Home > Cultural Informatics > Visvarupa > The Visvarupa Iconographic Traditions > Book on Visvarupa by Prof. T. S. Maxwell


Chapter 1



The god wears solid, plain bracelets and a short necklace to which are attached small pendant loops. The ears are pierced and elongated, the lobes touching the shoulders. The eyes are shown bulging between the somewhat pouch-like upper and layer lids, below the steeply arched, incised brows. A vertical third eye extends from the top of the nose to the hairline. It should be pointed out here that even at this stage the extra eye-whether vertical or horizontal, as in our Sculpture 8 (plate 24)-is not represented in the same manner as the natural eyes: it is shown as a symbolic attribute rather than as a displaced facial feature. Neither this, nor the multiplicity of heads, can be Seen as disfigurement, for these features are assembled in when such iconographic groupings are lent a semblance of realism, such as an extra head growing upon its own neck see Plates 23, 28), that they Can in fact appear unnatural. The hair is arranged in a neatly combed jaṭābhāra, the tresses sweeping round the sides of the head and over the tops of the ears with a bouffant topknot held in place by a thin hand. There is no śiraścakra.

Almost touching the shoulders on either side, a smaller fact appears, looking outward at an angle of about forty-five degrees from the direction faced by the principal head (Aa), as in my coding of previously discussed multi-headed images, from behind which it emerges. These faces are so deeply ensconced behind the central head that their ears are not presented being 'concealed' behind those of the natural face. Their feature; and hair-styles differ from each other and from those of the face of the main figure. That to the proper right (Ab) is either smiling or grimacing-the modelling is, as I have noted, crude-has no third eye, and is surmounted by a shock of wide, stiff tresses of hair combed vertically. The proper left face (Ac) has been damaged, hut seems to have been modelled originally rather more delicately than (Ab); the hair is parted in the middle, where it is combed forward, before curving horizontally around the head. The arrangement and character of the heads is thus derived from Kuṣāṇa sculptures of Type C, in particular from our Sculpture 8 (Plate 24).

The head, shoulders and two arms of a diminutive figure (B) rise from behind the top of head (Aa). The chin of This figure appears to rest upon the topknot of (Aa), slightly off-centre, while the arms are stretched out with the elbows resting upon the side-heads (Ab) and (Ac), forearms raised. The right hand holds up a circular object which has incised radial lines around the edge; a similar object is held in the left hand, in this case with a sliver of the disc marked around the lower are of the circle. (B)'s face is curiously square, flanked by rectangular ear-pendants, while the hair is long, combed hack from the brow hut spreading out on either side to reach the raised upper arms. This long-haired head overlaps the right arm of the horizontal flying figure which marks the upper margin of the composition.

On the basis of its place among the group of terracotta from Rang Mahal, which 'may he called pre-Gupta or transition', Harle considers this plaque to date, probably, from 'the third or fourth century A.D.'244 With such a date, and the Kuṣāṇa - Gupta style in which it is moulded, the image occupies a unique and pivotal position in the development of multi-headedness in brahmanical iconography.

 I have already remarked upon the well balanced and complete composition of this icon (compared. for example. to the Musānagar pillar panel, Sculpture 5. Plate 17) and the elements of it are important with regard to my interpretation; but in accordance with the essential purpose of this study. I shall concentrate first upon the details of the principal deity. Of the iconography of this multiple god, Harle 245observes: 'He thus belongs to a class of images with heads or figures emanating from them, the earliest of which is the Indra(?) of the Kuṣāṇa  period from  Mathura (Mathura Museum, No. 14.392-5).'This 'Indra(?)' is the image which I have discussed (our Sculpture 3) as a Caturvyūha icon. Harle's observation had been made previously, and set out in more detail, by R. C. Agrawala,246 who first noticed the iconographical connection between the structure of the Rang Mahal image and that of several Kuṣāṇa sculptures which have been examined in detail above (nos. 3,4,5 and 8).

I shall now examine these connections more closely, in an attempt to determine the precise features which characterize the iconographical transition from multiple images of Types A, B and C to multi-headed icons in the classical Gupta style. The most similar earlier sculpture is the stone pillar panel at Musānagar containing a relief of Śiva as Pradhānapuruṣeśvara (Sculpture 5). In both compositions the god is ithyphallic, but the naked, curved phallus of the Musānagar image is in the Rang Mahal icon enveloped in the lower garment and straight. Both figures are also seated above an animal; but while the earlier image appears in an ardhaparyaṅka posture-one foot being lowered-above a lion, the later deity has both feet raised and ankles crossed in a rather relaxed version of a yogic position, above a bull. The pot held by the left hand and the right raised in a type of abhayamudrā is common to both icons, as is the fact that both are two-armed. In the Musānagar panel, the seated god appears to be projecting a smaller figure from each shoulder, while in the later terracotta only heads emerge from behind the central face. This face of the main figure is crowned with a crested turban in the earlier panel, but has no headdress in the later one, the hair being shown carefully combed and tied in a jaṭābhāra. By far the most striking similarity between the two icons is the apical figure (referred to as D) in my discussion of the Musānagar panel, and as (B) in the present discussion) which is almost identical in both icons, as R. C. Agrawala has noted.247 The long, spreading hair, the positions of the arms, the hand-held objects and even the square fare appearing immediately) above the crown or jaṭā of figure (A)--all these features are shared by the emergent apical aspect of the main deity in both compositions, with remarkably little variation between them.

So parallel in conception are these two icons that it may be more instructive to summarise their differences than their similarities. There are only three major points of difference which are apparent with regard to the idea of the god which lies behind the two representations: (i) the vāhana-lion versus bull: (ii) the crown versus the jaṭābhāra; and (iii) emergent side-figures (B) and (C) versus side-heads (Ab) and (Ac). All three differences in the Rang Mahal terracotta may be regarded as iconographical advances, as Śiva in later iconography always has the bull. Nandin, as his vāhana when it is shown; he also appears usually with the jaṭābhāra, although it may be encircled by a crown or tiara; and the multiple rather of Śiva is later most often symbolized by multiple heads rather than by multiple conjoined figures.

There are two main areas in which an advance is not evident: retention of the apical emergent figure, and the continued restriction of the number of arms with the consequent limitation to two hand-held symbols. Of these two archaisms, the former cannot be considered a substitute for the latter: that is, a conjoined figure hearing two symbols is not, in a third-to-fourth century icon, the conventional method by which an image of a god would he enabled to hold four, symbols. The four-armed god had already been invented. This is evident in the Kuṣāṇa sculptures of Viṣṇu from Mathura; moreover, in the Caturvyūha icon (Plate l0), the Vāsudeva image which has both apical and obliquely emanating figures who themselves hold additional symbols. is four-armed. One may assume, therefore, that figure (B) in the Rang Mahal terracotta image is a distinct aspect of the main god, wielding its own identificatory emblems-an aspect having mow autonomy and perhaps greater ritual status in its own right than those represented as mere brads flanking that of the main deity, Which are thus deprived of personal symbols of power. Only their identificatory hair-styles remain. In this respect, the apical figure is perhaps akin to the vyūha figures conjoined with Vāsudeva in the Caturvyūha image: there is evidence that these kinsmen of Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva were worshipped separately before their integration as symbols of evolutionary phases in the Pāṅcarātra version of the cosmogony.248

The only icon examined thus far in which the heads, as well as the emergent apical figure, are treated iris manner similar to that of the Rang Mahal terracotta image is the unidentified Kuṣāṇa sculpture at Mathura (Plate 24). In both cases the side-heads are smaller than the central lace and arc directed outward at an angle of about forty-five degrees from it. In neither image is any attempt at anatomical connection between the side-heads and the body of the main deity apparent.

A small, but perhaps significant difference, however, is to be noted in the treatment of the ear of each side-head. In the Mathura sculpture, each of the flanking heads has this ear represented clearly; in the Rang Mahal terracotta, the ear is omitted, being regarded as hidden behind those of the central face. This was a problem in the representation of multiple heads which was never fully resolved by Indian sculptors: the same two methods are continued throughout the later periods, though with a general tendency to conceal the ears of the side-heads in the manner adopted by the maker of the Rang Mahal terracotta. The concealment technique in the latter icon may thus be seen as something of a stylistic advance, but by no means as a final, fixed formula for solving this irksome little problem of representation.

There is one iconographical similarity between the two images which deserves particular attention. Each of the side-heads of the Mathura sculpture seems to have had a third eye upon the forehead, as those of the Rang Mahal terracotta have not, but the principal identificatory features of these heads-their hair styles-are remarkably close in the two icons. I have described the proper right side-head of the Mathura image as wearing 'a narrow crown or coronet composed, apparently, of rosettes or upward-pointing leaves seemingly held in place by a band with vertically incised lines'; whether this feature was originally intended to represent a headdress or a hair style, it is to a certain extent paralleled in the Rang Mahal image by what I have described as 'a shock of wide, stiff tresses of hair combed vertically' surmounting the proper right head. When the proper left side-heads of the two images are compared, the parallelism becomes more apparent: that of the Mathura sculpture, although damaged, gives a distinct impression of having its hair parted in the middle, and the central parting is clearly shown in the hair of the corresponding head of the Rang Mahal deity. Although stylistically quite different, these iconographical similarities between the side-heads of the two images suggest that the extra faces are subsidiary aspects of a particular god-concept which had in this respect remained unchanged from the Kuṣāṇa phase at Mathura to the transitional phase at Rang Mahal: namely that the god is to be regarded as a potential Creator, projecting the basic male-female duality of existence. In this later image, Pārvatī appears to his left as the śakti which stimulates this projection: the all-male creation is seen here as an outmoded concept. The apical figure now resembles that of the Musānagar relief (as Kāla-Rudra), not the pore tapasvin aspect of the Creator encircled by a blazing disc; the god, seated and ithyphallic, now assumes that aspect himself, though without a nimbus. The Rang Mahal god thus appears largely to represent a coalescence of the concepts embodied in Sculptures 5 and 8.

A fragment of a pink sandstone sculpture in the round (Plates 31 and 32), which has only recently come to light,249 provides a remarkable insight into the origin of the Brahmā image as it became standardized very soon after its making. The fragment is dated to the fourth century A.D.,250 it appears to be of early Gupta style, but its iconography seems to me  transitional, between that of the fragmentary Kuṣāṇa Brahmā (Plate 27) and more conventional representations of the god, and hence more explanatory of how the Brahmā icon was developed. Pal thinks that 'it may be from northern Rajasthan or even from Haryana:'251 the same area as that in which the Rang Mahal terracotta was made probably less than a century earlier. From the front, the image appears as a two-armed bust, devoid of any ornament, with three identical heads, all the same size; they have exactly the same jaṭā arrangement of the hair, which is combed upward against the skull before curving over in a roll above a twisted band, possibly also of strands of hair. A long pointed beard, also carefully combed, hangs smoothly upon the chest of the main figure, and there is no evidence to suggest that the beards of the side-faces were different. The cars of each head are plainly visible (compare the Kuṣāṇa Brahmā), elongated and pierced but not ornamented. The eyes are slightly closed between pouched lids and the lips form a delicate smile, the corners of the mouth drawn outward into rounded cheeks. As the faces are clean-shaven, the beard hangs from the jawline, so hiding the necks of all three heads: an artistically effective method of avoiding any suggestion of monstrosity. The side-heads present perfect profiles when seen from the front, suggesting that they face sideways at right-angles to the central head; from the rear, however, they are seen to be turned at a forty-five degree angle toward the front, so disassociating themselves from the sculpture on the back (Plate 32). This is iconographically most effective, leaving the rear tact isolated, though, it necessitates compression of the side-faces.

The face at the back is similar, though squarer in outline, and the beard is shorter and curved, as if the wearer had just given it a slight anti-clockwise twist with the right hand. Although the jaṭābhāra is more elaborate, consisting of a series of intertwined loops, the hairline is more crudely cut than that of the three front faces; there is a suggestion of less care having been taken in the carving of this face as a whole, which may I think have been deliberate. The truly remarkable feature of the rear of this sculpture is that this head surmounts a torso, also too-armed, which presents its back to the observer; the head is thus to be seen as turned through one hundred and eighty degrees upon its (invisible) neck. Not only is there a vertical depression bisecting this torso, suggesting the place of the spine, but yajṅopavīta (absent from the front torso) curves over the left shoulder and across to the right; clearly demonstrating that the body of this war single-headed image is turned towards the front.

There can be little doubt that the front view of this sculpture presents the 'ideal image' of the god: while the rear, with its slightly downcast, rough-cut face, shorter and more twisted heard and convoluted hairstyle, is far from god-like, especially growing upon a torso which has its hack turned. Pal regards this sculpture as representing 'two addorsed bodies.'252  Addorsement is clearly not possible. Nor do I agree that two bodies are intended to be seen: the front and back of the image represent: in my view, two aspects of the same body, the front that of the god Brahmā the back that of his priest, the brāhmaṇa. As there are no fracture marks on front or back, the arms were presumably extended, and so all four would have been visible from the front, one pair belonging to the god, the other to the man whose face is on the rear, thus presenting a conventional four-armed appearance: it seems likely that the rear pair of arms would have been held toward the front.

There is no doubt that this 'extraordinary four-headed bust must represent Brahmaā',253 hut Pal fails to see the implications of the head on the reverse, which is placed on the back of a (human) body. This head is more roughly delineated than the front three because, in my view, it represents the law of an historical-or legendary - personage of less than divine status. No definite identification is possible, hut turning again to the Upaniṣads (as perhaps the designers of this image were forced to do. there being no extant evidence of precise śilpaśāstra material in the fourth century concerning Brahma images) and in particular to the Muṇḍaka, which opens with the words:

First of the Gods did Brahmā come to be,

Maker of all, protector of the world:

To his eldest son, Atharvan, he made known

The science of Brahman, of all sciences the base.

This science of Brahman, which Brahmā to Atharvan had proclaimed,

Atharvan to Angir passed on;

[And] he to Bhāradvāja Satyavāha made it known,

who [passed it on] to Angiras in its higher and lower form.


It is subsequently made clear that through brahmavidyā, the 'Imperishable Real, the Person' (akṣaraṃ puruṣam ... satyam, I .2.13) may be known, and that, among other things, the ṛcaḥ, sāmāni and yajūṃṣi come from that puruṣa (2.1.6).

Moreover, the Brahman is threefold, as set out in the Maitrī:

[The syllable] Oṃ (i.e. A + U + M) is the sound-form of this [self]

Female, male and neuter: this is his sex[form].

Fire, wind and sun: this is his highest light[-form].

Brahmā, Rudra and Vishnu: this is his [form of] sovereignty.

The householder's fire, the fire for the ancestors and the fire for the gods: this is his mouth[-form].

Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda and Sāma-Veda: this is his knowledge [-form]


Apart from the embarrassing appearance of Brahmā himself as one of the triads in the latter text, it seems clear that the ṛṣi Aṅgiras was the inheritor of brahmavidyā from Brahmā himself, and that the Ṛk, Sāman and Yajus hymns were a part of that science or teaching, among other groups of three. This suggests that the face at the hack of the three-headed Brahmā image may very well represent Aṅgiras, or the sage as a brāhman-priest, teaching the ātharvaṇa or knowledge of the Atharvaveda as the fourth Veda, the three front faces representing the original three Vedas which the atharvan priest perpetuates. In the epics, Brahmā is simply described as four-headed or four-faced; in this sculpture an attempted explanation for this form is given namely that the god is the embodiment of the trayī-vidyā and the brāhman-priest with his sacred thread is the human inheritor and perpetuator of it.

244 Harle, Gupta Sculpture, p.30.

245 Ibid., p.54.

246 R.C. Agrawala, 'Kuṣāṇa Sculpture'.

247 Ibid.

248 For a summary of the epigraphical evidence, see Banerjea, Hindu Iconography, pp.10,90-5;also pp. 104 and 386.

249 It appeared at Spink, London, provenance unknown; first published by P. Pal, Art International XXIV.5-6, January-February 1981,pp. 49-52 and figs.27 and 28.

250 Ibid., p. 50.

251 Ibid., p.p. 52

252 Ibid.,p.49.

253 Ibid.,p.50

254 Translation of Zaehner, as before, and in following extracts.

TABLE 1.2. Structural Designs and Motifs in 

Kuṣāṇa/Gupta Multiple Icons of Types C and (continued)


Source No. Definition Symbolical Function Archaeological Examples


In an image preserve Source no.3B:

A disembodies head on either side

of the 'natural' head

Projection from a demiurge of basic male-female polarity

Mathura proto-(?)Śiva (Sculpture8)


both of which are smaller than the 'natural, head,


and face away from it at an angle of about 45,


each side-head having its own individual characteristics.


In an image which preserve Source no,3B:

A disembodied head on either side of, and the

same size as, the 'natural' head,

Omniscience and omnipercipience of a demiurge


Mathura Brahmā(Sculpture9)

both facing away from it at a 90 angle,


and identical to it in appearance.


In an image which preserves Sources No.3B:

Two or three anatomically conjoined extra heads facing the cardinal directions,

(Possibly a combination of 9 and 10) Mathura (Sculpture10)

and an addorsed figure,


of vegetal unifying construct

(resulting in) a wholly anthropomorphic multi-headed image.

Single omnidirectional deity in human shape

An image having all the features listed under

Source nos.9A-D,but devoid of Source no.3B,

Projection from the Creator-as-demiurge of basic male-female polarity(in the presence of his śakti)

Rang Mahal Umā-Maheśvara (Sculpture 11)
12B seated with ankles crossed, and ithyphallic, Creator as self-contained tapasvin

An image having all the features listed under Source nos.10A-C,but devoid of Source no.3B,

Omniscience and omnipercipience of the Creator

Brahmā (Sculpture 12)

With a similar, but distinctive, fourth head at the back,

Priest as earthly receptacle and transmitter of the Creator's omniscience, integrated with him(cp. Source nos.8A-B)

Early (Kuṣāṇa) multiple sculptures of the types described seem to have been created in order to express, in visual symbolism, cosmogonic systems of considerably intricacy and subtlety. Whether these systems were also formulated in contemporary scriptures or memorised verses one cannot know; but it seems unlikely that they reflects philosophies which were not first framed in words-or, indeed, that they could have been made and developed in the absence of some kind of śilpaśāstra tradition. The epics in their present form do not contain such detailed knowledge. Yet, so encyclopaedic is their range that specialized offshoots from such a great Store of knowledge must surely have existed, appearing only later as specific treatises in more developed form, and leaving their earlier expressions in stone to survive from that creative phase. But even these broken Sculptures do not mark the beginnings of such systems: the nature of the imagery in some cases is so akin to upaniṣadic metaphor that one must assume a long historical development of ideas lending shape and impetus to the desire to create graphic, religious images in the early centuries of the Christian era.

Visual symbolism was employed at three main levels. Iconographic symbols (where they survive to be interpreted) identified individual deities as personifications of evolutionary moments or states in the Creation. A polarization of, or intimate connection between, anatomy and symbolic object or between one figure and another, was established (as between the phallus and the golden pot, or Vāsudeva and his kin). But above all, there was the multiform image itself and the construct with which it was integrated, conveying the impression of physical and spiritual growth and expansion: the yūpa, tree and Liṅga. The images us produced necessarily represented 'events or 'phases' on a cosmic plane beyond the heavens of individual gods, who were themselves used as symbols of dynamic transition in the first movements from the unpolarised, primeval, plenum to the instigation of cosmic creation.

Being expressions of cosmogonic theory rather than objects of emotional worship (although they no doubt had their bhaktas), they presented no 'mystery' as virtually inaccessible, super-natural cult-divinities. On the contrary, by virtue of their, presentation of the cosmogony, they also offered the possibility of tracing the stages of universal evolution back to its Source through a process which, although in its working could be termed mystical-consisting of yogic meditation techniques-was yet entirely apprehensible by the intellect. Such systems offered a salvation (in the sense of release, mokṣa) route which used the gods as stepping-stones or rungs on a ladder to Self transcendence, appealing to man directly as, a method of becoming himself superior to the gods. In these Images there is a remarkable clarity of purpose, an acknowledgement of the inherent dignity determination and intelligence of man, in addition to an assumption of his spiritual potential and ability to achieve it.


[ Previous Page | Content List | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

[ Digital Library | Electronic Books | Visvrupa Project ]

Oxford University Press 1988