Printer Friendly

Narasimha: Hindu images of belief.

Looking Carefully

Sculptural images of multi-armed Hindu deities, some half-human, half-animal, are sometimes bewildering to Westerners. Most often they are seen as isolated forms in a museum setting, but it is important to remember that they are intended not as works of art but as images of devotion. Adorning the outside surface of temples as an integral part of the architecture, the lavishly carved figures were meant to be instructional devices to aid worshippers in the complex mythology of their faith. Notice how the sculpted figures are set into the niches of the Black Pagoda at Konarak (shown here) like story panels. The intent of the sculptor was to represent an entire mythology of selected gods or goddesses within the surface of a religious structure. Often the abundance of ornamentation obscured the simple forms of the temple.

To unravel the mystery of Hindu sculpture requires a general understanding of its symbolic meaning as it relates to basic religious beliefs. Two principles are primary to Hindu faith. Reincarnation, the belief that the soul migrates through endless lives being reborn in animal and human forms, is the first fundamental concept. Intricately linked with this is the doctrine of karma which holds that the accumulation of good and evil in one's life determines the quality of life to come. Hinduism provides personalized gods equipped with a body of legends and myths, in which the devotees can place their faith hoping to gain a better place in the next life.

Hindu Deities

Of the many Hindu deities, three are held universally supreme: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Serving as an ambassador, Vishnu is seen as a kind god, working continuously for the world's welfare. People who worship Vishnu also believe he can come to earth in many forms. He does this when people forget the right way to live.

Like Christian saints, certain attributes identify each Hindu god and goddess. In Hindu sculpture, the multi-armed figures serve as a display for the various attributes of a particular deity. Two attributes have primary importance for Vishnu: the discus and the conch shell. The discus is a flaming, sharp-edged weapon of immense destructive power. Capable of destroying vast numbers of enemies, it symbolizes Vishnu's role as Defender of the World Order. It also serves as a reminder that a keen mind is a powerful weapon against ignorance. The conch shell is employed by Vishnu in war; by blowing the shell, he often struck terror into the hearts of his enemies. The spirals of the conch shell are also symbolic of the eternal cycles of life.

Narasimha (Nara-she-mah), the Man-Lion, was Vishnu's fourth reincarnation. The relief sculpture of Narasimha (shown in the centerspread) varies from low relief to fully in the round, and is a superb example of stone sculpture being produced during the 1200s in northern India. Note the sculptor's technical abilities as displayed in the undercutting of the hands, the delicate band between the legs, the precise, fierce features and the sensitive carving of the ornamental accessories. Beyond the technical aspects, the sculptor was also able to bring a spiritual quality to the form. Narasimha's strength can be felt through the firm posture of the form and the "intense facial features which were meant to strike terror in those with evil intent. Despite the grotesque purpose of the form, the sculptor has created a fanciful image that is a parallel between the external nature of the material and the internal nature of the spirit.

Look carefully at the sculpture. Vishnu/Narasimha can be easily identified by the attributes he holds in his hands. In context, this figure, which was probably a part of a medieval temple facade, would have served as a meditative device for worshippers who would recall the story of Narasimha and the lesson it represented as a means of gaining personal contact with the god.

Encourage your students to concentrate on the Narasimha image as you share the following story.

As a reward for his behavior, a powerful demon king had been given a blessing by Brahma. The blessing specified that the king could not be killed by night or day by man or beast, inside or outside his palace, or on the earth or in the air. Thus protected, the demon king demanded that all worship him over all other gods or suffer under his hands. Despite this, his son continued to worship Vishnu. To save the boy and restore order, Vishnu took the form of Narasimha (neither man nor beast) and entered a pillar of the porch of the demon's palace (neither inside or outside the building). At twilight (neither day or night) Narasimha burst forth from the pillar and destroyed the defenseless demon king.

Key Concepts

* Understanding Hindu sculpture requires a basic understanding of Hindu religious belief.

* Hindu sculpture, as an architectural element, is intended not as a work of art but as a meditative object for worship.

* The Hindu sculptor includes attributes of the deity, additional carved figures and ornamental accessories as mythological references for the worshipper.

* The degree of relief created by the sculptor can make a stone surface appear pliable.

