Devotional images are generally constituted and further embellished through ritual processes. Although such sculpture is typically found all over India, a wealth of evidence suggests that this is the result of a historic process and that in many places, deities do not take on an anthropomorphic shape. Basically "anthropomorphic" forms are represented in common statues, reliefs, and paintings. Deities often stand out by additional features like multiple heads and arms, a third eye, and various other attributes. It should be considered that deities entering human mediums during rites of possession could also be said to be assuming "anthropomorphic form", even though only temporarily. The aniconic or non-figural category is still well-represented in India. It is generally found in rural or tribal environments as well as in tantric contexts, with the well-known exception of the Shivalinga or phallic symbol of Shiva, worshipped by the Hindu-Brahmanic tradition of the Shaiva fold.
Although we are concerned with documentation and analysis, this issue of Marg is also meant to celebrate and indulge in religious visual culture. India can be regarded as the epicentre of an exuberant visual manifestation of the transcendent. It is impossible to assemble even the most significant cases in one issue, and it is regretted that faiths other than Hinduism and Buddhism could not be covered here.
In dealing with visuality, it seems feasible, first of all, to distinguish between temporary and more permanent objects. I personally feel that mind-objects should be considered as well, because every outer representation is based on inner vision. This also constitutes a significant aspect in rituals of visualization. Regarding permanent images, generally worked in stone or metal, these are either consecrated for regular worship, or remain unconsecrated. The former group comprises the cult images at issue. Generally, worship has to be offered to these at least once a day, while the non-consecrated images serve a more "systemic" purpose, often being part of an architectural context. In exceptional cases, they may be also worshipped, though generally in a less organized manner. Such phenomena are an expression of the devotion of the people, who make their own choices to establish links with certain divine forms.
Temporary non-figural configurations with a complex visual aspect, in which one or several deities are invoked, also form a focus of this volume. To date, these have been regarded as the exclusive domain of ethnology or religious studies, but it is strongly felt that this field should be investigated by researchers in art history and visual studies as well.
A practice which is, in all its elaborateness and intricacy, more or less restricted to southern Asia, is the temporary embellishment of more permanent images of the gods. Although this is performed during the regular worship which takes place once or several times a day, it becomes particularly elaborate during festivals. It also bears intriguingly creative elements like the fixing of extra limbs to the deity, which is known from South Indian temple processions. The temporary creation of a multilayered holistic artwork, including olfactory and musical elements, has a unique quality which should be thoroughly assessed in future studies. The function and potency of this heightened presence of divinity covers religious as well as various social aspects.
Although rituals can be perceived as "timeless", which seems to form part of their mode of operation, recent research has shown that certain changes and modifications are ubiquitous and should be taken into account while working on them. Reasons for such developments may lie in gradual religious or social changes as well as in abrupt interferences such as military conquests. However, there is something so fundamentally specific to and deeply human about rituals that researchers are now looking into the "grammar of rituals" and in some parts of the world, rituals are being reconstructed or newly invented in order to facilitate certain social processes.
The contributions to this issue are multidisciplinary, the writers belonging to the fields of ethnology, religious studies, history of art, and Indian philology. Gilles Tarabout gives an apt introduction to the overall topic of the representation of deities in India, while drawing on significant examples from Kerala, his area of specialization.
Karel van Kooij has attempted a fresh reading of the visual language of early Buddhist art. He perceives a strong focus on linking the Buddha with specific places, in terms of Pierre Noras "lieux de memoire" (sites of memory), which was ritually enacted by the early Indian Buddhist community.
While early Buddhist sculpture provides good examples for the longevity of artworks, both Gudrun Buhnemann and Brigitte Luchesi introduce less-known forms of transitory "icons", abstract or non-figural in the first case and visually reflected or embodied by human agents in the second.
Dominic Goodall presents some of his recent thought on South Indian Shaivite saint Chandesha, whose sphere of activity seems to go well beyond these regional confines.
Parul Pandya Dhar acquaints us with the socio-cultural, artistic, and ritual dynamics of creating a lasting image of a deity in southern India, which has a long history and continues to the present.
A "feast for the eyes", the Photo Essay, has been contributed by Cornelia Mallebrein, a result of a long-standing engagement with Orissan art and culture. Here, we encounter human mediums not only conveying the outer form but also the behaviour and power of a deity which, in the specific context of a festival, is perceived as "real".
Finally, the Discovery essay by Charlotte Schmid, leads us into the realm of well-nigh archaic female divinity, by introducing early stelae showing a fierce goddess, still nameless to us, who is often flanked by her devotees engaged in ritual activity centred on her.
I am extremely grateful to all these colleagues, who have shared their significant thoughts on the topic. Further, I should like to thank Pepita Seth and Gunter Heil for their contributions of marvellous pictures from their rich pool of documentary-cum-art photography.
Last but not least, my very special thanks go to Marg's General Editor Pratapaditya Pal, who has so kindly invited me as a guest editor, as well as to Associate Editor Monisha Ahmed and the staff of Marg for their painstaking work. Their collaboration has been exemplary.