Art and Architecture: Hinduism

Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Editor: Leslie Ross. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009. 

Origins and Development

Hinduism is an ancient, complex, and multifaceted belief system whose early origins can be traced to the end of the prehistoric periods of civilization in the Indus Valley region of India and Pakistan (ca. 2000-1500 BCE). With a long history of vibrant development continuing to the present day, Hinduism might be more correctly termed a “way of life,” rather than a “religion” involving a standard creed or consistently shared set of worship practices. Hinduism has no one single founder and has evolved through the centuries to encompass a great variety of beliefs and worship modes, or “traditions which share a family resemblance.” Hinduism, in various forms, is the major religion of India today and also has adherents in numerous branches worldwide. Additionally, Hinduism has given rise to two other major belief systems—Buddhism and Jainism—and many variations of Hindu beliefs and practices have evolved in different forms through its long history.

The terms Hindu and Hinduism originally derived from a geographic rather than religious designation. Both words come from sindhu, the ancient name for the Indus River. Later usage expanded the term to refer to India generally, but it was not until the 19th century, under British Colonial rule, that the term Hindu was used to refer to the religious practices of Indians who were not Muslims, Christians, or members of any other specifically named religion. However, “even though anachronistic, the term ‘Hinduism’ remains useful for describing and categorizing the various schools of thought and practice that grew up within a shared Indian society and employed a common religious vocabulary.”

The earliest evidences of many foundational Hindu beliefs and practices date to ancient India during the Vedic period—named after the Vedas, the original sacred texts of Hinduism. The term Vedasmeans “knowledge” or “wisdom” in Sanskrit—the language in which these ancient texts were composed and originally orally transmitted. The oldest of the four major Vedic texts (the Rig Veda)has been dated to ca. 1500-1200 BCE. The Vedas are collections of hymns and prayers to a variety of gods and goddesses and, along with other early sacred works (such as the Brahmanas and Aranyakas), include descriptions of and directions for rituals and sacrifices. These ceremonies were carried out by carefully trained priests (or brahmins) and were designed to worship and honor various deities associated with specific natural and cosmological forces or events, such as fire, water, wind, and so on. More philosophical texts that contain didactic and allegorical stories, plus mystical meditations, were composed ca. 600 BCE. These significant later texts are known as the Upanishads and are considered the last of the divinely inspired Vedic writings. The term Upanishadmeans “sitting near” or “sitting at the feet” of a teacher. These texts primarily take the form of dialogues or question-and-answer sessions between students seeking spiritual guidance and sages who offer their wisdom. Altogether, the sacred texts of the Vedic period are often categorized as shruti (heard or revealed), reflecting the ultimate divine sources of their inspiration and their original oral transmission.

In the post-Vedic period, many other significant sacred texts were created. As a whole, these are often categorized as smriti (remembered) literature, reflecting their inspired human authorship, different sources, and formats. Among the massive corpus of these writings are puranas (ancient stories about the major deities, especially Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and the Goddess), sutras(commentaries), shastras (religious law texts), and the great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which are still exceedingly popular today. The Ramayana (Story of Rama), the Mahabharata (Great Epic of India—often described as the longest poem in the world), and the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed One—an especially significant section of the Mahabharata) were created, edited, and expanded between the fourth century BCE and the fourth century CE. These lively and complex stories of adventures, battles, and romance contain allegories, critical moral teachings, and spiritual guidance. They provide the foundation for classical Hindu beliefs in multiple manifestations of deities, the importance of devotion to these deities, codes of moral conduct, and the concepts of karma and reincarnation, and they define the traditional social structures in Indian society involving class and status (or caste).

Both Buddhism and Jainism, respectively founded in the sixth century BCE by the historical figures of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, ca. 566-486 BCE) and Vardhamama (called Mahavira the Jina, the Victorious One, ca. 599-527 BCE), represent evolutions from and reactions to some aspects of the Hinduism of their time period, especially the belief in the divinely inspired status of the Vedas, the monolithic authority of the priestly class, and the caste system of social hierarchy as a whole. Concurrently, the expanding body of post-Vedic literature, especially in the form of the great epics and the puranas, is also reflective of many dynamic transformations in worship practices, new schools of thought, and growing branches (sects, subcommunities, or denominations) of Hinduism well into the first several centuries CE.

The period from ca. 700 to 1200 CE represents an especially flourishing time for Hinduism when a number of regional dynasties in India adopted worship practices focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on the gods Vishnu and Shiva. Often known as the period of Temple Hinduism, many of the great architectural and sculptural monuments date from this time.

Buddhism, as a separate religious system, was virtually extinct in India by ca. 1200 CE, having migrated widely elsewhere in Asia and having been, to some extent, reintegrated by Hinduism. Both faiths were also dramatically challenged by the arrival of Islam in India via political/military conquest in the 11th and 12th centuries. From about 1200 to 1700 CE, northern India came under the control of Islamic rulers. There were periods of intense conflict during this time, as well as evidences of mutual toleration and intermingled influences, such as the special growth of mystical Islamic Sufism in India. During this period of Muslim rule, following the centuries of Temple Hinduism, “Hindus responded to the presence and political sway of Islam … in complex, diverse, and creative ways…. What is most apparent in late medieval Hinduism is the vitality of forms of religion that are devotional, esoteric, or syncretic, and a corresponding de-emphasis on the role of religion in constituting the political and social order.”

Of particular importance in the continued evolution and widespread appeal of Hinduism have been the various bhakti, or devotional movements, which focus on personal and often intense worship of specific deities in ways accessible to all believers. During this late medieval period also, the religion of Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who disagreed with the religious practices and beliefs of both Hindus and Muslims. The term Sikh derives from the Sanskrit word sisya (pupil). Sikhism continues to flourish today among a minority of the population in India and elsewhere.

From the late 18th to the mid-20th century, India was under British Colonial rule. Hindu religious response to this situation was varied and notably took the form of several reform movements that sought to modernize Hindu practices or rephrase the beliefs into terms more appealing to Western audiences.

Throughout the colonial period, the British viewed India as a society made up of distinct, identifiable religious communities: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, “tribals,” and so on … the British use of unequivocal categories to classify a religious reality that was complex and mingled promoted a clarification and hardening of religious distinctions…. The outcome of this “communalization” was that, when the English finally quit India in 1947, they felt it necessary to divide their colony along religious lines into two nation-states, Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India. This tragic decision led to terrible violence and suffering amongst Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs alike during the Partition, and its consequences are still felt powerfully in the politics of modern South Asia.

The diversity of practices characteristic of Hinduism throughout its lengthy history continue to be evident today. Hinduism continues to evolve and develop, retaining and expanding a vibrant and complex set of traditions, practices, and art forms.

Principal Beliefs and Key Practices

Because of Hinduism’s lengthy history and continued multifaceted evolution to the present day, the diversity of its branches, and its remarkable ability to transform, there is no clear and simple way to succinctly define the principal beliefs and key practices of Hindus. “Hinduism is not a reality that succumbs to this process … it is a kind of unity-in-diversity, a continuum forever adapting to new circumstances.” It “is a dynamic, living reality (or rather, a macro-reality of organically united micro-realities….) whose strength lies in its ability to adapt to circumstances while it maintains strands of continuity with the past.”

Perhaps because Hinduism does not have one single founder, one prophet, or even several divinely inspired seers accepted by all Hindus, and because Hinduism does not have a formal creed or a set of sacred scriptures universally acknowledged as fully authoritative by all Hindus, some fundamental questions arise about the nature of the religion. For example, is Hinduism a polytheistic or a monotheistic religion? It is typical of Hinduism that the answer to this question is both yes and no. It could be said that “philosophically, Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, but in practice it is pluralistic and polytheistic.”

In other words, although many gods and goddesses may be and are worshiped by Hindus, the various deities are all understood, by the majority of Hindus, to be manifestations of a single supreme principle: Brahman. This supreme Brahman is infinite and cannot be described or comprehended. It is truth, knowledge, existence, and consciousness, and it encompasses everything known and unknown. This entity is both without attributes (nirguna) and with attributes (saguna) and in this latter aspect “assumes a form and name to make itself accessible to humankind.” Hence, “the statement that ‘God is One’ does not mean the same thing in India and the West.”

The primary deities traditionally recognized by many Hindus as manifestations of the ultimate Brahman are Brahma (the creator of the universe), Vishnu (the preserver of the universe), Shiva (the destroyer of the universe), and Devi (the Goddess/feminine principle). The perpetual creation-maintenance-destruction cycle of regeneration that is overseen and directed by the major deities is enhanced and also complicated by the fact that all three major male deities have various “manifestations” (both male and female) and are paired with female counterparts, and each god or goddess can take many forms. For example, Shiva (the destroyer of the universe) is also considered to be a creative and regenerative force. He is often paired with the goddess Parvati, who represents his female energy. Their son, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, brings good luck and prosperity. Shiva is the Lord of the Dance, setting the universe in motion. He is also a teacher, and he represents the forces of change and destruction as well. The Goddess/feminine principle (Devi) is not only nurturing but also fierce and highly destructive. Additionally, many of the gods and goddesses have various reincarnations, or avatars. For example, the life and deeds of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, are featured especially in the Bhagavad Gita. Rama (the hero of the Ramayana) is also an avatar of Vishnu, and many Hindus consider the Buddha to have been another (and the most recent) avatar of Vishnu.

Other fundamental beliefs characteristic of classical Hinduism include the concepts of samsara(rebirth/reincarnation), karma (actions and consequences), and moksha (liberation from samsara). The earliest references to these ideas can be found in the Upanishads (ca. 600 BCE). These three related concepts have provided the foundation for centuries of discussion and interpretation. The belief in reincarnation rests on the concept that the souls of all beings (human and animal) are not confined to purely earthly bodies and that, upon death, souls transmigrate into and animate new beings. Just as the seasons of the year and the hours of the day perpetually cycle from light to dark and from winter to spring, so do souls/life forces undergo a cycle of birth/death/rebirth and continually begin anew. The belief in karma offers an explanation for the diversity of life forms and the relative positions of these lives in the earthly hierarchy—from the lowest, most downtrodden beings to the creatures with higher positions of relative comfort and greater abilities. Karma can be translated as “actions” or “merit,” and although souls perpetually transmigrate and begin anew, these new beginnings are directly influenced by past actions and deeds. Good moral conduct and appropriate actions in one life can influence one’s next life and one’s next lives. Gaining release or liberation from this endless cycle of birth and rebirth may be achieved by souls who attain the highest state of enlightenment and are thus freed from the karmic cycle. Needless to say, the many diverse schools of Hindu thought approach these topics in different ways.

Similarly, different branches of Hinduism have various worship practices. The principal form of worship involves rituals known as puja, which are expressions of devotion and the making of offerings to the deities. Puja takes place both in temples and in homes. Generally speaking, puja is not a congregational event that involves a fixed day per week (as groups of Christians may attend church every Sunday) but is an ongoing and fundamental aspect of the daily lives of devout Hindus. In large temples especially, puja is generally performed two or three times a day or more (morning, noon, evening, nighttime) and takes the form of symbolic actions involving offerings of flowers, food, water, adornments, light (candles or lamps—the waving of lamps is known as arati), and prayers directed to an image of a deity or an object that symbolizes the deity. Painted images, three-dimensional sculptures, and symbolic forms such as the linga (a pillar, representing divine energy, specifically associated with Shiva) and yoni (basin surrounding a linga, often said to represent female creative power), are focal points for Hindu worship. Daily temple puja, often assisted by priests, can involve more elaborate rituals and objects than puja performed in home shrines.

Temple puja is not truly congregational worship, but devotees do attend the ceremony as an audience. Some are present only for a short time: they reverently present their offerings … they behold the image of the god, make their requests to him, say mantras, and then leave. Others, however, will sit or stand throughout the ceremony, praying and singing devotional songs at appropriate times.

