Yoga in Stone - Some of the Earliest Sculptural Representation of Yoga Postures

A vast yogic sculptural treasure lay forgotten in hundreds of early temples across India. Here are a few important ones.

Vijay Sarde
| 9 min read
May 17, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Nātha sampradāya is a millennia-old Śaiva ascetic tradition of yogīs. It is believed that the foundation of the sampradāya took place from the 11th to 12th centuries with the amalgamation of various tantra and Śaiva traditions. The geographical expanse of the Nātha sampradāya is vast—Nātha shrines are found from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and from Nepal to Tamil Nadu. The Nātha yogīs revere Matsyendranātha and Gorakṣanātha as the foremost yogīs of the sampradāya. Traditionally, Gorakṣanātha is considered to be the disciple of Matsyendranātha.  

The Nātha yogīs were pioneers of haṭha yoga practices, as proved by unnumerable literary and archaeological records. Some of the earliest known depictions of āsanas appear in Nātha or Nātha related shrines (as will be shown in this article). Some of these āsanas appear much later in our textual records. Further, the canonical haṭhayogic bandhas—mūlabandha, jālandharabandha, and uḍḍīyānabandha—first appear in Nātha texts, e.g. Gorakashshataka, dating from the 12-13th century. Even the advanced praṇayāma practices such as sūryā, śītalī, ujjāyī and bhastrī first appear in the Nātha texts. The canonical 14th century text of haṭha yoga, Haṭhapradīpikā, also belongs to the Nātha sampradāya.

As an archaeologist mapping the early archaeological landscape of the Nātha yogīs in western India, I will discuss two temples in Maharashtra belonging to the Nātha tradition where some of the earliest known yoga postures appear in our archaeological record:  the Māṇakeśvara temple at Jhodge in Nashik District and the Brahmanātha temple at Parunde in Pune district.

Māṇakeśvara temple, Jhodge

The Māṇakeśvara temple is located on the Mumbai-Agra National Highway in the northeast of Malegaon. This Śiva temple was built in the 12th century in the Bhūmija style. Due to the identification of an image of Matsyendranātha on this temple, the early activities of Yoga prevalent in the Nātha tradition can be ascertained. Along with the image of Matsyendranātha, there are sculptures of a Yogī in various yoga poses—Kukkuṭāsana, Vajrāsana, Kubaḍīāsana, Brahmāsana, etc.

The above image is of a Yogī in the toraṇa (arch-like structure) above the devakoṣṭha. A fish is shown below the Yogī indicating that it is Matsyendranātha. Other Yogīs have been shown on the temple, but Matsyendranātha is depicted on the devakoṣṭha,1 which shows his significance. The image is small, fragile, and defaced. He is depicted with karṇakuṇḍala. He places his right foot on the ground, and his left hand is on the knee.2

Brahmāsana/Phaṇindrāsana: In this posture, the Yogī places both his legs behind his neck and is shown with his two hands touching the ground. This posture is believed to be similar to that of phaṇindrāsana, pāśinī mudrā, skandhāsana and dvipādasirāsana.

Kukkuṭāsana: There is an image of a Yogī seated in Kukkuṭāsana on the jaṅghā portion. He is shown with hands inserted between his thighs, holding up and balancing his body.

Vajrāsana: A Yogī is depicted in Vajrāsana seated on his knees with a hand placed on each.

Kubaḍī āsana: The Yogī is seated in kubaḍī āsana depicted on the jaṅghā portion. In this āsana, the Yogī is seated in padmāsana and resting on the support of a kubaḍī (crutch).

Apart from these, there are several other āsanas carved on this temple, such as ardhaparyaṅkāsana, ardhapadmāsana, and gomukhāsana. These are some of the earliest known depictions of Yoga postures in our archaeological record, and therefore this temple is of historical importance. However, despite its significance, the temple is in an advanced state of disrepair and decay. Urgent work is required to restore and repair this temple, probably under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Brahmanātha Temple, Parunde (Pune District)