Chapter 11
Hindu Shilpa Shastra on Vishnu Images

Three poses Vishnu Images

How the images of Vishnu were ordained to be made by the Agamas and other texts? We will discuss the most salient point from Sitapati's 'Sri Venkatesvara'

Sitapati observes:

"The Vishnu images are generally shown in one of the three poses - sthanaka, asana and sayana, Sthanaka is the standing pose, Asana is the sitting pose, and Sayana is the reclining pose. ... The Agama sastras such as the Vaikhanasa Agama, the Pancharatra Agama, the Tantrasara and Vishnu Dharmottaram lay down the principles on which Vishnu images are to be made. There are four important types of Vishnu images namely Yoga, Bhoga, Veera and Abhicharika types. ... Vishnu images have usually four arms, the ayudhyas or weapons held in the hand usually being Chakra, Sankha or conch, the bow and arrows and the gada or club. ... The hands are usually in the Abhaya, Varada, and Katyavalambita poses. ... The Abhaya pose is the one in which the Lord holds his hand aloft, with the right palm facing the devotee with all the fingers of the hand pointing upwards. ... The Varada hasta is the pose in which the Lord holds His hand (left hand) with the palm facing the devotee with all the fingers of the hand pointing downwards. ... The Katyavalambita hasta pose is the one in which the Lord keeps His hand (left hand) on the kati or waist ... Vishnu images are shown to carry several ornaments such as the padma or the lotus, Kireeta or the crown, Makara Kundalas or crocodile ear ornaments around the waist, Kati bandhas or ornaments around the waist and hips, the sacred thread etc. There is usually a mole on the right chest called Srivatsa and a garland reaching up to the knees called the Vaijayantimala. Sree Koustubam is a gem studded jewel on the chest which is sacred to Laxmi. The consort of the Lord is usually carved or exhibited near the Srivatsa and the Sree Koustubam..." [Sitapati:9]

Lord of Venkatesvara Image

"...The Lord's image at Tirumalai is a Sthanaka or standing figure. The worship in the Sri Venkatesvara Temple at Tirumalai follows the Vaikhanasa Agama. It is, therefore, relevant and necessary for us to inform ourselves about the rules laid down in the Vaikhanasa Agamas for Vishnu images in Sthanaka pose. According to Mariach Samhita, Vishnu images in Sthanaka pose can be Yoga, Bhoga, Veera or Abhicharika murthis. In each type there would be three subtypes, namely then Uttama, Madhyama and Adhama Murthis." [Sitapati: 13]

"The Yoga-Uttama-Sthanak murthis should be Syam (dark) in colour with four arms; the Sankha and Chakra should be exhibited; one of the right hands should be in the Abhaya hasta pose, while one of the left hands should be in the Katyavalambita pose. On the right, the sages Bhrigu and Markandeya should be seated. Brahma with four arms should be shown as standing near the right side facing north with his ayudhyas such as Aksha Mala and Kamandala; two of his hands should be in the Abhaya and Katyavalambita posses. Siva should be shown facing south with four arms, two of them in the Abhaya and Katyavalambita poses and other two holding a Mriga (deer) and a Parasu (axe). The complexion of Siva should be white."

"In the Yoga-Madhyama-murthi, the Parivara devathas Brahma and Siva should be absent. In the Yoga-Adhama-Sthanaka murthi sages Bhrigu and Markandeya should be absent"

"The Bhoga Uttama-Sthanaka murthi should be dark in colour with four arms. The Sankha and Chakra should be exhibited. One of the right hands should be either in the Abhaya or Varada Hasta poses. One of the left hands should be in the Katyavalambita simhskarana pose. Siva and Brahma should stand to the right; Sri Devi or Laxmi with a lotus in left hand and a Prasaritha Dakshina Hasta (extended right hand) should stand to the right while Bhudevi with Prasaritha and Druthotpala hastas should stand to the left. The Parivara Devas and sages include Bhrigu, Ved Vyasa, Maya, Samhladini Vyaygini, Thumbru, Narada, Kinnara, Mithuna, Yaksha, Vidyadhara, Sanaka, Sanath Kumara, Surya and Chandra."

"In the Bhoga-Madhyama-Sthanak murthi, Thumburu, Narada, Yaksha and Vidyadhara should be absent"

"In the Bhoga-Adhama-Sthanaka murthi, the Sun and the Moon should be absent"

"The Veera-Adhama-Sthanaka murthi should be Syama in colour with four arms. The sankha and chakra should be exhibited. Brahma and Siva should be on the right and left sides. Similarly Bhrigu and Markandeya, Kishkinda and Sundara, Vyajaka, Sanaka, Sanath Kumara, the Sun and the Moon should be present." "In the Veera-Madhyama Sthanaka murthi, Kishkindha, Sundara, Sanaka and Sanath Kumara should be absent. In the Veer- Adhama-Sthanka murthi, Sun, the Moon and the sages should be absent."

"All the Abhicharika Sthanaka Murthis should have two or four arms. The colour of the murthi should be gray (Dhuma Varna-colour of smoke). The murthi should have dark lips, withered or dried up limbs, should exhibit thamoguna; should have eyes turned upwards. The Parivardevas, Brahma etc. should be absent. It should however be surrounded by paisachas or evil spirits, and should not have any auspicious qualities."

Self manifested murthi

There are stories in Puranas about the murthi being swayambhu, i.e. self-manifested. Let us see the gist of these stories in Sitapati's own words:

"...Lord Srinivasa manifested himself in a celestial vimanam on the Swami Pushkarni located on the Lord's Kridadri or Seshachalam and that this Kridadri or Venkatachalam was specially brought down to earth from Sri Vaikuntam, the Lord's abode. The manifestation was in the yuga of the Sweta Varaha Kalpa. In this age Brahma was the first to worship the Lord. The Lord then became as idol assuming the archavatara in Kaliyuga. This idol was discovered in an anthill by one Tondaiman with the assistance of one Rangadasa and was first worshipped by the sage Vaikhanasa ..." [Sitapati:15]

Shri Sitapati further observes:

"If the above claim that the Lord's image is a self manifested figure is accepted, the question of examining it from the standpoint of the Agamas and Silpasastras does not arise at all. It would however be interesting to study the Lord's image first and examine how far it conforms or differs from the standards of construction, excellence etc. laid down in the Agamas, particularly the Vaikhanasa Maricha Samhita."

Description of Lord's Image

Shri Sitapati then describes the image: [Sitapati: 16]

About height etc:

"...The Lord's image is in Sthanaka or standing pose. The Lord is standing on a high lotus pedestal. The height of the Lord has never been recorded, but cannot be less than nine feet from the tip of the 'mukutam' i.e., the crown to the bottom of the lotus pedestal as can be seen clearly on a Friday when 'abhishekam' is done after removing all the gold 'kavachas' etc. ornamenting this figure. The priest performing the worship, about five feet tall, standing on a stool two and a half feet high is not able to perform 'abhishekam' on the Lord's mukuta without assistance from a priest standing behind the idol. Keeping in view this fact and that the pedestal on which the Lord stands is itself below the floor in the sanctum sanctorium, the Lord stands is itself below the floor in the sanctum sanctorium, the Lord's figure from tip of the crown to the vase of the lotus pedestal, must measure between nine and ten feet".

About the beauty etc:

"The image is perfection personified, and it would not be incorrect to say is the most handsome and perfectly featured idol of India."

About the material etc:

"According to tradition, the idol is a manifestation of the Lord in Saligram Sila.... The idol of the Lord is liberally anointed frequently with civet or 'punugu' oil; this application of oil makes the idol dark in colour and does not enable us to make an accurate assessment of the material of the image. The material of the idol could be granite or the red igneous rock..."