There are also a number of special events, rites of passage, and other commemorations that call for special pujas to be performed. “Whether as a simple act of private devotion or as a multi-leveled communal performance, pujas bring together the human and the divine worlds at specific times and places … Puja … embodies the very reality that it seeks to adore.”

There are also an enormous number of religious holidays in the Hindu calendar for which larger communal festivals are held in honor of specific deities. In a sense, every day is an opportunity for worship, and the complexity and diversity of Hindu practices means that nearly all days are set aside for special festivals by various groups. Some of the largest festivals are those held at the fall equinox (the Durga Puja or Navaratri—nine nights—celebrations in honor of the goddesses Durga, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi), the late winter/spring Holi celebrations (commemorating the downfall of the evil female demon Holika, a joyous occasion reveling in the colors of spring when people throw brightly colored powders at each other), and the mid-fall Dipavali or Diwali festival (Necklace of Lights) marking the triumph of good and light over evil and darkness. Diwali is probably the most widely celebrated of Hindu festivals. During this period, homes and temples are decorated with lights, fireworks displays are held, new clothes are worn, presents are exchanged, and special meals are enjoyed. Processions of sacred images, dance, music, and chanting are essential aspects of Hindu worship practices.

Pilgrimage also plays an extremely important role in Hinduism. There are thousands of sacred sites and cities associated with specific deities or divine events. Indeed, it can be said that “the entire land of India is, to the eyes of Hindu pilgrims, a sacred geography.” All sacred sites are known as tirthas (crossing places or fords) where pilgrims may receive blessings and spiritual assistance in crossing through the realms of samsara and karma, the oceans of life and death, to achieve ultimate liberation.

Many of the preeminent pilgrimage places in India are located on rivers or near water. The Ganges river is especially venerated, and the ancient city of Varanasi (also known as Benares or Kashi—the City of Light—the abode of the god Shiva), located on the Ganges, is generally regarded as Hinduism’s most sacred city. “Bathing in the Ganges, a river said to have fallen from heaven to earth, is the first act of Banaras pilgrims and a daily rite for Banaras residents.” Many Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges provides release from the karmic cycle; many come to Benares to die and have their cremated remains placed into the holy river in order to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Traditional Art and Architectural Forms

Hinduism, with its complex panoply of deities and extensive sacred literature, is no doubt among the most actively “art-friendly” of the major world religions. Although formal congregational worship is, or may be, of relatively minor importance for many devotees, Hinduism is characterized by extremely vibrant art forms: images of gods and goddesses, impressive temple architecture, and home shrines with a high degree of color and decoration.

The richness and complexity of Hindu art may indeed seem quite overwhelming, as is especially well demonstrated in the history of western European writings about and responses to India and Indian art. To eyes unfamiliar with the forms and symbols, the depictions of Hindu deities (with multiple arms and heads, often in half-human, half-animal form) may seem quite bizarre and outlandish. Hindu temples do not really function like Christian churches or Islamic mosques but rather serve as dwelling places for deities who are embodied in the cult images or symbols contained therein. The worship of the Shiva linga (a highly phallic form) and the presence of apparently erotic sculptures on the exteriors of numerous Hindu temples have all contributed to a history of Western fascination with, as well as—at times—bafflement about, Hindu art. Much early Western scholarship on “Hindu art tells us a great deal about the dominant values of the West—when other exotic and distant arts [appear to have been] assimilated more easily in Western culture.” Another great challenge in studies of Hindu art (and indeed with all religious art in general) is that oftentimes objects designed to be placed and used within specific ritual contexts are now likely to be seen as “art objects” in museums. It is critical to maintain, as far as possible, an awareness of the original context and function of works of religious art.

