Ganga and Yamuna (River Goddesses and Their Symbolism in Indian Temples)

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Item Code: NAG054
Author: Heinrich Von Stietencron
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788178242859
Pages: 201
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 340 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

There are many books on the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, pictorial and celebratory. This book is of a different kind. Professor von stietencroninvestigates the temple sculptures of Ganga and Yamuna in order to unveil a whole cosmos of Hindu ritual and conceptual tradition. He shows how an entire worldview informs the planning and sculptural embellishment of such a temple conceived of as the book of the deity enshrined in it. Consequently this book is a historical study of the sculptures of the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna adorning the doorways of Indian temples, most recognizable from the gupta period onwards. It examines how these gracious and purifying riverine deities have been conceived in human form. It discusses in detail the rich store of puranic myths and legends woven around these deities tracing their Vedic roots and showing their evolution since then. Drawing upon Sanskrit and various other sources, this is a significant work of classical indological scholarship which provides insights into the complex cultural history of Hindu religious traditions.

About the Author

Heinrich von stietencron has been professor of indology and comparative history of religion 1973-98 at the University of Tuebingen. He is a leading authority on the epics and the purans on temple symbolism and iconography and on religious practices and social structure. He is chief editor of the annotated epic and puranic bibliography 1992. He has devoted many years to field research in Orissa documenting the many temples and studying the manuscript traditions of the region. His several books include Hindu myth Hindu history permanent black 2005 he was awarded the padma shree in 2004.


This is a translation of a book first published in German in 1972 by Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden. Several of my friends outside the German-speaking area complained that access to this work required learning a difficult language. Growing pressure has finally resulted in the present translation. This translation by Mitch Cohen, I should add, was done more than thirty years after the appearance of the original work in German, and I have modified, abbreviated, and amended certain sections for this English version, thus rendering it a new edition of an old German book. There are many books on the Ganga and Yamuna, two mighty rivers that come down from the majestic mountains, join at Prayag, bring splendor and purification to Banaras, and continue eastwards to finally reach the sea in the Bay of Bengal. The present book is of a different kind. Its objects are sculptures of the goddessesGanga and Yamuna seen flanking the entrance to Indian temples from the Gupta period onwards and recognizable in work of even several centuries earlier, though without their distinctive vahanas, the makara and the kiama. Yet this is not a book on Indian art either: a single image suffices to show how these gracious and purifying deities have been conceived in human form.

The book is, rather, a journey into ancient Indian symbolism, a symbolism that has its decisive roots far back in Vedic times, and its fire altar, where communication with the gods and sacrifice to them was a task that continued to inspire the thoughts and ritual techniques of Brahman priests. Since the early period of the Brahmanas (9th-8th centuries Be), the ritual tradition continued to imbibe ever new meanings, with Vishnuism, Shaivism, andShaktism giving rise to new concepts of the divine, and with the Samkhya and Yoga philosophies contributing to new concepts about the nature of worldly existence and techniques to overcome its limitations. While in Vedic religion the gods moved freely and could be called upon to come and partake of the sacrificial offering, the Hindu gods in contrast gradually took up residence in temples where the devotee would come and exchange prayer and devotional gifts for divine grace. The temple itself, initially conceived of as the house of god, soon came to be considered as the body of god-just as the Vedic fire altar had been conceived of as the living body of sacrifice.

Epics and Puranas have added their rich store of myths and legends to adorn the temple; and the Vaisnava, Saiva, and Sakta religions have each provided their own contribution to the store of knowledge about the gods and the means to gain liberation. The present study uses a small but important detail, namely the sculptures of Ganga and Yamuna placed on the doorjambs of ancient Indian temples, to unveil a whole cosmos of ritual and conceptual tradition that informs the planning and sculptural embellishment of the Hindu temple conceived of as the body of the deity enshrined in it. Since all the sources are in Sanskrit-both in the Vedic language and in its later classical form-a major part of the notes reproduce textual passages in this ancient language. Occasionally, in the main text too, Sanskrit passages are cited so that the erudite reader can judge the translations offered. For the publisher this has meant setting Sanskrit quotations in Roman letters with diacritical marks and accents, thus making the textual basis accessible not only to Sanskritists but also to the English-speaking world.

Since the temple, in the tradition of Indian silpa-siistra, is conceived of as the body of the deity, all references to the right or left side herein refer to a perspective from inside the temple, from the place of the garbhagrha where the deity resides and directs his or her eyes towards the approaching devotee. This is important to remember in order to avoid confusion about the position of the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. The visitors perspective of one who looks at the temple from the outside-produces a reversal of sides.


Alexander Cunningham was the first to alert scholars to the existence of the female figures that are the subject of this book. In his first report to the Archaeological Survey of India for 1861-2, he was struck by their frequent occurrence in pairs at temple entrances. Cunninghams initial assumption was that these reliefs depicted the queen on her way to worship in the temple. But 12 years later, writing about the architecture of the Gupta period after taking a trip through the Central Provinces (1873-4), he had changed his mind completely. He was now certain that the figures on the temple gates depicted the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. They were not on the way to the temple, but performed the duty of watching over the entrance. Despite identical depictions of the two goddesses themselves, they were mounted on different animals the crocodile and the turtle. Cunningham considered the former an attribute of Ganga and the latter of Yamuna.

This interpretation of Cunninghams was finally confirmed when two Sanskrit inscriptions in the Siirada script were discovered in the Baijnath temple in the Kangra valley. These contained eulogies composed on the occasion of inaugurating the temple. They relate that two sons of Siddha, one of them a pious merchant named Manyuka, had erected the temple in honour of Siva Vaidyanatha, the Lord of Healers, and that at its door are located the statues of Ganga, Yamuna and other deities. After Sir Aurel Stein visited Baijnath in the winter of 1892, he wrote to the publisher of the inscription, G. Buhler, who had not seen the temple, that images of the river goddesses were indeed located at either side of the entrance to the shrine.

Cunninghams thesis was regarded as secure. Nonetheless, the very first thorough study of the two river goddesses- J .Ph. Vogels Ganga et Yamunadans iconographie brahmanique, which appeared in posed an important new question." Tracing the development of the motif back to Buddhist art in the stupa of Bharhut, Vogel attempted to show that the conception of two river goddesses emerged quite gradually as the clearly differentiated Gangaand Yamuna, taking its point of departure from a variant of the motif of the woman under the tree If this is correct, it raises a further question: when were these female figures first seen as the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna? J.Ph.Vogel opted for the following criterion: even when they occur in pairs, they are not to be regarded as Ganga and Yamuna as long as both stand on the same .The cut-off point is when their mounts can be differentiated as makara and kiirma.

As Vogel noted, such differentiation between the two river goddesses on the basis of their viihanas has its inception in the 5th century AD. He designated the depictions in the Narasimha temple at Tigava and in the Dasavatara temple at Deogarh (Bhilsa), as the oldest extant examples. The celebrated archaeologists result, which was adopted by Coomaraswamy,!" was fully confirmed by the most recent and, to date, most comprehensive study of the two river goddesses: the work published by Odette Viennot in 1964, Drawing on compendious documentation, Mme Viennot compiled all the stylistic changes encountered in the presentation of this theme. Using the method of P. Stem, her stylistic analysis resulted in a relative chronology for the depictions of the two goddesses. In most cases, this was also tantamount to establishing a relative chronology for the respective temples.

The present study, in the title and subtitle of which the informed reader will have recognized a deliberate echo of O. Viennots book, does not intend to compete with the latter. Where it can add to existing art-historical documentation on Ganga and Yamuna is merely incidental to the main thrust of the present work-which is to supplement the excellent art-historical analysis of the river goddesses with an altogether different attempt to interpret them and their symbolism in the context of religious speculation about the temple as the body of god. Consequently, my approach to these goddesses differs substantially from that of the art historian and the result will be different. My sources consist of Vedic and Puranic traditions and of the silpa-siistra instructions for the architects and artists engaged in temple construction.

The questions asked so far have been:
(a) What do the two female figures represent?
(b) When do they appear on temple doors?
(c) What earlier motifs in Indian plastic art developed into the typical form of the river goddesses?
(d) What stylistic transformations have these depictions undergone in the course of time?
(e) Is it possible to isolate subgroups on the basis of common stylistic characteristics?
(f) What are the temporal and spatial relations between these groups?
One answer seemed obvious: Ganga and Yamuna, situated as they were in the fertile centre of the Gupta realm, could be seen as symbols of the Gupta Empire and guarantors of its propriety. This is how Mme Viennot understood the message of these sculptures. In addition, they could also be understood as a gesture of reverence by the temple priests and artists to the ruling dynasty of the Guptas, whose donations must have formed an essential and welcome addition to the temples own restricted budget. This is how the historian or social anthropologist might possibly seek to explain the role of these goddesses, still seen as symbols of the Gupta realm.

Yet, important objections can be raised against these political efforts at interpretation. The first temples where the distinctive forms of Ganga and Yamuna take final shape are in Ajanta, far away from Gupta dominion. It is also to be kept in mind that these goddesses form the last step of a continuous development in shaping the entrance to a religious building, which can be traced back to the 1st century AD, when no one even suspected a future Guota emoire. It is. Therefore. to be asked what role these goddesses were supposed to fulfill at the temple itself. This last question takes us beyond the pale of art history into the history of religion and religious symbolism. Such a perspective justifies another investigation of the already extensively treated theme of Ganga and Yamuna. Is it true that these goddesses represent nothing else than the two most important rivers of the Gupta empire, immortalized on temples by skilful artists as an emblem of emperial glory? Are they a symbol of prosperity in the Gupta realm? What other more convincing meaning lies behind the images of Ganga and Yamuna, since they appear in places far away from the Doab and from areas under Gupta dominion? This last question finally brings us back to our first question, but on another level: what, in truth, do the two female figures depict?


List of abbreviationsvii
2Sculptural evidence7
3An explanation based on political events20
4An explanation based on the symbolism of the river goddesses29
5The complexities of religious symbolism35
6Myths and associations I: Ganga38
7Myths and associations II: Yamuna62
8The temple as the body of the deity74
9The hidden meaning of Ganga and Yamuna102
10Precursors of Ganga and Yamuna: a concept progressively turned into an image109
11The goddesses positions on the left and right116
12Closing remarks132
Appendix: list showing side-distribution of the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna135

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