After touring quite a few temples all over India, we realized that many of the images of deities and their avatars would have been easy to recognize had we catalogued them and their stories in our minds. Not believing that it can ever be too late, here’s a list of the most popular ones we saw and their descriptions for reference:
Trinity of Hindu Gods – Creator, Preserver, Destroyer
Creator of the universe. Is said to be the father of Manu, who is believed to be the first human being on earth. Brahma is usually depicted with 4 heads (each facing a cardinal direction) and a beard. His right arm holds a scepter while the other holds a bow. Sometimes depicted with Goddess Saraswati by his side. A swan is depicted as his vehicle.
Protector of the universe and onewho rescues it from evil and other perils. Vishnu is also known as Narayana, Venkateshwara, Balaji, Shrinathji, Ranganathaswamy. Vishnu is depicted with four hands, either standing erect, seated or reclining under a snake hood (Ananthashayanam pose of Ranganathswamy). Except while reclining, the upper left hand holds a conch, upper right hand holds a Chakra, lower left hand holds a mace and lower right hand holds a lotus flower. Sometimes the hood of snake is shown protecting the head of the deity. A bird similar to a kite or eagle, Garuda, is represented as the deity’s vehicle.
Destroyer of the universe to help its regeneration. Is considered to be one of the oldest religious deity found in India. Is also known as Maheshwara, Chandrashekhara, and Trilokeshwara. Is depicted as a Lingam over a Yoni or as a Yogi, with matted hair, a crescent moon in his hair, wearing only a Tiger skin around his waist, a snake around his shoulders, with a Trishul in one hand and a Damaru (small drum in the shape of an hour-glass) in the other. A bull, called Nandi, is represented as the deity’s vehicle.
Mahalaxmi is the universal form of a Devi or Goddess in Hindu religious iconography. She represents true love and is said to bring good-luck, prosperity and wealth to her devotees. She is the consort of Lord Vishnu as Bhudevi (Mother of the physical world, Earth) and Sridevi (Mother of the spiritual world or energy). In Vishnu’s Dashavataram, she also appears as Narasimha’s consort – Laxmi, Rama’s wife – Sita and Krishna’s beloved Radha. Also known as Gaja Laxmi, it is depicted as a royal human figure (crown and jewelry), seated on a lotus flower, with lotuses in both hands and sometimes with two elephants showering flowers on her from either side (Gaja Laxmi)
Saraswati is the Devi of knowledge, arts and crafts. She is worshipped not only for her knowledge but also for her Divine Wisdom, which is essential to achieve Moksha (salvation). She is depicted wearing a white or yellow sari with limited jewelry (not as grand as Laxmi’s) and a crown. As Saraswati, she is shown with a Veena (musical instrument) in her hand. A sacred swan is shown by her feet. As Mahasaraswati she is depicted with eight arms.
A fierce form of Goddess Parvati, a Devi who is the consort of Lord Shiva. She kills the evil, buffalo-headed, demon Mahishasura. He was given a boon that no man, mortal or immortal could harm him. Using this he terrorized earth as well as the Gods in heaven. To counter him, Goddess Parvati takes on a fierce form and after 9 days of battle (celebrated as Navratri in Gujarat), kills him on the 10th day, which is celebrated as Dassera all over India. Is also known as Chamundeshwari in Karnataka, Durga in the rest of India is depicted with multiple hands, each holding a weapon, seated on a lion, piercing a Trishul (3-pointed spear) into a buffalo or a buffalo-headed human figure at her feet.
A dancing form of Lord Shiva that dances to destroy the world and allow Lord Brahma to begin creation again. This fierce dance is called Tandava. He is depicted with 4 hands: upper right hand holds a Damaru (small drum in the shape of an hour-glass), lower right hand blesses the world, upper left hand holds fire signifying destruction and lower left hand points to the raised left foot. Is shown standing on a small demonic figure, which signifies ignorance. A snake coils around his waist, depicting the awakening of the Kundalini (inner force). Matted hair is shown flying behind the head.
A fusion of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati to illustrate that the female aspect of the Divine is inseparable from the male. According to Hindu mythology, Sage Bhringi was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva but he did not accept Parvati as a Goddess and therefore ignored her. To prove that they are in essence one, Shiva and Parvati come together to form Ardhanarishwara, thus enlightening Sage Bhringi.
Is depicted as a human figure with the left hand side as female and the right hand side as male. The figure has four arms with a feminine bend to the form on the left.
Is the older, six-headed, multi-armed, son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. He is Lord Ganesha’s older brother. He is said to have been born to destroy the evil demon Tareka. Is also known as Skanda, Kartikeya, Subramaniam
Is depicted with a peacock as his vehicle, with a lance/javelin in one of his hands. Sometimes depicted with his consorts, Valli & Devyani, on either side.
Is the younger, elephant-headed son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. He was born with a human head but was beheaded by his own father because he came between his parents. Later repenting. Lord Shiva replaced Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant. He is considered to be the remover of all obstacles for his devotees. Is also known as Ganapati, Vigneshwara, Lambodhara, Ekadanta.
Is depicted with an elephant head, a broken tusk, a pot belly and four arms. The upper left arm holds an axe, the upper right hand holds a noose or chakra, lower left hand holds a sweet and lower right hand holds his broken tusk or is in Abhaya mudra (blessing pose). In most cases the trunk of the elephant head is bent towards the left hand holding the sweet.
Is the depiction of both Vishnu (Hari) & Shiva (Hara) as a combined deity. It symbolizes the belief that both deities are two sides of the same coin.
Depicted with Vishnu as the left half of the image and Shiva as the right half. The left image has a crown, a conch in the upper left hand and a mace in the lower left hand. The right image has matted hair with a crescent moon on it, a Trishul (3-pointed spear) in the right hand and a tiger skin wrapped around his right hip and thigh. Both deities’ consorts – Parvati & Laxmi, and vehicles – Nandi Bull & Garuda, are sometimes shown by the sides of the image.
Vishnu’s 10 Avatars: Dashavataram
Lord Vishnu is said to have taken 9 different forms or avatars to save the world from perils. The 10th avatar is supposed to be take form in the future. Interestingly, there is a wide-spread belief that the order in which the 9 Avatars appear seem to relate to Darwin’s theory of evolution (mentioned in brackets below).
Matsya (Life in water)
An evil demon steals the Vedas from Brahma and buries them deep within an ocean. Lord Vishnu takes the form of a fish – Matsya, dives into the ocean and brings back the Vedas. It is believed that he restores the Vedas to Manu, who is the first human on earth.
Is depicted as half human and half fish.
After a curse, the Gods in heaven lose their immortality. Lord Vishnu tells them that they could regain it by drinking the nectar hidden in the ocean of milk. On realizing that they do not have the strength to churn the ocean on their own, they invite their foes, the demons to help with a promise to share the nectar. The two sides use Mount Mandhara as the churning stick and serpent Vasuki as the rope, and then start churning. However, soon the mountain begins to sink into the ocean. To help them out, Lord Vishnu assumes the form of a turtle – Koorma, and supports the weight of Mount Mandhara on its back, thus saving the Gods from failing in their quest.
Is depicted as half human and half turtle.
Varaha (Land animal)
The evil demon, Hiranyaksha, steals the Earth and buries it deep within the cosmic ocean. Lord Vishnu takes the form of a boar – Varaha, and fights Hiranyaksha. The battle is said to have lasted a thousand years and is won by the boar, which lifts Earth on its tusks and places it back in the universe. In this avatar, Varaha marries Bhudevi who represents Earth.
Is depicted as a human figure with a Boar head and tusks.
Narasimha (Half-man, Half-animal)
Hiranyakashipu, brother of the demon, Hiranyakhsa that Vishnu kills in the Varaha avatar, stars to abhor Vishnu. He performs severe penances and finally receives a boon from Brahma, which ensures that he can never be killed by a weapon, man, beast, demigod, demon, living or non-living creature, on earth or heaven, during the day or night! He then goes on to become arrogant about his immortality and continues to look down upon the gods, especially Vishnu. However his son Prahalada grows up to become a great Vishnu devotee, which enrages Hiranyakashipu no end. He decides to kill his son but his every attempt fails as Prahalada is protected by Vishnu. Furthermore, Prahalada refuses to acknowledge his father as the lord of the universe and instead roots for Vishnu, claiming that the Lord is all-pervading and omnipresent. Completely enraged Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and mockingly asks if his lord exists in it. Prahalada answers in the affirmative and Hiranyakashipu blinded with anger rushes forward to destroy the pillar with his mace. At this point, Vishnu in the form of a Narasimha – half main, half lion – jumps out of the pillar and attacks Hiranyakashipu. Since the attack is by something that’s neither man nor animal nor a god and is at twilight, which is neither day nor night, Brahma’s boon is honored. Finally, Hiranyakashipu is killed by being placed on Narasimha’s thighs, which is neither earth nor heaven and by being disemboweled by Narasimha’s fingernails, which are not weapons.
Is depicted with a Lion face, a human body and a ferocious expression. Sometimes depicted with a serene face with his consort, Goddess Lakshmi, seated on his thigh.
Vamana (Dwarf Man)
Mahabali, the king of Dravida land, was the grandson of Prahalada, son of Hiranyakashipu. He steals the powers of Lord Indra and arrogantly rules over the earth and heavens. To restore the balance, Vishnu takes the form of Vamana, a dwarf Brahmin and visits Mahabali, who is known for honoring Brahmins with his generosity. When asked what he needs, Vamana asks for 3 steps of land to live in. Amused by this paltry request, Mahabali grants it immediately and asks the dwarf to take the required 3 steps. At this point, Vamana grows so tall that his two steps cover the entire earth and heavens. He then asks Mahabali where he should place his third step. By this time the king realizes the true identity of Vamana and in all humility asks the Lord to place the third step on his head, which he bows at the Lord’s feet.
Is depicted as a bald human figure (Brahmin) with one leg raised high towards the sky. Other figures, including Mahabali, are depicted as much smaller human figures to imply the height gained by Vamana. Mahabali’s bowed head is shown under and near the raised foot.
Parashurama (Early Man using medieval weapons such as an axe)
Angered by the death of his father at the hands of a Kshatriya clan, Parashurama uses the axe given to him as a boon by Lord Shiva to wipe out all the Kshatriya kings. It is believed that he washes his blood-soaked axe in the waters of Malaprabha River in the village of Aihole, turning it completely red.
Is depicted as a royal human figure (with crown and jewelry) with an axe in the left hand.
Rama (Civilized man in hierarchical society using bow & arrows)
Renowned as the perfect human being and the ideal man, on his father’s request Rama abandons his claim to his father’s throne and serves an exile of fourteen years in the forest. His wife, Sita, and brother, Laxman, follow him in exile. He fights the evil 10-headed demon, Ravana, who abducts Sita, and eventually kills him. This story is the base of the epic Ramayana.
Is depicted as a royal human figure (with crown and jewelry) with a bow in his left hand and an arrow in the right. Sometimes flanked by Sita to his left and Laxman to his right, also holding a bow and arrow.
Balarama (Agriculturist man)
Famous for having taught both the Kauravas and Pandavas (from the epic Mahabharatha) the art of fighting with a mace. Is Lord Krishna’s older brother and was known for his strength. When Yamuna the river goddess did not heed to his command, he used his plough to scratch many branches out of her river bed, thus diverting the water in different directions. Is also known as Baladeva or Balabhadra
Is depicted as a human figure with a plough in one hand and a mace in the other.
Krishna (Intellectual/Supreme man)
The most popular avatars of Vishnu. Is considered to be the Supreme Being. Plays a major role in the epic Mahabharata as Draupadi’s (Pandavas’ wife) savior and the advisor of Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) during the great war against his cousins, the Kauravas. Is also known as Gopala, Govinda, Jagannatha, Venugpoala.
Is depicted as a royal human figure (crown and jewelry) with dark-blue skin, playing a flute. A peacock feather is usually depicted stuck in his crown. Sometimes, also depicted as
- A young, playful child or as a cowherd.
- A young boy dancing with one raised leg on a snake, with its hood in his hand.
- A young lad holding up a mountain, Govardhan, on his little finger, while sheltering cows and other human figures under it.
Kalki (Future Savior)
When the current world known as Kali Yuga completely loses its soul and degenerates into one full of selfish, cruel men who fight each other for personal gain, Lord Vishnu will appear in his 10th and final avatar, Kalki, destroying everything. Thus he would restore righteousness in the world and enable Brahma to rebuild the universe.
Is depicted as a sword-bearing warrior mounted on a white horse.
Is a supreme being, Siddhartha Gautam, from the 4th century BC, who founded Buddhism. He was a prince from a royal family but gave it all up to live an ascetic’s life and is said to have gained enlightenment after meditating under a tree in present-day Bodh Gaya, which is in Bihar. In certain Hindu texts, he is considered to be Lord Vishnu’s ninth avatar (after dropping Balarama from the list).
Is depicted as seated, standing or reclining, wearing a monastic robe draped loosely, with a serene expression and a mystic smile on the lips. The image has long ear-lobes and closely-cropped curly hair with a small bump or top-knot at the top of the head. Hands are usually either in meditative, Abhaya (blessing) or preaching poses.
Surya is the Sun God. He is believed to be the only visible form of God that one can see every day. He is also known as Surya Narayana (as a form of Lord Vishnu). He is usually depicted as a royal human figure (crown and jewelry) with lotuses in each of his two hands. Sometimes shown riding a chariot pulled by seven horses or one horse with seven heads.
Salabhanjika is the name given to the sculpture of a feminine figure posed under a tree. The sculptures of such figures have been used extensively in the South-Indian temples of Belur & Halebid in Karnataka. They are extremely stylized and usually used as ceiling brackets on the facade of the temple or within the inner mandapas.