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 Development of  Iconography

Study of Iconography through the ages helps one to understand the history of belief systems of a society. Study of Indian Iconography in the pre – Christ era and post -Christ era reveals the development of religious belief systems that have taken place in the religious realm.

Six different forms of expression:

1. Thought Form

2. Verbal Form

3. Written Form

4. Pictorial Form

5. Relief Form

6. Icon form

 All these forms were used in history as instruments to present various thoughts and concepts. Among these forms of expressions, Iconography plays a significant role in understanding the history of belief systems of a society.  Explaining through Sculptures is exclusively different from making them objects of worship.

A citation from the songs of Sivavaakiar, one of the Siththars of St.Thomas Tamil Christianity, is given as follows:

“Natta kallai Theyvam yendru Naalu putpam saatriyae

Sutri vanthu munu munendru sollum manthiram yaethadaa?

Nattakkallum pesumo Naathan vulhlhirukkaiyil

Sutta chatti sattuvam karichuvai ariyumo?”

 ‘Can we worship an installed stone and circumambulate it with uttering Manthras? ……… Can that stone speak?………….God is within us… Hence it is very clear that worshipping an object is absolutely contradictory to “Iconography”. Careful analysis of the development of Iconography in India through the ages reveals that, God taking the form of a man has led to the rapid development of visualizing God in anthropomorphic form in large number in the religions of post – Christ era.

In St.Thomas Tamil Christianity, in order to explain the concepts of Trinity and other basic concepts they used sculptures as their media of communication. Hence in Elephanta, Ellora, Mahabalipuram, etc., sculptures occur not as worshipping objects but as expressions of basic truths. Sculptures of Saivism and Vaishnavism occur in the post – Christ era alone. Before analyzing the development of Iconography in Saivism and Vaishnavism, sculptures which were existing in the pre –Christ era are to be analysed to understand the development of religions in India through the ages.

(i) Indus Valley figures and Symbols :

In Indus Valley civilization, occurrence of memorial stones, female and male figures, demigods, mythical figures, figures of animals, imaginary figures, figures of trees, Symbols of Fish, Swastika and the like are found in seals and they reveal their various forms of belief systems. Just as memorial stones of Indus Valley Civlization, in the religion of the Israelites, people worshipped God by installing stone pillars.

Stone Pillar :

Jacob installed the stone which he used as a pillow as the sign of revelation of God’s love to him at Bethel where he had a vision (Gen. 28: 17, 18).. Since it was the place of revelation of God to him in order to recognize that place he installed the stone and worshipped God. The following passages show that there was the practice of installing stones and worshipping God among the Israelites.  (1). Jacob/Israel – Bethel – Genesis 28: 18, 19. (2) Laban – Jacob – Mizpah – Genesis 31: 45 – 48 (3). Moses – Exodus 24: 4 – At the foot of Mount Sinai – 12 stones – an altar of sacrifice – Jacob also built an altar of sacrifice – Genesis 35: 7 (4). Joshua – Joshua 4: 20- Gilgal – Immediately after crossing Jordan he installed stones. (5). Joshua – Joshua 24: 26 – 28 – After getting victory over Canaan – Sechem – he installed it under the oak tree. (6). Samuel – Ebenezer – 1 Samuel 7: 12 – he installed the stone, built an altar, offered sacrifice and worshipped God.

Practice of installing stones in the worship of the Ancient Tamils :

The term ‘Sivalinga’ is found in Tamil literature only after 5th century A.D.  Before that, it was referred to  as ‘Kanthu’ in ancient Sangam literature.

Memorial stone in  Islam:

  The history of religions shows that worshipping God by installing a stone is a practice of the Tamils.   It is called ‘Sivalinga’ in Saivism., ‘Stone Pillar’ in Bible. In Islam it is called ‘Black Stone’.  “Qaaba is believed to be an old Shivalinka” says syed. Encyclopaedia Britannica elucidates the way every Muslim walks around the Ka ‘bah and kisses the black stone as follows:

“Every Muslim who makes a pilgrimage is required to walk around the Ka ‘bah seven times, during which process he kisses and touches the black stone… Muslims consider the Ka ‘bah the most sacred spot on earth and they recite their prayers looking in its direction.”

Living Stone :

In Christianity, Jesus Christ is refered to as the living stone.  (1 Peter 2: 4).  This is definitely a stage in the development of the worship of the ancient Tamils.

Christ :

Christ is referred to as ‘living stone’ (1 Peter 2: 4). 

(i)               Jain and Buddhist Sculptures :

In Jainism and Buddhism, Stupas (stone columns) occur along with symbols such as wheel, umbrella, conch, foot-prints, fish, Swastika and so on.  Yaksha and Yakshi ..and other such female figures also found in considerable numbers.   No sculptures of Buddha are found in the pre-Christ era. Stupas of Buddhism do not carry the figures of Buddha.

(ii)  Sculptures of Mahayan Buddhism :

Considerable number of sculptures of Mahayana Buddhism occur in the post – Christ era.

Mahayana Buddhism is the offshoot of Early Indian Christianity or St.Thomas Tamil Christianity. According to Hinayana Buddhism, nothing was created by God, and regarding nirvana one can obtain it by one’s own efforts or be guided by others. But,  Mahayana Buddhism is totally contrary to Hinayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana Buddhism, everything was created by God and God came into this world and took the form of a man, sacrificed himself and gave salvation to human beings. Since Mahayana Buddhism is the offshoot of St.Thomas Dravidian Christianity the doctrine of trinity is explained in Mahayana Buddhism  as

Dharma Kaya ( God the Father),

Samboga Kaya ( God the Holy Spirit) and

Nirmana Kaya (God the Son).

Stupa carrying the figure of Buddha:

Stupas occur with the figures of Buddha also. In the post – Christ era ‘Stupa’ carries the figure of Buddha for it is the expression of the concept  of  God taking  the form of a man







‘Messiah’ is the Hebrew term for the Greek term ‘Christos’. According to Judaic tradition the term ‘Messiah’ refers to the one who is anointed i.e., anointing one as a ‘Guru’ or a ‘King’ or a ‘Prophet’. Hence the term ‘Christos’ or ‘Christ’ refers to ‘Guru’ / a ‘King’/ a ‘Prophet’.

In Mahayana Buddhism ‘Son of God’ is represented in the form of Buddha (Guru) as well as Bodhisattva (King).

 Nail – pierced Buddha:

Son of God who was nailed on the cross is represented by a figure in Mahayana Buddhism.  A figure of Buddha in Udayagiri Cave, in Orissa occurs with nail pierced hands and legs. It symbolically represents the nailed Christ, who is a ‘Guru’ and a ‘King’.













Buddha as a ‘Guru’:

Since figures of Buddha are the representation of Son of God, Buddha is visualized as a ‘Guru’. For eg., a figure of Buddha as a Guru found in Ajantha.

Bodhisattva as a ‘King’:

Visualizing son of God as a King  known   as ‘Bodhisattva’.  A king –who lives for others – Who gives his life for the sake  of giving eternal life to others is the basic concept of ‘Bodhisattva’..

(iii) Sculptures of the Six fold  Religion :

Sculptures of Saivism and Vaishnavism that reveal the doctrines of Trinity, Avatar, and the like are not found in India in the pre-Christ era. Sculptures of Siva, Muruga,  Pillaiyar, etc., also do not found in the pre-Christ era.  All these belong to the post-Christ era.   Figures of Siva on Sivalingas occur only in the post – Christ era. Since Saivism and Vaishnavism are the denominations  of St. Thomas Tamil  Christianity,  Saivite and Vaishnavite sculptures found as instruments that depict the doctrines of Trinity, Avatar etc… In the Six fold religion, the Holy Spirit is visualized in female form in Saivism; and male form in Vaishnavism.

Arthanaareeswarar :

               Artha = half,  Naari = female,   Eswarar = God.   That means, God, one half of whose body is female.   He is God whose left half is female.  In Arthanaareeswarar concept, ‘Holy Spirit’ known as ‘Arul Maari’ is visualized in female form in Saivite perpective. 











Hariharan :

Harihara means Hari+Hara.  Hara means Siva or God.  Hari means Vishnu.  In the Harihara concept, Hari is supposed to be the left part of Hara as per Vaishnavism, whereas in Saivism, Sakthi was supposed to occupy that part.  However, both Hari and Sakthi are visualization of Holy Spirit in Male form in Vaishnavite perspective and Female form in Saivite perspective. The figures of Avatar are seen in the post-Christ era.










Somaskanda :

Doctrine of Trinity is represented in Saivism in the form of ‘Somaaskanda’.   Somaaskanda = sa + uma + skanda. meaning ‘God along with Uma and Skanda’.   God the Father is shown as Siva; the Holy Spirit, as female, is represented by Uma; and the Son is represented by ‘Skanda’ .









Mummoorthi :

The Christian concept of Trinity is explained in Vaishnavism as Mummoorthi.   God the father is shown as Siva.  In Vaishnavism, Holy Spirit is visualized in male form in the place of Sakthi or Uma.. In the place of Skandan, Brahma occurs – all the three are shown as male.  This is explained as Mummoorthi.   In places such as Ellora, Kanchi Kailasanaathar temple, Mahabalipuram, figures of Siva, Vishnu and Brahma are seen


Three Heads – one Body :








Though there are three names for the three personalitiess in God head, God is one:  He is only one.   The Triune God is explained through the ‘figure of Siva with three heads, but with only one body’.   In the Ellora and Elephanta caves near Mumbai,  a large number of Siva with ‘three heads and one body’ occur


For Futher details please refer :

1. Origin and Development of Tamil Bhakthi Movement (In the light of Bible) Dr. D. Devakala, Madras University, (In Tamil).

2. St. Thomas Dravidian Christianity and Iconography, Dr. D. Devakala,  Meipporul Pathippagam,  Chennai

3. And our dissertations and books


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