Iconography, Symbolism and Significance in South East Asia

hindu aesthetic
8 min readApr 17, 2021


Harihara (हरिहर) or Śankara-Nārāyaṇa represents a “syncretic form of Śiva and Viṣṇu”, representing an amalgamation between the Śaiva and Viṣṇava cults. According to the 10th century Saurapurāṇa, one of the various Upapurāṇas depicting Śaivism, the Harihara form of Śiva represents a mixture of traits of Śiva and those of Viṣṇu. It was the result of a sort of coaliton between two sects which had so long vied with each other for supremacy.

Harihara, c. 1700, Mankot, Himachal Pradesh. Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the Harihara stōtra is spoken by Yama to his foot soldiers:

gaṅgādharā ‘andhakaripō hara nīlakṇṭha
vaikuṇṭha kaitabharipō kamaṭhābja-pāṇe
bhūteśa khanḍaparaśo mṛḍa canḍikēśa
tyājyā bhaṭā ya iti santhathamāmananti (2)

“Spare those who chant continuously the names of the one who bears Gaṅgā, one who is an enemy of Andhaka — Hara, whose throat is blue in color; one who is the vanquisher of Kaitabha in Vaikuṇṭha, one who holds a kamanḍalu in His hand and wields the battle-axe; the Lord of the Bhūtas, Mṛḍa (an epithet of Śiva, one who is easily pleased), who is the consort of Canḍika.”

Harihara, Basohli 18th century

In the composite form of Śiva and Viṣṇu, the Hari-Hara murti or the Haryārdhamūrti is an amalgam of the Supreme deities of the two principal sects, Viṣṇavism and Śaivism. Hari is always placed to the left of Śiva, or Hara, alluding to the event following the churning of the ocean by the dēvas and asuras, following which Viṣṇu assumed the form of the celestial beauty Mōhini, who bewitched the asuras and captivated Śiva.

According to the Uttarkāranāgama, the Śiva half resembles that of the Ardhanārīśvara form and the Viṣṇu counterpart has two arms bearing the śankha and kataka, dressed in auspicious yellow vastras (pītāmbara), the hair in kirīta studded with precious gems (as opposed to Śiva’s jatāmukuta). Visnudharmottara purana states that the Śiva half must have a Nandi and Viṣṇu half a Garuḍa vāhana.

The Harihara motif can be traced back to as early as the Kushan Empire, seen in one of the gold coins minted by emperor Huvṣika contain the figure of a three-headed male deity, tentatively identified as Hari-Hara for bearing the weapons of both Siva and Viṣṇu in his hands.

Gold dinar issued by Huvṣika with Oesha (Śiva), Kushana Emperor c. 155–190 CE

The motif then developed to a great extent during the Gupta period, wherein we find multiple mūrtis of Hari-Hara from the era that have a single head, the matted locks of Śiva and the crown of Viṣṇu on its halves.

Harihara, head from the Gupta period found at Girdharpur Tila (Mathura), c. 300–399 CE; Archaeological Museum, Mathura Museum

One of the earliest stone reliefs representing Harihara of Chalukyan sculpture from the 6th century is depicted in the Badami Caves in the Bijapur district of Karnataka wherein a standing figure of Harihara hold in His back hands a battle-axe with a snake entwined around it and a conch. The front right hand is broken while the other is in kati-hasta mudra. The clear distinction between the Hari and Hara halves is demarcated by the crown, whose right side is in the jatā-mukuta and the left shows a kirīta-mukuta and the earrings, where the right shows a sarpa-kundala and the right a makara-kundala. In the background, Nandi the vāhana and Umā the consort stand on the right and Garuḍa and Lakṣmi to the left.

Harihara in the Badami Caves, Karnataka (6th century)

For the Harihara form there is not only a germ in the epithet śipiviṣtāya but also in the identification of Rudra and Viṣṇu in passages like ‘om namo bhagavate rudrāya viṣṇave mṛtyur me pāhi’ from the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka (10.75). The textual origin of Hari-Hara occurs in the Vāmana purāṇa where Viṣṇu tells a Ṛṣi that He and Śiva were one, and that in Him resides Śiva, and manifested in before the Ṛṣi in this dual form of His.

Haryārdhamūrti being worshipped as a principal deity in temples is speculated to have resulted from intense conflict and debate between the sects, who then arrived at the compromise that both were essential for creation, protection and destruction. The mahōtsavas in temples with Harihara employ an equal number of Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva traditions and attended by members of both.

Another Chalukyan depiction of Harihara, from the 8th century:

Harihara standing; He wears both a jata-mukuta and kirita-mukuta, with a snake on His right arm , an armlet on the left, a necklace, sacred-thread, udara-bandha and dhoti. The figure of nandi, the vahana of Harihara is seen on the right. Badami, Karnataka — Early Western Chalukyas, 8th century CE. National Museum, Delhi

A description of a 10th c. Kashmiri bronze:

Copper alloy inlaid with copper
10th/11th century Kashmir

The composition of the above rare Kashmiri sculpture relates to the popular Kashmiri Vishnu Chaturmurti and Vasudeva groups that portray the four-armed Vishnu standing in similar pose, and Pal describes this type of bronze group as “emblematic of Kashmir”. The lustrous color and smooth surface of the metal indicate that the sculpture has not suffered degradation through burial — the fate of many bronzes from the area that was overrun by marauding Muslim hordes in the medieval period. The sculpture is likely to have been taken to safe haven in Tibet (following the Islamic invasion and consequent religious persecition in Kashmir), as indicated by the traces of paint on the face, neck and hair, applied during a ritual practise peculiar to this Himalayan region.

This four-armed bronze of the combined form of Śiva and Viṣṇu, standing on a lotus pedestal, with his principal right hand, that of Śiva, in vitarka mudra and holding a mala, the left, that of Viṣṇu, holding the śankha; Śiva’s secondary hand resting on the nimbus of a gaṇa, with Nandi standing behind, Viṣṇu’s secondary hand resting on the nimbus of cakrapuruṣa. Harihara is dressed in a long flowing dhoti with the textile design enhanced with copper inlay, his lips, nipples and Śrivatsa also inlaid with copper, the deity adorned with sumptuous jewelry including beaded necklaces and crown, a long flower garland falling from Vishnu’s shoulder merging at the ankle with Śiva’s beaded garland, a nimbus surrounding Harihara’s head with Śiva’s crescent moon woven into the hair.

A rare 9th century Pallava bronze:

Harihara, South India, Pallava period; 9th century
The carved pillar representing Harihara at the Avudaiyarkoil Temple, taken by Edmund David Lyon in c. 1868. Avudaiyarkoil is approximately 45 km south-east of Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu. The Nayanar poet-saint Manickavasagar is believed to have founded the temple in the 8th century under the Pandyan dynasty, but its present form mostly dates to the 17th century. British Library

Harihara from 11th century Madhya Pradesh (at the British Museum)

Exquisitely detailed Standing Harihara carved from a single slab of buff-coloured sandstone probably from Khajuraho, Madya Pradesh, 11th century (circa 1000 AD). The four-armed god is shown holding Śiva’s trident (triśūla) and rosary (akṣamālā) on the left, and Viṣṇu’s conch (śaṅkha) and discus (cakra) on the right. The crown is symmetrically divided between Śiva’s matted locks and Viṣṇu’s jewelled crown. Specific iconographic figures are shown on each side of Hari-Hara: those on the right represent the incarnations of Viṣṇu and those on the left the manifestations of Śiva. British Museum
Harihara, chloritic schist sculpture from Mysore, Karnataka, from the Hoysala dynasty, 12th–13th century; Honolulu Academy of Arts

A Nepali Bronze of Harihara

A Gilt Bronze Figure of Harihara standing in alidhasana on Garuda (left) and Nandi (right) over a lotus base, holding the trident, rosary, conch and wheel in his radiating arms, wearing a diaphanous dhoti and a sash billowing around his shoulders and with a flaming aureole, Nepal, 17th Century


