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

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.

“No Fear Mudra”

Known as Abhaya Mudra. A gesture familiar from statues of the Buddha, it’s also used by the fearsome Hindu goddess Durga as she looks out at you while riding a tiger. It’s commonly employed as well in modern daily life—to calm a crowd, or an impatient traveler.

“Giving Honor Mudra”

Known as Namaskara Mudra. Probably the most familiar gesture in all of Indian physical culture. This can be a deeply felt sign of reverence or simply a polite form of greeting.

“Earth-Touching Mudra”

Known as Bhumisparsha Mudra. Another signature gesture of the meditating Buddha. He is said to have touched the soil like this at the moment he simultaneously attained enlightenment and came back to Earth. Shiva, Hinduism’s great erotic-ascetic god, can also be found in this posture.

“Meditation Mudra”

Known as Dhyana Mudra. The archetypal, centered position of contemplation. Hands are held still in the lap, between the upward-facing soles of the feet in lotus position, exemplifying symmetry and stillness.

“Index Finger Mudra”

Known as Tarjani Mudra. Indicates anger, but do not fear. Raised by a guardian spirit at a temple doorway, or in the iconography of a terrifying goddess like Durga or Kali, the finger is meant to point away from you and vanquish what would harm you.

“Giving Mudra”

Known as Varada Mudra. You’ll often see this in statues of the standing Buddha as well as in calendar-art prints of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, which are often posted by the cash box in Indian shops.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.