The Hindu Image

To begin to approach and preliminarily understand the arts of Hinduism, one needs to be aware of several concepts, among the most significant of which is darsan (or darshan). Darsan has been translated in a variety of ways, such as “sacred seeing,” seeing and being seen by God, the benefits and blessings pursuant to viewing sacred images, and the power and efficacy involved with and inherent in sacred images. Many world religions rely on sacred images as teaching tools and as focal points for devotional practices. The Hindu concept of darsan transcends and expands these meanings of sacred images in significant ways. Darsan “is the single most common and significant element of Hindu worship” and bespeaks “the power and importance of ‘seeing’ in the Hindu religious tradition.”

Understanding the concept of darsan requires recalling that, in the Hindu worldview, the universe and everything in it are related manifestations of the unbounded energy of the unknowable and supreme Brahman. This force exists with and without attributes. The energies of nature, the deities, humans, all forms of life, and all earthly and heavenly surroundings are aspects of the divine. “According to traditional Indian belief every creature has its own purpose which it fulfills on earth. The purpose of the artist was to reproduce those Divine forms which in turn lead the spectator to union with the Divine.”

Images of the divine thus play a fundamental role in Hindu religious practices. Seeing these images, and in turn being seen by the images, is the primary goal. “When Hindus go to a temple, they do not customarily say, ‘I am going to worship,’ but rather, ‘I am going for darsan.’ Darsan can be achieved in several ways. In general, it implies a worshiper’s receptivity to the sacred experience, an opening of oneself to the presence of the divine.

Most individuals … need to approach God through images and with rituals specific to that deity, not so much because the deity requires it but because of the limitations of the devotee … humans need something concrete on which to focus in prayer…. Images are created as receptacles for spiritual energy; each is an essential link that allows the devotee to experience direct communion with the Gods.

The painted images, sculptures, and symbols of the deities that are found in Hindu temples and home shrines are created, consecrated, and treated with the utmost care and respect because they are believed to be inhabited with divine energy. The processes involved with image creation and consecration are governed by specific rules and procedures and must be carried out with appropriate attitudes. The images themselves are believed to be enlivened with the divine, and if damaged or treated with disrespect, they will lose their divine presence. “The divine image is both means (upaya) and end (upeya.) It leads the devotee toward God, and it also is God, the devotee’s object of enjoyment…. As an instantiation of the god-head, the image is ultimately the message.”

The power of the divinity resident in images, and the possibility of divine reanimation of images that have been removed from their original liturgical settings, was well demonstrated quite recently in a 1988 court case in London involving a 12th-century bronze sculpture of Shiva. Discovered (carefully buried) in the ruins of an Indian temple, the object eventually appeared on the black market, was identified, and was ultimately returned to India after a trial in the British court during which “the god Shiva himself appeared as a plaintiff … acting as a ‘juristic person’ to sue for the recovery of his image.”

The Hindu Temple

Hindu temples have been constructed in India and elsewhere for many centuries, and they appear in a great variety of forms and styles. Scholarly writing about Hindu temples has also taken on many different forms and styles through the ages. The long history, diversity, and widespread nature of Hinduism have created challenges for writers wishing to describe and catalogue the myriad architectural examples. Some scholars have focused on chronology, dividing the study of Hindu temples into distinct period units with the goal of seeing an overall stylistic progression. Other writers have focused on matters such as the patronage of specific regional rulers in India, attributing certain styles of architecture to the aims and tastes of these dynasties. Still other writers have concentrated on the symbolism of the Hindu temple, focusing on meanings and messages. Some writers have concentrated on the ritual use of temples. Others have described temple architecture while barely mentioning the sculptural programs; others have focused on temple sculpture while barely mentioning the architectural context. The material, in other words, is vast. All architecture can convey many meanings: the prestige and ambitions of the patrons, the skill and creativity of the artists involved, the original purposes, alterations over time, and present status or usage.

Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that in the ancient Vedic period in India, ritual attention was focused on practices of making offerings and sacrifices to the major Vedic deities. Open-air altars as well as roofed enclosures were constructed for these rituals. As Vedic sacrificial practices gradually declined, the housing and worship of images of deities in shrine structures became more common. The creation of image-shrines for Hindu deities may have begun during the fourth century BCE, a period when Buddhist and Jain art forms were simultaneously developing too, often in close association with each other. The histories of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious art are closely intertwined.

Ultimately, the primary function of the Hindu temple is to serve as an image-shrine, to serve as a sanctuary and shelter for the deity, and to provide a setting where devotees may offer their prayers. The impressive rock-cut cave-temples on the island of Elephanta, off the coast near Mumbai, demonstrate this well. Dating from the sixth century CE, the large cave-temple dedicated to Shiva contains several sculptured panels depicting different aspects of the deity. Deep within the main cave chamber is a triple-headed bust of Eternal Shiva (Sadashiva) in multiple guises. The central head is calm and meditative, the head on the left represents a fierce masculine aspect, and the head on the right depicts a peaceful feminine aspect.

As a free-standing architectural structure, the Hindu temple can be recognized by several characteristic elements all related to its primary function as an enclosure for a deity or deities. The heart of the temple is the sanctuary where the image or symbol of the deity is located. This inner sanctum is known as the garbhagriha (womb chamber). Temples are often raised on high bases or plinths and are topped with towers, known in the north as shikharas and in the south as vimanas. The rock-cut “Shore Temple” at Mamallapuram (or Mahabalipuram), from ca. 700 CE, shows these forms. Two major shrines are topped by impressive pyramidal towers with elaborate details, resembling a series of balconies and parapets. In general, Hindu temples in the south tend to show this pyramidal form of tower, whereas northern-style temples show towers with more rounded profiles.

The exterior sculptured decoration of Hindu temples tends to become even more complex through time. The narratives and symbols depicted in the sculptures are absolutely integral to the meaning of the architecture; they are placed in specific arrangements on the corners, buttresses, towers, and niches, and all relate to the purpose of the temple in serving as an appropriate residence or palace for the deity enshrined therein. “Axiality in relation to the sanctum and door, compass direction, sequential arrangement, circumabulatory order, hierarchy within the wall, and visual coherence are all at play on the … temple exterior.”


The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Khajuraho, ca. 1025-50

The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple is an excellent example of the elements most characteristic of Hindu temple architecture during the flourishing medieval period. Constructed under the patronage of the Chandella dynasty, the Kandariya is only one of many temples at the sacred site of Khajuraho. It is estimated that originally about 85 temples were located at the site; about 25 temples still exist there today in some form. These range in date from the 9th through the 12th century and are dedicated to a variety of Hindu deities. The Kandariya temple is dedicated to Shiva. The term Kandariya means “of the cave,” and Mahadeva means “the Great God” (that is, Shiva).

The temple is raised on a high base or platform and is entered via a steep staircase on the front. The visitor then passes through a series of several small connected chambers (halls, or mandapas) before reaching the heart of the temple: the garbhagriha (womb chamber) designed to enshrine the image of the deity. A narrow passageway with projecting porches and an open-air zone allows visitors to circumambulate the inner sanctum, which is signaled on the exterior also by the very tall tower (or shikhara). This shows the slightly rounded form typical of northern-style temple towers, and it is capped with an amalaka or ring-like form.

Altogether, this temple has a highly complex profile. In addition to the main tower, the mandapas(halls) are topped with roofs in semi-rounded, stepped, pyramidal form of progressively greater height that lead up to the main tower, which is itself surrounded by a cascade of connected smaller towers and spires. The tower symbolizes the center of the universe (the axis mundi) rising upwards with the divine energy radiating from the deity deep within the structure. Additional lines of divine energy are signaled by sculptures on the exterior walls and corners. The sculpture and architecture work together to create a structure that not only serves as a symbol of the divine but also offers a vehicle for seeing and experiencing the divine.

The elaborate exterior sculptures on the Kandariya temple cover virtually every surface. There are horizontal friezes with narrative reliefs and niches filled with images of deities. There are guardian figures (karnas), attendant figures (notably celestial females known as apsaras), mythical beasts (vyalas), and amorous couples (maithunas) in an enormous variety of poses. The temple as a whole represents the “universe in microcosm,” and the images serve as “visual ‘theologies’ … and visual scriptures.” The densely packed sculptures covering the temple surface “need to be looked at from the perspective of architectural logic rather than as individual units,” all working together to create a grand, cosmic display of divine energy. On the Kandariya temple, “curving lines and sinuous solids [are] paramount and the whole temple [pulsates] to a stupendous linear crescendo.” Although but one example among thousands, the Kandariya Mahadeva at Khajuraho is an especially famous and well-studied example of a grand and complex Hindu temple.

Images of Hindu Deities

These bronze sculptures, both from southern India, represent two of the most important and widely venerated Hindu gods: Vishnu and Shiva. Although many centuries separate these examples in terms of their dates, they both typify many shared and traditional characteristics of Hindu religious images.

These types of sculptures were created for important ritual purposes. Housed in temples, they would have played particularly important roles during festivals and processions. Sculptures of this type are known as utsava murtis (the bodies of the gods); they served as mobile and secondary images of the deities otherwise enshrined in non-moveable images or symbols in the inner sanctum of the temple. These processional images “are awakened during the festival time to provide the gods with the mobile bodies they need to move out into the daily world.” “During the rest of the year, when they are not in use, these bronze sculptures are stored away from the center of the temple, although in some temples they are enshrined within the sanctum.”

Although both examples illustrated are iconic images, depicting the deities in fundamentally human form, they also show symbols, gestures, and actions that present specific aspects of the divine forces. The forms that these images take assist viewers in grasping the nature of the essentially limitless and formless divine. “The things of the world we can see well enough all about us, but for the Indian religious artist the task of image-making was giving shape to those things we cannot readily see.”

Vishnu (the Preserver) is “consistently seen as the preserver of harmony and the maintainer of order and tradition.” As such, he plays a critical role as a member of the triad of major male Hindu gods, between Brahma (the Creator) and Shiva (the Destroyer). Vishnu’s role is to maintain and sustain the universe. Perhaps ultimately derived from the ancient Vedic sun god, Varuna (the keeper of cosmic order), the name Vishnu comes from the Sanskrit term meaning “to work.” “He is indeed regarded as the all-doing presence” and embodies goodness, mercy, and sustenance.

This 17th-century example shows many characteristics of his traditional iconography. He is depicted as a tall, stately figure with his feet planted firmly on the ground (base); he is wearing a high crown (or kiritamukuta—the highest crown), a richly decorated belt or hip-band (katibandha), a symbolic sacrificial cord, and elaborate jewelry (necklaces, earrings, armlets) symbolic of his power, prestige, and importance. In this typically four-armed form he holds two of his chief attributes: the conch shell (the sound of which wards off demons and the spiral form of which represents constantly expanding infinity) and the solar disk or wheel (the symbol of infinity—life and death). His remaining two hands show symbolic gestures (or mudras) of blessing, protection, reassurance, and mercy. His four arms and hands may also be seen as symbolic of the stages of human life and his control over all spatial directions. “The interpretation of Vishnu’s attributes cannot be precise. Understanding has to be associated with vision or enlightenment, which comes as much from unconscious perception as from a conscious reading of symbols.”

In addition to this form, Vishnu is also widely depicted in other ways, specifically in his 10 chief avatars, or manifestations on earth. According to tradition, Vishnu has come to earth at various moments of political and spiritual need, to protect and guide humans. Several of his avatars were animal forms (fish, turtle, boar, half-man/half-lion); in other forms he appeared as a powerful dwarf, as Rama with an axe, as the King Rama (the hero of the epic Ramayana), as Balarama (the brother of Krishna), as Krishna (the most popular and widely venerated of all his avatars), and as the Buddha. The tenth and final avatar of Vishnu is yet to come. Known as Kalki, this figure will signal the end of the world, or the conclusion of the present time cycle.

