Smithsonian Journeys India Issue

The Secret Language of Hands in Indian Iconography

Unlock the meaning of these ancient gestures

A woman performs the Namaskara gesture, a traditional Indian greeting with hands in front of chest and a slight bow. (Martin Harvey/Corbis)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

There is no one key to unlocking the mysteries of India, a nation at once so traditional and so dynamic, so anarchic and so arresting. But mudra, the gestural vocabulary used in imagery, dance, and yoga, can help. With root meanings in a verb that can signify cleansing and purification as well as satisfaction and delight, mudra is used in Indian rhetoric to denote “the expression of things by their right names.” More concretely, a mudra is a seal or an emblem. As a system of hand gestures, it can sum up a god’s or goddess’s character—or a dancer’s mood—in a moment of concentrated symbolism and meaning.

What follow are illustrations of some of the most common mudras used in Indian iconography, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain. Understanding these symbols can enable a visitor to make sense of who’s who in a prolifically carved Hindu temple, or give an indication of the message conveyed in a brightly printed calendar hanging behind a shopkeeper’s counter. The attentive visitor may even see reflections of these ancient gestures in the everyday bearing of ordinary people, whether the truck driver, the waiter, or the temple priest.

“Consciousness or Deliberation Mudra”

Known as Chin or Vitarka Mudra. This touch of the thumb and forefinger evokes mind and mindfulness. A yogi will assume this gesture—accompanied by outstretched arms and upturned palms resting on knees—while meditating in the lotus position. Or the dreadlocked god Shiva, with a crooked elbow and a vertical palm, might use this while explaining yoga to his consort Parvati.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus