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Iconography of


Aishwarya Kothare

T.Y.B.A- A.I.C

Roll No. 13

UID No. 147508

Paper No. AIC.6.02

Date: 2nd February 2015


T.Y.B.A- A.I.C

Roll No. 13

UID No. 147508

Paper No. AIC.6.02

Date: 2nd February 2015


1. Iconography and Hinduism

2. Origins of Vishnu and Vaishnava philosophy

3. Image of Vishnu and symbols associated

4. The Sesa shayi form

5. Portrayal through the ages

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

The word Iconography quite literally, means a figure presenting a deity or a

saint in any media, like paintings, on coins, sculptures etc. and its meant for
worship and is also associated with rituals.1 It originated from the Greek word
Eikon. It basically deals with study and interpretation of the physiognomies of
icons that appear in places of worship or are worshipped themselves. It not
only deals with the main figures but also with the various other decorative
sculptures, figures or symbols which appear in the shrine along with the
principal figure.2 Therefore it can be said that Iconography is study and
interpretation of religious art.

R. Champaklakshmi, in her book on iconography, aptly states that,

Iconography is the tangible expression of religious symbolism as it puts into
visual form the abstract concepts and attributes associated with deities.3
Iconography even helps in constructing the development of religious ideas
through the study of the evolutionary process of the religious symbols or
images of various periods. It also helps in determining various social
structures and society at that point in time. For example, The Harihara Avatar
is part Vishnu and part Shiva showing an amalgamation of both the sects
which were rivals earlier. Hence such study is not just for religious art but
various other interpretative aspects as well. Studying Hindu iconography can

JitendraNathBanerjea, Development of Hindu Iconography, (Calcutta, AIHC Department of Calcutta University,
1956) p.1
Ibid., p.1
R. Champaklakshmi, Vaishnava iconography in the tamil country (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1981) p.1
help in understanding peoples beliefs and faith in various deities and their
corresponding religions through various ages. There are various literary as
well as archaeological sources to study this. The religious texts such as the
Vedas, Puranas and the Agamas have made a great impact on the iconography
of the images. There are various examples where it is observed that the
brahmanical images of various Puranic gods have a lot of similarities with the
anthropomorphic and theriomorphic descriptions of their Vedic
counterparts.4The Agamas also contain many descriptions of Puranic gods and
have a lot of impact on temple architecture and iconography. The following
study will focus on the development of sheshshayi Vishnu form in

Ibid., p.2

Vishnu is a major deity and has various avatars portrayed in images,

sculptures etc. and is worshipped even today. He is one of the most significant
gods later but in the Vedas he is only a minor deity. He is very briefly
mentioned in the hymns of Rigveda and occupies a very insignificant position.
He is said to have a solar origin, that means a descendant of the sun and in the
Brahmana literature his position seems to have ascended to a higher status as
there are more verses dedicated to him and is associated with Agni (fire) and
Aditya (sun) thus retaining his solar character as mentioned in the Rigvedic
hymns .5Inspite of these references there is no strong evidence that a cult may
have developed around the worship of Vishnu this early in time. Even though
Vaishnavism gains its name from Vishnu itself it is only a later development.6
The most important phase in this evolution was during the time when in
Mahabharata epic Vasudeva came to be identified with Vishnu and the whole
cult of Vaishnavism. Later on the character of Krishna also came to be
associated with Vishnu as an avatar of Vishnu. The Vasudeva formed a cult
under the greater umbrella of Vaishnavism and was designated as various
others like the Bhagvata, Sattvata, Ekantika or Panchratra. The treatise which
propounded this religion is Narayina section in Mahabharat and revolves
around a figure called Narayana, who was also associated to Vishnu.7 This
Deity was known by various forms and avatars which he took in order to save

Kalpana Desai, Iconography of Visnu (in northern indiaupto medieval period), (New Delhi, Abhinav publication,
1973) p.1
Ibid., p.1
Ibid., p.2S
the world from destruction each time. The Dasavatar of Matsya (fish), Kurma
(Tortoise), Varaha (boar), Vaman (dwarf), Narasimha (lion-man), Parshuram,
Balaram, Ram, Krishna and Kalki are most focused on each with a
corresponding story of saving the earth from destruction. He is also
considered to be the soul of the universe and is perceived to have his abode in
the primaeval waters as the etymological name Narayana suggests and it is
exactly the same concept which became the cause for development of the
Sesashayi Vishnu form, wherein he is looked up as the creator, reclining on
the serpent symbolizing eternity, amidst the primeval waters.8Thus various
such theories became a reason for development of varied iconographic forms
of Vishnu. It was an effort of the people to comprehend the incomprehensible
and to give a form to the formless one, and the result of this was flourishing
idol worship.9The adherents of Vaishnava thus began to symbolize these
forms of Vishnu through varied emblems and deifying him in
anthropomorphic forms by keeping the ancient literary texts of Agamas and
Puranas as an adept regulatory source for creating them in any media. This
process must have been a reaction to the rising trend in Buddhism of making
structures of worship and images of Buddha for veneration.10

Ibid., p.4
Ibid., p.5
Ibid., p.6

Even though Sangam literature, and Epics and Puranic works made the theory
of a trinity of Brahma (creator), Vishnu(protector) and Mahesh or Shiva
(destroyer of evil) popular, Vishnu as a deity was regarded as an all pervading
supreme god. He was conceived to have been endowed with four hands, the
additional pair of hands to elevate him to the status of being super human.
The literature prevalent in North India categorized Vishnu according to
postures of standing, sitting or reclining and further classifying them
depending on the number of hands portrayed.11

Vishnu is always portrayed with paraphernalia and abhaya or varada mudra

and hence the emblems associated with him wereshankh-cakra-gada-padma.
The conch shell (shankh) was perceived to be a precious object worth
treasuring and hence was a symbol for wealth and prosperity. The disc
(cakra) signified universality and power and was used as a weapon by him, it
was adopted in Buddhism. The lotus was a mark or divinity purity as well as
procreation and it can be assumed that it must be borrowed from Buddhism
as lotus was used as a divine symbol by Buddhists. The mace (gada) was one
of the strongest weapons and one of the most important symbols associated
with Vishnu in order to signify strength or might. Its importance is evident
from the fact that a complete section in Mahabharat describing a fight with
mace was designated after it.12Besides the Emblems and influence of
Buddhism some of the local cults too added to the icon of Vishnu. For instance,

Ibid., p.6
Ibid., p.6
the Naga cult which existed in India, worshiped Nagas, and left an influence on
the iconography of Sesa Narayana where he is posed on coiled serpents.


The Narayana form of Vishnu is regarded as the lord of waters and his abode
itself is in the primeval waters where he is portrayed reclining on a serpent
bed and creating a lotus from his navel, from which brahma is born. In the
shanti parvan of the Mahabharata also, Vishnu is described as reclining on
coiled serpents. Sometimes the Sesa is recognized as the form of Vishnu and
symbolizes eternity and is called Ananta. The Sesa is also associated with
Balarama, brother of Vasudeva and Balaram is considered to be an
incarnation of Sesa.13 This introduction of serpent Sesa can be considered to
be an influence of the Naga cult prevalent then. Gonda states, Vishnu sleeps
on Sesa, Vishnu is Sesa, Sesa is the form of Supreme Being. Thus Vishnu
reclining on Sesa represents him in eternal existence.14

In the Sesashayi images Vishnu and the Sesa are depicted together with
Vishnu standing, sitting or reclining under serpent hood. The seated image in
such a position is described in South Indian literature and is called Adimurti
as it represents Vishnu before the first creation. There are various
representations of the jalasayanamurti of Vishnu in sesashayi form. The
description of these images is unanimous throughout all the texts.15 This
aspect of Vishnu is conceived to be at the end of the mahapralaya or the great
deluge of universal dissolution and the image of Vishnu lying in the waters on

Ibid., p.24
Ibid., p.24
Ibid., p.26
the Sesa under the hood one leg thrown on the other. One hand is stretching
along the body to reach the navel where brahma is seated on a lotus and other
supports his head. The remaining hands are holding the Santana Manjiri and
the demons Madhu and Kaithabha are supporting the stalk of the lotus.16This
is the description given in Devatamurtiprakarana. In some other images
Vishnu is seated, decked in ornaments, instead of Santana manjiri he holds the
conch and the disc and is flanked by Bhrigu and other sages and Shiva. In all
the images the serpent has either five or seven hoods. There are few images
where avatars are carved above and one interesting image where avatars are
carved above. There is conception of god on waters and with universal
dissolution of vatapatrasayin there is infant god floating on banana leaf
symbolizing that chaos of dissolution is evolution of cosmos from infancy.17

