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Icons as an expression of Indian faith: Indian Iconography

An icon represents a symbol of an individual or an object that is greatly respected, it can also be used to signify religious or spiritual beliefs. From an eminent personality like Mahatma Gandhi to objects such as coins or sculptures to trees, almost anything that holds significance to spiritual disciplines or nations can be considered an icon. However, they have commonly been associated with many religions of the world such as the paintings of Christianity, Hindu statues of deities and so forth. Iconography is the study of these icons, their origins, their symbolism and so on. The study of Iconography is different for different regions. 


Apart from being a study of religious and spiritual symbols, it also serves as an important source of history and societal evolution. Questions revolving around the significance and association of these symbols with the Indian deities were presented in the form of words in the popular stories of the subcontinent, while in art, they were presented in the form of icons. Followers and devotees treated these aspects with reverence and associated them with the supernatural and the divine. These icons were later incorporated into religious rituals as well. Iconography is mentioned in many Indian sacred texts, both in the Northern parts of India as well as the Southern parts. The texts in the Northern parts of India that allude to iconography are Mandana’s Vastu Shastra, Bhuvanadeva’s Aparajita Parichha, Samarngana Sutadhara of Raja Bhoja and Visvakarma Prakasa. In the Southern parts of India, the texts that spoke of iconography are Manasara, Mayamata of Mayasura, Sakaladhikara of Agastya and Amsumadheda of Kasyapa. 


The three categories into which these icons are divided are: 


  • Mudras


The word, ‘mudra’ means ‘gesture/mark/seal.’ Usually used in Yoga, mudras are gestures that hold both symbolic and ritualistic meanings. They are commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist practices. Mudras are essentially hand gestures in yoga and meditation. They are known to influence the energy flow in the body and help people unblock chakras. Mudras help in building a connection between the brain to the body. It soothes pain, stimulates endorphins, induces mood changes, and increases vitality. The Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana hint at a long list of mudras. Some of which are:


  • Hasta Mudra

  • Pada Mudras

  • Sarira Mudra

  • Hand-held attributes or objects

  • Asanas



  • Vahanas


Vahanas are the symbols through which Gods and Goddesses are showcased. These vahanas are commonly seen in the form of animals and birds, sometimes even in the human form. Some of the common vahanas are: 

  • Gaja: Elephant

  • Gardabha: Donkey

  • Garuda: Eagle

  • Kurma: Tortoise

  • Makara: Crocodile

  • Mayura: Peacock

  • Nandi: Bull

  • Simha: Lion

  • Mukutas (Head gear)

  • Abhusanas (Ornaments)


  • Indian Sculptures

Indian sculptures of the Harappan civilization, the Mauryan period as well as the post-Mauryan period and the Mathura school were also important icons of Indian culture. 


FAQ’s:

 


Q1. How did the concept of iconography develop in India? 


Indian iconography grew from sacred images and spirits that were set in stone. These images then evolved into icons, through the rituals that were conducted using these images. The association of the icons and rituals helped in creating a symbolic connection between the icons and Indian culture, thus giving rise to Indian iconography. 


 

Q2. Why is iconography used in India? 


Icons are used as symbols or metaphors to explain complex thoughts and ideas of the Indian tradition, making these ideologies simpler to understand and inculcate into spiritual and religious practices.