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Lines of Fire, Lines of Water 

The Elements in áilpa¿¡stras


Bettina Baumer

In more than one culture the artistic creation is likened to, the creation of the universe, and the artist to the creator. This is all the more true in the context of sacred art, where the artist becomes an instrument of the cosmic creator and is identified with him (Vi¿vakarman, Praj¡pati, etc.).[i] But the physical and metaphysical creation, which is the prerogative of the creator, is in this "transformation of nature in art"[ii] transferred to a symbolical creation, where all the elements are present. The question is, how does this symbolical transference and identification happen, what are its means and what is the expression and end-product of such a process?

A symbol always partakes in the nature of the symbolized, without exhausting it. But the symbol has its own power, derived from the symbolized, and it acquires an inherent quality which remains valid and effective even out-side its original context. Unlike a conventional sign, a symbol has a certain universality.

This is all the more true in the case of the fundamental elements constituting the universe, which have a universal importance in all spheres of life and creativity, whether acknowledged or unconsciously assumed. It is clear that no artistic creation can take place without the involvement of the five fundamental elements, in one way or another. These are some basic assumptions which underly the texts dealing with the creation of the temple and of images, the áilpa¿¡stras. Many of these assumptions are so much understood by the living tradition in which these texts have grown, that more often than not they did not even find it necessary to express or explain these ideas. The cosmogony and cosmology of the Vedas, Pur¡¸as and Ëgamas formed the general background and fertile soil on which the arts could grow.

This is the reason why the áilpa texts, when they speak of these connections, are extremely brief. They could rely on the living cosmology. This is no longer true today, when the intellectual and artistic activities have been alienated, have been alienated, if not divorced, from a cosmology which has supported the life and thought of traditional people.

Some of the áilpa¿¡stras dealing with temple-architecture and image-making, dating from different periods and different regions of India, have thrown some light on the symbolic relationship between the cosmic elements and the creation of art. Though sometimes extremely brief, these texts contain important hints which can be developed and applied. Historical and stylistic questions do not have much importance in the context of our present inquiry. But generally the texts referred to date at least from the ninth century up to the early seventeenth century. This range only indicates a time-span, which could be extended in both directions, as long as a certain traditional cosmology was valid and accepted. Instead of following a historical sequence, we will follow a thematic and symbolical development, starting from simple geometrical components and ending with the temple-structure.

1. The first and simplest element given to the artist - he may be a painter, sculptor or architect - is the line. It is only from the point and the line that two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms can be created. So far I have only found one ¿ilpa text which is astonishingly conscious of the importance and symbolism of the line (rekh¡), that is the V¡stus£tra UpaniÀad (VSU).[iii] The artist is called the one "who has the knowledge of circle and line". (S£tra, I.4)

What is developed here is a complex and yet clear symbolism of the fundamental lines constituting a, diagram (paµjara) which serves as a compositional framework for an image or panel. The line is here called "the support of the composition (rekh¡ny¡sasy¡dh¡raÅ), it is like a flow. It corresponds to the elements (adhibh£ta) and to the divinities (adhidaiva)." (I.8) The first line to be drawn on the stone surface is a circle which represents the universe (vi¿va) and fullness (p£r¸a, II.6-7), and whose centre point (bindu or marman) is its life-breath and firm support. Then the artists "divide the circle by the line, just as the creators by their action divide the world." (II.9) Creation has to do with differentiation, otherwise it remains an unordered chaos (salila in the Veda), and the lines serve to differentiate the undivided totality. But they are not neutral geometrical entities, they have a symbolical value expressing their dynamic nature.

Straight lines are like rays of light (tejas, II.9), moving in all directions. Again, each direction has its own inherent quality, which is identified with one of the elements, according to their quality. The reason is as the text says: "As in the creation of the world arise the five great elements, similarly with the circle as support the artists conceive and dispose the features of beings and elements (on the panel)." (II.10)

The two central lines are the vertical, called agnirekh¡, fire-line, and the.horizontal, called aprekh¡, water-line. The nature of fire consists in rising up-ward

vertically,  and the nature water in creating a horizontal surface, or flowing as in a great river. (II.21) The diagonal lines have the nature of wind, expressing movement and dynamism, and even aggressiveness.[iv] The element earth is represented by a square or rhombus (kar¸ikakÀetra) inscribed inside the circle symbolizing the universe. The element ¡k¡¿a is obviously invisible and all-pervading, and hence not represented by a particular line or form. It is rather within ¡k¡¿a that all these forms emerge.  

As in the cosmic creation, the elements are not isolated, but are in constant interaction. The V¡stus£tra UpaniÀad in its laconic way describes two of these interactions: One is the contact of water and wind, represented by the horizontal and diagonal lines: "As from the contact of water and wind, foam arises, again in the foam bubbles arise, thus when the square is joined with the diagonals that relief-field becomes active." (II.12) The diagonal line without contrast to the horizontal does not manifest its dynamism, just as wind alone remains invisible, unless it comes in touch with another element, such as water, creating waves etc., and of course fire (not mentioned in the text), making the flame move in other directions than its natural uprising verticality. The basis for it all is the earth - the rhombus which is divided into four continents by the cross of the central vertical and horizontal.

The two most opposite and mutually exclusive elements are fire and water, whose complementarily has played an important role in Vedic cosmology and ritual, and in Ëgamic-T¡ntric ritual and Yoga (in the form of the pair agni-soma). We cannot enter here into this rich symbolism which could almost serve as a leitmotif for the continuity of Vedic and Ëgamic cosmology and spirituality. The dynamism of creation is only possible when these two elements meet, and the integration of Yoga equally.

Not only the vertical and horizontal lines represent fire and water, but also their geometrical extensions: the triangle with its apex above is fire, the triangle with apex below is water. The combination and intimate union of both is the hexagram, an essential element of all ma¸·alas and yantras.

When both (the fire and water-triangle) are conjoined arises the state of union. Those who realize this become perfected. This is the state of awakening. By the joining of Fire and Water (man) becomes divine, which the priests know as Supreme Delight (maha-cchandas, chandas also meaning metre). (II.16)

In the words of Alice Boner: "On the cosmic plane Fire and Water stand at opposite ends. They are eternally conflicting, irreconcilable mutually destructive elements. And yet it is precisely the union of these opposites which makes man transcend the limitations of earthly life."[v]

To complete the whole symbolism of the fundamental diagram (see figure), the central point (bindu or marman) is called "the life-breath of the earth" (rus¡y¡Å pr¡¸aÅ, II.14). As in the symbolism of the lines identified with the elements, this also indicates that the diagram, and of course the image which is carved on its basis, is enlivened from within, that it is not dead matter but a living entity. As the cosmos consisting of a combination of the five elements is enlivened by the breath-of-life (pr¡¸a), so is the image-panel which represents the divine beings. It is thus clear that there is a correspondence and symbolical parallelism between cosmos and image, as well as cosmos and abstract diagram.

The V¡stus£tra UpaniÀad then relates the qualities gained from the elemental lines to the mood or expression (bh¡va) of the represented image. The text is too short here to be fully developed, but the basic ideas can be used in the interpretation of images. The general result of the combination of these lines with the images is this: "By a harmonious form a meditative mood is induced." (S£tra, II.22) To give only two straight-forward examples: The image of ViÀ¸u áeÀa¿¡y¢ is based on the horizontal water-line, and it represents the world-ocean with the serpent Ananta in ondulating forms, and ViÀ¸u reclining on Ananta. The whole stress on horizontality gives an impression of the watery element with a movement like the one described as the waves created by the contact with wind.

On the other hand, any image of Visnu Trivikrama or of another deity engaged in a fight against demons, has a stress on the diagonals and contains the whole energetic dynamism of the wind-element.[vi] We need not elaborate this application here, but it is necessary to mention it, to show the connection between cosmic elements and their symbolism, abstract lines and two-dimensional forms, and the image or panel. One S£tra sums up the relationship between the lines and image:

When the limbs in the panel adhere to the lines they become harmonious.

Comm.: On vertical lines erect limbs, on horizontal lines restful and quiet limbs, on diagonal lines limbs showing movement. Setting them in this way the images attract the mind. (IV.28)

In the context of the parts of the composition of a panel, the V¡stus£tra UpaniÀad again goes back to the creation:

All these gods and the five great elements earth, wind, ether, water and fire have been created by Praj¡pati. According to the knowledge of these elements the respective qualities of the forms em-bodying the sentiment (bh¡var£pa) are shown. (VI.21)

The attendant divinities or áaktis have the nature of the elements, like Varu¸a's flowing áakti represents Water, ViÀ¸u's áakti of enduring is the earth, etc. "Sacrificial, cosmic and human elements have to be combined in order to achieve the object of sacred art: bringing man in harmony with the cosmos and with the gods and thus making him attain his goal, which is ultimately mokÀa, liberation."[vii]

The cosmic elements, though not all the five mah¡bh£tas, also play a role in the making of a standing image, where parts of its body are equated with certain elements. Here the feet are called the "earth-part" (p¡rthiv¡¸ga, IV.19) and the divinity governing the same part in the Y£pa is bh£midevat¡, obviously because it is this part by which the Y£pa and the image are firmly established on the earth (cf. IV.13). The top-part or head is assigned to Savit¤, and it is called the light-part (jyotira´ga, IV.14). This description appears to be simple, but it contains the whole symbolism expressed in á£tra, IV.17: "The PuruÀa (Man) is like the pillar (of the universe)." The upright form of the Y£pa, of the standing man and of the erect figure connects, so to say, earth and heaven, heaviness and solidity with light and open space (¡k¡¿a as the sphere of light).

2. Besides the process of image-making with its constitutive lines and diagrams, it is the temple itself which is identified with the cosmos. Like the Îgvedic PuruÀa, the temple is the cosmos with all its elements and it also transcends it.[viii] M.A. Dhaky, in his article "Pr¡s¡da as Cosmos", quotes two texts, one from the Agni Pur¡¸a, and the other from the V¡stu¿¡stra of Vi¿vakarman. Both texts assign different parts of the temple to various deities and cosmic elements, in a ritual context. The Agni Pur¡¸a conceives the whole temple which is pervaded by áiva to consist of all the tattvas,  and considering it as a microcosm (brahm¡¸·akam, V.20), it places the five elements in the wall-portion, "acting as they do as the latter"s physical wrappings."[ix] Here only the general conception is visible but not a detailed identification of elements of the temple with elements of the cosmos.

In the case of the V¡stu¿¡stra of Vi¿vakarman, the most obvious identification is the placement of the earth-element in the khuraka (the lowest moulding of the vedibandha). The next moulding is kumbhaka and it is made to be pervaded by s¤Àti here, it must be connected with the water-element, because of the very shape of kumbhaka, a water-pot. Leaving aside other parts which are connected with various deities, the text says: "Let Mountains descend in the pillars and the Sky pervade the karo¶aka (i.e., the central ceiling of the ma¸·apa hall)."[x] Dhaky comments on this: "The wish to make Meru descend in the wall's ja´gh¡ and again for Mountains to dwell in the hall-columns is prompted for lending firmness to the wall for bearing the enormous weight of the superincumbent ¿ikhara spire in the first case and of the pyramidal roof in the second. Since the vit¡na (ceiling), as one beholds it from within the hall, is the metaphorical sky of the hall, the Sky (¡k¡¿a) is bidden to pervade the ceiling." (art. cit., p. 218-19). We find thus the two ends of the five mah¡bh£tas in their logical position, p¤thiv¢ at the base and ¡k¡¿a as the inner space of the vault representing the vault of the sky.

I have quoted this material presented by Prof. Dhaky in order to show how the same general conception of the temple as cosmos is pervasive in space and time: from western to eastern India, and through a span of six or seven centuries.

An unpublished áilpa text from Orissa, the áilparatnako¿a (which is dated 1620 A.D.), gives a more complete symbolical identification of elements of the cosmos with elements of the temple.[xi]

First of all the ascending order of the temple follows the three gu¸as: tamas is related with the heaviness of the earth-part below, rajas with its multiplicity of forms and figures in the middle, and sattva which is light and lightness at the top (cf. V.7). The base-mouldings of Orissan temples consist of five mouldings and they are hence called paµcakarma. In the identification of the temple with the puruÀa or human form, these are compared to the five toes of the foot. In the cosmic conception of the temple paµcakarma is identified with the five elements.

84. The khura (i.e., the hoof-shaped lowest part of the base) is the great earth, according to the element earth tattva.


As the world is created from the five elements, thus the temple is conceived.


85. Above that is the part of the kumbha, of equal height of the khura.

The kumbha represents the element water, and it always bestows



These two parts correspond to the description in the V¡stu¿¡stra of Vi¿vakarman. The third part of the paµcakarma is a band, pa¶¶a, which is equated with the fire element. (V.92) There is no symbolical similarity between the two, but the simple development of the sequence of elements. The fourth moulding is a sharp edge, "ka¸i, which should be shown as if blown by the wind (v¡yu)". (V.94) As we have seen in the symbolism of the lines of the paµjara, the only way of showing the dynamism of wind in a static form or structure is the use of the oblique line. The ka¸i is formed by two oblique lines and it projects out, this is the only symbolic connection with the wind element.

Obviously the top-most part of the paµcakarma, the decorated vasanta pa¶¶a, is the symbol of the element ¡k¡¿a. (V.101) Here again there is not much of a symbolical similarity between vasanta and ¡k¡¿a, except that it is the highest of the five elements. The point of similarity lies in the total conception: As the five elements form the basis of creation, so the paµcakarma is the base of the temple. The proliferation of vegetal forms above the paµcakarma, on the wall-part, is explained keeping this conception in mind:

111-112. Many types of creepers should be made on the lat¡j¡´gha.

             Just as in the beginning trees (and plants) were created out of the five elements

             thus on the ¿ikhara  j¡´gha creepers and trees are pleasing.

The symbolism is clear: Out of the primordial simplicity of the five elements the forms of nature and the rich superstructure of the ¿ikhara grow. Without the basis of the five elements neither natural nor artistic growth would be possible, nor spiritual fulfillment which is the ultimate aim of image-making and temple architecture.

Even the few hints given by the áilpa¿¡stras are enough to reveal a whole symbolic interconnectedness between cosmos, man and the Divine.

Artistic creation, just like cosmic creation, means ordering an otherwise chaotic material. The original chaos, in India as well as in other cultures, has always been understood in terms of the undifferentiated waters. It has long been recognized that the lotus petals surrounding the plinth of temples and even houses signify the emergence of the temple from the primeval ocean, the solid and ordered structure resting on the cosmic chaos. Here many cosmogonic myths could be interpreted in relation to the creation of art by means of the elements: the myth of samudramanthana, and the theriomorphic avat¡ras of ViÀ¸u. By way of example we may liken the artist to Var¡ha avat¡ra: He dives deep in the chaotic mass of the primeval waters to resurrect bh£mi, the Earth described as a beautiful goddess. It is She who provides a solid ground and a structured wholeness. What is expressed in the language of myth finds a symbolical expression in the grammar of form, in the lines, geometrical shapes and in the temple structure. In every case the cosmic elements are the ground and building blocks of the creation of art.

[i]      Cf. Bettiua Baumer, "The Divine Artist", In: The Indian Theosophist, Jaideva Singh Felicitation Number; 1985, Vol. 82.

[ii]     Cf. the book by A.K. Coomaraswamy with this title.

[iii]    V¡stus£tra UpaniÀad, The Essence of Form in Sacred Art, ed. and transl. by Alice Boner, S.R. Sarma and Bettina Baumer, Delhi (Motilal Banarsidass), 1982 (reprint 1986).

[iv]    In the Atharvaveda wind or breath is said to move transversely: pr¡¸ena tirya´ pr¡¸ati, X.8.19.

[v]     Introduction to VSU, p. 14.

[vi]    See Alice Boner's analyses in: Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture, Cave Temple Period, Delhi (Motilal Banarsidass) 1990

[vii]   A. Boner, Introduction to VSU, p. 12.

[viii]   Cf. M.A. Dhaky, 'Pr¡s¡da as Cosmos', In: The Adyar Library Bulletin, Vol. XXXV. arts 3-4, 1971, pp. 211-26.

[ix]    Dhaky, art. cit., p. 220.

[x]     stambheÀu parvat¡Å prokt¡ ¡k¡¿a¿ca karo¶ake, V.10.

[xi]       áilparatnako¿a. A Glossary of Orissan Temple Architecture, ed. and transl. by Bettina Baumer and Rajendra Prasad Das, Delhi (IGNCA and Motilal Banarsidass), 1994.


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