Glossary: Postures in Iconography
What are Postures? | Posture Types Outline | How to Identify a Deity | Glossary: Hand Gestures & Mudras
Body Postures & Asanas:
Postures in the iconography of Himalayan art, generally referring to the position of the legs with reference to the body, often follow standard descriptions of deities found in the original Sanskrit and Prakrit texts of the Indian sub-continent. Many of these source texts will describe a commonly depicted posture but rather than using the same name consistently will use a different name for that same posture. This naming issue has also continued into the translated Tibetan texts and other languages of the Himalayan regions. The postures and the names are not overly complicated. For the most part the names are simply descriptive of the posture described in the ritual texts and relatively easy to follow in the visual forms depicted in Himalayan paintings and sculpture.
Bodhisattva Posture: a relaxed seated posture with the legs loose and resting as they may with either the right or left leg pendant. This posture is depicted in art as synonymous with both the Royal Ease and Sattva Posture. (See Examples).
Crouching Posture: with the legs spread and the knees bent and the lower torso brought down into a crouching or squatting posture. This same posture can be explained with the posterior seated on the ground and the knees raised up in front of the body with the legs loosely crossed. The female deity Pratisara is the best example of the first type of crouching and Vina Sarasvati and Vajradaka are the best examples of the second type.
Dancing Posture: a standing form where either the right leg is raised some noticeable distance above the ground (typical of female deities) or the left leg is raised above the ground (typical of male deities). For deities with multiple legs some limbs from both the right side and the left side will be raised and others will remain standing on the ground. Examples: Vajravarahi, Kurukulla, Shri Hevajra
Flying Posture: generally depicted with the body and legs shown leaping into the air or the legs wrapped behind the shoulders in a yoga posture. There are only a few female deities depicted in a flying posture such as Maitri Yogini and Kacho Karmo.
Kneeling Posture: there are three types of kneeling posture: (1) on the right knee, (2) on the left knee and (3) on both knees. The figure is depicted with the body lowered to the ground with either the right or left knee supporting the body on one leg and the other leg pressing with the foot to ground while the knee is bent. This is considered an active posture and the form is meant to imply that the figure is in the process of rising up. An example of the right knee is Yellow Parnashavari, left knee Blue or White Achala and both knees are represented by Nepalese donor figures.
Riding a Mount: figures are depicted on mounts in three ways: (1) seated in a manner straddling the mount, (2) seated in a manner riding on the side of the mount with both legs facing the viewer, (3) seated atop the back of the mount while the legs are folded in Vajra posture.Examples: The worldly protector Dorje Legpa often straddles the mount, Shri Devi rides on the side of the mount (side saddle), and Manjushri rides atop a lion in vajra posture.
Royal Ease Posture: a relaxed seated posture with the legs loose with either the right leg pendant or the left. This posture is depicted in art as synonymous with Bodhisattva Posture and Sattva Posture. Examples with left leg extended - Simhanada Lokeshvara, Vaishravana Riding a Lion, Svapnadeshaka Tara, Vadisimha Manjushri, White Vajravidarana, Green Parnashavari, Vishva Lokeshvara. Examples with right leg extended - Green Tara, Khasarpani Lokeshvara, Yellow Vajrasattva, Amoghapasha, Chittavishramana Lokeshvara, Yellow Jambhala, Ashtabhuja Tara, Red Sarasvati, Marichi (dharani). (See (See Bodhisattva examples).
Sattva Posture: a relaxed seated posture with the legs loose with either the right leg pendant or the left. This posture is depicted in art as synonymous with Royal Ease Posture and Bodhisattva Posture. Examples: Red Tara, Dhanada Tara, Yellow Tara.
Seated Postures: there are five basic seated postures: (1) Bodhisattva (royal ease, sattva), (2) Crouching, (3) Seated Upright (Maitreya) and (4) Vajra Posture.
Seated Upright: this posture is identical to sitting in a Western straight back chair that is raised off the ground allowing the legs to extend over the front of the seat and remain with the soles of the feet resting on the ground in front. The figure of Maitreya can be depicted in this posture appearing as either a buddha or as a bodhisattva. The female deity Shramana Devi is also seated upright.
Standing Posture: there are four standard ways of depicting a standing posture: (1) with the two legs straight, aligned vertically together, (2) leaning to the left with the left knee bent, (3) leaning to the right and with the right knee bent and (4) with the legs straight and splayed to the right and left (equally). The two postures with the body leaning to the right and to the left are also known as Wrathful Posture. Standing with the legs together - examples: Amitabha Buddha (detail), Kalachakra Retinue Figures, Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara, Marichi, Shadbhuja Mahakala, Amoghapasha (Shakyashri), Chintamanichakra Lokeshvara, Chintamani Tara, Kapali Tara, Krodha Bhurkumkuta (female). Legs spread apart - examples: Hayagriva, Garuda.
Squatting Posture: (see Crouching Posture above).
Vajra Posture: seated with the left leg and foot, sole up, placed on the right thigh and the right leg and foot placed on the left thigh. In Indian Yoga systems this posture is called padmasana - 'lotus posture' - however in Buddhism this is known as vajrasana - or 'vajra posture.' Examples - All Buddha Forms (except for Maitreya in some cases), Amitayus, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Vajradharma, Chaturbhuja Lokeshvara, White Manjushri, Arapachana Manjushri, White Tara, Maitreya (bodhisattva form), Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja, Chintamani Lokeshvara, Eleven Faced Lokeshvara (Eight Fears), Chunda Tara, Ushnishavijaya, Prajnaparamita, Buddha Lochana, Arolik Lokeshvara, Blue-green Vajravidarana, Vishvamata, Grahamatraka.
Wrathful Posture: a standing position with either the right knee bent and the left leg straight or alternately the right leg straight and the right knee bent, giving the impression of the body leaning either to the right or left side. This is an active pose where the posture implies movement on the part of the figure depicted.
Jeff Watt, July 30th, 2010