Iconography and Visual Culture of Bengal

Ruma Chakravarti

Independent Researcher

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 Iconography is a field of study that concerns itself with the evaluation of symbols and their significance in religion. It aids in establishing context and helps to link the beliefs and myths of the past to the practices of the present. Any attempt to discuss iconography of temples needs to start with a look at why icons are created. The need for religious iconography is multifold in nature. First, it seeks to make the intangible concept of the gods real through physical presence. Religious iconography has a language of its own which seeks to make the god visible through a certain set of characteristics that are predetermined by rules that originated in ancient times. Secondly, religious icons in the days prior to the industrial revolution provided a unifying effect by their occurrence in temples across a region or a kingdom. Even though the actual mode of worship may differ from region to region within India, the icons themselves are pan-Indian. Icons associated with temples may also be a sign of the wealth or social standing of the person who finances the temple building process. Removing the icons makes religion itself a vague concept which is not as easily disseminated. One other function icons perform is as a record of a certain period in history. The intentional removal of icons during certain historical events can provide clues to the socio-political climate of the time and be reflective of invasion or change of patronage.

The subject of iconography, the study of images with a specific narrative or symbolic intent, raises complex aesthetic and philosophical questions for the modern world about the universal appeal of pictorial messages. In the iconography of temples, it has never lost its relevance, because the messages conveyed through religious icons are the same messages that have been part of the religious vocabulary for hundreds of years. Often icons carry more than one meaning. These are each accurate in their own way as they usually address a number of separate mythological or historical concepts.

In investigating the link between iconography and religion it is worth noting that ‘much of Indian sculpture was produced in order to embellish a sacred scripture.’ (Dehejiya, 1997) Religion is not successful unless it is spread to the masses. In order for this to happen, the first requisite is that people across all strata of society understand and know the basic beliefs on which the religion bases itself. In general the reading and understanding of Hindu scriptures was and still is largely the domain of the privileged, either through reasons of birth, wealth or access to education. Physical symbols that represent religious beliefs and the gods are much easier for people to view and assimilate. The identity of gods as nirakar or formless is much less easily understood than their physical depictions as sakar or having a form. The sacred thus moves from the formless to the concrete. Hinduism displays the power of iconography as a profound stimulus to the memory. In medieval Bengal an elaborate memory system was developed that used visual images as clues to remembering lengthy rhetorical religious texts. A temple wall could thus be a kind of story board, covered with stories and symbols which embedded themselves in the minds of devotees. The icons aided the devout as devotional aids while telling stories about their gods.

Hindu gods are characterized by their anthropomorphic or human forms. This serves to help the devotee identify with the god. The iconography also takes this into consideration. Thus Shiva is frequently shown as a middle aged man, dressed in animal skin, with his hair wound in a bun, shaped like a shell or kaparda and left to grow matted with neglect. This indicates his dissociation from worldly desires. He is sometimes shown seated on a tiger skin. This may indicate two things: the conquering of desire and the position of Shiva as the lord of the animals, Pashupatinath. He usually has a crescent moon in his hair, which is thought to indicate his affinity with the moon, Soma, hence his name Somnath. The other aspects associated with Shiva are the presence of a third eye, the drum or dambaru with which he is said to have created the sound Om, his ayudha or weapon which is the trident and the presence of his familiar or vahan, Nandi the bull. For a devotee visiting a temple, the presence of any of these characteristic traits in association with one or more of the others would inform them that they were looking at a depiction of Shiva.

The icons used in the temples of Bengal tend to be unique in a number of ways. The craftsmen and artisans creating the temples often drew on the visual landscape that surrounded them in their daily lives. Thus the female goddesses such as Tripurasundari (Fig 1) are shown dressed in a style typical to Bengali culture. She is a form of Parvati and is one of the ten Mahavidyas. She is shown in union with Shiva, her consort. She is seated on a lotus flower and is always depicted with four arms. The lotus flower is deeply symbolic in Hindu mythology. It shows the victory of good over evil, the lotus itself remains untouched although it grows out of mud and is surrounded by water that may be a reference to man’s existence or Samsara. It is also associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of plenty and prosperity and Brahma, the creator. Tripurasundari is an amalgamation of three powers, Ichchashakti or the power of thought, Gyanashakti or the power of knowledge and Kriyashakti or the power of action. (Brooks, 1990) Her hands are always shown carrying specific weapons or ayudhas. These are apparent in Fig. 2. They are a noose or pasha in her upper right hand, signifying separation from worldly desires, five arrows in her lower right hand, signifying the five senses, one bow held in the upper left hand and a goad or ankusha held in the lower left arm. She is usually shown on a bed with Shiva being carried by a number of figures including Brahma at the extreme right and Rudra in the centre. The presence of more than two forms or murti of the same entity such as Shiva and Rudra in the same image is a sign of the omnipotence of the god. The multiple arms of Tripurasundari indicate her ability to do many things and at a more basic level are intended to impress. The form of Tripurasundari in Fig. 2 is shown with stylized lotus buds at its base. Often the walls of a temple became a narrative in their own right as seen in Fig. 1. The deity is shown surrounded by a scene of devotees offering their prayers. Her greater size in comparison to the other figures is intended to inform of her power as a protector.

The importance of the goddess Kali in Hindu iconography is enormous. Kali is consort to Shiva. She is considered to have black skin as she has existed from before the creation of the universe and light. Alternatively her dark colour may indicate her anger. A third explanation for her name is her position as consort to Time or Kal. The Kali shown in Fig. 3 wears a garland of severed heads and a waist piece or skirt of severed arms. The number of heads in the garland seems to be fifty one, which signifies the number of syllables in the Sanskrit language. She is shown in her Smashan Kali persona, which is a depiction of her as the goddess of the cremation ground. The craftsman used a number of devices to depict this. Her upper right hand is shown bearing a sword, and her left foot is placed forward. In her upper left hand is a bowl or kapala to collect the blood of those she slays and from the severed head in her lower left hand. The severed head signifies human ego which is destroyed by the sword of Divine knowledge in order to gain Enlightenment or Moksha. The lower right arm is held in a gesture of reassurance or the abhaya mudra. The use of the abhaya mudra is meant to indicate her forgiving nature to those who worship her. It possibly originated as a display of the absence of weapons. This is sometimes known as the gesture of giving or the varada mudra. She is shown as standing on Shiva; this is a central feature of many Kali statues. A myth states that Shiva lay down in order to stop her wreaking havoc when she was drunk with blood from the demons she had been killing. Her appearance is made more fearful by the mane of hair shown radiating around her head. She is shown naked apart from the garland and the waist piece, as she is considered to be clothed by the universe and realization or Brahmaswarupini.

Sometimes icons depict entire mythological incidents. One such incident is shown in Fig 4. The story being narrated is that of Gajendra Moksham. An elephant called Gajendra was bathing in the water when a crocodile bit its leg. He was abandoned by his clan and was near death when he decided to call on Vishnu for deliverance, with the offering of a lotus in his trunk. The offering brings Vishnu to his rescue and the crocodile is killed. Vishnu is depicted seated on his winged familiar, Jatayu. Jatayu is recognizable by his birdlike beak and the stylized right wing which can be clearly seen. Vishnu is shown with four arms each carrying a designated weapon or device. He carries a Sudarshana Chakra in his upper right hand and a conch shell to announce himself in his upper left arm. This is known as the Panchajanya. His other weapon is his mace or gada, Kaumadaki, in his lower left hand. The only hand that does not carry a weapon is the lower right hand, which is shown holding a lotus. Vishnu images carry a number of other emblems such as the mark of the sage Bhrigu’s feet and the Shrivatsa mark, indicating the position of Lakshmi, his consort on his chest. His neck is adorned by a garland which contains the Kaustubhmani that was offered to him after the churning of the seas. A stylized Chakra may be noticed above the group of images. An interesting fact about the effectiveness of icons was immediately apparent to me when I started looking at this particular image. As with many myths of Hinduism, each story has another that leads to it. Gajendra was in fact the incarnation of a king called Indradyumna and the crocodile was another king called Huhu. They were both cursed to be born again and to be granted salvation by Vishnu. I cannot help being amazed at how an image of an event acts as an aid to remembering a long forgotten story.

The Ramayana is one of the most beloved and well known of Hindu epics. Images from the Ramayana are shown in Fig. 5 and Fig. 6. Ram is shown as a benevolent figure reassuring a monkey bowing at his feet. The hairstyle is indicative of the period of exile. The hair is bound in a style of the forest dwelling ascetics or Rishis. As always Ram is shown with his bow. He is shown with minimal ornamentation as befits his life in the forest. The monkey is either Hanuman, Ram’s principal devotee, Sugreeva the monkey king who assisted him or just one of the soldier monkeys. It is noticeable how in giving Ram importance in this case, the craftsman did not make the monkey recognisable by giving it any specific symbols of identification.

The other image alluding to the Ramayana is shown in Fig. 6. This shows a large demon or Rakshasha fighting with a group of monkeys during the battle for Lanka. This demon is most likely Kumbhakarna. He was famed for being asleep for six months at a time. Once awakened however, he seems to have dealt rather brutally with the monkeys in Rama’s army, as is apparent from the image where he is shown about to devour one of them while others try to stop him.

The icons did not just act as a record of myths and epics. Temples were after all constructed at considerable expense and this meant that the person paying for this could choose to record events of their lives on the walls of their temples. This served a number of functions; the recording of their deeds and name and the glorification of their actions. This is shown in the image shown in Fig. 7. The image shows two terracotta panels. The top panel is a beautiful depiction of a group of musicians and dancers. The excellent condition shows nuances of expression and movement as well as clothing. The musical instruments being used are similar to those still in use in Bengal such as the drum called the Khol, and the cymbals or Khanjani. The postures of the dancers show a delightful sense of fluidity and joy. In the lower panel is possibly the person who was responsible of the construction of this temple or someone from their family. This person is clearly of a higher rank as they are shown seated and protected from  the elements with an umbrella, while various attendants tend to their needs with palm leaf fan to cool them and fly whisk to keep insects away. All the people are shown with expressions of happiness on their faces. The central figure has a benevolent look as befitting the occasion. This may have been commissioned as a record of the consecration of the temple.

Iconography is thus a feature of culture that adds an extra dimension to temples making them more than places of worship alone. Erwin Panofsky described the icons of the Catholic Church as being ordinary objects in many cases which, through attached stories and meanings became symbols of religious ideas, with the result being a total “sanctification of the visible world.”  This is just as true for Hindu icons as the temples become a symbolic cultural landscape at the hands of the craftsmen.

Acknowledgement: The author is grateful to Satyasri Ukil for giving permission for using the images in the article.


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University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Dehejia, Vidya, Indian Art, London, Phaidon, 1997.

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MA:  Harvard University Press, 1953.

Kramrisch, Stella, The Presence of ?iva. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981.

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NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.

“iconography”.  Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia

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Ruma Chakravarti has been living in Australia for over 25 years. She has taught Mathematics for over 15 of those. She holds Masters Degrees in both Ancient History which was done purely as a labour of love and in Mathematics Education. This love of history has translated into a love of old buildings and antiquities. In addition to her interest in history, she is also involved in her own projects to transcreate Tagore’s work which can be found at http://animikha.wordpress.com and at http://banglarmukh-ruma.blogspot.com.au. Email: rumachak10@gmail.com