The ‘Origin’ and Development of Indian Iconography

-  Prof Naman P. Ahuja

At times an object of worship is not an image at all, but only a tree, stone or elemental force. What then, qualifies something as an icon? How is sacred matter to be selected for ‘imaging’ by an artisan? Images, sanctioned in dreams, enacted in performances, possessed in spirit become consecrated in stone. This is a course concerned with issues surrounding both heraldic iconism as well as the fixing of an iconography of narratives. We examine (i) the transformation of an object into an icon, the rituals connected with images and their close link with performance, possession and narration (ii) the origin and development of anthropomorphism and iconography in India, (iii) the development of the most significant gods during 200 BC – AD 300 that laid the foundation of ‘Hindu’, Buddhist and Jain worship in India .

The course will address these issues chronologically. It will re-evaluate the established discourse on the subject in the light of the dramatic new discoveries in contemporary terracotta, ivory and wood. Class-work mostly focuses on material culture (our empirical evidence), from the period when most known images of Indian gods made their earliest appearance in stone. Homework however, concentrates on reading selections of ancient and secondary literature to be able to achieve our purpose of correlating the development of thought (and available modern discourse) to a changing view of early India in the light of the imagery seen in class. This opens discussions on the shared worldview of seemingly different cults, exchanges between the many Indic, Hellenistic, Zoroastrian and Central Asian iconographies, the changing contexts and meanings of Indian sacred images, their consecration, de-consecration and iconoclasm, the daily rituals of image worship, performance of sacred narratives and the creation of sacred spaces within a sacred geography linked through pilgrimage.


• Banerjea, J.N. The Origin and Development of Indian Iconography, Calcutta 1956 (and reprinted several times since)

• Bhattacharya, B.C. The Jaina Iconography, Delhi-Varanasi, 1974 • Chandra, Pramod, On the Study of Indian Art (Chapter 2: Sculpture), Harvard, 1983

• Coomaraswamy, A.K. ‘The Origin of the Buddha Image’, (first published in the Art Bulletin, Vol. IX, No 4, 1927, and republished: Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi 1980)

• Coomaraswamy, A.K. Yakśas, Vols. I & II, 1928 and reprints: Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi: 1971, 1980

• Eck, Diana L., Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, Anima Books Pennsylvania, 1981, Second edn. 1985 (and widely reprinted).

• Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press (South Asian paperback edition by Foundation Books, New Delhi: 1998)

• Huntington Susan, The Art of Ancient India, Chapters 3 – 10 (i.e. from the late protohistoric period to the Guptas)

• Sivaramamurti, C. Sanskrit Literature and Art: Mirror of Indian Culture, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India , LXXIII, (Delhi 1955, rev.1975)