The composite deity commonly referred to as ‘Harihara’ is mentioned in Pre-angkorian Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions under a variety of epithets including Śankara-Nārāyaṇa, Śankara-Acyuta,Hari-Śankara and Śambhu-Viṣṇu. Harihara, then, served as a visual expression ofthe integration of varying regional styles of rule rooted in the symbolism and power of Śiva and Viṣṇu. The popularity of Viṣṇu in ancient Southeast Asia — and particularly in Pre-angkorian Khmer civilisation (generally defined as pre-ninth-century CE) — was due to the role played by Vaiṣṇavism in the Indian-Southeast Asian trading network. Harihara seems to have had its greatest appeal in Pre-angkorian Khmer culture and it achieved this degree of popularity in no other region of Southeast Asia or India, or indeed at any time in later Khmer history — though the epigraphic and art historical evidence from Cambodia indicates that Harihara continued to be worshipped through the thirteenth century. More references to, and images of, Harihara appear during a two-century span of the Pre-angkorian period (7th to 8th century) than occur over the course of the six centuries of the Angkorian period that follow.

Harihara, 7th-8th c. pre-Angkor Cambodia. In Harihara imagery, Shiva is represented as the right half of the deity, his vertical third eye, lightly incised into the forehead, truncated at the Vishnu divide. This Harihara makes clear the extent to which the Khmer conception differentiated the two deities only in the partition of the headdress into a combined jatamukuta-miter and in the provision of half of a third eye on Shiva’s side. The popularity of this hybrid deity was largely confined to the seventh century in Cambodia. The Metopolitan Museum of Art

The early sculptures of Harihara and inscriptions describing dedications to Harihara are found associated with the ruler Isanavarman I. Isanavarman ruled northern Cambodia and the area around modern Sambor Prei Kuk (the capital of Isanapura), but was interested in controlling the coastal trading area of southern Cambodia/Vietnam — an area that was more strongly associated with Viṣṇu. Harihara, then, served as an expression of the integration of varying regional styles of rule rooted in the symbolism and power of Śiva and Viṣṇu. Harihara symbolized the political aspirations of rulers who were attempting to unify large, and socio-politically disparate, regions of Cambodia. It is no coincidence that in 802 CE ,when Jayavarman II was able to conquer and unify Cambodia, he named his early capital Hariharalaya (the modern town of Roluos, just outside of Siem Reap).

The head of the Harihara from Phnom Da, Cambodia, probably 7th century

A similar construct is applied during the deification of King Kertarajasa Jayawardhana (Raden Wijaya), the first king of the Majapahit empire, who is said to have incarnated as Harihara at Simping, combining attributes of Śiva and Viṣṇu.

King Kertarajasa (Raden Wijaya), the first king of the Majapahit empire (rule 1293–1309), taken from the temple Candi Simping, Sumberjati, Blitar, East Java, now exhibited at Indonesian National Museum, Jakarta
Deified potrayal of the founder of the Majapahit Empire, Raden Wijaya who died in 1309 AD as Harihara, early 1300s Java, Indonesia
‘Deification stele with figure of Harihara, in the Residency garden, Kediri, East Java, 1866–67’ British Library

See also: Harihara, c. A.D. 675–700 from pre-Khmer Cambodia at the Kimbell Art Museum

Standing Hari-Hara, first half of the 8th century from Vietnam or Cambodia, Metropolitan Museum of Art


  1. Composite Deities in Indian Art and Literature, Shanti Lal Nagar

2. The Development Of Hindu Iconography by Banerjea Jitendra Nath

3. Hari-Hara in the National Museum, New Delhi, R. C. Agrawala; published in ‘East and West’ Vol. 20, №3 (September 1970)

4. As in Heaven, So on Earth: The Politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara Images in Pre-angkorian Khmer Civilisation, Paul Lavy 2003, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies vol. 34

5. Elements of Hindu Iconography, TA Gopinatha Rao


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