THE AGAMIC TRADITION AND THE ARTS
Lines of Fire, Lines of Water
The Elements in áilpa¿¡stras
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,
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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]
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.
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.
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:
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)
the context of the parts of the composition of a panel, the V¡stus£tra
UpaniÀad again goes back to the creation:
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
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,
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
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
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).
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
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.
the case of the V¡stu¿¡stra
of Vi¿vakarman, the most obvious identification
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.
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]
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.
The khura (i.e., the
hoof-shaped lowest part of the base) is the
great earth, according to the element earth tattva.
the world is created from the five elements, thus the temple is
85. Above that is the part of the kumbha, of equal height of the khura.
kumbha represents the
element water, and it always bestows
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.
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:
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.
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
the few hints given by the áilpa¿¡stras
are enough to reveal a whole symbolic interconnectedness between
cosmos, man and the Divine.
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.
Cf. Bettiua Baumer, "The Divine Artist", In: The
Indian Theosophist, Jaideva Singh Felicitation Number; 1985,
Cf. the book by A.K. Coomaraswamy with this title.
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,
[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.,
parvat¡Å prokt¡ ¡k¡¿a¿ca karo¶ake,
[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.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi