Digital Rare Book :
Elements of Hindu Iconography
By T.A. Gopinatha Rao
Published under the patronage of the Government of His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore
Published by The Law Printing House, Madras – 1914
Volume 1 – Part 2

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The tall spire of the Hindu temple is one of the first objects to arrest the attention of the observant foreigner and excite his curiosity as he travels through India. On going into the temple, he meets with a number of what may perhaps appear to him to be grim and meaningless images, in stone and bronze and other materials, some with two, others with four or more arms, holding a variety of weapons and other more or less curious articles in their hands. The man on the spot may tell him on enquiry that one of those images is the figure of Vishnu, the god of protection, another that of Siva, the god of destruction, and so on, about the innumerable gods and goddesses comprised within the tolerant and all-inclusive fold of the Hindu religion. Some such foreigner, more curious than others of his kind, is sometimes tempted to study these images somewhat carefully, find out their number and characteristics, and gather the legends relating to them from the Puranas and other sources, as also from the learned natives of the country well versed in their religious and mythological lore. Then at last he may come out with his volume on the Hindu gods, on Hindu mythology and other kindred subjects. Such in fact are most of the books that have been written hitherto by foreign authors on topics relating to Hindu Iconography.

It is exactly two hundred years since Ziegenbalg, the famous Danish missionary of Tranquebar, wrote his work on the “ Genealogy of the South
Indian Gods,” with the aid of the information he gathered from some people of the Tamil land. In the year 1785 the book known as “Sketches of the Mythology and Customs of the Hindus ” was brought out by George Foster. Moore’s “ Hindu Pantheon ”, with illustrations, was first printed in 1810, and then reprinted by Messrs. Higginbotham & Co., of Madras, in 1864, with notes from the pen of the Kev. W.O. Simpson. “Ancient and Hindu Mythology”, a work written sympathetically and in defence of the views of the Hindus, with a large number of extracts from the Puranas and other Hindu scriptural sources, was thereafter brought out by Col. Vans Kennedy in 1831. Another work named “A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology” was published by John Dowson in 1879.

The last among such works is W. J. Wilkins’ “Hindu Mythology ”, illustrated with pictures, and explained with reference to the Puranas and other religious writings of the Hindus.

It will thus be seen that books dealing with Hindu images and Hindu mythology are not altogether wanting. Nevertheless, Forgusson, who is an eminent authority on Eastern and Indian architecture, has justly remarked –

“Whenever any one will seriously undertake to write the history of
” sculpture in India, he will find the materials
” abundant and the sequence by no means difficult
“ to follow ; but, with regard to mythology, the case
“ is different. It cannot, however, be .said that the
“ materials are not abundant for this branch of the
“ enquiry also ; but they are of much less tangible or
“ satisfactory nature, and have become so entangled,
“ that it is extremely difficult to obtain any clear
‘ ideas regarding them; and’ it is to be feared they
“ must remain so, until those who investigate the subject will condescend to study the architecture
“ and sculpture of the country as well as its books.
“ The latter contain a good deal, but they do not
“ contain all the information available on the
“ subject ; and they require to be steadied and con-
“ firmed by what is built or carved, which alone can
“ give precision and substance to what is written
“ It is remarkable that, with all the present day
“ activity in every branch of Sanskrit research, so
“ very little has been done for the illustration of
“ mythology, which is so intimately connected with
“ the whole literature. It would be a legitimate part
“ of the duty of the Archaelogical Surveys to collect
“ materials on a systematic plan for this object ;
“ and the production of illustrations has now become
“ so easy and inexpensive that photographs from
“ original materials of a satisfactory class might
“ readily be published to supply this most pressing
“ desideratum. The details of the emblems and
“ symbols of the numerous divinities of the
“ pantheon could also be collected, along with the
“ delineations, by those familiar with such symbols.
“ All this could easily be accomplished, and it is
“ consequently hoped it may before long be
“ attempted.’’

It has to be said that the books by European authors referred to above do not contain the information, which is available in indigenous Sanskrit works on Iconography ; nor do they give pictorial representations of the sculptures that are actually found in this vast country. On the other hand, some of those authors have given what might be well understood to be their own version of Hindu mythology, and in their descriptions of Hindu images, with here and there a pungent remark about what they consider an uncouth representation or an immoral legend, they seem to have cared to study neither the symbolism underlying the mythical stories nor the meaning of the images illustrating them. A book on the model suggested by Forgusson has indeed been a great desideratum.

The first attempt to supply this want to some extent was made by that many sided Bengali scholar and author, Mr. Nagendranath Vasu, in his interesting volume on the Archfeological Survey of Mayurabhanja. Some years ago the idea occurred to me that I might try to bring out a book on the subject of HinduIconography to supply as far as I could, the desideratum noted by Fergusson. I was originally under the impression that it could be done without pressing much into service the information contained in original Sanskrit works of authority on the subject, even of the existence of which I was not then fully aware. Soon, the bewildering variety of images that were found in relation to one and the same god convinced me that to get at the details of their mythological meaning and moral aim without the help of the Sanskrit works bearing on them was almost an impossible task. Luckily, while touring in North Travancore, I had on one occasion the good fortune to get hold of a small manuscript work entitled Silparatna ; and on deciphering it with considerable difficulty, I found it to be a synopsis in Malayalam verse of a bigger treatise of the same name. Another small fragmentary manuscript, which came into my hands later on, was found to be, from the colophons at the end of the chapters, an agama called Amsumadbhedagama. Some years previously, I had purchased eight or nine works on Saivagarna ; but, owing to want of time, I had not even taken the trouble to know what they contained. About this time I began to look into them, and what a mine of wealth they revealed themselves to be descriptions relating to most Saiva images and to some Vaishnava images as well. My search for more agamas and tantras resulted in the collection of a large number of them, which in fact belong to all the various Hindu sects. From the materials thus acquired, I began first to pick up merely the descriptions of images, as they are given in them. The agamas generally deal with many other topics than simple iconography. While engaged thus, I went on improving at the same time my collection of photographs of the sculptures and castings representing the various Hindu divinities.

In the middle of 1912, I actually began the task of writing out a systematic description of the images, and soon finished the description of a number of minor deities.

After having proceeded so far, it struck me that the chief difficulty in the way of the accomplishment of my undertaking was in securing the required financial aid for its publication. The work required photo-mechanical reproductions of a large number of images, the cost of which alone was quite enough to scare me away from the underbaking. As a matter of fact, I should really have been compelled, howsoever reluctantly, to abandon my cherished object, but for the opportune help and encouragement most generously offered by the enlightened Government of His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore. The Dewan, Mr. Rajagopalacharya, readily perceived the value of the undertaking, and promised to sanction the amount required for the publication of the work. The sympathetic attitude of this highly cultured gentleman at the head of affairs in Travancore afforded a new stimulus and induced me to work with redoubled vigour and earnestness. The required Sanskrit texts were all quickly gathered, but the growth of the collection of the needed photographs did not proceed apace. I then approached the Dewan with the request that I should be permitted to go out on tour to places outside the State, in the Madras and the Bombay Presidencies and also in the Mysore State, to obtain the photographs. The tour was sanctioned ; and my visit to these places not only enriched my photographic collection, but was also of a very highly educative value to me. It enabled mo to study the various iconographic symbols and emblems directly from the sculptures themselves. Wherever photographing was impossible, there I indented upon my amateur knowledge of drawing and painting. I frequently took pen and ink sketches, and occasionally full-sized coloured drawings of mural paintings, although this latter work was extremely tedious.

T. A. Gopinatha Rao (1872-1919) was an Indian archaeologist and epigraphist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who contributed regularly to the journal Epigraphia Indica. He was appointed first Superintendent of the Travancore Archaeology Department in 1908. During his tenure, Rao edited Travancore Archaeological Series volumes 1 and 2.

Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon Mahisha
India, Badra, Central Northeastern style, early Medieval, 9th century

Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Courtesy information by.
Prof . Muraldhara Upadhya Hiriyadka.

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