The Dead, Dying, and Post-death: Visual Exemplars and Iconographic Devices

  • Naman P. Ahuja


Much can be learnt about the varied views around death and the afterlife from Indian visual culture. Architecture, sculpture, paintings, and prints preserve evidence for beliefs and rituals from times past that continue to exert their influence today in many ways. The family/society that people leave behind shapes their afterlives on earth: positioning them in heaven, performing rituals to assist them in their passage to heaven, and even feeding and watering their spirits out of a sense of duty, and in turn, setting standards for exemplary behavior for their descendants. A violent death gives heroes and martyrs a place in heaven, and they are remembered through sculpted memorials across India. Oftentimes, the fear of Judgment provides social control and grounds for ethical/moral behavior. In keeping with those moral values, the living sometimes make elaborate provisions for their memorialization, orchestrating attempts at posterity for themselves and legitimizing their descendants’/followers’ devotion to them through sculptural stelae or monuments. The horrors of the varied hells the damned can be banished to are vividly painted in karni-bharni pictures, instilling a sense of fear amongst the living. Painted depictions of the moment of death of the ardent followers of different deities show that the attainment of mokṣa is guaranteed to those who exhibit the requisite degree of piety and devotion. And paintings of Bhīṣma remind us how he waited to die at the appropriate time so as to secure a better afterlife.


Iconography Indian art Mythology Death Architecture Painting Memorials 


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indian Art and Architecture, School of Arts and AestheticsJawaharlal Nehru UniversityNew DelhiIndia

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