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Religious symbols and architecture

Have you ever looked at a portrait of any god or goddess and wondered about the reasons behind their appearance and in particular, thought about the rationale behind their postures? We certainly had not until we had taken this module! It has made us question many things in the past few weeks and is still making us question many things at present! As such, we chose to explore why certain gods and goddesses are portrayed in a specific manner and decided to focus on Hinduism and Buddhism. We found out that in Hindu and Buddhist arts and architecture, gestures and postures of sculptures were displayed in specific manners as they were utilized to indicate diverse human functions. Each gesture and posture had its own meaning. One example would be the Buddha.

From the above picture, you may have noticed the pose held by his hands. “What could be the plausible reason for this?” we had wondered. His hand positions were depicted in this manner to symbolize enlightenment, meditation as well as teaching!

We also looked at Guan Ying, the Goddess of Compassion.



From the picture,

  • Flowing, white robe: a symbol of purity.
  • Necklaces: Accessories worn by Chinese and Indian royalties (Buddhism started out in India and was later, influenced by China)
  • Sacred Vase: Contains pure water which is seen as the divine nectar of life in Buddhism.
  • Bent willow branch: To bless followers with physical and spiritual forms peace and also represented the ability to bend and adapt without breaking.



As such, we can see how the interpretations of Gods and Goddesses can have a positive influence on their followers and lead them to a better path by showing them the right way to live.

Furthermore, similar items are found in the portraits of other Buddhist deities as well. These items are considered to be the Eight Buddhist Symbols.

Likewise, these Buddhist symbols are also found in several Hindu sculptures such as in those dedicated for the Lords Vishnu and Krishna.












In most portrayals of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, we can see that they always have multiple hands (more than the typical human) and each hand usually holds different items. This showed that these deities were able to multitask very well and also reflected how society viewed the Hindu Gods and Goddesses as being superior as they could perform more and better than we human beings ever could. When these sculptures are placed in official or religious buildings like a Hindu temple for example, these religious icons were used to symbolize the consecration of a building to praise a certain God or Goddess. These sculptures were also used to glorify teachers. We found that how these sculptures have been used and are still being used in Hinduism is similar to what baptism is for humans in Christianity.


Hindu Temples

Beginning from the 6th century, the Hindu dynasty had a bit of a comeback which brought about the spread of Hindu temples all over India. One characteristic that has been found to be common for most Hindu temples is that they are built with an entrance portico that directly leads to a pillared hall (which is also called “Mandabam” in Tamil). Furthermore, all temples have a shrine on top of possessing a large tower. Another interesting thing to note would be the fact that South Indian temples created in a Dravidian style all had a series of towers which had been arranged as a terrace. What was the rationale behind this? Each tower represented a distinct diverse divine force (like different Gods and Goddesses) and the purpose of these towers was for them to remind followers of Hinduism about how religion is present in daily life and about the power that gods and religious teachers have to affect daily customs. Most Hindu temples take the form of either a house or a palace. The palace-themed temples are more elaborate whereas the house-themed temples serve as a simple shelter or sometimes, even a home for the deities! However, both themes reflect the ideals of dharma, good beliefs, values and the way to lead life. The temples, as a result, served as a link between humans and deities.


The image above shows the Parama Sayika which is a layout plan found in most Hindu temples.

In this layout, each layer has their own significant aspects:

  • Paisachika Padas (Outermost layer): Asuras and evil
  • Manusha Padas: Human life
  • Devika Padas: Devas and Good
  • Brahma Padas: Creative energy
  • Purusa Space (Innermost layer): Universal Principle present in everything and everyone

This layout, therefore, indicates that Hindu temples are not just sacred spaces, but also that their meanings and purposes have extended beyond spiritual life all the way till social meaning. Thus, some temples, serve as venues for celebrations and festivals.

Inside the temples, pillars with carvings and statues depict the four most important principles of human life which are the Pursuit of Wealth (Artha), the Pursuit of Pleasure (Kama), the Pursuit of Ethical Life (Dharma) and the Pursuit of Knowledge (Moksha). These temples have carvings on their outermost walls too and these illustrate vital rulers, deities as well as large animals, like elephants.


Speaking of elephants, who has not seen the elephant god from Hinduism? Questions about Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, is one of the top-most asked questions by non-Indians to Indians living in Singapore. And why not? His appearance has always been out of the ordinary compared to most deities who almost always appear human-like.

Ganesha is one of the best known and loved deities in Hinduism and that is saying something considering the thousands or even millions of deities Hinduism has! Why is he so popular then, you may ask. Not only is he the Lord of Good Fortune who provides success, fortune and prosperity, he is also the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles of both the materialistic and spiritualistic nature.

''So, how did Ganesha come to have an elephant head?” you may wonder.

  1. Parvati, a main goddess in Hinduism, sculpted a child for herself and her husband (Lord Shiva) out of clay.
  2. Lord Shiva had not known about it when he had first encountered Ganesha (his son) and had beheaded Ganesha in a moment of anger as he had seen Ganesha standing outside the Goddess Parvati’s room and Ganesha had repeatedly prevented him from entering the Goddess Parvati’s room as he had been made by her to protect herself while the Lord Shiva had been gone.
  3. Upon finding out about his error from his wife, Lord Shiva and his troops left to the forests to find the first animal they could get their hands on to find a new head for the now headless Ganesha.
  4. They found an elephant and fixed its head for Ganesha. The symbolism of the body parts of the Lord Ganesha are shown in the diagram below.



Fun Tidbit!

In Buddhism, ladies sit on the left side in religious ceremonies while gentlemen sit on the right. In the iconography of multiple-armed deities, most of them hold weapons in their right hands while left hands were usually viewed as the hand of wisdom. The right hand, as a result, illustrates more masculinity while the left hand illustrates a female’s receptive attitude.


Siti Hafizah, Shankari, Kiki