Wooden Idols of India: the Antiquity of a Traditional Excellence

Sanjay Sen Gupta

Amity School of Fine Arts, Kolkata

Volume 6, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

 Since time immemorial, the people of India have always adored wood as a suitable plastic medium in their daily-life. The easy availability and ready tractability of the material was greatly used by the artists and craftsmen of this subcontinent, both in their architectural and sculptural endeavors. Unfortunately, the perishable nature of wood – intrigued by the hot and humid climate of the region – didn’t allow the earlier specimens to survive till date. However, plenty of other resources testify the antiquity of woodcarving activities within the panorama of Indian art.[i] It’s a long traditional ancestry, beginning from the days of Indus Valley, which has evolved through the ages to remain alive even today.

In this process, the age-old passion of the Indian folk has always been manifested in multiple forms of visual expression – both secular and religious – that include the tradition of making divine images as well. Since quite an early time, though not identified yet, these religious idols have been made of wood[ii]; while clay, stone, metal and other mediums were also of frequent use.

The Earliest Reference

The earliest reference to any wooden idol made in India goes to the legend of J?vantasv?m? – a sandalwood image of Mah?v?ra or Vardham?na[iii], the last T?rtha?kara of Jain pantheon. It is said that the idol was carved in his lifetime and worshipped by his followers.[iv] This myth, though not materially substantiated, is an obvious proof in favor of an artistic practice – prevailing in the sixth century BC. However, it was only after another seven centuries that we find the oldest literary mention of wood as a suitable plastic medium for the sculpting of cult-icons.[v]

Textual References

The first concrete evidence to the tradition of making wooden idols comes in the form of an epigraph, hailed from today’s Andhra Pradesh. This inscription of Abhir? V?sudeva, dated c. AD 278, describes an eight-armed wooden sculpture of Lord Vi?n?u – named as A??abhujasv?m?. This effigy, said to have medicinal and energizing properties,[vi] was installed on the Siddhalahari hill bordering Nagarjunikonda valley. The specimen, however, is not available today; yet the reference indeed ensures a living tradition in the third century AD. The next thirteen hundred odd years saw the tradition continuing with its vitality and context – and being documented in a series of indigenous literature.

All these texts, variably dated c. second-sixteenth century AD, tell us about a prevailing convention for the classification of divine images – based on the materials used in making them. They also tell us, categorically, how each and every such classification has referred to wood as one of the most suitable medium for this purpose…Full Text PDF


[i] “…a motif was not necessarily invented or borrowed at the date of its first appearance in permanent material; indeed, a first appearance in stone is almost tantamount to proof of an earlier currency in wood.” – Ananda K Coomarswamy. see (1972).  Introduction to Indian Art. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. p 17

[ii] see Dasgupta, Kalyan Kumar. (1990). Wood Carvings of Eastern India. Kolkata: Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd. p 13

[iii] Died in c. BC 527.

[iv] see ibid, p 11. In this connection, mention could be made of another old tradition that refers to a wooden effigy of Yak?a Moggar?p?ni in a shrine outside the city of R?jag?ha (modern Rajgir, dist Nalanda, Bihar).

[v] The other mediums are gold, silver, copper, jewels, stone, iron and alloy (Ch 258, s?tra 20-1). [see Tarkaratna, Panchanan & Nyayateertha, Sreejib (tr. & ed.). (BS 1394). Matsyapur??am. Kolkata: Nava Bharat Publishers. p 892]

[vi] see Chakraborty, Shyamal Kanti (ed.). (2001). Wood Carvings of Bengal in Gurusaday Museum. Kolkata: Gurusaday Museum. p 7; also see Dasgupta, Kalyan Kumar. (2000). Pratim??ilpe Hindu Devadev?. Kolkata: Pa?cimba?ga B??gl? ?k?demi. pp 11-2