Introduction excerpt pages 10-14.
This subject of Iconography being ancient, has very many original texts of authority, mostly Sanskrit. All these several treaties are included under one comprehensive term – SILPA-SHATRAS. The main sources of information for this science are contained in the several Agamas, the Puranas and the Samhitas.
The Agamas, being broadly divided as Vaishnavite and Saivite, have given rise to two Schools of agamic cult. In the Vaishnavite agama, there are again two important divisions - the Pancharatra and the Vaikhansa. Each of these agamas contain elaborate details about the rituals connected with the preparation, consecration and worship of images of several Vaishnavite deities. The Pancharatra agama by itself is a comprehensive compilation contained as many as one hundred and eight samhitas, belonging to several periods and many of these contain valuable information about this subject. Among the Saivite agamas, the Kamikagama is considered as the oldest and most authoritative. A later agama – known as the Uttarakarnagma, describes an incident from the history of saint Tirujnanasambandar, whose date has been assigned to about the 8th century A.D.
Besides the agamas, there are several authorities relating to iconography and it is better to mention the most important of them. The Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira gives descriptions of certain images and also mentions that one Nagnajit, as the author of a contemporary work on Silpasastra – probably a South Indian by birth. Sukranidhisara is another valuable treatise which gives the measurements of the various kinds of images – now known as ‘Iconometry’ and also describes how the continuation of images vary from age to age. For instance, it says that one particular type of image should be ten talas in height in the Satyayuga, nine talas in Tretayuga, eight talas in Dwarpayuga and only seven talas in Kaliyuga. This work is attributed to Sukracharya – the preceptor of the Danavas, and one of the member of the Navagraha group. The Vrata Kandra of Hemadri’s Caturvarga chintamini contains interesting iconographical features of many of the important deities. Similarly there are many other treatises like Mayamata, Manasara, Kumaratantra, Lakshanasamuchayya, Rupamanada, Tantrasara of Ananda Tirtha, all of which deal with one aspect or another of iconographical interest.
Some of the puranas contain sections dealing with the study of images. In the Agnipuranam, details for Prathimalakshanam (the characteristics of images), Prathimavidhi (the mode of making images), and Devograha nirmanam (the mode of constructing places of worship for images) are given in considerable detail. Similarly, the Matsya, the Padma and the Vishnu puranas have also several chapters dealing on this subject. Of these, the Vishnupurana contains a masterly treatise on iconography known as the Vishnudharmottharam. This work may be regarded as an encyclopedia on Hindu Iconography and it is in the form of a conversation between the sage Markandeya and the King Vajra. Though in earlier portions, it narrates some mythological episodes, the later portions of about 42 adhayas, give full particulars about image making and detailed descriptions of several important deities, both Vaishnavite and Saivite.
Besides these treatises in Sanskrit, we have some texts in other languages also, like the Tamil works – Mandalapurusha’s Chintamini Nigandu and Sendanar’s Divakaranigandu.
The objects that are generally worshipped are primarily the images of Gods and Goddesses, which are broadly divisible into the main groups – Vaishnavite and Saivite. Mostly these deities are worshipped in public places like temples or maths and adhinams, where regular worship is being conducted to the deities ranging from five periods to two periods in a day. In addition to these public places, we have the worship of images in one form or another in the private residences of the aristocratic and also the orthodox type of persons. These images or idols, which are usually small, are called ishtadevatas, which are worshipped by the head of the family for the prosperity and well-being of the family.
In the place of idols which possess certain well defined anatomical features, worship is offered to other objects, which may be described as shapeless, of which the most important are the Saligramas and the Banalingas, which the Vaishnavites and the Saivites respectively hold in high esteem. A Saligrama – at least according to geological notion – is believed to be a flintified siliceous much-eroded ammonite shell – found only in the high Himalayan rivers and more especially in the river Gandaki, one of the tributes of the Ganges, which flows through Nepal. It is usually a rounded, well-polished stone, having at times one or several holes with visible spiral grooves inside of them, resembling the chakra. It is on account of this peculiar configuration, that a Saligrama is considered as the symbol of Vishnu. To strengthen this relationship, Varahapurana gives a legend that the goddess Gandaki – personifying the river of the same name, prayed to Vishnu that He should be born to her. Her prayers were answered by Vishnu, who appeared in the stream Gandaki as Saligramas and ordained that everyone worshipping the Saligrama stone would attain the same benefits as would accrue by worshipping the Lord Himself in other forms. Such forms became the replica of Vishnu and though Saligramas do not come precisely under the purview of the present study, it would be interesting to know something about them. There are a few treatises dealing with the characteristics and varieties of these sacred stones, as several murthis or forms are to be distinguished among the Saligramas. For this purpose, the number and size of the openings, of the spirals and the colour of the Saligrama are taken in account to distinguish them.
Saligramas, though normally jet black in colour, are also of various other colours. The common specimens have one of these hues – brownish black, deep brown, deep green, red and even-white. The size of the Saligrama is also an important factor. While some are very small-just the size of a pea or pepper, several Saligramas are very big – almost gigantic in size – as for instance the one that forms the central piece of the moolasthanam in the famous temple dedicated Sri Kurma at Sri Kurmam, which is very huge being nearly of over three feet in diameter. Usually it is believed that in ordinary households, a Saligrama should be of medium size, which can be held conveniently in one’s palm. The opening, its size and nature also accounts for the sanctity of the Saligrama. It is suggested that gapping orifices are not very auspicious as they represent the more fierce types of Vishnu like Ugra-Narasimha. Saligramas with small openings with a definite number of spirals are the most sought for by householders for their daily puja. There are innumerable varieties of Saligramas – as many as about one hundred and twenty muhurtams. For instance a Saligrama, black in colour with three chakras is said to represent Lakshminarayana, while one with two sets of chakras on top and bottom of the cavity signifies Lakshminarasimha. There are also Saligramas representing Sri Varaha, Bhu Varaha, Matysa and other avataric representations of Vishnu. Some Saligramas which are of lighter colours are said to represent the Vyuha forms of Vishnu – Vasudeva, Samkarshana and Aniruddha. Small broken ones are called Sudarsanas if they contain at least one complete spiral and such of those Saligramas that are merely spherical with no openings or chakras are called Hiranyagarbhas. One well known test of their suitability for worship, according to a reputed authority, consists in placing them in milk or in rice, when a genuine Saligrama is supposed to increase in size and weight.
Sometimes fine images are carved out in big Saligrama stones like Krishna, Rama and others, and it is believed that such images have extra-ordinary powers. There are still several such images carved out of Saligrama stones worshipped in Temples in Maths. Saligramas are often strung together as a garland with proper metallic casing to be used as garlands for the deities in temples. Many of the important Vaishnavite temples in South India like Tirumala, Triplicane (Madras), Kancheepuram, Alagar Koil and other places have such garlands decorating the Dhruva bera – the moolavar of the temple.
As Saligrams are for the Vaishnavas, Banalingas are important for the Saivites. They are mostly clear quartz pebbles, which are rounded off by river erosion and look like white spherical or ovoid bodies. They are to be found in particular in Amareswara on the Mahendra mountain, in Nepal and in the Narmada river. These are dedicated to Siva and are worshipped at home. It is said that in places like Srisaila, Kaligarta, there several Banalingas in worship. Banalingas are also of several varieties like Saligramas and have various colours from jet black to crystal white.
Published by Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams
TTD Religious Publications Services No. 133.