About the eyes etc.:

"...The Lord's majestic beauty is best seen at the time of the Friday Abhishekam when the jewels and other paraphernalia do not cover our view of Him in His celestial glory. It is at this time that we see the eyes of the Lord in the 'sama drishti pose' showering divine grace... The eyes neither look up nor downwards, but straight into devotees' eyes (as laid down in Sukraniti)..."

About the face etc.:

"The face is beaming with joy and wears a smile. An aura of meditation and abundant love is the constant atmosphere around the Lord, wearing a mukuta or crown which is more than 20 inches high."

About the hair etc.:

"The Lord's figure is richly adorned with flowing locks of hair or jata juta and some of these locks of curly hair rest on his shoulders."

About the mouth and nose etc.:

"The nose is delicately carved and is neither prominent nor flat. The mouth of the Lord is also exquisitely shaped. According to Pratima Mana Lakshanam the mouth should be made slightly smiling, pleasant and possessed of all good signs. One should absolutely avoid the construction of the mouth which is passionate, impetuous, wrathful, sour, bitter, or circular. ... The chin and the ears are carved proportionately. The ears wear beautiful ear ornaments..."

About the body etc.:

"The chest of the Lord is magnificent in cut and size and should, if measured, be between 36 to 40 inches in width, while the waist would be between 24 to 27 inches. The neck is conch like and the body in the posture of a lion and exquisitely shaped. The belly is also beautifully modeled."

About the arms etc:

"The Lord's image has four arms, the upper two being carved to hold the chakram and the conch; the chakram and the conch are not integral parts of the main idol. The upper right arm holds the Sudarshana Chakra; the upper left arm holds the Panchajanya, ... The lower right hand of the Lord is in the Varada hasta pose, while the lower left hand is in the Katyavalambita pose. Actually the fingers of the left hand rest on the left thigh, with the thumb of the hand almost parallel to the waist line..."

About posture etc.:

"While the idol itself is not exactly standing in the tribhang pose, as in the case of Shri Rama idols, the near and below the waist has taken a slight tilt to the left and the knees themselves are bent and open slightly outwards, giving the idols peculiar grace and charm".

About Laxmi etc.:

"Mother Laxmi is carved on the right chest of the Lord in the sitting pose and is an integral part of the mula murthi."

About ornaments etc.:

"The yajnopavitam and a set of four necklaces or ornaments of the neck can also be clearly made out on the idol. The arms have armlets with finger-like projection which appear to be Nagabhushanams or Cobra ornaments. A cobra is also said to be coiled around the Lord's right arm. The figure is depicted as wearing a dhoti from the waist downwards, while the upper portion is not covered by any dress or vastram. The nipples of the Lord on his chest are button like and are prominent. There is however a katibandham or waistband and this waistband is about 2 inches thick."

About legs etc.:

"The legs and feet of the Lord are beautifully shaped, strong and lissome, As indicated earlier, both the knees are bent and open slightly outward, giving the stately figure charm and grace, that words cannot adequately describe. The feet are models of perfection and have ornaments near the anklets."

About bow marks etc.:

"The Lord's image has on the shoulders marks resembling 'scars made by the constant wearing of the bow and a pack of arrows'."

The Image resembles Bodhisattva Image

After describing the murthi, Shri Sitapati observes:

"The perfectly modelled image of the Lord is personified beauty and is indeed a Divya Manohara Murthi. The image bears some resemblance to the famous Bodhisattva Padmapani painting in cave I of the Ajanta Hills. Bodhisattva has of course only two arms; but if the Bodhisattva is shown with four arms and with his neck erect and his eyes in the Sama Drishti pose instead of the Avanita Drishti pose, the Bodhisattva would appear as if it is study of the Lord at Tirumalai." [Sitapati: 20 emphasis ours]

Shri Sitapati, however, hastily adds:

"The resemblance can only be ascribed to chance and no inference whatsoever can be made linking up the two."

He, of course, does not give any reasons why the two should not be linked, neither he explains why there is so much resemblance. We will have more to say about this later.

