The Role of Iconographic Terminology in Documentation of Indian Sculptures

Indian religious and Shilpa texts have frequent mention of the hand postures (Mudras & Hastas), pedestals, weapons, and other itineraries associated with deities. These render information in their iconographic details. Each god or goddess has his or her cognizance symbols which help to distinguish him or her from other gods and goddesses of the pantheon.

The Indian Hindu Sculptures are treasures of visual arts. Museums in India have huge collections of these iconographic sculptures. These are identified by their icons, Mudras, Vahanas, Hand Poses etc. documentation serves as the most prominent step to be undertaken with an art object entering into museum arena. The procedure of documention depends upon the nature of objects. The use of Sanskrit terminology, originally known from textual reference and employed in General Accession register (GAR), Classified Accession register (CAR) and Gallery register, serves as a basic requirement of a Museum Curator. Sculptures depict Mudras, standing; sitting styles etc. These varied Asanas and Mudras in sculptural objects have Sanskrit terminology explaining their iconographic details. The above mentioned topic employs the use of Sanskrit language in documentation of sculptures. It is important to document them properly because wrong records can cause problems for temporary exhibitions and movement of sculptures.

The outcome of this paper is to introduce the identity of image to the people by knowing iconographic terms. The attributes, posture, symbols, vehicles etc are some of the main areas which have Sanskrit terms and iconic language which are main identification of image.

The paper speaks of the Sanskrit terms which are used to understand the iconography of sculptures to identify them by their proper names and therefore helps to make a proper documentation of the sculptures and gives them life.

Documentation is an essential element in the management of museum collections. Information about objects needs to be recorded and stored in such a way that it can be retrieved and amended as necessary. This recording process is called documentation.

Types of Documentation:-




The key objectives of museum Documentation

– Ensure accountability for objects.

– Aid the security of objects.

– Provide an historic archive about objects.

– Support physical and intellectual access to objects.

-Knowing what you’ve got your museum will gain credibility.

– It helps in finding items quickly when they are needed.

– It helps in knowing loss of objects and full details maximizes chances of tracing missing items.

– Proper documentation can help answer enquiries.

– It can help to identify potential topics for exhibitions.

– Documentation ensures that information does not die with the collector.

The first acquisition by excavation or exploration is undertaken by the institutions or agencies. The following columns are filled by the excavators to prepare basic information record at the site. For archaeological objects, a list of monuments, location map and an aerial photographic record of the area is required for the purpose of study and publication on field work includes many disciplines such as archaeology, ethnology, natural history and anthropology. It is based on money, staff and time.

In field work, ethnology (oral history) serves as a very important source of information. The interview should be conducted at the owner’s place by using multimedia such as tape recorder and cameras for video recording etc. The name of the informer, place and date of interview are required with the photographic documents. Series of questionnaires are used for acquiring adequate information which is called pre-accessioning of object described as in  following format:-

— Name of object.

–Name given by the tribe.

— Name of the maker and its circumstances.

— What it is made of?

— Source of object.

— How was it procured?

— Why it was made?

— When it was made?

— Origin of the object.

— Where was it found?

— When was the object used?

— Description of the object.

National Museum in New Delhi has 9 columns of GAR:-

— Date of acquisition.

— Accession number.

— Previous/excavation number, trench, layer, site.

— Source.

— Short description.

— Period (date).

— Locality (provenance).

— Remark and Reference.

— Location in museum.

— However big museums maintain two sets; GAR and CAR. The CAR has the same columns as found in GAR but added with reference columns and photographs.

Collection of Sculptures in National Museum, New Delhi

The National Museum, New Delhi is a Government organization having vast collection of historic sculptures. The museum has its own archaeology unit. There are about 9000 art objects from various periods, regions and schools. It includes carved stone, terracotta, bronze, stucco figures, gold, silver, bone and ivory images dating from the 3rd cent. B.C. to 19th cent. A.D.

Introduction to Iconographic Terminology:  

The iconographic terminology is used to identify the sculpted gods and goddesses. Every deity has their own identification, terms and names. Terminology helps to give these objects its identity with proper name. The terms include all necessary features, from top to bottom of the sculpture. It is important for the museum to record valid information for proper documentation of the objects to classify them easily. Iconographic terminology includes all basic identifications.

Hand-Poses (Mudras or Hastas):

Hand-Poses are the main posture of deities which identify them from these poses. These poses are having specific meaning in which they forward the message to their devotees that they are protecting them.

Sitting Postures and Seats:

The sitting postures are usually known by the name asanas. These asanas are interpreted by the particular forms of seats which are worked out in sculptures. The word asana means also seat or a pedestal.

Ornaments/Drapery and Headgears

The ornaments are largely useful to make the sculptures decorative in very large amount for adorning the images of gods especially. There are ornaments for ear, neck, shoulders, arms, waist, wrist, trunks, breasts, loins, ankles and fingers. The head-gears and head-dresses also come in this category. There are different styles of garments or drapery of deities. It is not necessary for male deities that they are always found out in upper garments.


Some of the Deities are recognized by their weapons or instruments which depicts their moods.

Some Hindu Deities:

Male Deities

Brahma                                                                      Vishnu and his incarnations

Matsayavatar                                                              Kurmavatar

Varahavatar                                                               Narsimhavatar

Vamanavatar                                                              Parshuramavatar

Ramachandra                                                            Krishna

Buddha                                                                       Kalki

Shiva                                                                           Ganesha

Surya                                                                          Indra


Some Female Deities

Sarasvati                                                                     Parvati

Chamunda                                                                 Mahishasurmardini

Lakshmi                                                                      Mahalakshmi


The role of iconography in Documentation of Sculptures

After knowing all icons, features, main emblems etc. the curator should include these terms at the time of permanent acquisition in GAR. It is the confidential and proper original record that the all information about the object should be true which is going to be entered in it. The permanent record is not fake and always useful to carry exact object which is asked to carry out by the management. The format of documenting sculptures in proper manner is:



Acc. No.:                                 2011.1.1

Name:                                      Vishnu

Type:                                       Sculpture

Period/Date:                            5th cent, A.D.

Style/Dynasty:                        Gupta

Provenance:                             Mathura, U.P.

Material:                                  Red Sandstone

Measurement:                       109.0cm.x67.0cm.x22.0cm.

Site no.:                                   MTR

Photograph no.:                     V-1

Negative no.:                           V-I(A)

Condition:                               Fair

Location:                                 Gupta art gallery (on display)

Description of object:             A sculpture of God Vishnu, broken hands and legs.

Iconographic Details

  • Major Deity                             Vishnu
  • Mudra                                   dhyana-mudra
  • Vahana                                  not visible
  • Emblems                                 not visible
  • Other characteristics         nil
  • Minor Deity                            nil
  • Attending Figures                   nil

Donors                                                nil

Cultural Items: Costumes of Major Deity

  • Head-dress                         Kitita-Mukuta
  • Upper garments                     Yajnopavita
  • Lower garments                     Katibandha
  • Ornaments                          Hara, Vaijayanti, Keyura
  • No. of head and hands           1 head, 4 hands
  • Pots and pans                      nil
  • Musical instruments               nil
  • Weapons                            nil
  • Furniture                          nil
  • Architecture                       nil
  • fauna                              nil
  • flora                              nil
  • Colour scheme                      nil
  • Other items                        folds are visible on lower garment.
  • inscription                        nil
  • text                               nil

remarks                                         a calm figurine of Vishnu.

Uses of acquisition

The main problem of improper documentation of sculptures comes at the time of any temporary exhibition inside or outside the museum. The demand of a particular sculpture will not be complete because of wrong records, as the interchange or exchange of sculptures with one to another which is in demand. It can cause major problem for the museum and also for the gallery who asked for the particular sculpture. This problem basically comes up at the time of movement of sculptures and they can be at any location, inside or outside the museum.

Sometimes the sculptures do not come into the museum with this guarantee that they are not broken. If they are antiquities then museum has to welcome them. If they are broken than it’s a major duty of curator/keeper to identify them with all possible details. If the face of any deity is missing than it can be identified by other icons or attributes. Therefore, the system of proper documentation with accurate iconography and terminology of sculptures is required in museums.


The conclusion of the above discussed topic is about care of collection which is a main priority of any museum. The documentation of each and every object is the first priority to be given in a museum, in fact before the object enters the museum it should be documented. Field or site record should also be maintained. It also helps to create actual original records into the museum like provenance, historical backgrounds, and uses of that object at its time period. The record of sculptures is important to get their identity and their original forms to know the religious value at earlier time. India is the place where people are multi-conscious about their religion, culture and their deities.

Indra vats
Asst. Curator (Education)
National Museum, Research Scholar
National Museum Institute
New Delhi


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