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February - March 2009


Symbolism in India’ s famous icons

by Anil Mehta

In Indian art especially the ancient sculpture, nothing exists for its own sake. Hindu gods and goddesses are often portrayed in various poses that convey a symbolic meaning in every stance and gesture. The best known artistic representation of divine powers of god is that of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance – one of the most recognisable icons. It shows the four-armed Shiva gracefully performing the cosmic dance (tandava nritya) within a ring of fire. The image is significant as both a religious icon and work of art.

The symbolism in Nataraja image is endless. It depicts Shiva performing the dance through which the cosmos (universe) is cyclically created, maintained, and destroyed. In his upper right hand he holds a small two-sided drum (damaru) whose rhythmic beat signals creation while a flame in his left hand signals destruction. The lower left hand points gracefully downwards to his raised foot which signifies salvation i.e. beneath it the devotee may take refuge, while the lower right hand is held in the gesture of reassurance (abhayamudra) and blessings. With his right foot Shiva crushes Apasmara, a demon dwarf personifying ignorance and illusion (maya).

Nestling with Shiva’s hair is a tiny crescent moon – a symbol of the passage of time, and a small figure of the Goddess Ganga whom he receives on his hair during her descent to earth. The whole figure is encircled by a ring of flames showing the extinction of the cosmos as well as the god’s destructive power. In this image, the dynamism of the dancing Shiva with his flying waistband and wildly flowing hair contrasts sharply with the calm of his face and the hand raised in blessing. This truly reflects his contrasting attributes (creator and destroyer, calm and furious) as a god.

Nataraja has long been patronised by Chola kings (9th to 13th centuries) of Tamil Nadu in South India, and was frequently portrayed in sculptures (Chola bronzes) during their reign. As a work of art the Nataraja image is unparalleled in its composition, beauty, and grace, but as a religious icon, Nataraja to his devotees remains the supreme god of creation, preservation, and annihilation.

Lion Capital of Sarnath: After blood-soaked conquest of Kalinga (present day Orissa), where thousands lost their lives, Emperor Asoka one of India’s greatest rulers (reigned 268 – 232 BC) gave up violence and became a great patron of Buddhism. He inscribed his edicts on rocks and pillars all over his vast empire, prescribing rules for good government, and righteous living. Often these pillars were topped by magnificent sculpture, the most famous of which the four-lion Capital of Sarnath, now serves as the official emblem of the Republic of India.

The seven feet high and superbly executed in polished sandstone, the Sarnath (or lion) Capital is composed of three diverse units. A fluted bell-shaped lower portion supports a circular abacus on which four animals move around in clockwise fashion interrupted by 24-spoked small wheels – all beautifully carved in shallow relief. On the abacus sit four magnificent lions back to back. All sculptured work is done with remarkable clarity. The lions at one time supported an enormous stone wheel (Wheel of Law – dharma chakra) on their heads, which has long since disappeared.

Like Nataraja, Lion Capital is not without symbolism. In Buddhist context the wheel on the sculpture refers to the Wheel of Law. Buddha first preached the doctrine of dharma at Sarnath and thus put the wheel in motion. The four animals on the abacus, an elephant, bull, horse, and a lion symbolise four quarters of the world. They are also thought to refer stages of Buddha’s life – conception, desire, departure from home, and attainment of Buddhahood. The representation of animals also reminds us of the respect with which Buddhism treated them.

The Buddha was a lion among the spiritual teachers and his sermon prevailed to all the four corners of the world. This is symbolised in four roaring lions facing four cardinal directions proclaiming the might of Buddhism. A wheel (now missing) on top of lions’ heads signified Buddhist doctrine (dharma), which must be continuously turned to keep the faith alive.

Ashoka’s Lion Capital carries a profound symbolic significance and it is most appropriate that India has selected this famous icon as its emblem. The Lion Capital itself is now preserved in the museum at Sarnath (UP).

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