Jewellery in Indian Iconography

  • Article comprehensively covers, with pictures, various aspects of jewellery in Indian Temple Iconography.

Indians, right from the time they started depicting their gods on seals and murtis, showed a great deal of love for depicting jewellery on their deities. Almost all parts of the body from head to ears, nose, neck, chest, lower and upper arms, fingers, waist, hip, ankle, and feet are shown with different appropriate ornaments. Grunwedel in his writing “Buddhist Art” noted this, and stated that “the heroic form of Indian sculptured figures has been and at all times remained the same- they are decked as for the gala occasions” (p. 31).

A salabhanjika with long distended ear lobes. 

Caption - A salabhanjika with long distended ear lobes caused owing to constant wearing of heavy earrings, and this was once considered to be sign of great beauty.


While Hindu deities were seen in full glory adorned with all kinds of jewellery, the Buddhists and Jains could not show their spiritual head with ornaments, which they made up with a greater zeal on the subordinate deities, such as Bodhisattavas and Sasanadevatas. Only one Bodhisattava (Simhanada Lokesvara - a form of Avolokitesvara) is nirbhusana, that is, without jewellery, but this is because of his ideological association with Shiva, who among the Hindu deities wears the minimum ornaments.


In the medieval era even Buddha got endowed with a jewelled crown and a torque, especially in the murtis from Eastern India. Even the murtis of Shiva and Vishnu in yoga-dhyana postures are depicted with ornaments, perhaps lesser than the other types, but definitely present. Among the rare exceptions are the two figures of Nara and Narayana on the side niches of the Deogarh temple, where they are depicted as two rishis and are devoid of any ornaments. This practice of depicting even dhyana murtis with ornaments goes long back into the Harappan culture, where a deity in yogic dhyana posture on a seal (termed as the proto-Shiva Pashupati) is seen wearing armlets, bracelets, a torque, and a horned crown.

Yoga Narayana in dhyana posture.

Caption - Yoga Narayana in dhyana posture, adorned with jewellery, 10th c. CE, Khajuraho, Chandella period. National Museum, Delhi.


Headgear and Hairstyles

Elaborate coiffure on a Gupta era head of Devi Parvati, National Museum- Delhi.

It is beyond any doubt that the ornaments shown on the deities were also the ones worn by the people of those times, thus providing us with a picture of the socio-cultural lifestyle of the ancient and medieval Indians. As per the Manasara the different types of headgears are placed under a category known as mauli, which are further sub divided into jatamukuta (hairstyle), kirita mukuta (crown), karanda mukuta (crown), sirastraka (crown), kuntala (hairstyle), keshabandha (hairstyle), dhammila (hairstyle), and alaka-cudaka (hairstyle).


Jatamukuta is seen on the heads of Brahma and Shiva, and consists of matted hair done up in the form of long crown at the centre of the head. Sometimes the jatamukuta may be adorned with jewels; or in case of Shiva, with a moon and a skull. One of the names of Shiva is Kaparddi, which means “someone whose matted locks wave spirally upwards like the top of a shell.”

Jatamukuta. (Image from TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography).

Kiritamukuta, according to Rao is “is a conical cap sometimes ending in an ornamental top carrying a central pointed knob, and covered with jewelled discs and bands,” and is mostly seen on Vishnu, though it can also be worn by Surya and Kubera.


Varahamihira while describing Vishnu as wearing earrings and a crown/kirita (kundalakiritadhari), says that Surya should wear a mukuta, and Kubera should be wearing a crown or a kirita that should slant on the left side of his head (vama-kirita) (in Brhatsamhita the words kirita, mukuta, and mauli all have the same meaning, as per Utpala).


Karanda mukuta is a crown, which is shaped like a karanda or a bowl or a basket with the narrow end pointing up, and is shorter in size than the kiritamukuta. This is seen in most of the other deities, and is believed to be denoting a subordinate position. 


Sirastraka is the elaborate turban that is worn by the Yaksas, Vidyadharas, Nagas (primarily of the Sunga era), and by generals or parshnikas of the kings. In P.K. Acharya’s edition of the Manasara it is said that kirita mukuta is to be worn by a Sarvabhauma, a ruler whose kingdom extends to the shores of the four oceans; and by an Adhiraja, a king whose control extends over seven provinces. Karandamukuta is to be worn by a Narendra or a Chakrvartin, i.e. kings who reign over three provinces (a lesser position than the Sarvabhauma).

Kirita mukuta. (Image from TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography).

Karanda mukuta. (Image from TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography).

Kuntalakeshabandha, dhammila, and alaka-cudaka are various ways of doing up the hair, and seen on the various devis.


According to Manasara, the first one (kuntala) is seen on devi Sri or Lakshmi (Indira), first and second one on devi Saraswati and devi Savitri (kuntala and kesabandha). The 3rd and 4th styles (dhammila and alaka-cudaka) find no mention in association with any devis, Instead, Dhammila has been mentioned as the style to be seen on wives of smaller rulers, such as Mandalikas; while Alaka-cudaka hairstyle is to be worn by women who work as torch bearers of the king, and by the wives of the sword and shield bearers of the king. These hair knots were often tied together by flowers known as pushpapatta, or strings of leaves known as patra-patta, or jewelled bands known as ratna-patta.

Hairstyles of women (Image from TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography).

In eastern India, a typical hairstyle has been used to denote Krishna and other young deities, which has been termed as kakapaksa, a type of hair arrangement on two sides of the head where the hair is arranged in three tufts with the side tufts fanning out like the wings of a crow and hanging down to the temples.


In Gandhara art different hairstyles are seen on the heads of Avalokitesvara and Maitreya, where in the former the hair is elegantly arranged upwards with jewelled bands encircling it, while the latter is with long hair tied sideways in double knot on the centre of the cranium. In few late Gandhara, Gupta, and post Gupta era Buddha figures it is seen that his hair is arranged in short separate curls, and the direction of the curls is from left to right (daksina-vartakesa, which is the sign of a mahapurusa, a mahapurusalaksana).


Caption - Avalokitesvara the hair is elegantly arranged upwards with jewelled bands encircling it, from Sri Lanka, ca. 750 CE



Devi Ganga with large hanging earrings.

Caption - Devi Ganga with large hanging earrings, hair tied in a tight plait, and other beautiful head accessories, Gupta period, National museum- Delhi.


Piercing the ear lobes for wearing earrings is a practice followed in India from the ancient times, and while mostly women are seen wearing it now, earlier they were worn by both men and women. The ear piercing ceremony or karnavedha is said to be an important ceremony among the Indics, and the wearing of kundalas was once considered a privilege for a student initiate (brahmacarin) and a grihastha. 


Prthukarnata or long distended ear lobes caused by wearing heavy earrings was once considered a sign of beauty and greatness; hence we find Buddha with long distended ear lobes from different periods and from various parts of India. In fact Agnipurana describes Buddha (Santatman) as Santatma lambakarnasca gaurangascambaravrtah, which means Santatma (or he who has a tranquil soul), is long-eared, fair, and wears garments.

Buddha – Santatma lambakarnasca gauranga, one who is long-eared, and fair.

According to TAG Rao, there are five kinds of earrings: patra-kundalamakara-kundala, sankha-patra-kundala, ratna-kundala, and sarpa-kundala.

Patra-kundala refers to cones made of coconut or palm leaves, or gold leaves. Makara-kundala as the name suggests refers to the mythical animal makara design of earrings made in wood, metal, or ivory. Sankha-patra-kundala are earrings made of pieces of conch-shells, Ratna-kundala are jewel encrusted earrings, and Sarpa-kundalas were earrings designed in the shape of a cobra and made of metals, ivory, or wood. 


Sarpa-kundalas are seen on Shiva, and also sometimes on Ganesha. Uma and other devis are often seen wearing sankhapatra-kundalas, while makara-kundala, and ratna -kundala can be seen on the ears of any divinities, both male and female.

Makarakundala (Image from TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography).

Large hoop earrings on a salbhanjika. 

Interestingly the nose ornament termed as vesara (not a Sanskrit word) is not found in any of the ancient or early medieval images. It is seen much later in the late medieval images, especially in murtis of Radha and the gopinis, and this particular ornament is more likely a foreign import that came in with the invaders.



Surya wearing his magnificent hara/necklace, Konark, 13th c. CE

Various kinds of necklaces form to be an essential part of in the bedecking of the Indian deities, and some of the more popular necklaces are graiveyaka, hara, niska, etc.


The earliest type of neck ornament is seen adorning the proto Shiva-Pashupati seal from Harappa, where concentric rows of neck chains or torques adorn the deity’s neck. In Rigveda (hymn 33) Rudra is described as adorned with a beautiful niska, which denotes a neck ornament, and E. Thomas and D. R. Bhandarkar had suggested in their papers that it denotes a necklace made of niska coins, where sometimes it meant gold coins, and in others simply coins.


Hara also means a necklace or a torque, and there are various types of this ornament seen on the different deities in ancient and medieval murtis. Surya is especially known to be depicted with a pralambahari or a long torque /necklace (Varahamihira); while Shiva is described in various iconographic texts as being loaded with haras (harabhararpito Harah). Graiveyaka is another type of necklace which is broad, and is seen on the necks and chests of Yaksas and other deities of central India.


In many instances these necklaces have jewel pendants, such as, Vishnu is shown with the jewel kaustubha mani. The long garland like necklace hanging from Vishnu’s neck and falling below his knees, is known as vanamala or vaijayanti, and is five- formed, or made up of five different types of jewels, such as pearls, rubies, nila, emeralds, and diamonds.

Vishnu wearing ornaments.  

Caption - Vishnu wearing various ornaments and upavita. The vanamala or vaijayanti is partly broken here.


The yagnapavita, in medieval era, is also often depicted as a jewelled one accompanying the cotton one, worn in the upaviti fashion where it encircles the torso from top of left shoulder and below the right arm. Sometimes the skin of an antelope (krsnara) is seen covering a part of the torso and hanging from the shoulder of deities like Narayana and Nara.


Ornaments on the torso, waist, and ankles

A popular ornament of the torso known as the channavira, is a form of flat chains over each shoulder in a cross fashion, where the flat disc lies at the junction of the two chains on the chest. It is particularly a favourite ornament seen on deities in south India. A similar form of ornament is also seen in some figures at the Taxila museum, the Besnagar Yakshini, and on the figure of a Kulakoka devta in a Bharhut pillar.


Two other ornaments seen commonly on the torso of deities are known as udarabandha and kucchabandha. Both are flat bands, where the latter is used for tying the breasts and holding them in position, and the former for holding a protruding belly (seen in many Yaksa figures and other minor deities).


Kucchabandha is seen only in some female deities, especially when a male god (Vishnu or Subramaniam) is shown with two consorts, and generally the devi on his right hand side is seen wearing the kucchabandha.

Devi on right of Vishnu is Sri Devi. 

Caption - Devi on right of Vishnu is Sri Devi and she is wearing a kucchabandha (breast band). On his left is Bhu devi and she is without a breast band. Chola bronze, British museum.

India, Karnataka, Varuna wearing udarabandha, 1050, at LACMA.

Waist ornaments are of several types and seen on many deities.

The various jewelled waistbands are known as mekhala (girdle), katibandha, kancidama (a girdle with small bells held together by chains). The Surya images are shown with the avyanga (waist girdle), which has been likely derived from the Avestan sacred woollen thread girdle worn by Zoroastrians. Ankles are also shown with ornaments in many figures, wherein anklets in rows are seen in female figures; and manjira, an elliptical ornament, is often depicted on both male and female figures.

Waist ornaments.

Surya in his elaborate avyanga (waist girdle), Odisha.

Arm ornaments

Earliest depictions of arm ornaments are seen in the Harappan seal showing the Shiva-Pashupati from Mohenjo daro. Later the Maurya, Sunga and other dynasty era images carry on with the trend and depict various types of arm ornaments on the deities, the names of which are kankana, valaya, keyura, angada, etc. Kankana and valaya are worn on the lower arms at the wrist, while the keyura and angada are worn on the upper arms just above the biceps.

Shiva is seen wearing a bracelet at his wrist that is known as bhujanga-valaya, which is shaped like a snake, and is designed as such that at the junction of the tail and the body of the snake the hood rises. Sometimes armlets had little plaques fitted on them, as for example, a Bodhisattava in the Mathura museum wears an armlet with a plaque that shows a human figure riding a bird (peacock or garuda).


Palms and fingers are also often shown with ornaments comprising of small round discs held at the centre of the palm with chains crossing at the back, and fingers are adorned with rings. In West Bengal this ornament is known as Ratanchura and is still popular during marriages.

Garuda wearing armlets, bracelets, udarabandha, earrings, necklace, and upvita.

Devi Yamuna wearing thick bracelets, armlet, necklaces, and long hanging earrings.

Yogini Vrishnana in her various ornaments.


Our deities and our temple art are a documentation of our ancestors and depict their socio-religious customs, lifestyles, and the general way of living. Thus, the jewellery that we see on our deities are what the people of those times wore and what were in fashion; and some of these ornaments and designs, starting from the Harappan times, still continue, showing the continuity within our culture; perhaps the longest surviving religion and culture that is still in practice, beginning from the prehistoric times until date.



TAG Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography


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Author studies life sciences, geography, art and international relationships. She loves exploring and documenting Indic Heritage. Being a student of history she likes to study the iconography behind various temple sculptures. She is a well-known columnist - history and travel writer. Or read here  


Article was first published on author’s blog and here Article and pictures are courtesy and copyright author. 

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