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(In)Visible Tantra and Afterlife Worlds: Tantric and Death Iconographies as Visual Religion

Panel Chairs: Xenia Zeiler, Gudrun Bühnemann | Tuesday, August 25, 9-11 a.m.

It is well known that visual representations of Hindu Tantric deities and descriptions of afterlife/death worlds in South Asia employ dark and at times morbid imagery. While such features do in fact dominate the visualizations prescribed for certain deities and merit a detailed study, this panel highlights a much broader range of visual and iconographic subtleties. As such, for the first time, it opens up a discussion of the theoretical framework of Visual Religion within the setting of South Asian Tantra and afterlife worlds. Accordingly, the individual papers will focus on a range of themes within the field and discuss hidden portraits of Nepali kings on representations of Tantric divinities; the interface of image, imagination, and inner visuality in the Parasurama-Kalpasutra; the visualization of karman as bodily and environmental qualities in Hindu death rituals and mythology; and the iconographically standardized visualization of dreadful and fearsome aspects of Hindu Tantric goddesses.

Gudrun Bühnemann

The King as a God: Royal Portraits in 17th-century Nepal

King Pratāpa Malla of Kathmandu (r. 1641-1674) is among the most important kings of the Malla dynasty of Nepal. He was an initiated Tantric practitioner who supported the arts and composed poetry. Portraits of him have been preserved in sculptures, paintings and line drawings. Especially noteworthy is a statue of him atop a pillar in front of the temple of the Tantric goddess Taleju on Kathmandu’s Darbar Square. This innovative representation was modeled on pillars featuring a statue of the divine bird Garuḍa as a servant in front of Viṣṇu temples. In addition to straightforward portraits of the king, there are hidden ones which show his facial features on representations of Tantric divinities, suggesting an identification of the king and the divinity. This paper examines new developments in the royal portraiture of the late Malla period and shows how they reflect changing concepts of the relationship between king and god.

Annette Wilke

Image, Imagination, and Inner Visuality in Tantric Ritual – Illustrated by the Parasurama-Kalpasutra

Image, in contrast to picture, means both the exterior icon and the mental representation. The connection is performed by imagination. Imagination can be defined as the mental capacity to represent, make the non-present present, convert sensory worlds into worlds of meaning, and worlds of meaning into sensory forms. All these aspects are made ample use of in Tantric ritual which often applies also deliberate imagination as a powerful technique. The paper illustrates the interface of image, imagination, and inner visuality by the Parasurama-Kalpasutra (c. 16th cent.), an eminent ritual manual of Kaula Srividya. Examples will be the meditation (dhyana) of the iconographic features of the fierce goddess Varahi, the blending of the ritual diagram sricakra and the jewel island in the mental representation of the chief goddess Lalita, and pure inner visuality during the initiation rites – the guru’s use of imagination to transform the disciple into a divine image.

Johanna Buss

The Visualisation of karman as Bodily and Environmental Qualities in Hindu Death Rituals and Mythology

The Pretakalpa of the Garuḍapurāṇa and related texts dealing with Hindu death rituals and the afterlife describe how the deceased is imagined to travel through the underworld during the first year after his or her death and then be reborn or further transferred into one of the numerous heavens or hells. These mythological and ritual texts contain vivid descriptions of the ghostly bodies and of the landscapes the deceased has to cross. The descriptions are linked to the liminal stage of the deceased during the first year after death, but also illustrate his or her karman. In my paper I shall analyse how the notion of good and bad karman is translated into visualisations of bodily and environmental qualities.

Xenia Zeiler

Tantric and Tantric Influenced Visual Standardization. Mainstream Iconographies of Fierce Female Deities

Goddesses associated with danger, inauspiciousness and fierceness are essential part of South Asian and especially Tantric pantheons, and despite highly diverse backgrounds they share certain iconographical symbols in their representations. For instance, rather general and visual straightforward death imaginary like cremation grounds or skulls, but also more specific and subtle attributes like the winnowing fan and accompanying animals like the crow are almost only connected with deities of fierce and dark representations. This paper points out how and why certain visual attributes dominate the iconography of fierce goddesses and analyzes their highly symbolic potential. It also argues that they serve as standardized visual markings and as such are established, mainstream visual characteristics for dangerous or fierce goddesses across various textual and historical contexts in South Asia, including Tantric traditions.


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