Discovering the clues

The Narasimha sculpture contains many objects upon which the worshipper could concentrate during meditation. Have your students make a list of all the objects and decorations on the sculpture which appear to contribute to the power of the figure. Because Vishnu sleeps upon the water on a coiled serpent when he is in an inactive state, there are many water references included in the sculpture. The following definitions, which correspond with the numbered example, will help you decode your students' findings.

1. Kirttimuka (Keer-tee-moo-ka) Mask: a demon mask in the shape of a lion head which served as protection to Narasimha by keeping away evil spirits.

2. Gandharva (Gun-dar-va): a male sky dwelling divinity who represents fragrance. The weightless, soaring motion of the figure is created by the evidence of upturned feet.

3. Apsara (Aup-sah-rah): a minor female goddess who inhabits the sky. She is often depicted dancing or making music for the gods and serves as a wife to Gandharva.

4. Ganas (Gah-nahs): dwarf attendants who are blowing conch shells, an attribute of Vishnu.

5. The decorated arch serves as a halo, which illuminates the powerful Vishnu/Narasimha figure.

6. Makara (Mu-car-ah) Mask: a part crocodile, part elephant creature who is a symbol of life-sustaining water.

7. The flaming mane not only represents the lion side of Narasimha, but also indicates the power and anger of the deity.

8. The conical crown is a form of headgear worn only by the gods.

9. The sacred thread is a cord of several threads (most often three) which is worn over the shoulder and passes over the chest and upper abdomen. It is received at initiation rites by male members of upper Hindu classes.

10. Lakshmi (Lock-schmee): the goddess of good fortune and wealth, she is generally considered the partner of Vishnu. Notice how her one leg drops down. This relaxed position was a symbol of royal dalliance.

11. Yoga patta: a belt that was used to hold a sustained yoga position.

12. The lotus, which thrives in water, is a symbol of life.

13. The many sumptuous pieces of jewelry which adorn the chest, arms, legs and hands of Narasimha indicate his high position in the Hindu belief system.

Suggested Activities Elementary

* Select a Hindu myth about Vishnu to share. Have students develop a list of symbols or images that might serve as references to the story. As a group activity, incorporate these symbols and images into a story panel which can be drawn or painted on a paper banner. For display, install the story panel as an "architectural element" in the classroom.

* To emphasize high and low relief sculpture, have students create "Narasimha niches." Using a variety of paper construction techniques, students can assemble an image within a shoebox or any small container. The individual niches can be assembled together to create a temple wall.

* Explore different ways other cultures have recorded myths like Egyptian wall paintings or the decorated pottery of ancient Greece. Look for the attributes associated with various deities of these cultures. Have students design an attribute which could serve as their personal symbol. As an extension of the activity, the students could write creation myths to explain how their "attributes" came to be.


* Compare and contrast the symbolism and purpose of the Narasimha sculpture to the portal sculptures of Chartres Cathedral. Because both architectural works were done in the same time period, attention could also be given to the historical elements of both countries. As a group process, have students select a myth which could be translated into clay relief panels. Special emphasis should be given to high and low relief techniques.

* Using selected slides, have students discuss the various postures of figurative work by the sculptor, Rodin. How does the artist convey moods, tensions and feelings through the body movement of his sculpted forms? What influences of Hindu sculpture can be identified in Rodin's sculptures? Have students create wire figurative pieces based on a Rodin sculpture.

* Prepare a list of mythical beasts which have been popularized in various cultures. Ask students to "adopt" a beast from the list and develop an original myth to be shared with the class. Their storytelling could be a taped or audio-visual production. Using plaster slabs formed in Styrofoam meat trays, have students carve relief sculptures of their beasts.


Constable, George. India. London: Time-Life Books, 1986.

Hirst, Jacqueline Suthern. The Story of the Hindus. New York: Cambridge Press, 1989.

Jaffrey, Madhur. Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1987.

Rao, T.A. Gopinatha. Elements of Hindu Iconography, Volume I, Part L Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press, 1914. (An excellent source for decoding Indian sculpture. Can be found most easily in a university library.)

Dr. Elizabeth Cole is Chair, Department of Art, University of Toledo at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Hindu sculpture
Author:Cole, Elizabeth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:Native American cultural enrichment through the arts.
Next Article:The computer as a tool.

Related Articles
Siva's in the house: Izhar Patkin's dance-floor deity.
Elephant composite.
Animal Worlds: Remover of Obstacles.
Shiva as Lord of the Dance.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters