Pratima Kosha – Encyclopedia of Indian Iconography

Indian culture is the story of the incessant endeavour of man to attain eternal bliss by surrendering to the Universal Being manifested in various forms, Art, music, literature and all other activities of man in India are directed and dedicated to the achievement of his merger with the universal consciousness. Kalpatharu Research Academy has undertaken the task of illustrating this divine object of man through the publication of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Iconography in three volumes entitled Pratima Kosha, a first-of-its-kind endeavour. Drishti is publishing excerpts from these volumes. It will be useful to everyone interested in Indian iconography.

Pratima Kosha is especially of great relevance to dance choreographers, serious students of dance and dancers and dance scholars. The book gives abundant information on various hand gestures and poses for choreography. To accompany the textual descriptions the book is profusely illustrated with line drawings of images in temples, museums, etc.

The book was prepared with great devotion by the late Pujya Sri S. K. Ramachandra Rao, Bangalore, a well-known scholar in Sanskrit.

Drishti would like to appreciate the Kalpatharu Research Academy for undertaking this monumental work as a project of the Academy and is grateful to the late Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao for giving Drishti an opportunity to share parts of his invaluable work with its readers.

We continue the series with the description of Apsaras, as published in Pratima Kosha.


A term, in Sanskrit always used in the plural number, that refers to a large number of mythical “maidens of water” (nymphs), who are reputed to have emerged out of the ocean when it was churned by the gods and asuras for the sake of ambrosia. Thirteen of them are described as the daughters of Kasyapa and Arishtha (as also the four gandharvas, Haha, Huhu, Atibahu and Tumburu): Rambha, Urvasi, Tilottama, Menaka, Kesini, Misra-Kesi, Alambusha, Manorama and so on.

They are classed as semi-divine spirits (vyantara-devatas), and are usually associated with another group of spirits belonging to the same class, gandharvas. They are iconically represented as lovely danseuses in Indian sculpture of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. The earliest representation probably is to be found in the Bharhut sculptures, where four of these mythical beings are represented in a scene depicting the defeat of Mara by the Buddha: Misra-Kesi, Alambusha, Subhadra, and Padmavati.

Texts like Suprabhedagama and Silpa-ratna prescribe that the apsaras must be represented as pretty damsels, with slender waist, and rotund breasts, wearing fine garments and bedecked with ornaments. Silpa-ratna mentions that they must be shown as slightly smiling (kinchit-prahasitanana) and must have a balanced posture (sama-bhanga).

The North Indian texts of Silpa not only mention the names of thirty-two of these celestial damsels but describe their iconographic representations (cf. Prabhasankar Sompura’s Bharatiya-Silpa-Samhita, 1975, Section 15). The thirty-two apsaras are required to be depicted in the porch, etc. of the temple of Siva or Vishnu: Menaka (carrying sword and shield), Lilavati, Vidhichita (holding a mirror), SUndari (dancing), Subhangi (shown in the act of removing a thorn from her foot), Hamsavali (tying an anklet to her right foot in preparation for dance), Sarvakala (dancing), Karpura Manjari (engaged in bathing in nudity), Padmini (dancing with a lotus in her hand), Gudha-sabda (with a baby, and showing the gesture of protection), Chitrini (dancing, and in the act of touching the top of her head with her left hand), Chitra-rupa (carrying a baby in her arms), Gauri (in the act of slaying a lion), Gandhari (dancing), Devajna (dancing in a circle), Marichika (shooting an arrow from a bow), Chandravali (dancing and showing the gesture of supplication), Patralekha (engaged in writing a letter), Sugandha (dancing, holding a discus), Satru-mardini (dancing, flourishing a short sword with which to kill an enemy), Manini (dancing, with a garland in her hands), Manahamsa (dancing, showing her buttocks), Susvabhava (dancing in a variety of poses), Bhavachandra (dancing, showing yogic gestures), Mrgaski (accomplished dancer), Urvasi (holding the head of a demon in her hand, and shown in the act of severing his head with a sword), Rambha (dancing, holding short swords in both hands), Manjughosha (dancing, holding short swords in both hands), Jaya (dancing, with a pot balanced on her head), Mohini (dancing, embracing her lover), Uttana (dancing, with one of her legs lifted up), and TIlottama (one who can assume any form at will, Kamarupa).

The celestial damsels are also shown as playing many musical instruments: Sarita (playing on the veena), Mohana (flute), Gargi (drum), and Mugdha (conch). Some carry pet-birds (like Suka-sarika, parrot) or babes (like Matr-bhuti), or fly whisk (like Chamara). Most of them are celebrated as skilled dancers (cf. Prabhasankar Sompura’s book of illustrations).