Circle of Flames

Tracing the 'prabhavali' - sacred circles around deities (1000 – 1999 A.D)

Devi Saraswati (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum

What is a 'prabhavali' ?

The word prabhavali literally means a 'circle of flames' or 'garland of light'. It represents an exquisite, ornamental arch that can be seen behind deities in most Hindu temples and homes in India.  A majestic Devi Saraswati, made from bamboo, 20th century, is presented here.

Figure of Nataraja (1500/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Aura of the deity

Prabhavali the most important backdrop to an idol represents the aura of the main deity.  It gives the god-figure a powerful presence and an air of  divinity. Prabhavali is derived from the Sanskrit words "prabha" meaning 'lustre' or 'light' or 'shine', 'vali' means 'circle'. 

Seated Buddha from Gandhara (100/299)British Museum

History of the 'prabhavali'

Also known as siras chakra, it's origins in India have been traced to Gandhara Art when it was a simple plain halo. During Saka-Kushana period it was a scalloped border.  It became ornamental during Gupta times. Medieval times saw different variations to decorate the icons.

Vishnu (12th Century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Wheel as the sun symbol

The idea of the siras chakra  was born from wheel which is taken as the symbol of the Sun. Further, Vaishavism has a major role in development of the prabhavali. The decorative ornaments together with the striking crown of Lord Vishnu is responsible for this concept.

Wooden figure of Krishna (1800/1800)British Museum

A beautiful arch

The arch could have a yali, a mythical creature on the top centre. The arches stand very majestically behind idols like a beautiful frame. A prabhavali has two columns on either side and an arch above. Here is an exquisite wooden figure of Lord Krishna from the 19th century.

Vishnu and his avatars (11th century) by UnknownArt Gallery of New South Wales

Sculptures on the arch

The emblems of the deity are sometimes sculpted on each side. The shankha and chakra are found in prabhavali of Lord Vishnu, sometimes his ten avataras are depicted. Presented is a figure from Khajuraho of Lord Vishnu in sandstone from the 11th century.

Goddess Durga (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum

The Salar Jung Museum collection

The museum has figures of different deities with a prabhavali from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in different media. The Goddess Durga here is made in ivory, from the 20th century.

Presented are some more unique and beautiful examples.

Let's see some magnificent prabhavalis !

Figure of Nataraja (1500/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Nataraja

A Chola bronze Nataraja figure with an extremely simple prabhavali in oval shape with 13 stylised tongues of flame issuing out of it at regular intervals. The figure of Shiva stands on the apasmara purusha lying over the flat portion of  lotus pedestal, dated to 15th century. 

Vishnu in Sambhanga posture (1100/1199)Salar Jung Museum

Lord Vishnu

Standing figure of Lord Vishnu in samabhanga posture with shanka, chakra, gada and lotus in four hands and a prabhavali at the back. A figure of Garuda near the right side and the image of Sridevi holding a lotus at the left side, Chalukya, dated to 12th century. 

Mahishasura-mardini (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum


Goddess Durga as Mahishasuramardini, with a prabhavali; loop like and serrated at the outer edge ending in a geometrical motif at the top. A folk figure, from South India, dated to the 19th century.

Bodhisattva (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum


A seated Bodhisattva having four arms with small figures on either side of the base and a tortoise under his right foot. Drapery over both the arms ends in curved folds, the prabhavali is detachable, fitted into a socket at the back, Nepal, dated to 20th century.

Nataraja (1501/1599)Salar Jung Museum


Figure of Nataraja standing over apasmara purusha with an ornate prabhavali dotted with tongues of flames, the back left and right hand holding a damaru and flame, front right and left hands in abhaya mudra and bhujanga trasa, made in bronze, from the 16th century.

Ganesha (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Lord Ganesha

A wooden figure of Lord Ganesha from South India from the 19th century. He is flanked by two attendants. His vehicle mooshaka is also seen, the prabhavali  is ornate and round with flames at regular intervals.

Durga (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Goddess Durga

This image is of Goddess Durga, possibly of the 19th century from the Andhra region. The image has a very elaborate prabhavali reminding one of Kakatiya workmanship and culminates in a lotus bud on the top. The image shows the deity sitting in padmasana over a pedestal.

Ganesha (900/999)Salar Jung Museum

Lord Ganesha

Bronze figure of Lord Ganesh seated on a lotus elevated throne. The head gear is a kiritamukuta and he is shown having four arms. He holds a parasu in his upper right hand, an indistinct object in his upper left hand, Pala School, dated to the 10th century.

Lord Vishnu (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum

Lord Vishnu

Standing figure of four handed Lord Vishnu, holding emblems, flanked by two female figures, elaborate prabhavali with ornamental circles and flame images, made from sandalwood, India, dated to the 20th century.

Seshasayi Vishnu (1400/1499)Salar Jung Museum

Seshasayi Vishnu

Lord Vishnu lying on sesha with two consorts attending upon him. From his navel shoots up the lotus stalk on which sits four headed Brahma. He holds chakra and the sankha in his right and left hands, The prabhavali culminates in a kirtimukha, Vijayanagara, from the 15th century.

Govardhan-dhari (1300/1399)Salar Jung Museum


Eight handed Krishna with two hands positioned to hold the flute, one right hand holds the gada, another right hand supports an upper structure Govardhan hill (giri) with a finger. Two cows down the pedestal, made in bronze, from Western India, dated to the 13th/14th century.

Jaina Prabhavali (1300/1399)Salar Jung Museum

Jaina prabhavali

An arched prabhavali without main figure depicts 19 seated Tirthankaras in circles around the prabhavali. Two figures on top, at the bottom right side is a seated female deity and at the left a male deity. A crown for the main figure, in brass, from Karnataka, from 14th century.

Rishabanatha (1000/1099)Salar Jung Museum


Tirthankara in bronze, Lord Rishabhanatha shown seated on a throne like seat in meditation with a male and a female devotee seated in front of him, two jinas standing on either side of him on the prabhavali,  a kalasha on top, Western India, dated to the 11th century.  

Temple lamp (1775/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Temple lamp

An oil temple lamp, with a 'Nandi' figure having an prabhavali around with wick holders, and circular supports, in bronze, from South India, dated to the late 18th century. 

Jaina prabhavali (1100/1199)Salar Jung Museum

Jaina prabhavali

There are seven wheels on the top of the prabhavali in arc shape. An umbrella is carved in the centre with elephant on either side. This prabhavali is probably a fragment of a temple piece, made in marble, from Gujarat, dated to the 12th century.

Prabhavali (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum


Bronze pedestal with a detachable prabhavali. Three human face masks on the front of the pedestal, from South India, dated to the 18th century.

Prabhavali (1400/1499)Salar Jung Museum


A bronze prabhavali with ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, divided by a 'Yali' in the center. Yali figure is on the top of prabhavali, winged devotee on the bottom left, from Vijayanagara dynasty, South India, dated to the 15th century.

Pendant (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum


Leaf shaped metal pendant of a shivalingam said to be a part of tribal jewellery, a serpent hood on the top portion, above the serpent hood a human face is depicted, made in metal, from India, dated to the 20th century.

Credits: Story

Text and Curation : Soma Ghosh
Photography : M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali
Research Assistance : Dinesh Singh and E. Rajesh. 
Project Direction: Dr. A. Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India.

References –
Padma Sudhi Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 66, No. 1/4 (1985), pp. 249-257 (9 pages)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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