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Iconography: Hindu Iconography


Viu, Śiva, and Devī are the basic visual images of Hinduism. Each of these deities is worshiped in a concrete image (mūrti) that can be seen and touched. The image is conceived in anthropomorphic terms but at the same time transcends human appearance. With certain exceptions, Hindu images have more than two arms. Their hands, posed in definite gestures, hold the attributes that connote the deity's power and establish its identity. While the images are concrete in their substantiality, they are but a means of conjuring up the presence of deity: this is their essential function. The image serves as a yantra, an "instrument" that allows the beholder to catch a reflection of the deity whose effulgence transcends what the physical eye can see. The divine effulgence is beheld in inner vision. As a reflection of this transcendental vision, the image is called bimba. This reflection is caught and given shape also by the yantra, a polygon in which the presence of deity during worship is laid out diagrammatically. The yantra is constructed with such precision that the "image" emerges in its unmistakable identity.

Deity, beheld by the inner eye, by an act of "imagination," is translated in terms of the image. In this respect the image is called pratimā "measured against" the original vision of the deity as it arose before the inner eye of the seer. Iconometry in the case of the anthropomorphic three-dimensional image corresponds to the geometry of a linear yantra. Thus the anthropomorphic image is at the same time a reflection of a transcendental vision and a precise instrument for invoking the divine presence during worship in the manmade and manlike figure of the image. It has its place in the temple, where it is worshiped not only as a stone stela in high relief in the innermost sanctuary but also on the outside of the walls. There, a special niche or facet of the wall is allotted to each of the images embodying aspects of the image in the innermost sanctuary.

Viu, Śiva, and Devī (the Goddess) are represented in many types of images, for each of these main deities has multiple forms or aspects. These are carved in relief in niches on the outer side of the temple walls, each niche suggesting a sanctuary correlated in the main directions of space to the central imageor symbolin the innermost sanctuary. While the images of Viu and Devī are anthropomorphic and partly also theriomorphic, the essential form in which Śiva is worshiped is in principle without any such likeness.


The main object of Śiva worship is the liga. The word liga means "sign," here a sign in the shape of a cylinder with a rounded top. The word liga also means "phallus" however; some of the earliest Śiva liga s are explicitly phallus shaped. However, this sign is not worshiped in its mere anthropomorphic reference. It stands for creativity on every levelbiological, psychological, and cosmicas a symbol of the creative seed that will flow into creation or be restrained, transmuted, and absorbed within the body of the yogin and of Śiva, the lord of yogins. In its polyvalence the liga is Śiva's most essential symbol, while the images of Śiva, each in its own niche on the outside of the temple wall, are a manifestation of Śiva in a particular role offering an aspect of his totality.

The images of Śiva visualize the god's two complementary natures: his grace and his terror. Like all Hindu divine images, that of Śiva has multiple arms; their basic number, four, implies the four cosmic directions over which extends the power of deity in manifestation. Śiva's image of peace and serenity in one of its forms, Dakiāūmurti, is that of the teacher. Seated at ease under the cosmic tree, he teaches the sages yoga, gnosis, music, and all the sciences. In another image, standing as Paśupati, "lord of animals," Śiva protects all the "animals," including the human soul.

He is also the celestial bridegroom, Sundaramūrti, embracing his consort (Āliganamūrti) or enthroned with her (Umāmaheśvara), while as Somāskanda the seated image of the god includes his consort, also seated, and their dancing child. These images assure happiness within the human condition, whereas Ardhanarisvara, the "lord whose half is woman," the androgyne god, his right half male and left half female, is an image of superhuman wholeness.

Myths and legends in which Śiva annihilates or pardons demons of world-threatening ambition are condensed in images of him as victor over destructive forces and death (Tripurāntaka, Kālāri). Another class of images visualizes the god as a young, seductively naked beggar (Bhikātaa) and, in a later phase of the selfsame myth, as an image of terror, an emaciated, skeletalor, as Bhairava, bloatedgod who is sinner and penitent on his way to salvation. Bhairava is an image of the lord's passion on his way to release. There he dances as he danced on the battlefield in his triumph over fiends. Śiva's dance is the preeminent mode of the god's operation in the cosmos and within the microcosm, in the heart of man. The image of Śiva Nāarāja dancing his fierce dance of bliss subsumes ongoing movement and stasis in the rhythmic disposition of limbs and body as if the dance were everlasting: in his upper hands are the drum and flame, the drum symbolizing sound and the beginning of creation, the flame symbolizing the end of creation; one arm crosses over the body and points to the opposite, while his raised foot signals release from gravity and every other contingency in the world. The whole cycle of the eternal return is laid out in the yantra of Śiva's dancing image. In another image, that of the cosmic pillar, Śiva reveals himself to the gods Brahmā and Viu; an endless flaming pillar of light arises from the netherworld. The image of Lingodbhava shows the anthropomorphic figure of Śiva within the liga pillar bursting open.

The liga as both abstract symbol and partly anthropomorphic shape is the main Saiva cult object. In some of the sculptures, a human head adheres to the cylinder of the liga, or four heads are positioned in the cardinal directions, implying a fifth head (rarely represented) on top. Five is Śiva's sacred number, and the entire Saiva ontologythe five senses, five elements, five directions of space, and further hierarchic pentadsis visualized in the iconic-aniconic, five-faced liga. This concept underlies the image in the innermost sanctuary of the Caturmukha Mahādeva Temple in Nachna Kuthara, near Allahabad (sixth century), and that of Sadāśiva in the cave temple of Elephanta, near Bombay (mid-sixth century). These are ultimate realizations and constructs embodied in sculptural perfection.

The facial physiognomy of the image reflects the nature of the particular aspect or manifestation of the god. His calm, inscrutable mien as well as Bhairava's distorted countenance are shown with many nuances of expression that convey the significance of each particular manifestation, defined as it is by specific attributes and cognizances. The ornaments, however, the necklaces, belts, earrings, and so on, are not essentially affected by the specific manifestation. Likewise some of Śiva's attributes, particularly the trident, serpent, crescent moon, rosary, and antelope, are part of the god's image in more than one manifestation. Invariably, however, Śiva's crown is his own hair. He is the ascetic god, and his crown shows the long strands of the ascetic's uncut hair piled high on his head in an infinite variety of patterns, adorned by serpents, the crescent moon, and the miniature figure of the celestial river Gagā (Ganges) personified. Lavish presentation here nonetheless constitutes iconographic economy, for each of the various symbols implies an entire myth, such as that of the descent from heaven of the river goddess Gagā, whose impact would have wrought havoc on earth had not Śiva offered his hair as a temporary station for her.

An essential cognizance particular to Śiva among godsthough not present in every Śiva imageis the god's third eye (which also graces deities derived from the Śiva concept, such as Devī and Gaeśa). Vertically set in the middle of Śiva's forehead above sun and moon, his two other eyes, the third eye connotes the fire of the ascetic god. It broke out when Pārvatī, his consort, playfully covered the god's other eyes with her hands: darkness spread all over the cosmos. This fire also blazed forth to destroy the god Kāma, "desire," in his attempt to wound Śiva with his arrow.

Whether distinguished by one symbol only or by a combination of symbols, the identity of Śiva is unmistakable in his images. There is also no inconsistency if, for example, the crown of Śiva, lovingly enthroned with Pārvatī, is wreathed with skulls (Umā-Maheśvara from Belgavi, Karnataka, twelfth century). The total being of Śiva is present in the particular aspect.

Facing the liga, the image of Nandin, the zebu bull carved in the round and stationed in front of the entrance of the temple or in its hall, is at the same time the animal form of Śiva, his attendant, and conveyance (vāhana ). In more than one respect, Nandin, the "gladdener," conveys Śiva.


The pervader and maintainer of the universe is represented by his anthropomorphic image in the innermost sanctuary. Invariably the image stands straight like a pillar, and its four arms symmetrically hold the god's main attributes: conch, wheel, mace, and lotus. The conchborn from the primordial oceanwith its structure spiraling from a single point, is a symbol of the origin of existence. The wheel represents the cycle of the seasons, of time. The mace stands for the power of knowledge, while the lotus flower symbolizes the unfolded universe risen from the ocean of creation. According to their respective placement in the four hands of the Viu image, these four attributes define the particular aspect under which the god is worshiped according to the needs of the worshiper. Each of the twenty-four imagesthe total permutations of the four symbols in the four handshas a name. The supreme god, Viu has a thousand names in which those of the twenty-four images are included.

In addition to the standing image in the innermost sanctuaryan anthropomorphic version of the concept of the cosmic pillarViu may assume two other positions, seated and recumbent. Indeed, no other Hindu godexcept a Viu-derived allegory, Yoganidrāis shown recumbent, and together, these three positions render the mode of the god's pervasive presence in the cosmos and during its dissolution, when in yoga slumber Viu reclines on Śea, the serpent whose name means "remainder," floating on the waters of the cosmic ocean. In South India each of the three types of images occupies its own innermost sanctuary, on three levels in three-storied temples. According to the needs of the worshiper, each of these three types of images fulfills four goals: total identification with the god, desire for wish fulfillment in worldly matters, desire for power, and desire for success by magic. According to their desired efficacy on these four levels, the images are more or less elaborate in the number of attendant divinities, with the images granting wish fulfillment on the worldly plane the most elaborate.

The twenty-four varieties of the four-armed, standing Viu image are emanations (vyūha s) of the supreme Viu. Four of the emanations, Sakaraa, Vāsudeva, Pradyuma, and Aniruddha, are considered primary, though their names occur as the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth in the list of twenty-four.

Theological doctrine and its supporting imagery each follow an inherent logic. The vyūha or emanation doctrine is as relevant to the twenty-four types of the Viu image as the avatāra or incarnation doctrine, according to which the supreme Viu was fully embodied in a specific shape, be it that of fish or boar or man or god. One or the other of these incarnate forms, however, including that of the dwarf (Vāmana) or of Ka, also figures among the twenty-four varieties of the main cult image of Viu.

Viu is also conceived in his fivefold aspect: as ultimate, transcendental reality (para ); in his emanation (vyūha ); in his incarnation (vibhava ); as innermost within man (antaryāmin ), the inner controller; and as arcā or consecrated image, this fifth instance being an avatāra, a "descent" into matter.

Each avatāra is assumed by the supreme Viu for a particular end, as the situation demands. Yet each avatāra or divine descent, though known to have come about at a definite time, remains valid for all times. The number of avatāra s or incarnations (vibhavas ) is generally accepted as ten, but twelve further vibhav s are also described. The ten shapes are those of the (1) fish (Matsya); (2) tortoise (Kūrma); (3) boar (Varāha); (4) man-lion (Narasiha); (5) dwarf and "[god who took] three strides" (Vāmana and Trivikrama); (6) Rāma with the ax (Paraśurāma), who reestablished the leading position of the brahmans; (7) Rāma, the ideal king; (8) Ka; (9) Buddha; and (10) Kalkin, the redeemer yet to come. In niches of the temple wall, the avatāra s are imaged in anthropomorphic, theriomorphic, or combined anthropotheriomorphic shapes.

The Matsya avatāra incorporates a deluge myth, telling how a grateful small fish saved by Manu in turn saved Manu, who became the founder of present-day mankind. The tortoise myth tells of the cosmic tortoise that lent its body as the firm support for the world mountain, which served as a churning stick at the churning of the primeval ocean. The third of Viu's descents similarly illustrates a creation myth out of the cosmic waters. While the Matsya avatāra establishes the existence of mankind on earth and the Kūrma avatāra guarantees the firmness of its support, the boar incarnation shows Viu as the savior who lifted the earth from the depth of the ocean waters to the light of the sun. In the man-lion incarnation, Viu assumes this combined shape, bursting out of a pillar in the demon king's palace in order to disembowel this fiend who had questioned Viu's omnipresence. The fifth incarnation, the dwarf, gained from the demon king Bali a foothold on which to stand and took the three-fold stride by which he traversed the cosmos. The four following avatāra s appeared in the shape of man as hero or god. The images of Ka as the child of superhuman powers (Balaka) and as flute-playing young god have their own visual iconography, particularly in metalwork. Two forms of Ka are unlike other images of Hindu gods. The one is Jagannātha, "lord of the world," whose center of worship is in Purī, Orissa; the other is Śrī Nāthjī, whose center of worship is Nāthadvāra in Mewar, Rajasthan. Both these images are roughly hewn and painted wooden chunks only remotely anthropomorphic. From the sixteenth century on, Ka appears in miniature paintings incomparably more frequently than any other Hindu god. In front of Viu temples, the image in the round of Viu's partly anthropomorphic vehicle, the bird Garua, is supported by a high pillar.


The Great Goddess, Devī, represents the creative principle worshiped as female. She is Śakti, the all-pervading energy, the power to be, the power of causation, cognition, will, and experience. She is the power of all the gods; she wields all their weapons in her main manifestations or images. She is the origin of the world, the conscious plan of creation, the mother; she is the goddess Knowledge. Her main image is that of Durgā in the act of beheading the buffalo demon, the mightiest of the demons whom she defeats. This huge, dark, demonic animal, an embodiment of stupidity, is her archenemy. In her image as killer of the buffalo demon, the young and lovely goddess is accompanied by her mount, the lion.

In certain traditions the buffalo demon while still in human shape adored the goddess. In some of the sculptures of the goddess as slayer of the demonhis body that of a man, his head that of a buffalohe ecstatically surrenders to her as she slays him. When not depicted in action but standing straight in hieratic stance, the goddess is supported by a lotus or a buffalo head.

The Great Goddess has many forms. Like Śiva she has three eyes; like Viu, in her form as Yoganidrā, "yoga slumber," she is represented lying, an embodiment of Viu's slumber. Yoganidrā is most beautiful and has only two arms, whereas the Goddess displays from four to sixteen arms in her other images. Although the lion is the vāhana or vehicle of the Great Goddess, as Rambhā she rides an elephant; as Gaurī, the White Goddessthe aspect under which the gods contemplate hershe stands on an alligator. In her horrific, emaciated aspects, the owl is her vehicle. Like Śiva, the Goddess is seen in divine beauty or in a shape of horror as Kālī or Cāmuā.

When worshiped in her own image, the Goddess is the center of the composition, but as the śakti or creative power of a god she is figured by his side, smaller in stature, and with only two arms, for she is the god's consort. Pārvatī is Śiva's consort, whereas Bhūdevī and Śrīdevīthe goddess Earth (Bhū) whom Viu rescued in his boar incarnation, and the goddess Splendor (Śrī)are shown by Viu's side.

If the images of these gods are cast in bronze, they are modeled in the round. These are processional images, meant to be visible from all sides, in contrast to the stone images in the innermost sanctuary or on the temple walls, where they confront the devotee as he or she approaches them. However, where the image of Devī is represented as the supreme goddess, she may be flanked or surrounded by smaller figures of gods and demons who play a role in the particular myth represented. Attendant divinities may further enrich the scene.

Devī is not only represented in her own right as supreme goddess or as the consort of one of the main gods, she is also embodied as a group, particularly that of the "Seven Mothers" (saptamātkās ) where, as Mother Goddess, she is shown as the śakti of seven gods, including Brahmā, Viu, and Śiva. Brahmā, although the creator in ancient times, is rarely figured in the present-day Hindu pantheon and has but few temples of his own. In South India his image figures on the south wall of a Viu temple opposite that of Śiva Dakiāmūrti on the north wall.

Brahmā's consort Sarasvatī, the goddess of knowledge and speech, is worshiped in her own image to this day. The image of the "Seven Mothers" arrayed in one row are worshiped in their own sanctuary. Another assemblage of "group goddesses," though of lower hierarchical standing, is worshiped in hypaethral temples, which allow their total of sixty-four images to be worshiped separately. The iconography of the Goddess has its counterpoint in the (originally imageless) diagrams. Both these instruments of contemplation of the goddessher image and the geometrical diagramare manmade. The Goddess is also worshiped as a stone in its natural shape.

Stones in themselves are sacred. A śālagrāma stone, a fossilized ammonite embedded in dark stone, represents Viu, with the spiral of the fossil structure evoking Viu's wheel. The śālagrāma is worshiped in domestic rituals. Similarly another stone, the bāaliga, washed by the water of the river where it is found into liga shape, is sacred to Śiva. Among liga s, which can be made of any material, whether clay or precious stone, the svayambhū liga, a natural outcrop of rock like a menhir, has special sanctity.

Today most of the preserved images are made of stone or metal. The few paintings that have survived over the last four centuries are in watercolor on paper, as a rule small in size, and narrative rather than iconic. To this day the gods are painted in their iconographic identity on walls of houses and on portable paper scrolls. Color, according to ancient texts, was essential to the image: its use was primarily symbolic and expressive of the nature of the respective deities. However, different colors in different texts are prescribed for the same deity.


Gaapati or Gaeśa, the lord of hosts and god of wisdom, who is also called Vighneśvara ("the lord presiding over obstacles"), has an obese human body topped by the head of an elephant. Worshiped throughout Hinduism, he is invoked at the beginning of any enterprise, for his is the power to remove obstacles but also to place them in the way of success. His shape is a symbol charged with meaning on many levels. His huge belly, containing the world, is surmounted by his elephant head, signifying the world beyond, the metaphysical reality. The head is maimed; it has only one tusk, thus signifying the power of the number one, whence all numbers have their beginning. Every part of Gaeśa's shape is a conglomerate symbol, and each is accounted for by more than one myth. According to one tradition, the dichotomy of Gaeśa's body resulted from Śiva's beheading of Vighneśvara, Pārvatī's son, in a fit of anger. Śiva then ordered the gods to replace Vighneśvara's head with that of the first living being they met. This was an elephant; they cut off its head and put it on Vighneśvara's body. According to another source, Gaeśa was the child Ka whose head was severed by Śani (Saturn) and replaced by that of the son of Airāvata, elephant of the god Indra.

In the gveda (2.23.1) Gaapati is a name of Bhaspati, the lord of prayer, the lord of hosts. From the fifth century ce, images of Gaeśa are numerous. An elephant-headed deity is shown on an Indo-Greek coin of the mid-first century ce. Today, Gaeśa is invoked at the beginning of all literary compositions and all undertakings. Every village, every house has an image of Gaeśa, seated, standing, or dancinglike Śiva. Some of his images have a third eye. In one of his (generally) four hands he holds the broken-off tusk. His vehicle is the mouse or the lion. In his form as Heramba, Gaapati has five heads; as Ucchia Gaeśa, he is accompanied by a young goddess. He is red, yellow, or white in different varieties of his image.

See Also

Avatāra; Durgā Hinduism; Gaeśa; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; Maalas, article on Hindu Maalas; Mūrti; Śiva; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Viu; Yantra; Yoni.


Banerjea, Jitendra. The Development of Hindu Iconography. 2d ed. Calcutta, 1956. A handbook particularly dealing with the beginnings and historical typology of Hindu images.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Shiva (1918). Rev. ed. New York, 1957. Interpretation of an iconographic theme based on original sources.

Courtright, Paul B. Gaeśa. New York, 1985. The first comprehensive and insightful presentation of Gaeśa.

Eck, Diana L. Banaras, City of Light. New York, 1982. A topical study in depth, relating the icon to its setting.

Gopinatha Rao, T. A. Elements of Hindu Iconography (19141916). 2 vols. in 4. 2d ed. New York, 1968. The standard survey of Hindu iconography.

Kosambi, D. D. Myth and Reality. Bombay, 1962. An exposition of the roots of iconic and aniconic traditions.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (1946). Reprint, Delhi, 1976. An exposition of architectural form in relation to the iconography of its images.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley, 1976. A study in depth of the interrelation of gods and demons in Hindu mythology.

Shah, Priyabala, ed. Viudharmottara Purãa. 2 vols. Gaekwad's Oriental Studies, vols. 130 and 137. Baroda, 1958 and 1961. The most complete and ancient treatise (c. eighth century ce) of Hindu iconography.

Shulman, David D. Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton, 1980. An indispensable background study for South Indian iconography.

Śivaramamurti, Calambur. The Art of India. New York, 1977. The best-illustrated and best-documented presentation of Indian sculpture.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India. Translated and edited by Gerald Chapple and James B. Lawson. Princeton, 1984. A clarification of the function and relation of iconic, sculptural form and abstract, linear diagram.

Stella Kramrisch (1987)

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