Hindu temple iconography is a difficult subject. It takes a lot of reading and understanding of the philosophies behind the symbolism to get at the basics. Then of course there are the varying interpretations of each symbolism as per the philosophy one tends to believe in. There’s a saying in Bengali : joto mot, toto poth, which means there are as many ways as there are ideas/philosophies.
When delving on the topic of Hindu temple iconography, some of the great masters such as Stella Kramrisch, Gopinath Rao, Jitendra Nath Banerjea, and Coomarswamy through their writings will take you down the fascinating lanes of ancient scriptures, inscriptions, sculptures, coins, and seals that all aim at understanding the complexities of Hindu temple iconography. The word Icon or ikon is derived from the Greek eikon, which when literally translated means a figure (in painting, sculpture, or even mosaic) representing a deity or a saint that is used for purpose of worship or is associated with some rituals connected with worship. The Greek word eikon has close parallels in Indians words as arca, vigraha, bera, etc., which are often found in Indian texts metaphorically describing the very body of the gods (tanu or rupa). These are sometimes represented theriomorphically or anthropomorphically, or sometimes just symbolically. The study of these images is what we now term as Iconography; a subject that helps one to interpret the religious art of a community or country that has manifested itself in many different ways.
Interestingly the English word image is derived from the old Latin-French word ‘imago,’ and denotes likeness, but is used in the same sense as the Greek eikon. Now the term image also finds its parallel in Indian words such as vimba, pratima, etc. The word vimba means reflection, and often refers to images of our deities. This however also reminds one of the Bengali custom of darpan bisarjan and snana-jala of devi Durga during her annual worship in autumn. A mirror is placed on a copper or brass bowl in such a way that the devi’s image is reflected in the mirror. For bisarjan the reflection symbolises her immersion and going away, while for snana-jala ritual the water is poured on the reflection, symbolising bathing or ablution of the devi. So the likeness or reflection (vimba) takes the place of the real divinity, and becomes equally significant.
In our epics and other literary texts words such as pratikriti, vimba, pratima, etc are often used that show the use of murtis as images or likeness of a person. As for example, in Bhasa’s Pratima-Nataka we find that pratimas of dead royalties were made as objects of reverence. In Mahabharata, we read of the ayusi pratima of Bhima, which was given to Dhritarastra for hugging that he eventually crushed. In Ramayana, Sita’s golden pratima was used by the side of Rama, in her absence.
Thus, a glance at the past shows that India has always given an importance to images or pratikriti. Now how and when the concept of worshipping pratimas came into vogue is a different question altogether that explores some very complex avenues, which include a long walk through the Vedic era when sacrificial images ruled roost, to the later Vedic era and post-Vedic era where the gods finally started getting their human and animal forms (anthropomorphism and theriomorphism) that were worshipped as murtis. An interesting exploration of the past, which I will take up some time later in another post. For now, my focus will remain on the devi/female deity as she is found on various seals and other artefacts from pre-historic times to the Gupta period.
Tracing the devi
Harappan seals and figurines set the trend
The innumerable seals and other similar objects that have been found across India that date back to 3rd-4th millennium BCE, continue into the golden Gupta era and later, give a clear insight into the divinities and how they developed over the period. These seals contain various figures that often show theriomorphic, anthropomorhic, and also therio-anthropomorphic forms; and these figures of deities along with their symbols very clearly represent the popular religious creeds of that era (especially those of the Kushana and Gupta period ones).
Looking back at Harappan times we come across various seals and artefacts, which according to the British archaeologist John Marshall could have belonged to the Mother-goddess cult, evident from the baetylic stones, ring stones, and phalli that were found in abundance from the various excavated sites. The different female figures in terracotta discovered from India and modern Baluchistan mostly appear standing and nude, with a girdle around the waist, and elaborate head-gears and collars. Mother goddesses were typically represented as figures with broad hips, narrow waists and heavy breasts.
A terracotta oblong seal discovered from Harappa shows interesting scenes on its two sides. On one side we see a female figure upside down, legs wide apart, a plant issuing from her womb, and arms in the same position as the Pashupati seal figure. There are two tigers facing each other on the left side of the female deity. On the opposite face of the seal is seen two human figures, a male and female, which according to Marshall could be associated with sacrificial offerings to the mother-goddess. Details of both sides of the seal are shown in the photo below.
The Harappan seal with a female deity with plant issuing from her womb is easily comparable to the terracotta relief from Bhita site of early Gupta period that shows the goddess in the same position with a lotus coming out from the neck instead of her womb (better known as Lajjagauri or Aditi Utanapad). Devis in similar sitting position with legs wide apart are also seen in Kusana era figurines found in Bhita. These figures are symbolic of sexuality, fertility, and the creation of new lives, carrying with them the same concept of Mother goddess.
Another interesting seal that we see from the Harappan times was discovered at Mohenjo-daro. An asvatta tree with typical pointed leaves is seen on the right top corner, and between the two branches shown to depict the tree stands the nude figure of a goddess (likely a tree deity/spirit) with long hair, a trident horn, and armlets; while a devotee, also with long hair, kneels in front; and a human faced goat (likely a protecting local deity with minor position) stands behind the worshipper.
Besides these seals, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro has also thrown up many ring stones, varying from large ones showing 4 feet diameters, to smaller ones made of shells or faience. While there are many different views on their purposes, with suggestions ranging from the stones being used as architectural pieces to stone money. However, one line of thought places these ring stone as symbolising the yoni, which represents fertility and motherhood. These are comparable to the stone discs found from ancient Taxila sites of Bhir (4th c. BCE) and Hathial (1000 BCE) mounds that show cross and cable pattern on their upper sides with nude female figures alternating with honeysuckle relief patterns. Similarly a partially broken disc from Rajghat (8th c. BCE) shows a palm tree with a horse, and a female figure sitting beyond holding a bird in her outstretched hand. The female deity is repeated thrice on the disc surface in three varying postures, and with varying accessory figures. The central hole is absent in the disc, and instead of the hole that part shows beautiful scroll patterns. The Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum that holds this Rajghat disc also holds another ring stone (with a hole in the centre) also from Rajghat, which is similar to the Taxila ones with nude female figures with hands outstretched and honeysuckle patterns alternating. Another ring stone from the same museum, found at Kosam, shows Ashokan era Brahmilipi, which besides the typical nude goddesses between three pronged trees, interestingly shows a band of alligator like animals below a twisted rope. All these ring stones and discs can be compared to the prehistoric ring stones found at Harappan sites, and were likely to have belonged to some Mother-goddess cult of worship. Another interesting point to note here is the association of alligators in the some of the discs with Mother-goddess figures that can be related to the development of the Sakti cult later on. In medieval era Parvati murtis from Bengal are always shown with an alligator or iguana or godha. In this context it can be said of the 21 stone discs made of soapstones that were found way back in 1951 from Patna. These stones which likely belonged to the Sunga period (187 to 78 BCE) showed nude fertility goddesses or Mother-goddesses, along with different animals and birds, such as elephant, horse, antelope, ram, peacock, stag, lion, and parrot, thus clearly linking these animals with the goddesses. These goddesses also have elaborate vegetation designs (lotus, date-palm, etc.) around them, which is easily linked to the Puranic form of worship of the devi Durga. Thus, a pattern is seen emerging that fall in line with the devi cult, which evolves around the figure of fertility or the Mother goddess.
Moving to the common era, we find that Marshall described three seals from Bhita, which show a female deity standing with her left on hip and right hand outstretched. The scripts place the seals at around 2nd- 3rd c. CE, dedicated to Shiva, and the female figure is most likely that of Durga, consort of Shiva. Nalanda has also thrown up some interesting seals of the devi cult dated to the late Gupta period and early medieval era. While Nalanda mahavihara was primarily associated with Buddhism, the numerous seals of Hindu deities found from that site was found to have belonged to royal families, rural bodies/guilds of different janapadas, and private officials; thus, showing that the rulers and common people living outside the Nalanda mahavihara practiced mostly Hinduism. A seal depicting a four armed devi seated on a lotus carried by her simha vahana bears the name of Nalanda vihara with the legend reading as Srimad- Devesrari is probably devi Durga. On another seal from the same place the devi holds a gada, a sword, and a lotus, with an animal looking a buffalo below her. On another seal the devi is four armed carrying a sword, chakra, and a trisula. Another fragmentation seal shows a 6 armed devi riding a bull who is believed to be Maheswari, one of the matrikas, with rather unusual number of arms. A red clay seal with the legend reading Brahmani shows a devi with a pasa, trisula, lotus bud, and a kamandala; while another seal shows a simhavahini Durga. There are two more seals that depict four armed devis riding alligators or iguanas, something we have already seen in Mauryan era ring-stones. The most interesting among the Nalanda seal is a one that depicts a skeletal devi holding a skull-cap or kapala, trisula, a scythe, and a sword. She is pretasana, with a sunken belly and flesh-less look, and the attributes clearly place her as Chamunda. The abundance of these seals thus show that Nalanda and its surrounding areas were strong centres of Sakti worship during the late Gupta and early medieval period.
The devi that frequently appears on seals from both before the common era and post common era is Sri or Lakshmi, and she is also the earliest form of devi to have taken a clear shape, in terms of Hindu iconography (first seen as Gajalakshmi on an uninscribed tribal coin from Kaushambi, 3rd c. BCE). According to Marshall, some of the Maya figures on gateways and balustrades of Buddhist stupas were mostly inspired by the Sri-lakshmi figures in their postures and motifs. These motifs that were carried on into the common era are also seen in the Gupta era coins found at Bhita and Basarh sites. Interestingly, a terracotta figurine from Bengal belonging to the Maurya-Sunga period has a devi with a pair of unusual wings and heavy jewellery and is believed to be Lakshmi. Gajalakshmi figures are also frequently seen, and one particular seal shows the devi with an dwarf attendant (yaksha) who is depicted as throwing coins from a money bag kept in front, the bag being the same in shape as the one seen in the kalpavriksha capital from Besnagar. The devi is also found on a unique Basarh seal were she is seen with one hand on hip and the other outstretched, and standing on an object that appears as a barge, quite likely justifying the old saying Vanijye vasate Lakshmi. The other devi that also makes frequent appearances is Durga. One Gupta era seal found in Bhita depicts a purnaghata (a vase) on a pedestal and the words below mention it as Saraswati, thus also showing a symbolic representation of the devi of learning. Durga, interestingly, is depicted in various ways. Sometimes as simhavahini and holding a trisul, while the other hand remains on hip in katyavilambita pose; sometimes in her eight armed ruup carrying various accessories such as noose, bell, lotus, etc., and hands in varada and abhaya mudras. In one Rajghat seal the devi is shown with a four pronged object in one hand and wreath in the other hand, the hair is braided, while a snake is seen on her right. Durga is recurrently seen as part of Hindu iconography from the Kushana period (1st century CE to around 320 CE) onwards.
From the brief note that I have written on the devi images it is thus seen that from the pre-historic times to the Gupta period, a clear pattern of iconography of the devi cult evolves, which slowly shifts from the worship of Mother goddesses or female fertility deities to individual female deities slowly acquiring separate identities and cult status from around 3rd c. BCE as per archaeological finds (it is quite likely that the process might have started earlier too). To understand this a more detailed look at the various available seals, coins, inscriptions, and scriptures is necessary, a rather complex topic which I might take up some other day .
(the views expressed here are my own derivations after reading various books and journals given as references below. The photos taken from the internet are purely for representational purposes and has no commercial use).
Annual reports of the ASI – A. Cunningham
Annual reports of the ASI – J. Marshall
Al basham, The wonder that was India
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Early Indian iconography.
Kramrisch, S, The Hindu temple.
T.N. Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography