Temple characterestics and iconography for Indian deities.

The backbone of temple architecture is the presence of Guilds across various kingdoms in India. Their orders come from the royal architects and funds come in from the ruling patronage. Architecture and sculpture sustained their expression on temple stone walls and pillars by the Guilds. Kings didn't define the kind of temples to be built but patronized them, but the Guilds gave the temples and monasteries their form and structure by following the canon's of architecture laid down by the ancients, with respect to their faiths.

Therefore if a King wanted a shaivite, vaishnavite,
devi, buddhist, or Jain shrine, they just had to give the orders for it, the rest was taken care of by the Guilds. Hence the characteristic features of each of these temples would be as follows:

Shiva temple (before the Cholas):
  • The deities to look for in a Shiva temple would be, the Shiva linga stone within the Garbha griha, which is strictly the aniconic symbol. Shiva in human form is never found within the garbha griha.
  • The wall behind the Garbha griha will always have the Lingodhbhavamurti (depicting Shiva's supremacy over Vishnu and Brahma).
  • The Vahana is Nandi
  • The south wall will always have devi/ Mahishasuramardhini. She was later replaced by Parvati.
  • The north wall depicts either Ganesha and Karthikeya or other forms of shiva like Dakshnamurti, Trimurti or Harihara(this order changes from temple to temple). Older temples depict only Shiva on all walls. The devi in the form of Parvati is depicted standing with him (Kalyanasundaramurti) or ardhanarishwara, else she is depicted as Durga/Kali dancing with Nataraja.
  • The others: Saptamatrika only in ancient temples, Bhringi on some walls but not in a niche, Chandikeshwara, Rudra, Ganesha, and Karthikeya in separate shrines if they are not on the niches of the main sanctum.
  • If there are depictions of Vishnu and Brahma, they would be in praise of Shiva or in submission. The only exception with any reference to the Ramayana is Ravana Anugrahamurti where Ravana is depicted shaking mount Kailasa.
  • Nayanars take their place on the precinct.
  • 108 lingas are placed in a single location or around the main shrine.
Post the Chola period; Devi got a seperate equally large shrine next to Shiva and Vishnu shrines within the main temple. (eg: Brihadeshwara temple under Rajaraja Chola originally had only the shiva temple, the sub shrines were added later by Sembian mahadevi, a Chola queen and then later by Vijayanagar and Nayaka rulers.)

Vishnu temples:
  • The dashavatara is found on all the exterior walls of a Vishnu temple, as well as on the pillars.
  • Large depictions in older temples would include Trivikrama/Vamana, Narasimha, Vishnu seated on Ananta.
  • Vishnu within the shrine chamber(garbha griha) is depicted lying on Ananta in the cosmic sea, else he is depicted standing in Samabhanga pose (standing straight backed with hand resting on mace).
  • Vahana is Garuda
  • Devi is often depicted with him in the Varaha form.
  • Krishna is very rarely depicted, if at all as Krishna Govardhana and krishna stealing butter.
  • Scenes of the Ramayana adorn the outer walls, but do not occupy the niches. Exception is for the Ravana Anugrahamurti where Ravana is depicted shaking mount Kailasa.
  • Icons of Shankha and chakra can be seen around the temple.
  • Garuda and nagas are often depicted, nagas specifically are in submission.
  • Hanuman is sometimes depicted in Vishnu temples.
  • Alvars are depicted on the temple walls and pillars.
Devi temples:
  • Mostly depict various forms of the Devi, in soumya(soft) rupa and krodha(fierce) rupa.
  • The central shrine is either Bhuvaneshwari (soumya rupa) or Durga/ Kali(fierce form)
  • All devis in shrines mostly face south, be it from garbha griha, or in niches of shiva temples.
  • Very prominent scenes in ancient temples would be the scene of decapitation where a devotee is seen chopping his own head and sacrificing his life to the Mother. (Orissa, Mamallapuram)
  • Copulation scenes on the outside of temples, or alternatively Kanyas in seductive poses. (Konark and khajuraho)
  • Very rare depictions of Shiva lingas, which is almost close to negligible.
  • Vahana is a lion.
  • Walls are adorned by worshippers, both royal and common folk.
Buddhist shrine - cave temples:
  • Buddha depicted in certain mythological events like Miracle of Sravasti(buddha multiplies himself a 1000 times to beat his religious rivals including Mahavira), Parinirvana(Buddha in the state of Nirvana), Temptation of Mara(Buddha attacked by the three damsels and a whole demon army sent by Mara), Buddha begging alms from his wife. Most often depicted are Buddha giving a sermon or standing.
  • Profusely painted on walls are the Jataka tales of Buddha's past incarnations.
  • Padmapani and Maitreya come in later.
  • There are no vahanas.
  • Older Hinayana phase elements to look for are stupas, pair of slippers, pair of feet, and a bodhi tree with a pair of feet beneath it.
  • Hariti and Panchika, where hariti has a child on her lap. She is the Goddess of smallpox, a child eating ogress whom Buddha converted into a protector. Panchika is her consort and also very well known as Kubera yaksha.
Jaina temples and caves:
  • Jain tirtankaras and more tirtankaras.
  • Gomateshwara and parshvanatha are a vew well known tirtankaras who can be seen in the Garbha Griha and on the walls of the cave temples.
  • Sculptures are mostly nude.
Nagas are found everywhere, and so are river Goddesses, mithuna couples and gandharvas.


Third Eye Closed said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Third Eye Closed said...

After re-reading my comment, I realised the first line could lead to a misconception. What I meant was, "A Post too good to be sitting in something as insignificant as a blog, in other terms it has added a great amount of value to this blog"

I had a small thought about the Vahanas of the Gods...

Shiva - Nandi : Element-Earth
Devi - Lion : Element-Fire
Vishnu - Garuda : Element-Wind
? - Nagas? : Element-Water?

I had a huge process running in my head during the few microseconds that took to read the word "Vahana"


JC Joshi said...

Hi Feelix~ this is specially addressed to you and others also who are interested in the 'truth'...

In essence, human beings in different parts of India, in their own ways, have apparently been attempting through the ages to communicate the ‘truth’ of the 'devtas' and 'rakshashas' or Heavenly Bodies (friendly/ enemy 'grahas' or planets) and their human models (selfless/ selfish), and also the ‘Absolute Truth’ of the formless or Naadbindu, the singular detached point source of universal energy (represented symbolically either by Shivlinga or ‘Vishnu on Ananta or Shesh Naga’, or just the word, 'OM' communicating fusi0n or Yoga of the unending (open mouthed sound, O) and the truth of the material world or its transient nature (M, the sound that brings the lips together or closes the mouth)or its symbol formed out of the numeral three, 3, with special stress on (H)Indu, or Moon the superior most, and the tail representing Mars, the 'root' or base - (tail-less) Ganesha on mouse! And hence the advice to a 'Brahmin' to reach the 'supreme knowledge' in his head while ever remaining modest, devoid of any ego)…

However, as per the 'Absolute Truth' reached in ancient 'Hindu Philosophy', realized and formulated during the ‘Vedic Era’ - that apparently collapsed by the sixth century B.C. and saw the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the then India - the whole 'material' part of the universe is the result of 'Maya' or illusion created by the one and only formless being, who is unborn, like a child in its mother's womb. And, the apparent unending universe is like characters in one's dreams, fictitious! (To the Astronomers, the infinite universe apparetly is a balloon-like void that contains material forms, known as Heavenly Bodies… Our earth apparently is one of the members of a solar system within our galaxy, which is one out of innumerable such Bodies that fill the universal void…)

The question: who am I then? is answered by the ancients as 'model of the universe' (Hindu Philosophy), or 'image of God' (Christian belief) - all inside His head, being born and dissolved within it to reappear in various forms, again and again!

Buddha apparently was one such image that apparently reached 'enlightenment' in the recent past - given the ‘scientific knowledge’ that earth is over four billion years old today and is likely to continue for billions more...

However, one can't enter his mind to realize how he did it…

Also, the ancients realized that although the apparent physical characters might be illusory, there are 'truths' of the illusion also, such that the super consciously detached ‘Creator’, or the ‘real doer’, keeps track of the ever changing infinite creation through His apparent physical three-in-one God (Trinity) and their multiple images to cover the apparent three aspects of functions of creation, sustenance and transformation, i.e., Brahma (Sun as the essence of energy suppliers - for creation and sustenance of apparent forms), Vishnu (Centre of Galaxy, as the physical representation of the dot like creator or the centre of the universe) and Mahesh (Earth as the essence of the planets - that absorb cosmic energy for its sustenance besides regulation of ‘life’ upon it, as these bodies do not have energy of their own)... And, that the human structure, being formed out of the essences of the solar system, reflects the properties of different members during its life time according to some hierarchy…

Badhri said...

Aren't the Dwarapalakas a charactersitic of Vishnu temples?

And I must ask this question. Is this your profession-cum-interest or just a hobby? I know the question may be personal. I leave the choice to answer to you.

kavitha said...

Hi Badri,

Dwarapalas are found every where, they are at the entrances of Shiva and Vishnu shrines, and they vary in characterestics based on the dynasty who patronized them as well as the deity (eg: a shaivite dwarapala used to have a third eye on his forehead).

Eg: a Pallava dwarapala will look slender and gentle and a chola dwarapala will look demon like, forbidding and imperial. A nayaka dwarapala will look normal(not large) but crisp and chiseled as the nayakas understood how to work on stone better than their earlier counterparts.

The devi temples host dwarapalikas who look inviting and carry lotuses in their hands.

Now coming to my profession, no this is not my job, but its an all out passion which started at art school, where i had Indian art as part of my theory. Point is i never left it, and continue to study it till today, i always find something new!!!

I really wish it was my profession :)

JC Joshi said...

Gita the Holy Book of the 'Hindus' conveys - through the character of Krishna the Yogiraj - that anybody can reach Him (the formless Creator). The only requirement is ‘surrender in Him’ for reaching the ‘Truth’, i.e., experiencing ‘supreme knowledge’, for He would then lead the devotee Himself to It, as He apparently helped the physically powerful and yet ignorant Arjuna reach It when he got convinced that man was only an ‘instrument’ or a ‘medium’ or an abode of various forms of the one and only supreme soul...

One comes to understand that the Yogis attempted to unlock the ‘Bandhas’ or locks at eight different levels along the spine so that the total energy could rise – step by step (as communicated in the story of ‘churning of the milky ocean’ also) - to one point in the head, i.e., the point source of energy or Naadbindu, also called ‘supreme knowledge’, ‘Devi’ etc...

The above is easier said than done because of the inherent nature of the design there are hurdles, or ‘dwarpalas’ who welcome the true devotee (faithful) and keep the others (who lack faith) out…

Third Eye Closed said...

A brilliant post and very concise information. Felt like a small trip taken around all the different temples and as though they were sorted out stating what differentiated each one.

Information Well Served is Information Well Fed.
It surely has increased my appetite for more :)


Third Eye Closed said...

Hello Uncle,

What 'Abosulte Truth' is the temple communicating? In the first place what is the Question to the 'Absolute Truth'? Is that also expressed in the temple?


JC Joshi said...

Good question, Felix!

The ancient saying, “Satyam Shivam Sunderam,” conveys the realization of the ‘wise’ ancients… They also said, “Vishnu is Shiva and Shiva is Vishnu”, where Vishnu signifies the formless or unseen Creator (‘Absolute Truth’) and Shiva as His physical form (The ‘Truth’ or ‘Satya’ - derived from ‘Satva’ or the essence of the universe)… It is said, "Truth is bitter." Coulkd it be a mere concidence that essence of tea leaves is also bitter!

Temples made from ingredients obtained from earth (or rather other edifices too wherein reside ‘souls with forms’ or 'animal life') symbolically represent the Mother Earth, i.e., Shiva. For, Earth has ‘Moon’ on its forehead and also has other features that match with the description of Shiva (in the mythological stories) – either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the eyes of the two basic categories of human beings, selfless and selfish)…

Shivlinga, representing the ‘Absolute Truth’ or the yet ‘Unborn’, is symbolically installed in the ‘garbha griha’ or within ‘Mother’s womb’ like interior of a Shiva temple, just as Kavitha also says, “The deities to look for in a Shiva temple would be, the Shiva linga stone within the Garbha griha…”

Similarly, one could imagine the point source of gravitational force (‘Sati’, teh consort of Ardhanarishwar Shiva manifested in the destructive form of a volcano or ‘Kali’) concentrated at the centre of the earth, although distributed all over the earth – weakest on its surface that allows temporary freedom with bondage even to dust particles...

In the human form, its root or largest percentage is believed to lie at the ‘Mooladhar’ and spread over the rest of the body also, thus leaving only a small fraction in head for normal use in Kaliyuga by an average man...

Revathi said...

It reads like a guide to Indian temples. Guess now a lot of seemingly obscure sculptures in most of our temples will now begin to make more sense. Your passion is certainly driving people to 'look' at temples and sculptures better. Keep going!

kavitha said...

Hi Revati,

long time no see! it took you a long while to get back to my blog.. or rather you have not been commenting in a while.

Good to hear from you again.


anil joshi said...

Very informative blog as usual.I think you should really write a comprehensive book on Indian temples & Iconography.Please give this a serios thought

kavitha said...

Dear Mr Anil Joshi,

The thought of writing a book has been in my head for a while. There are enough books out there, i would not be writing anything new except the possible perspective of looking at temples and valuing them (maybe)in a language the common man understands, and not as scholarly as would be expected.

it will happen some day (hopefully)!


anil joshi said...

kavitha,this a little besides the point.But what are your views on the Taj Mahal?was it built or simly modified by Shahajahan?

JC Joshi said...

Hi Dr Joshi,
I would like to offer the following for your consideration, based on my understanding of the 'past' and the 'present' thoughts... which one might find erroneous...

If I am to accept the realization of the ‘wise’ ancient ‘Hindus’ of the ‘Vedic Era’ – carried forth through generations - as true, i.e., physical universe as ‘Maya’ or illusion, then Taj Mahal/ Sahahjahan, and even I don’t physically exist, these are only images in the head, or characters in the dream, of the unborn formless ‘Creator’ who alone really exists:-)

Man is believed as the evolved most life on earth, perhaps because it apparently has the most evolved form of brain out of all ‘life forms’ in the ‘animal world’. Man apparently is doubtful about more intelligent life elsewhere, i.e., ETI.

Questions could arise in a seeker’s mind: Does the micro-organism, which needs electronic microscope to realize its existence, have brain? Or, if it is 'brainless' (some humans also are called so), how is it that ‘brainy man’, who apparently is much advanced in IT today, finds himself helpless to deal with microbe's advancing forms! How is micro-organism also advancing, e.g., a strain of 'H5N1' that is in news today (Latin and Greek for the majority), apparently without any research conducted in multi-million-dollar labs - necessary for man? Other animals appear to be least bothered about need for such research - why then man alone is getting ‘fooled’ and living apparently purposelessly? What is the purpose of the formless Creator’s (if one believes in His existence today - for, there exist many 'ostriches' today)infinite thoughts, through eternity, that are perhaps being projected in His obviously formless ‘third eye’?

anil joshi said...

joshiji,What I understand from your comments is that we should not enter into such controversies!We all are governed by the same cosmic principle called allah/god/buddha/christ...etc.I entirely agree with you.My point in asking the question was why our secular government is keeping majority portion of the Taj closed for public viewing.

kavitha said...

Dear Mr Anil Joshi,

The reason why the government has kept most of the monuments closed is because its not respected and handled with value by the public.

People scribble on the walls and write obscene messages and names and do not respect or value these monuments. This is why a greater part of the monuments stay closed and can be accessed only after written permission from ASI.

Of course other examples like the Brihadeshwara temple in tanjore has two storeys and is profusely decorated with paintings, and is not open to public view again for the same reason. They cannot be photographed with cameras having flash lights (like ajanta paintings).

The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram is in a state of delapidation and the stairway upwards is not stable and quite steep. People are therefore not allowed to go up there anymore.

The sun temple at Modera has a whole pillared hall beneath the main temple and has gaping holes on the sides of the temple that allow you to go in, but we are not allowed because the roof might collapse, and there is enough rubble down there and god knows what else. The ASI will not to take responsibility for any accidents that might occur, hence access is denied.

The water well of Patan are not open to public beyond a certain limit for people are likely to desecrate its walls.

The qutb minar has been closed down, not only because people scribble on the walls but also because some find it a good way to commit suicide by jumping off.

the Humayun's tomb has many chambers which have been closed down exactly for the same reasons.

i cant think of any other examples.

i hope i have answered your question.

anil joshi said...

Kavita,If this is the reason for the closure I have no objection.I was not knowing that one can visit these prohibited areas after obtaining permission from the ASI.
It seems you haven't visited Maharashtra very much.Maharashtra has a curious mix of the North & South.You are most welcome to visit Maharashtra.I belong to Pandharpur.It is one of the most important pilgrimage centers of India.The temple complex of God Vithoba Is in interesting place.Though vithoba is supposed to be a form of Vishnu,it's name is not there in the "dashawataras"or the "Vishnu Sahastranamas"Your proposed book will not be complete if you don't visit Pandharpur & Maharashtra

JC Joshi said...

The problem in human life is primarily because there exist innumerable aspects to cover in ‘nature’ and their complex behaviour, the limited human life span in which to do it, and added to which is the apparent natural hierarchy (minus to plus) such that the so-called common man cannot know everything about every subject in detail, particularly when considerable 'time' elapses…

In view of the above, the concerned society within a physical boundary gets divided into selected major sectors of development, like orange fruit naturally has independent fruits tightly held within a common cover - as essence of any Management... By chance or by design, any administrative system gets divided into three basic categories of ‘specialists’ at any time: ‘Technical experts’ who attempt in-depth study - in each apparently complex subject - for best utilization of naturally available material and human resources, with upto date advancement from time to time to keep up with the growth of population and changing requirements; ‘Political Administrator(s)’ for coordination between different necessarily required units and ‘decision making function’; ‘Civil servants’ to assist the Political Administrator(s) to set up Rules/ Acts etc within the overall Constitution such that every individual plays his desired role and receive the desired fruit of development achieved with combined efforts of the society…

The best output can thus be expected only when everyone knows his and others role and sincerely performs the task assigned to him...

However, there are weaknesses and ‘the strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link’, which is provided by, say, ‘religion’ and different interpretations of it besides ‘inferiority complex’ in humans…

As understood by the ancients, and conveyed through different Scriptures, lack of knowledge is responsible for wrong actions (which perhaps is natural because of the apparent hierarchy in all aspects of nature and thus beyond human control)… Hence, ideally, as Kavitha also said, there is need for everyone to respect each other, big or small, living or non living, and so on, i.e., ‘tolerance’, for which ‘Hindus’ were once popular the world over… ‘Intolerance’ is rapidly growing perhaps because every good or bad thing has to end at the ‘destined time’ - and as per ‘wise’ ancients every Yuga has an end - like every human drama as its reflection…

kavitha said...

Hello Anilji,

I have not travelled in Maharashtra. I have only been to Ajanta, Aurangabad and Ellora apart from Mumbai.

I have always found one thing interesting, the forts that Shivaji built and he interested me a lot more when i learnt he was a Kali worshipper. I will definitely make a trip to see the forts built by the Ranas of Mewar and Shivaji.

Yes, Maharashtra is a hazy end of my spectrum and i think i need a lot of guidance before i go there in terms of what to see and how to see it.

i dont want to be another tourist. Am sure there is a lot of value there that needs to be tapped. And then i will start writing the book :)


JC Joshi said...

Hi Kavitha,
The following under ‘Buddhist shrine - cave temples’, “Older Hinayana phase elements to look for …, pair of slippers, …, and …” reminded me of my visit to selected temples in Mumbai, perhaps in the year 2000, one out of my annual visits since ’99… I used to avoid visiting temples, unless it was a compulsory one - on some particular auspicious occasions - to a Kali temple in New Delhi as per my father’s desire, for he was a Kali worshipper, besides Shiva and Krishna…

I was staying with a relative in Tardeo and had asked the daughter of my brother-in-law to take me to Mumbadevi temple at least to make my visits to Mumbai comfortable! On a Sunday the couple picked me up and took me to Siddhi Vinayak temple, Mahalaxmi temple, followed by Babulnath temple. Lastly we were on our way to Mumbadevi temple. After some time I noticed that only I was bare footed!

You see, for convenience all of us were wearing slippers and most of the time we were leaving those inside the car itself. But, at the Babulnath those were used for walking some distance on the road leading to it, and I had completely forgotten about that fact. Although they offered to take me back, I said there was no point in going back, and that Babulnath’s need was perhaps more than mine:-)

I was obliged to request my wife’s niece to buy me a new pair from the Zhaveri Bazar, after completing the visit to Mumbadevi, as I was unable to walk on the hot tarred road that lead to the shop…

anil joshi said...

Kavitha,Yes Shivaji maharaj was a worshipor of Kalimata(tulaja bhavani is the popular name)During his visit to Shree shailya he even thoghut of offering his head to the God as a sacrifice.His associates had a torrid time convincing him that a lot more work needs to be done.Fortunately they succeded!Besides the number of forts Maharashtra has variety of temples of different faiths.The ardhanarinateshwar temple near Pandharpur is a unique one.Do plan a visit to Maharashtra,you are bound to get a very rich & satisfying experience.I am going to remind you periodically about your "sankalpa" of writting a book

Anonymous said...

Dear Kavitha,,

It is very nice to see your article here. I am a researcher from Mysore University. I am a student of Ancient History and Archaeology. Also well versed with Sanskrit and Vedas. I feel some part of the articles should be revised. I will write you more in future if you accept my comments


kavitha said...

Hi Shalva,

Thank you very much for the comment. Given you are far more well versed with the subject, I will greatly appreciate your point of view. Please feel free to mail me regarding the same.

Warm regards