected to bind himself with dīkṣā or initiation and certain vows.
Significance of Dhyāna-ślokas
Unlike the human beings who can be seen and closely observed by the sculptor at the time of sculpturing the image, the gods are invisible to the physical eyes. Hence, the one and only source and support for his work of art is the dhyānaśloka of that particular deity. These dhyāna-ślokas describe the features as revealed in the mystic vision of the ṛṣi to whom the revelation came. That is why the sculptor is commanded by the śāstras to lead a well-regulated and pure life as per the prescribed norms, repeat the dhyānaśloka mentally as much as possible and pray to the deity to reveal his/her form. Gradually the revelation comes. The form seen in such revelations is called ‘mantramurti’. The sculptor ultimately reproduces outside the stone or other material in this form. This dīkṣā is of two types:
- Ekāṇda - The former applies to such cases where the sculptor works continuously until the image is completed. When that is not possible and the work has to be done intermittently, the latter mode is adopted.
- Pakṣa - However, even in the latter case, mental devotion and seriousness of purpose have to be kept up.
Definition of Tālamāna System
When all the rules pertaining to dīkṣā are meticulously observed, the sculptor will succeed in infilling the image with a subtle power of life as it were. The most important aspect of sculpturing an image is a thorough knowledge of pratimā-māna-lakṣaṇa. A concept basic to this science of measurement or iconometry is that the face of a human being from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin is almost of the same length as that of the palm of that person i.e. from the top of the middle finger to the base of the palm, just above the wrist.</ref> This is technically called ‘tāla’. This tāla is sub-divided into 12 equal parts, each such part being named ‘aṅgula.’ All the parts of the image to be sculptured are expressed in terms of this tāla and aṅgula. Hence the name ‘Tālamāna System’.
Parameters to Determine the Size
While describing the mānas or the dimensions of an image, some works like the Mānasāra use the following technical terms:
- Pramāṇa - breadth
- Parimāṇa - circumference
- Lambamāna - measurement taken along the plumb line
- Unmāna - thickness or diameter
- Upamāna - inter-spaces
Classification of Tāla
The well-known work Bṛhatsamhitā classifies the human beings into five types according to their heights. Out of these only the first known as ‘haṅsa’ and the last as ‘mālavya’ are important. The height of haṅsa is 96 aṅgulas or aṣṭatāla and that of mālavya 108 aṅgulas or navatāla. The Tālamāna System prescribes sixteen varieties of tālas for different types of beings including animals, goblins and demons. Out of these only a few, the more important ones, may be described:
- Ekatāla - It means one tāla. It has lion’s head in motifs. It is even Kurma or Tortoise incarnation of Viṣṇu.
- Dvitāla - It means two tālas. It has Matsya or Fish-incarnation of Viṣṇu.
- Tritāla - It means three tālas. It has bhutas or goblins, attendants of Śiva.
- Pañcatāla - It means five tālas. It has boys; hunchbacks; Gaṇapati; Vāmana.
- Saṭtāla - It means six tālas. It has Gaṇeśa; Varāha; Kumāra or Subrahmaṇya.
- Aṣṭatāla - It means eight tālas. It has sages; human beings both male and female.
- Navatāla - It means nine tālas. It has gods like Indra and asuras or demons.
- Daśatāla - It has ten tālas. It has Aṣṭa-dikpālakas the twelve Ādityas; the eleven Rudras; goddesses like Lakṣmī and Pārvatī; the trinity.
According to another version, all the human beings should be represented in saptatāla, goddesses in aṣṭatāla and gods in navatāla. Tālas greater than eleven to sixteen are to be used for deities like Narasimha, Skanda and Hanumān, goddesses like Caṇḍī, wicked giants, some fierce goddesses and also great dānavas like Mahiṣāsura and Rāvaṇa.
Noteworthy thing is that even though the various treatises on iconography give general rules, patterns and directions, the sculptor still has plenty of freedom either regarding the depicting of the facial features or the ornaments or dresses and implements. That is why any two images of the same god in the same posture sculptured by two different artisans, say Gaṇapati, will not be absolutely identical .
Kirīṭas, Mudrās and Āyudhas
Kirīṭas used for Images
Another factor which embellishes images is the way kirīṭas, mudrās and also the āyudhas are sculptured. The kirīṭas, shown on the heads of images of Viṣṇu and also of kings, are generally simple but tall, the top being either flat or capped with a jewel. The karaṇḍamakuṭa is a variation of the kirīṭa, less in height and appears more like a vessel with a wide mouth. There are stripes of decreasing diameters. Such crowns are generally shown on the heads of the images of goddesses. The jaṭāmukuṭa is the hair itself arranged in the fashion of a crown. Images of Śiva are shown with this type of crown.
Mudrās used for Images
Mudrās are poses of fingers or of hands expressing a variety of sentiments. It is quite likely that the śilpaśāstra texts have borrowed the various mudrās from the texts of nāṭyaśāstra or dancing. These mudrās may be saiyukta or asarhyukta. The total number of the mudrās varies from 35 to 39. However only 8 to 10 mudrās are the most commonly used. Some of them are:
- Abhayamudrā - It means assuring protection.
- Varadamudrā - It means offering boons.
- Vyākhyāna-mudrā - It means teaching.
- Namaskāramudrā - It means obeisance.
Āyudhas used for Images
Though the word ‘āyudha’ means a weapon, it is used in the works of iconography, in a more technical sense indicating anything held in the hand. The following are some of the āyudhas or weapons shown in the hands of the deities:
- Triśula - trident
- Śula - spear
- Vajra - thunderbolt
- Aṅkuśa - goad
- Pāśa - noose
- Cakra - discus
- Dhanus and bāṇa - bow and arrow
- Khaḍga - sword
- Kheṭaka - shield
- Gadā - mace
Other objects are:
- Damaru - small hand-drum
- Darpaṇa - mirror
- Kamaṇḍalu - water-pot
- Pustaka - book
- Akṣamālā - rosary
- Ghaṇṭā - bell
- Khaṭvāṅga - magical wand
- Padma - lotus
- Śaṅkha - conch
- Modaka - a kind of sweet
- Dālima - pomegranate
- Ikṣu - sugarcane
- Bhagnadanta - broken tusk
- Cintāmaṇi - wish-yielding gem
- Sruk - ladle
- Pānapātra - vessel for drinking
Relation of Weapon with Deity
Most often, these weapons, implements and objects, can indicate which deity the icon represents, since they are invariably associated with that deity. For instance:
- Śiva with triśula and ḍamaru
- Sarasvatī with pustaka and akṣamālā
- Gaṇapati with bhagnadanta and modaka
- Lakṣmī with padma
- Brahmā with kamaṇḍalu
- Viṣṇu with śaṅkha and cakra
- Skanda or Subrahmaṇya with śula
- Balarāma with hala or plough
Heads and Arms
One more feature that is to be noticed in the sculptured images is the number of heads and arms. Most of the gods have four arms. Goddesses like Durgā have eight or ten or even eighteen arms. If Brahmā, the creator, is shown with four heads, Śiva is sometimes shown as pañcānana and Saṇmukha with six. Though, on the face of it, these images may appear queer or even grotesque, they are highly symbolic indicating supreme power or supreme-intelligence. If the national flag of a country can reflect the past glories and present aspirations of the people of that country or a cross, the supreme sacrifice of Christ for the good of mankind, why can we not concede that these images also can stand for the supreme power and intelligence of the Supreme Lord in that form.
Idolatry and Image-Worship
This naturally takes us to the topic of image-worship which is often dubbed as idolatry by self-proclaimed iconoclasts, forgetting that they too are practicing their own brand of the same. No person ever worships an image or prays to it believing that itself to be God or the deity. His prayers are addressed to God Himself, the image serving only as an aid to his imagining the Divine Presence within himself. Some of the scriptures declare that the worship of images in only the kindergarten of religion and urge the votaries to gradually rise to the level where they can feel the Divine within oneself and also see him in all.
However, there is also another view expressed by the purāṇas, the āgamas and the tantras. According to this, when an image is prepared strictly as per the dictates of the scriptures and is properly consecrated, it becomes ‘alive’ as it were radiating the subtle presence of the deity in it. It is akin to an electric bulb start burning as soon as the line is connected to the source of electrical energy. If this view is accepted as felt by many great mystic and saint while visiting such temples, where the images have been properly installed and consecrated, then the worship offered even to such a physical image is accepted by the deity residing in it.
Other Related Rites
Some of the more important rites and rituals to be conducted before the image is deemed fit for worshiping in the temple are:
- Jalādhivāsa - keeping the image immersed in water for 3 days
- Dhānyādhivāsa - putting the image for rest on grains for another 3 days
- Śayyādhi-vāsa - making the image lie down on a specially prepared bed for 3 more days
- Netronmīlana - ‘opening’ the eyes of the image by marking the pupils of the eyeballs with a golden needle
- Astabandha - adhesive paste of eight substances like lac and perfume, spread at the place where the image is to be fixed
- Prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā - the ceremony for infusing the life-force of the deity.
It may also be mentioned here, though in passing, that the dimensions of a temple, especially the garbhagṛha or the sanctum are closely inter-related with the height of the image. Works like the Mānasāra and the Bṛhatsamhitā give many details regarding the construction of temples.
Four Styles of Iconography
Right from the period of Indus Valley Civilization, iconography has been continuously growing and evolving. Experts in its historical evolution have recognized four distinct styles in it. They are as follows:
- The Madhurā style
- The early Cālukya and the Pallava styles
- The later Cālukya and the Hoysala styles
- The styles developed in Bengal, Assam and Orissa
In the first two styles, simplicity and naturalness are evident. The third is characterized by heavy ornamentation and finesse of sculpturing. The last strikes the viewers with round faces, large fish-shaped eyes, wide foreheads and thin lips.
Every science and art, even if they appear to be secular in character, are basically related to the spirit either as its expression or as an attempt at leading to it. Murtiśilpaśāstra or the science of images or iconography is no exception. More than the external beauty, it is the feeling of devotion that an image arouses in the minds of the votaries that is important.
A beautiful image can rouse our admiration. If the image has the likeness of the deity revealed to a ṛṣi and is further consecrated ceremonially by proper religious rites prescribed in the scriptures, its power to awaken our innate divinity will be tangibly felt. Further, visits of saints as part of their pilgrimage to holy places, will enhance this power to such an extent that these temples and images will become an unfailing source of inspiration for generations.
- Ṛgveda 8.29
- Devaśilpi means an architect of the gods.
- Vājasaneyi Samhitā 1.15.16
- Hiraṇyapāṇi means ‘one with a golden hand’.
- Kāthaka Samhitā 22.11
- Sāmaveda 1.9.5
- Atharvaveda 2.2.2
- Sadvimśa Brāhmana 5.10
- Bodhāyana Gṛhyasutras 3.7
- Kumbhas means pots filled with water.
- Utsavamurtis means the processional images.
- Pañcaloha means the alloy of five metals.
- Gajahā is the form of Śiva.
- Vāhanas means mounts or carrier-vehicles.
- Garuḍa means eagle.
- Nandi means bull.
- Haṅsa means swan.
- Simha means lion.
- Devī means Durgā.
- Muṣaka means rat.
- Mayura means peacock.
- Mātṛdevatās means the mother-goddesses.
- Dhyānaśloka means the verse describing the features of the deity.
- These norms are same as dīkṣā.
- Pratimā-māna-lakṣaṇa means the special characteristics and relative measurements of an image or iconometry.
- Mānasāra 55.9
- Bṛhatsamhitā 68.7
- Aṣṭa-dikpālakas means eight guardian deities of the quarters.
- This trinity is Lord Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva.
- Saptatāla means seven tālas.
- Aṣṭatāla means eight tālas.
- Navatāla means nine tālas.
- Kirīṭas means crowns and hair-dos.
- Mudrās means poses of arms and hands.
- Āyudhas means weapons, implements and other objects held in the hand.
- Śilpaśāstra means iconography.
- Saiyukta means poses with both hands joined.
- Asarhyukta means the poses with one hand only.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore