The Weapons seen in the hands of deities – in terms of Hindu temple iconography

When we see a murti and try to identify it, often the first thing we do is to check the accessories in his or her hands. These include weapons, musical instruments, birds, animals, etc. These ayudhas, besides helping to differentiate and identify the different deities, are primarily used to symbolise the diverse activities of the gods and goddesses. As T.A.G. Rao explained, “the images of Hindu gods and goddesses are representations of the various conceptions of divine attributes. Sculpturally it may be said, the number of hands in an image represents the number of attributes belonging the the deity, and their nature is denoted by the ayudha held in the hand or by the pose maintained by it” (Vol I, part I. Introduction, p.27). These accessories, in many instances, have also turned into emblems of the different sects within Hinduism. Since the images are generally seen in anthropomorphic forms,  the accessories shown on them are similar to what were used and worn by the people of those times, thus giving us a fair idea of the dresses and ornaments worn, and weapons and musical instruments in vogue at that time.

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The sculpturing of these accessories vary from region to region, and also from dynasty to dynasty (in reference to works created under different dynasties, such as the Chola bronze murtis are different from the Vijaynagara ones). Thus, we find that early Chalukya, Pallava, and early Chola works cover more or less the same region, yet are varying in sculptural intricacies. Their simple yet more realistic representations are no less beautiful than the later artistically more elaborate sculptures of the later Chalukyas and Hoysalas. Similarly, while ruling over the same region in Eastern India, the Gupta, Pala and Sena dynasties show differences in their design and styling of accessories. Additionally, the eastern Indian sculptures can be easily differentiated from their north and south Indian counterparts, owing to typical regional influences seen in the sculptures.  The north Indian Surya and south Indian Surya can be immediately differentiated from a study of their accessories. The north Indian Surya is seen in his udicyavesa (that include the tightly netted vest like covering on his torso, and his boots) and the waist girdle or avyanga; while the south Surya lacks both.

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North Indian styled Surya wearing udicyavesa (the thin net like vest on his torso and boots), Konark, National museum Delhi.
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Vishnu with his signature weapons: Sankha, Chakra, and Gada; Pala dynasty
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Durga with her weapons while resting on her lion, Pallava dynasty.
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Tripurantaka Shiva carrying his weapons. The two devis on the two side koshthas or niches are also carrying different types of weapons, Pallava dynasty.
Vishnu Durga, carries the same weapons as Vishnu

Examining the weapons specifically, it is seen that there are some that are more commonly seen in the hands of the deities. These are:

Chakra: seen in the hands of Vishnu it is considered as a Vaishanava symbol. It is also seen in the hands of Durga, and closely resembles a quoit with sharp edges, which could be thrown at the enemy for cutting him through.  It is generally held side way by the rim, and looks like a wheel with spokes. In a more ornamented form the spokes are styled like lotus petals and the internal circular part appears like a full blown lotus. Sometimes there are ornamentation around the rim, and a ribbon like jewelled piece is seen around the chakra, which is also used for holding it while keeping it front facing. (Photo I, figs 4 and 5)

Sankha: sankha or a conch shell, was blown during wars in ancient times for inspiring the soldiers and creating a feeling of terror among the enemies. In Bhagavad Gita, we find the mention of pancajanya sankha used by Krishna (Vasudeva-Vishnu), which was made from the bone of an asura named Pancajana. (Photo I, figs 1 and 2).

Gada: a club or a mace. It is thicker than a cudgel/danda, though sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between the two, especially in the early coins and seals.  With a thick top and tapering end, a gada is held firmly with all fingers, and is meant for hitting at the enemy from a close a range, hence should never leave the hand. Iconographically it can be shown plain or with ornamentation. The gada seen in the hands of Vishnu is known as kaumodaki, or kaumodi (Photo 1, figs 6, 7, 8).

Khetaka: a shield that is either circular or quadrangular or oblong in shape. It is a defensive weapon and held by a handle at its back. It may be made of metal, or wood, or leather (hence it is often referred to as carma/charma in different texts) (Photo 1, figs 11 &12).

Khadga : is a sword, and the swords seen in the hands of different deities often have different names, such as nandaka (Vishnu), nistrimsa (consort of Pradyumna), etc. (Photo 1, figs 9 &10).

Photo 1 (Source: TAG Rao , Vol I, part I,  plate I)

 

Musal:  wooden pestle. An offensive weapon made of cylindrical hard wooden rod that can be used to hit the enemy. The weapon is mostly seen in the hands of Balaram (Photo 2 , fig 1).

Hala: A plough, which was likely used also as a weapon during the wars. Seen carried by Balram (Photo 2 , fig 1).

Dhanush and Sara: refers to a bow and arrow (also known as bana). Dhanush or a bow has three different shapes as seen in the photo 2 (figs 2, 3, and 4). fig 2 has the shape of an arc, while fig 3 has three bends, and the one in fig 4 has five bends. These three images of the bows also show the gradual evolution of the dhanush or bow from a primitive and simple weapon to a more complex one in the later periods. The bows also have different names based on the gods that carry them. As for example, Shiva carries he bow name as Pinak, and Vishnu carries the bow known as Sarnga. Manmatha (Kamdev, Pradyumna, who is Mara in Buddhism) carries five arrows (pancasara) and a bow known as pushpadhanush, as it is floral in nature. In medieval era often Manmatha is seen carrying a sugarcane bow. (Photo 2 , fig 2, 3, 4, and 5).

Tanka: a stone mason’s chisel though a tool, is often shown in the arms of a deity as a weapon, as it may have been used for offensive purposes during wars in the ancient times. (Photo 2 , fig 11).

Parasu: A battle-axe, with a steel blade and wooden handle. The blade is either fitted into a hole on the wooden handle or is attached to a ring on the handle. The older version of battle axes is seen in Photo 2 , fig 6. The later period axes look more like a steel blade fitted into a short wooden block similar to that of a gada, and appears disproportionate (Photo 2 , fig 7).

Khatavanga: a club that was initially conceived as made of bone from a forearm or a leg and has skull on top fitted through the foramen (hole in a bone). Later the design was altered to show a long ornamented wooden handle with a skull on top. It seen in the hands of fierce form of the deities, such as Bhairav and Chamunda (Photo 2 , figs 9 and 10).

Agni: agni or fire is seen both as an offering or a weapon.  As a weapon it is shown as a fire ball that we see in the hands of Shiva-Nataraja, or as torch that can act as an incendiary weapon (Photo 2 , figs 12 and 13).  As an offering it is shown as flames issuing from a sacrificial pot, as for example, in Kalyanasundaramurti of Shiva (Photo 2 , fig 14).

Photo 2 (Source: TAG Rao , Vol I, part I, plate II)

Sula: the famous weapon seen in the hands of Shiva. The long handle is wooden that ends in a metal tri-pronged pike (Photo 3, figs  1 and 2). In early representations of Shiva in seals and coins often the god was seen carrying a weapon that combined the sula and parasu  (battle-axe) together.

A combined sula and parasu, as seen in early coin devices depicting Shiva. (Images from Jitendra Nath Banerjea, Plate I, figs 16, 19, and 21)

 

Sakti: It is a spear (a sharp pointed metal with a long wooden handle), and seen in the hands of Durga and Kartikeya ( (Photo 4, figs 8 and 9).

Ankusha: An elephant goad. Used in wars as weapon  as it has a sharp hook made of metal attached to a short or long wooden stick (Photo 4, figs 3 and 4).

Vajra: thunderbolt seen in hands of Indra and Shiva. it is depicted in two ways. One is a simple representation like a club that is narrow in the middle and wide at two ends. The other is more elaborate with ornamentation, and is a double faced weapon with sharp three claws at two ends which is held by the narrow middle part (Photo 3, fig  7).

Pasa: A noose made of ropes, which is used for tying enemies. It is shown as loops in the hands of deities, varying from single to multiple loops (Photo 3, figs  5 and 6)

 

Photo 3 (Source: TAG Rao , Vol I, part I, plate III)
Photo 4 (Source: TAG Rao , Vol I, part I,  plate III)

 

 

References:

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Early Indian iconography.

Jitendranath Banerjea, The Development of Hindu Iconography.

Kramrisch, S, Indian Sculpture.

T.N. Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography.

 

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Bala Sivarman says:

    Very nicely written and informative article.
    Iconography helps us to construct the life of people in the past .
    The dresses and weapons gives us clues regarding their capabilities in metal handling etc

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you.
      Yes our temple iconography is a historical documentary in itself. It tells us of the people and how they lived in the ancient and medieval times. It’s a beautiful subject to explore.

      Like

  2. Minakshi. Bhattacharya says:

    Very well written article and very informative

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you so much

      Like

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