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Mudra Vijnana: Hand Gestures in the Female Figures of Rani Ki Vav

Indian temples are conglomerate monuments which incorporate many branches of science along with religion. The science of geology, geometry, engineering skills, iconography, astrology, Ayurveda, yoga and philosophical topics are some that can be named. Many temples are studded with infinite number of sculptures in which many of the above-mentioned branch of knowledge are depicted. Though the details are not inscribed in temple inscriptions, the devotees can understand and learn about multiple aspects of science and aspects related to our cultural heritage. Rani ki Vav, a seven-storied stepwell in the Mehsana district of Gujarat is one such monument (upgraded as a world heritage monument now) which has hundreds of well-preserved sculptures. The female figures which are classified as ‘Dakini’, described in the subsequent para are sculptures in great numbers alternating with the main deities which depict unique theme and hand mudras. These Dakini figures are distinctly different from apsara sculptures seen in other temples. The notable difference being depiction on lotus pedestal as semi divines, some in nude form and some well-dressed and positioned on either side of the high-ranking deities. Many panels are associated with peculiar themes of snakes around the body hitting at points that are identified as marmastanas or the places in the physical body where nerves intersect. They also depict small balls that are peculiarly balanced at the pelvic bone region, or above the head depicted artistically as if she is playing with balls. Some show the special hand gestures and sahaja asanas, the simple stretch postures which are essential to the maintenance of a healthy physical body. The author classifies them as Dakinis because they impart moral values and look different from the themes of the usual apsaras of other temples in not depicting dancing postures with instrumentalists. These Dakini figures, some adorned with all ornaments and some depicted like yoginis look beautiful like apsaras but, are not the enchantress or dancing apsaras. They are in many themes related to the maintenance of body, mind and spirit.

The question arises, why health-related issues are part of temple architecture? The answer is that yoga and its branches have always been a part of our heritage. Awareness of the physical body is the very fundamental step before exploring the mind and spirit which resides in the body. One can remember the saying that the figure of a deity can be seen only with a pair of good eyes. Similarly, only when the body is in good condition, the mind evolves to higher perspectives or else it lands up in the domain of ill health. Our ancient scholars understood the value of good health for a comfortable living have given importance in the stepwell monument of Rani Ki Vav. The reasons were, it was not only a source of water but a religious place, frequently visited by

tourists and students pursuing the study of iconography. Mudra vijnana was the easiest ancient and a time-tested therapeutic practice, at no cost. Queen Udayamati sponsored the construction of this step well monument with compassion to the civilians and to promote the knowledge of mudras for the good health and well-being of people as one of the several intentions associated.

The article focusses only on the hand gestures which are the mudras of Tattva yoga branch of the therapeutic science that are beautifully documented in Rani Ki Vav. The fingers positions are very clearly depicted though some figures show an accessory held in a mudra. The theme of the sculptures is not in the scope of this article. Only the hand gestures that are related to mudra vijnana are focused to illustrate the finger positions of various mudras and its significance.

Dakinis

Dakinis are the female embodiment of enlightened energy and goddess of lesser rank. Tantra of Buddhism has lot of representations of Dakini goddesses. Buddhist tantra places Yoginis and Dakinis as heroes of the path of enlightenment. Dakinis are female deities and their human representatives are the exalted beings associated with the revelation of tantric teachings. Dakinis of human form were the female associates of Buddhist siddhas. They are involved with activities of both worlds of samsara / worldly and nirvana / spiritual perspectives. They are the guardians of deeper mysteries of the self and through them, the secrets of inner transformation evolve. As protectors of physical and mental health, they are invoked for relief from physical problems encountered by humans. According to the tantras, they transform the energy of sentients from mundane to spiritual paths. The wisdom of Dakinis imparts special powers to protect the integrity of sacred chants. Dakinis traverse in the sky, are projected as sky dancers and hence a roof is not constructed where Dakinis are present. In Buddhism, they are different from the non-tantric tradition of Dakinis (of early puranic episodes, commonly meaning as powerful and dangerous feminine forms ).

The Dakini panels at Rani ki Vav indicate the Mudra vijnana – the science of hand gestures, which is studied as “Tattva Yoga” an essential aspect of Yoga system.

Mudra Vijnana 

Hand gestures, mudra is derived from the root word “mud” in Sanskrit, which means joyful and that which gives satisfaction. Vijnana is the understanding, the science of mudras. The hand gestures in the dakini figures of Rani Ki Vav look different from the hasta mudras that are used in Indian classical dancing. A study of these different looking mudras revealed that they are categorized under Tattva yoga, a branch of kriya yoga, the science of which is called “Mudra

vijnana”. It is called Tattva yoga because they are associated with the pancha tattvas – the five elements of nature. It is also kriya yoga as it involves the activity of the physical body. Tattva yoga mudras are believed to give immediate effect or relief on the parts of the body, as they liberate energy locked within the energy channels called nadis. They can be held at any time even as the person is sitting, relaxing or walking. However, the effect is more in padmasana (the lotus posture) or Vajrasana which can be seen in the figures of deities. Iconography of deities also observes vaidika mudras. The accessories they hold are in mudras. Mudra is a seal, a gesture of the hand is of three types – Loukika, Vaidika and Tattva yoga.

Loukika mudras are hand gestures are used in the art of dance. These loukika mudras the folding of specific fingers at various finger joints which are named differently based according to the single joint folding or multiple joints of specific fingers are used by dancers to communicate specific meaning involved in the song. They are like visualizing words of the song conveyed through hand gestures that change very fast from one to another.

Vaidika Mudras, when used in ritual practices of worship sessions along with chanting of mantras, are called ‘vaidik mudras. The mantras are translated to visual hand gestures and the practice of it looks mystical practised by priests.

Tattva yoga mudras, Hand gesture used for balancing the five elements in the body are called Tattva yoga mudras. Hatha yoga mudras are those where the arms and hands are used along with the body to apply specific muscle locks along with pranayama techniques. The science of mudra is the finest part of yoga practice that is universal and suitable for everyone for welfare.

Many sculptures of semi-divine celestial beauties at Rani ki Vav indicate the hand gestures of mudra vijnana – the science of hand gestures, which are classified as “Tattva yoga” an essential aspect of Yoga system. They are incorporated in such a way that only on close observation it can be noticed otherwise the panels are usually admired as naga kanya or lady with balls on casual observation.

Tattva Yoga, a part of kriya yoga is a limb of tantra yoga which intends to move the inner energy to higher levels through conscious awareness. It calls for active participation by the person who intends for good health. Kriya yoga means “To try with an effort to do”. It aims as an initial path, bringing about self-discipline of the body and mind to a calmer phase which is a purificatory aspect, a prerequisite before starting on meditation. Tantra yoga has many ways of training the physical body and mind like Kriya yoga, Hatha yoga kundalini yoga, Nada yoga and laya yoga all of which are documented in different temples. “Yogaraj Upanisad” and Dattatreya Yogasastra” describes Yoga is a science of health of body, mind and spirit.

Visualization of the five elements in fingers

Hands have a power of their own. The pattered pose of the hand, the curling, folding, stretching or locking of figures with the thumb or palm constitutes a hand gesture, which is technically called mudra. Hence hand Mudras usually denotes a peculiar posture in which the palm with the fingers is shown. It occupies a conspicuous position among the branches of the science of yoga because it calms the nervous system.

Mudras of mudra vijnana are basically of two categories (1) The ones that focuses on the elements of nature (2) The ones, which help to awaken the power of Kundalini. In Rani Ki Vav apsara panels, the mudras of the former category are commonly observed.

Relation of Five elements with fingers

The goal of holding mudras is to bring about an equilibrium with the five elements present in our system and bring about the higher states of consciousness. Tattva is related to panchatattvas, the five elements. The universe is composed of 5 elements like prithvi, jal, Vayu, agni and aakasa, so also every human body. The healthy distribution of five elements of the universe and the individual physical body are compared at macrocosmic and microcosmic levels respectively. Our ancient Vedic scientists of Yoga had realized that there lies a natural order and healthy distribution of pancha tattvas at both the universe and physical body of humans. Any disturbance, disorder or deficiency in the five elements results in an imbalance, havoc in the macrocosmic level of universe and disease in the human body. Understanding the physical body is the first step of awareness. The human body often suffers an imbalance and these can be rectified by the practice of certain hand mudras for specific periods. These elements are visualized to be located in five fingers of the hand as each area of the hand is connected to an area of the brain. Hand is a vital organ with a tremendous flow of energy. Each finger represents one of the 5 elements. The thumb (angusta) represents the element of fire (agni), the forefinger (Tarjani) symbolises the element of Vayu (air), middle finger (Madhyama) stands for Aakasa (the sky), the ring finger (anamika) for the earth and little finger (Kanista) represents jal (water). Equilibrium in all these 5 elements maintains peace in the universe and health is the physical body. Of the several mudras, some examples are considered here.

The Dakini figures show the activity of holding the mudras. In some, it is specific mudras holding the accessories. Mudras help in creating inner peace, inner strength, eliminate fatigue and anxiety protecting physical and mental health. Physiologically, the basic principles of hand gestures lie in the toning of the nervous system in hand by keeping specific nerves in a stretched position for a specific period. The nerves in the body are mainly of two categories called the central nervous system involving the brain and the central spinal nerve and peripheral nervous system arising from the fingertips of the hands and feet. They are connected to the sensory and motor nerves which join the central spinal nerve and ultimately to the brain. The physiology of mudra vijnana lies in activating the finger nerves and exercised to hold in a specific position for a longer duration. It is an ancient Indian therapeutic and healing method which is a time tested one and proved always with positive results.

The thumb plays a Major role in mudra vijnana. According to the principles of hand reflexology, the top part of thumb corresponds to the brain part. The pineal and pituitary glands which are considered as the master glands governing the body gets regulated when the tip of the thumb is gently pressurised. The elements connected with the other fingers get the impact when they meet the thumb and gently pressurised. The strength of the element enhances when the top of the thumb touches the base part of a finger. The strength of the element reduces when the corresponding finger is bent to touch the base of the thumb. The practice of this science brings about a change in the flow of elements in the body.

The physical body is always in a state of flux resulting in disharmony between body and mind. The disturbance in the state of mind like fear, anger or elevated enthusiasm does result in disturbing activities. The outcome is the response from the misfunctioning of endocrine glands which causes an imbalance of glandular secretions results in ill health. Hands have the power and energy of their own. Holding hand gestures and applying mind on it normalize the energy balance, the bodily secretions and the imbalance of five elements in the body. Physiologically, the basic principles of mudra vijnana lies in the toning of the nervous system in hand by keeping specific nerves stretched for specific periods. The goal of mudras is a higher state of consciousness.

Mudra is a sign language performed at physical basis by hand, sending messages from the body to mind via the nervous system and moving from the conscious to unconscious spheres of existence. The mudras of mudra vijnana are sure to give the aspired results, as the mind actively participates in invoking spirituality and simultaneously toning the concerned nerves of hands and fingers. They help to bring about an optimal balance in the types of energy or prana in the body without generating an excess of energy.

Mudras are believed to give immediate effect or relief on the parts of the body, which can be held at any time even as the person is sitting, relaxing or walking. However, the effect is more in padmasana (the lotus posture) or Vajrasana. Mudras are basically of two categories (1) The ones that focus on the elements of nature (2) The ones, which help to awaken the power of Kundalini. In Rani ki vav apsara panels, the mudras of the former category are commonly observed. Our ancient Vedic scientists of Yoga had discovered that there lies a natural order and healthy distribution of the pancha tattvas in the human body similarly as observed in nature. Any disturbance, disorder or deficiency in these elements results in an imbalance and consequent disease. These imbalances could be rectified by practising certain mudras, for specific periods, as the fingers and its positions are identified with the elements of nature. The natural flow of vital energy is restored in the body, which means imbalances in the pancha tattvas are corrected by regular practice of mudras. Different kinds of mudras are identified with the folding of the finger joints at different positions. Mudra vijnanaa is a natural science of healthcare like the other branches of naturopathy.

Tattva Yoga Mudras in Sculptures

Equilibrium in all these 5 elements maintains peace in the universe and health in the individual physical body. Mudra vijnana believes that these elements in succession co-ordinate with fingers of the hand which controls the secretion of endocrine glands, body organs, and its functions. Mudras are usually held in both hands. Some mudras are by the co-ordination of both hands like surabhi mudta. Many mudras result in the awakening of the sleeping spiritual energies (susupta) . Mudras are many. Only 12 mudras which relate to the elements of nature, that are demonstrated by the divyanganas of Rani ki Vav are chosen for this article. They are: Gnana mudra, Apana mudra, Prana mudra, Acharyamudra, Suryamudra, Mutrasaya mudra, Aditi mudra, Prithvi mudra, Surabhi mudra, Shunya mudra, and Akasa mudra and vayu mudra .

Since mudras are related to peripheral nerve endings and energy is in the fingers, both the psychological and physical transformations it brings are analyzed. According to the masters of mudra vijnana, of the several mudras, Gyan mudra, Prana mudra and Vayu mudra are to be practised every day for fifteen minutes. The other mudras are to be done only when the body suffers a problem.

1. Gnana Mudra

Gnana Mudra: The two fingers used in this mudra are the thumb and the index finger. Thumb is the seat of Agni, the light of awareness. The tip of the index finger and the top of the thumb are mutually touched and other three fingers are kept apart in a straight or relaxed position. A balancing between the agni and vaayu tatvtas are established with this mudra which means the wandering mind (forefinger compared to the movement of vaayu, gets stabilized by the power of the light of awareness) Practice of Gnana mudra gives an instant effect on relaxing the mind and retaining it for long periods. Buddha Holds Gnanamudra in the right hand. The benefits of this mudra are: it sharpens the memory, mental concentration and awakens the spiritual feelings. Reduces negative emotions like anger & anxiety, mental tension and cures insomnia. In the above figure,Vajrayogini as divyangana holds the damaru in gnana mudra above her head and helps to attain Buddhahood. She is the promoter of wisdom.

2. Apana Mudra

Plate 2: Apana mudra in left hand.

Picture 2, apana mudra in right hand holding a pot.

When the tips of the middle finger and ring finger joins the tip of the thumb and the other fingers are held upright, it becomes apana mudra. It establishes equilibrium with the earth, ether and agni tattvas. The benefits of practising this mudra are it facilitates the discharge of waster matter from the body like sweat, urine and stools and purifies the digestive system. It eases the problems of difficulty in labour pain and delivery. In the above first figure, divyan gana holds apana mudra in her left hand.

3. Prana Mudra
Plate 3: Prana mudra in left hand.

Prana Mudra – When the tips of the little finger and ring finger touch the tip of the thumb, and the middle and index fingers are kept in a stretched position, it results in Prana Mudra. This mudra can be held in a horizontal or vertical position in one or both hands. It deals with harmonic compounding of Jal, Prithvi and Agni tattvas. This mudra can be held in a horizontal or vertical position in one or both hands. Instant effects of the vibrations are felt with closed eyes. The physical benefits of this mudra are many like it induces youthfulness, alacrity, improves the overall good health by toning immune systems and enhances the energy levels by regulating the flow of blood in the body. It is Helpful to overcome tiredness and weakness as the muscles get energized and thus helpful in relieving the pain in the limbs. In this figure, the divyangana is releasing the knot of her “kanchuka” the breast band in left hand holding prana mudra. This indicates the release of energy from the knotted or constricted state.

 

4. Acharya Mudra

Plate 4: Acharya mudra in right hand

Acharya Mudra - When all the fingers are held straight and the thumb is slightly drawn to a side and kept near the shoulder or facing the sky, it results in Acharya Mudra. The benefits of practising this mudra are: it increases confidence level, making the person fearless, increases the feeling of sraddha (faith) and forgiveness. It also gives relief in back and lung related problems. In the above figure, divyangana holds acharya mudra in her right hand. She is with the shaman, the master of tantra lineage. The figure prior to this panel depicts a scorpion biting the knee region. This refers to the toxin entering the body and the master is offering a treatment for it. The pulling of beard is a metaphoric comparison of the painful experience and patience with acharya mudra is indicated by the divyangana.

 

5. Surya Mudra

Plate 5: Surya mudra

Surya Mudra – When the ring finger is folded down to touch the root of the thumb and the top portion of the thumb is applied on the middle of the ring finger, the other fingers kept in a comfortable straight position, it results in surya mudra. The elements of agni and prithvi are mutually harmonised in this mudra and usually held in both hands. Prithvi in the physical body refers to the skeletal and muscle structure that gives support to the body. Sun symbolizes energy and the surya nadi gets purified in the mudra. The benefits of practising surya mudra are: It normalizes the blood pressure, activates the body and mind from lethargy and dullness, improves heat in the body, inducing alacrity and activity. Activates the digestive system and helps in reducing body weight and mental heaviness. The regular and long practice of surya mudra awakens supernormal powers in the human psyche. Many panels of the divyanganas holds surya mudra in her left hand. She is depicted nude as unadorned figure is indicative of unadorned state of mind – the Sat chit Ananda.

 

6. Mutrasaya Mudra

Plate 6: Mutrasaya mudra in hands.

Mutrasaya mudra – when the ring finger and little finger and bent to touch the base of the thumb and the thumb is pressing the middle part of both the fingers, middle and forefingers are held straight, it results in mutrasaya mudra. The benefits of practising this mudra are: it helps in decreasing water element in our body, reduces swelling or oedema resulting from the accumulation of toxins in hands, legs or face. In the above figure, the divyangana holds mutrasaya mudra in her right hand.

7. Aditi Mudra

Plate 7: Aditi mudra.

Many figures of deities hold this mudra depending on the elements they represent. The Divyangana depicts aditi mudra in her right hand where the akasha tattva is indicated to be activated and Surya mudra (see plate 5) in the left hand. It may indicate that both mudras are to be practised when unexpected events occur disturbing the calm state of the body.

 

 

 

 

 

8. Prithvi Mudra 

Plate 8: Prithvi mudra.

Prithvi mudra – When the tip of the ring finger is kept perpendicularly on the tip of the thumb and the other fingers are held straight, it results in prithvi mudra. It restores a mutual balance of agni and prithvithatvas. Prithvi in the physical body is with reference to the organs of supporting structure like muscles and skeletal system. Best results are gained when practised in both hands, it builds up energy from within the body in the muscular system. The benefits of practising the mudra are It strengthens the body, it increases the energy level by pumping enthusiasm, removes tiredness in body organs. Prithvi mudra increases the positive approach in life since it establishes a happy mood. The electrical energy in the body is in the tip of the ring finger and hence used in applying tilak on the forehead. Divyangana depicts prithvi mudra in her right hand.

9. Surabhi Mudra

Plate 9: Surabhi Mudra.

Surabhi mudra when the little finger of one hand joins the ring finger of the other hand and vice versa, similarly the forefinger of one hand joins the middle finger of the other hand and vice versa, leaving the thumbs free it results in surabhi mudra. Regular practice of surabhi mudra gives benefits like it controls rheumatic inflammation and sharpens the intellect enhancing spiritual feelings. It regulates the flow of vata, Pitta and kapha. Regulates the flow of endocrine glands, and helps in improving digestion. Divyangana indicates surabhi mudra held above her head which is a tough posture but relieves from the botheration of physical body.

 

 

 

10. Shunya Mudra

Plate 10: Shunya Mudra

Shunya mudra: When the middle finger is bent and the tip touches the palm and the thumb is kept on the middle finger, the other fingers in a relaxed or upright position, it results in shunya mudra. The element of ether (Akasha or empty space in the body) is harmonized with the element of agni. The benefits of practising this mudra are more with empty space in the body. It helps in normalizing deafness related problems, helps to relieve earache and helps in problems of nose and throat related ailments. It activates the skeletal system by helping in relieving numbness in the limbs. Divyangana holds Shunya mudra in her right hand.

 

 

 

11. Akasa Mudra

Plate 11: Akasha mudra.  Akasa Mudra: When the tip of the thumb touches the tip of the middle finger and other fingers are held upright, it becomes akasa mudra. The benefits of practising akasa mudra are: It helps in earache, deafness and other ear-related problems. It helps in relieving diseases of the bones as this mudra helps in re-equipping the elements of calcium in bones. It energises the body by maintaining the health of teeth and heart-related problems. The divyangana is holding a tool in akasha mudra and pressing the point by the side of the ear which has many nerves as it is a marma sthana.

 

12. Vayu mudra

Plate 12: Vayu mudra.

Vayu mudra – When the tip of the index finger touches the base of the thumb and the thumb is placed on the middle of the index finger, it results in vayu mudra. The benefits of practising vayu mudra are: Gives relief in vata related problems like neck pain, cervical spondylitis, it gives relief in the problems of rheumatism and sciatica, flatulence or acidity is cured by this mudra. Divyangana holds vayu mudra in her right hand where forefinger is bent, and thumb is placed on the middle joint. The other fingers are bent as she is holding the Chamara in vayu mudra.

 

 

Conclusion:

The temple complexes of India are adorned with sculptures of several themes related to social, political and cultural history incorporating the heritage values of Vedas, Yoga shastras, Puranas, epics etc. Rani ki Vav reflects the Hindu mind in its religious, spiritual and therapeutic aspects. The mysterious ancient Indian culture with its varied facets of life and love for art combined with spirituality can be seen at its peak in Rani ki Vav Sculptures.

Tattva yoga mudras are an essential part of yoga system, the gestures which regulate stress and bring rhythm and equilibrium with five elements in the body. The nerve endings of each finger are associated with the five elements -earth water, fire, air and sky. The science dealing with such mudras as healers of mind and body and that which helps in restoring good physical health and bring about an altered state of energy flow called Mudra vijnana is depicted in many panels of Rani Ki Vav stepwell. The intention being to guide the travellers and devotees who visited this step well to either fetch cool water or who came to relax in the spacious pillared hall.

The inspiration for the concept of peace in totality was probably drawn from the Sanskrit chanting:

“Bhoomimangalam. Udakamangalam. Agnimangalam. Vaayumangalam.

Gaganamangalam. Sooryamangalam. Chandramangalam. Jagat Mangalam.

Jeevamangalam. Dehamangalam. Manomangalam. Atma mangalam.

Sarvamangalam Bhavatu Bhavatu Bhavatu, Sarvamangalam Bhavatu Bhavatu Bhavatu

Sarvamangalam Bhavatu Bhavatu Bhavatu.”

Meaning - Many there be tranquillity on earth, on water, in fire, in the wind, in the sky, in the sun, on the moon, on our planet, in all living beings, in the body, in the mind and in the spirit. May there be tranquillity in the universe and in everyone.

Reference Books:

  1. Rani Ki Vav The Abode of Bodhisattvas and Dakinis, Rekha Rao, 2014.Aditya Prakashan.
  2. Therapeutics in Indian Sculptures. RankiVav – Patan, Rekha Rao, 2006, Aryan Books International Mudra vijnana – Neelam Pradip Sanghvi,
  3. Yogasan – Arun G. Deshmukh, Manorama Publication
  4. Tantra Yoga, Nada Yoga and Kriya Yoga – By Swami Sivananda, published by The Devine Life Society, UP.
  5. A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook, 3rd Edition – Dr. Jonn Mumford, Llewellyn Publications, USA
  6. Kundalini – The Arousal of the Inner Energy – Ajit Mookerjee, Destiny Books Rochester, Vermont
  7. Mudra vijnana – Neelam Pradip Sanghvi,
  8. Yogasan – Arun G. Deshmukh, Manorama Publication
  9. Tantra Yoga, Nada Yoga and Kriya Yoga – By Swami Sivananda, published by The Devine Life Society, UP.
  10. Mudra Vigyan by PT.Rajanikant Upadhyay,Diamond Books
  11. The Healing Power of Mudras,by Rajendar Menon,Pustak Mahal, 2004.
  12. Tantric Revisionings by Geoffrey Samuel. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers,2005.
  13. Buddhist Iconography, Compact Edition by Lokesh Chandra. International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan.

Buddhism in Rani Ki Vav, Patan: A World Heritage Monument by Rekha Rao

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00Y6UXHPK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i10

Picture credits. 

AIIS.Gurgaon.Delhi.

Private collections of Akhila Udayashankar.

 

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