Iconology of Composite Images (An Old and Rare Book)

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Item Code: IAB04
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: D. C. Bhattacharyya
Language: English
Edition: 1980
Pages: 90
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.8" X 7.5"
Weight 410 gm
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Book Description

About the Book:

This is the first-ever exclusive study of the composite images of Indian iconography. Of the five chapters of the book, the one on the Supreme Form can legitimately claim to be the first-ever comprehensive treatment of the theme concerned.

The emphasis has been on the study of the socio-historical perspective of the images. The critical apparatus used consists of original source-materials, both published and unpublished.

Copious textual citations and visual documentation in the form of more than forty illustrations of images lend authenticity to the volume which doubtless is a significant scholarly contribution to the iconological study of Indian art.

About the Author:

A well-known scholar of Indian Art History, Dr. Dipak Chandra Bhattacharyya has made significant contribution to various fields of Indian Art history, particularly Indian iconography. Apart from being the author of Tantric Buddhist Iconographic Sources (1974), Studies in Buddhist Iconography (1978) and co-author of The Astral Divinities of Nepal (1969), Dr. Bhattacharyya has written the chapter on Sculpture for the Comprehensive History of India (Vol. III), and two chapters on Art and Architectural for the Cultural Heritage of India (Vol. IV) in addition to more than fifty other research papers published in scholarly journals of India and abroad.

Dr. bhattacharyya served as an expert for the UNESCO project on Tantrayana Art conducted by the Asiatic Society, and carried out researches abroad as a JDR 3rd Fund Fellowship recipient.

At present he is a Reader in the History of Art at the Punjab University, Chandigarh.


The present work is not merely an inventory of various types of composite images. There are numerous other examples of images of this category which have not been listed or mentioned in this book. The omissions are partly intentional, and mostly due to my ignorance. The basic objective of the book is to draw the attention of scholars to the socio-historical perspective of the composite images and to some of the factors that are responsible for their composite or synthetic character. A few examples of the type showing the major variations were deemed sufficient to provide for the needed frame of reference. The left-out or unnoticed examples could have only added strength to the validity of the proposition.

It has, however, to be mentioned that the study primarily is based on composite images of the "iconic" type only. Examples have mostly been drawn from the images showing the combination of the iconographic features of deities being representing various cults or sects. The Supreme Form (visvarupa) of deities being conceptually and iconographically composite in nature due coverage had to be given of this iconic motif-in fact, this is perhaps the most comprehensive study of the theme that has as yet been made by any scholar.

Composite images of the types other than those defined above have been kept out of the scope of the present work, since the treatment of the subject has been designed in the nature more of a case study than of a general survey.

Apart from the apparent inadequacy of the range of coverage of the theme, the book has, I am sure, many other shortcomings and blemishes. For all these, and for printing errors, I express sincere apologies to my learned readers.

I take this opportunity to record my indebtedness to all the scholars whose researches have enlightened me from time to time. In this connection I am particularly grateful to Dr. Pratapaditya Pal whose illuminating works on iconology have not only served me as the sources of information, but they have also inspired me to study and learn. I am thankful to two of my ex-students: Dr. Saroj Rani Panthey and Dr. Usha Bhatia for helping me with some photographs of images.

Nilima helped in the preparation of the index and Tirthankar kept his promise of not disturbing too much during my work.


While explaining the apparent paradox involved in the representation of God-the Supreme Soul (paramatman) who is essentially devoid of all qualities of sense, such as rupa (sight), rasa (taste), sabda (sound), gandha (smell), and sparsa (touch) - the Visnudharmottara Purana does not take an apologetic stand. It rather gives a straightforward explanation: the Supreme Soul has two natures, the noumenal (prakriti) and phenomenal (vikriti), The former is invisible (alaksyam tasya tadrupam) and the latter has a form (sakara). Since the invisible mode is cognizable only with great strain, the Supreme Soul, of His own free will, has manifested Himself through various forms (akara). l Significantly, throughout Indian iconography, there persists an attitude recognizing the image (pratima) as only the manifested complement to what lies beyond articulation (apratima)2 . Even the Vajrayana Tantrayana Buddhist iconography, which has often been looked down upon as gross idolatry, seems to have held an identical attitude towards the representation of the Supreme Being, as is evident from the following statement of the Advayavajrasam-graha: the images of deities are the manifestations (sphurti) of Sunya and are by nature non-existent, and whenever there is manifestation, it must be Sunya in essence.3 The statement of the Nispannayogavali of Abhayakaragupta that the image and the concept ultimately merge with the void (Sunyataikarasam)4 is substantially an echo of the view of the Advayavajrasamgraha mentioned above. The Jains, it is well known, regard the images as remembrancers (smarakas) of the virtues (tirtha) that the Tirthankaras stand for. To the Jains too, therefore, the image is not an end in itself.

An image, in the Indian context, is thus a visual symbol (pratika) of a concept or idea. What is seen in the form of the image is not only that matters-the meaning transcending the form is equally significant. The external form of God, as is an image, is basically composite in nature in so far as it is informed by an idea eluding the form. The image is thus the visual interpretation of the Ultimate Reality as the synthesis of what can be expressed and what cannot be (vyaktamavyaktam).

The composite character of the image-it being a synthesis of the form (rupa) and no-form (arupa)-is often visually represented through multiple physical properties of the form or by expressing it as an aggregate of a number of forms drawn from Nature. The multiplicity of the limbs of an image of a deity, not infrequently, stands for the plural character of the form. As for example, Siva is represented with five heads for which he is often referred to as Panacanana, Pancavaktra, or Panca-mukha. These five heads of the Lord, known as Sadyojata or Mahadeva (east face), Umavaktra or Vamadeva (north face), Aghora or Bhairava (south face), Tatpurusa or Nandivaktra (western face), and Isana or Sadasiva (the face at the top), represent the five elements: earth (ksiti), air (marut), water (ap), fire (tejah), and void (vyoma). Interestingly, of the ten hands of Siva a pair is related to each of the five faces of the Lord, and, moreover, each pair is assigned a specific set of attributes: Sadyojata face-aksamala (rosary) and kamandalu (vase), Aghora face-danda (staff) and matulunga (citrus), Vamadeva facer darpana (mirror) and indivara (lotus), Tatpurusa face-carma (shield) and sula (lance), and the Isana face-pinaka (bow) and bana (arrow),1 . Appositely, therefore, the five faces of Siva have been interpreted as indicative of the comprehension of the five principal deities (pancapakse tu murtayah) like Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Isvara, and Sadasiva within the Great Form of the Lord." Thus the composite nature of the basic iconography of Siva is clearly borne out. A beautiful expression of this concept is to be found in the celebrated Mahesa-murti sculpture from Elephanta (Fig. 1). Moreover, the composite character of Siva's iconography is also represented through his Nataraja form which, symbolises his five activities or pancakrityas like creation (sristi), preservation (sthiti), destruction (samhara), release (tirobhava), and salvation (anugraha). Through these five activities Siva in his Nataraja form combines the activities of the five deities like Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Mahesvara, and Sadasiva.3 Not only Siva, it is interesting to note that the composite character of the iconography of Visnu is also reflected in some of his well-known forms. Some four-faced, four-(rarely more-) armed early mediaeval Visnu images from Northern India, mostly from Kashmir, represent the concept of Visnu Caturmurti or Caturvyuha.4

The four faces of Visnu, in such forms, are referred to in the Jayakhyasamhita as Vaikuntha, Varaha, Kapila, and Narasimha.1 In the iconic representation, these four faces are of a placid human being, a boar, a lion and of an awesome human being. The Visnudharmottara calls this form as Vaikuntha, and its four faces are regarded as Vasudeva (eastern, human face), Samkarsana (southern, lion face), Pradyumna (northern, boar face), and Aniruddha (western, the terrific demonic face). It is observed there that with such a body the god, the greatest in the universe, sustains the whole world.2 These four faces of Visnu, as his Vaikuntha form reveals, are indicative of the composite character of the iconography of the god: the form embodies four in one or, in other words, a multiple meaning is conveyed, as if, through a single form.

Almost all Indian deities, particularly those belonging to the Brahmanical pantheon, have a multiple, or at least a dual, character.

The composite character of the Devi, particularly her Durga or Candi aspect, as given in the Devimahatmya section of the Markandeya Purana, is well known. According to the accounts, she originated out of the combined contribution, either in the form of a body-limb or an attribute, of the various divinities who implored upon her to kill the demons Sumbha, Nisumbha, Mahisa, etc. It has been stated there that being briefed about the mischievous deeds of the demons, the three principal gods- Brahma, Visnu, and Siva-were visibly angry, and out of their contorted face emerged some extra-ordinary power (tejah) to which similar expressions of tejah from other divinities coalesced (aikyam samagacchata) and gave rise to an all-pervading flame (jvalavyaptadigantaram) resembling a shining mountain (jvalantamiva parvatam). Out of this unique (atula) flame emerging from the bodies of all divinities (sarvadevasarirajam) originated a woman (abhuvannari)3 -the goddess incarnate-who was decorated and strengthened by the divinities with their respective contributions of ornaments and arms.4 Thus created out of the combined energies of all the divinities (nihsesadevaganasaktisamuhamurtya),5 the Devi or the goddess Durga has an essential composite character. This character is reflected not only in her iconography with multiple arms (astadasabhuja pujya sa sahasrabhuja sati),6 but a vivid visual expression of the concept of her origin from the synthesised power of the divinities can often be met with in Indian miniature paintings (Fig. 2).

This composite character of the Devi is evident not only in her militant aspect as Durga or Candi, but also in many of her benevolent manifestations. In her manifestation as Laksmi, she is not only the goddess of wealth, but of wisdom as well.1 Similarly, Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, is also the goddess of wealth.2 The iconographic expression of this fact, and also of the characteristics of these two important aspects of the Devi, are to be found in the conception of the Buddhist goddess Vasudhara, particularly in her celebrated six-handed form which shows the Buddhist version of the composite form of Laksmi and Sarasvati.3 Of the six hands of this form of the goddess, three show attributes associated with the goddess Laksmi, e.g., the treasure-pot (bhadraghata) the sheaf of paddy (dhanyamanjari), and the varada-pose of hand showering treasures (nidhivarsana or-darsana). Two of the hands hold the book (pustaka or prajanapustaka) and the garland of rosary beads (aksamala) -the attributes associated with Sarasvati. Numerous images of this form of the goddess Vasudhara are known (Fig. 3).


List of Illustrationsxi
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Dual Forms10
Chapter Three
Multiple Forms38
Chapter Four
The Supreme Form48
Chapter Five
The Iconology61
Select Bibliography72
Sample Page

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