The Image does not conform to Vishnu Images

Sitapati further observes:

"We may now examine how far the image conforms to the yardsticks of construction, exhibition etc. laid down in the Maricha Samhita. The figure is syama in colour, and has four arms. It is not a Yoga-Sthanaka Vishnu, as the right hand according to Maricha Samhita has to be an Abhaya Hasta. In fact, the Lord only exhibits a Varada hasta and not an Abhaya Hasta. The other deities mentioned as essential for a Yoga sthanaka image are absent. The image is also not a Bhoga or Veera or an Abhicharika murthi as one or the other of the characteristics mentioned in the Maricha Samhita are not satisfied by the Murthi." [Sitapati:20]

Pre-Agamic Image of Different Class

Sitapati observes thus:

"One can therefore argue that the Lord's image is a super- agamic manifestation, that is, one that existed before the Agamas came into being. Another plausible argument is that the image is class by itself and not simple Vishnu image. It is one that combines in the Hari and Hara aspects of the Supreme Spirit." [Sitapati:20]

It should be noted that no rules can be framed in a vacuum. So when the Agamas described the norms, these were prescribed on the basis of Vishnu images in existence at the time of writing of Agamas. Age of Agamas is believed to be about 9th century, and the Vaikhanasa Agama is believed to be earlier one. T. A. Gopinath Rao observes:

"The prose recension of the Vaikhanasagma is perhaps the oldest among the Agamas of the Vaishnavas. The same work is also in verse; and this is distinctly of a later date. ... that the Vaikhanasagama, as it is in verse, is certainly not older than the 9th century A.D." [Rao: I,56]

Though the Agamas were written later on, this does not mean that artists sculpturing the Image of Lord of Tirumalai did not know that Vishnu images must have weapons. Because the Agamic rules were followed in Murthis older than Agamas. Rao observes:

"In the sculptures of Mahabalipuram and in other Dravidian rock cut shrines, including the famous Kailasa at Ellora, it is the Vaikhanasagama that appears to have been followed ..." [Rao: I,78]

He further observes:

"Thus it may be seen that the age of the Agamas and the Tantras is mainly between the 9th and the 12th centuries of the Christian era. But the descriptions of the images as contained in them may nevertheless, be older than this period. It is well to bear in mind that these descriptions were most probably not invented by the authors of the Agama works under consideration, but were collected from various authoritative sources. In proof of this, may be mentioned that Varahamihira who is known to have lived in the 6th century, gives descriptions of certain images and that his descriptions of certain images are not in any way different from those found in these later Agama works. The rules for the making of the images must have indeed been formulated at a much earlier time, and must have long remained unwritten..." [Rao: I,58]

The Lord of Vengadam does not fit in with any of the rules prescribed in Agamas. Therefore the possibility that the image was that of Vishnu can be ruled out on this basis alone. Because the compilers of Agamas would have taken into consideration, all the Vishnu images in existence, without any exception while prescribing the norms. At least, the absence of weapons in the Image, certainly, cannot be explained away by saying that the image is pre-Agamic. The Image existed and definitely would have been taken into consideration by compilers of Agamas, if it was considered to be a Vishnu Image at that time. However, the examination of Lord's Image from iconographical point discussed in Chapter 19.


We would recapitulate the important points in Shri Sitapati's Account.

*. 1. The weapons of the Lord in His upper two arms i.e. sankha and chakra are not integral parts of the murthi, showing that the original murthi was without weapons, and these were added later. These are made of gold, as per Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosh (Marathi) which observes: "Even today, the weapons in the hands of image are not original and placed in the Murthi's hands later on and are made of gold." [bhartiya sanskruti kosh, IV,117]

*. 2. The image resembles, in great detail, with the Bodhisattva Padmapani of Ajanta Cave No.1

*. 3. The murthi of Lord Venkatesvara does not conform with any of the different Vishnu murthis as discussed above.

*. 4. The image is of the period before the period of Agamas, and/or that it is class by its own,.

We will now proceed to see what was thought to be the nature of the murthi from time to by different people in further chapters.

Chapter 10          Chapter 12