The god Shiva (the Destroyer) also has a highly complex and multifaceted iconography bespeaking his various aspects. “Like a complex personality [he] has multiple forms and a paradoxical character. He is a deity who often inhabits the extremes of human behavior.” Shiva represents creation as well as destruction; he symbolizes the forces of regeneration as well as removal; he has an ascetic as well as a highly sexual nature. Frequently worshiped in the aniconic and phallic linga form, in iconic guise Shiva may appear as an ascetic, as a teacher, as a fierce and wild demonic type, and most popularly, as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

Shiva Nataraja dances in a ring of flames, symbolizing the fiery forces of destruction and transformation. He stands atop and crushes a demonic dwarf named Apasmara, who represents ignorance and forgetfulness. Shiva’s long, matted hair streams out energetically on both sides of his head. Caught within the strands of his hair is a small figure of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the sacred river Ganges, whose descent from heaven Shiva assisted. His four arms represent his power over the four directions. His mudras include gestures of protection (raised hand) and salvation (downward pointing hand).

Nataraja, the lord of dancers, dancing, shows his fivefold activity, the expression of his divine totality. His dancing limbs convey by their movements and symbols the fivefold action of creation, maintenance, dissolution, veiling-unveiling, and liberation. Nataraya dances the cosmos into existence, upholds its existence, and dances it out of existence…. The raised leg of the dancer shows the liberating freedom of his dance, the drum raised by the right hand sounds the note of creation, the flame in the left hand flickers in the change brought about by destruction…. The movement of the dancer … self-enclosed in balanced gyration, is encircled by flames.

The image of the dancing Shiva Nataraja is one of the most popular representations of this deity, and great numbers of bronzes of this type, with minor variations, survive. In the 1988 court case in London mentioned earlier, it was a Shiva Nataraya bronze sculpture that was at the heart of the dispute. Indeed, “most of the large bronze images of Hindu deities displayed in museum collections were originally utsava murtis” (processional images) that have lost their power and sacredness as a result of damage, theft, deterioration, or mistreatment.

Krishna and Radha, Miniature Painting, ca. 1760

Krishna is one of the most popular Hindu deities. An avatar of Vishnu, his deeds and adventures are frequently illustrated in art. These scenes derive from literary sources, such as the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita—primarily a conversation between Krishna and the warrior Arjuna) and many other puranas or tales concerning this widely venerated deity.

Among the many episodes in Krishna’s biography, one that is most celebrated involves his early relationship with his beloved Radha and her companions among the gopis (cowgirls or milkmaids). The romantic exploits of Krishna and the gopis were especially popular in later Indian miniature painting, such as seen in this example from the middle of the 18th century. Small paintings such as these were created in great numbers, especially at the various royal courts (both Muslim and Hindu) between the 16th and 19th centuries. Created with gouache (vegetable and mineral colors mixed with gum arabic) on specially prepared paper, these miniature paintings were designed to be kept in albums (either bound or loose) for the enjoyment of the courtly patrons. “They were made above all to delight the eye by their rich color harmonies and fluent clarity of line … to impart mainly auspicious or pleasurable sentiments, whether of royal grandeur, devotional wonder, or a refined eroticism.”

There are a number of distinctive styles of Indian miniature painting associated with various regions, time periods, and patronage. This particular example was produced at the Rajput court in Kishengarh, Rajasthan, during the time of the refined and accomplished ruler and art patron Savant Singh (1699-1764; reigned 1748-57). The delicate and detailed rendering of the figures, drapery, and landscape reflect the elegance and sophistication of the courtly context. They mirror the type of clothing and jewelry favored at the court, as well as the garden settings. In this illustration, Krishna, typically blue-skinned (his name means “dark blue or black”), is in a dancing pose and is being offered a betel leaf by the elegantly dressed Radha. To either side of these famous lovers are groups of Radha’s companions, the gopis, who are also elegantly dressed and bearing various gifts, jewelry, flowers, vases, and fans made of peacock feathers. According to some of the tales, the gopis left their husbands and children in order to follow Krishna, who multiplied himself so as to achieve a personal relationship with each one of them. This symbolizes the intense connection between devotees and deities, especially reflective of bhakti (devotional) practices. “Krishna and Radha in the grove are models, as divine lovers, of human love but especially of the soul’s devotion to God.”