The south indian texts divide the images into Yoga, Bhoga, Vira and

The yoga sayanamurti is only two handed, right near the pillow and other in
kathaka pose. He is flanked by Markendeya and bhrigu rishi at both the sides
and has demons at his feet. With Brahma coming from the navel above the
eagle (vahana) and the ayudhapurushas (paraphernalia) along
withvishvaksena and sapt rishis are sculpted.18

In the Bhogasayanamurti Vishnu is shown having 4 hands, goddess Laxmi is

seated near holding lotus and Bhoomidevi near his feet. Markendeya, Bhrigu,
Brahma and Shiva are to the West East North and South respectively. There is

T.P. Gopinathrao, Hindu Iconography Volume I, (New Delhi, MotilalBanarsidas, 1997) p.264
Ibid., p.p. 264, 265
Kalpana Desai, Op. cit., p.p. 26, 27
also a presence of Ashvins, Tamburu and Narada as children, the eagle and
surya (sun), the demons and the ayudhapurushas all are depicted.The
Virasayanamurti Vishnu holds conch and disc, while other two are same as
other images. Here the demons hold his feet and laxmi and bhoomidevi both
are near his feet and rest remains the same. The Abhicharakamurti depicts
Vishnu reclining flatly on the coil of snakes.19

The rishis like Markendeya, in these panels are supposed to be immortal even
during the time of the deluge which symbolizes the supremacy of Brahmins
and throws light on the social conditions in those times and to a very limited
extent status of Brahmins. The RupaMandana also gives descriptions of how
avatars are shown on the panels of matsya, kurma, Buddha and even kalki is
shown while the eagle is to be shown in Anjali mudra.20

Vishnu image at Aihole..

Kalpana Desai, Op. Cit., p.p. 26, 27
T.P. Gopinathrao, Op. Cit., p.p. 264, 265

The theme of sheshashayi was popular in the Gupta period. For example a
sesasayi image belonging to this age is found at Deogarh with Vishnu reclining
under 7 hooded serpent and stretched on the lap of bhoomidevi with chauri
bearer in the background with his vahana, the eagle and the brahma is in the
waters. There is also Indra and Kartikeya on their mounts elephant and the
peacock, and shiva and parvati on the bull. There are kinnara and the
ayudhapurushas and even the 2 demons MadhuKaitabha are present. Thus
there is a prevalence of iconographic forms of Vishnu from 5th century A.D.
There are early representations of such images at Aihole and Badami as well
which confirm its prevalence in north and south as well, particularly in

Apart from these there is a similar image at the Udaygiri caves, and another
one at Rajivalocana temple at Rajim belonging to 6th century A.D. and one at
the temple in Halebid.

Even though this form has various representations it can be seen that it was
not a very popular or a very important form since it did not evolve or change
much apart from a few variations. There were a few additions seen like
matrikas, avatars, rishis,navagrahas, ayudhapurushas etc. but no major
developments are seen thus giving it a status of a minor form.22

There are many panels of sesasayi with minor variations belonging to a range
of period from 7th to 12th century A.D in museums of Mathura, Kotah, Sikar,

Kalpana Desai, Op. Cit., p. 26
Ibid., p.28
Lucknow, Khajuraho, Bengal and other places like Orissa, Jagannathji temple
of Dilvara, Chhatarapur, Bamangola etc.


This was the journey of Vishnu and his image of sheshasayi through ages
and the beautiful philosophy behind it. Even though the image of
sheshasayi originated very early and continued to exist for a long time
there were hardly any major evolutionary changes in the image apart from
a few variations hence from the iconographical point of view the image did
not really evolve even though it continued to exist and even spread to
Nepal. Even if there has been evolution at the literary evolution it hasnt
percolated to the iconographic levels.

However, inspite of being a minor form it still gives a lot of information and
the iconographic representation can be used to deduce the socio-economic
status of the society, the position of women, the religious beliefs prevalent
through the ages, the affiliation to epics, portrayal of nature also gave some
information about ecology and human connection then and much more.
Also the making of this panel must have given employment to the artisans.
Thus this form of sheshasayi did make a difference and did leave a small
maybe, but definitely a lasting impression on the sands of time.



1. Banerjea, J. (1956). Development of Hindu iconography. Calcutta: AIHC

Department Calcutta university press
2. Champaklakshmi, R. (1981).Vaishnava iconography in the tamil country.
New Delhi: Orient Longman.
3. Desai, K. (1973). Iconography of Visnu. New Delhi: Abhinav publication.
4. Gopinathrao, T. (1997). Hindu Iconography volume I. New Delhi: