Mudras: Where the Hands Tell a Story

01
of 09

What is a Mudra?

Mudras at Delhi Airport
The Mudra artworks at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

A Mudra is a symbolic hand gesture used in Hindu and Buddhist iconography, performing arts, and spiritual practice, including yoga, dance, drama, and tantra.

Taking stairs down to the immigration at the grand Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, the wall mounted hand gestures catch every traveler's eye. Not just a piece of art, these gestures are often used in the Indian classical dances to depict creatures and situations. Even in Yoga – physical, mental, and spiritual practices that aim to soothe and pacify a person – these gestures are used during meditation that directs the flow of energy into one’s body.

There are a total of 28 mudras in the Abhinaya Darpan or the The Mirror of Gesture written by Nandikeshvara, a 2nd century Hindu sage and theorist on stage-craft. It mentions that the dancer should sing the song by the throat, express the meaning of the song through hand gestures, show the state of feelings by eyes and keep track of the time with feet. From the Natya Shastra, the ancient Hindu treatise on the performing arts written by sage Bharata, this quotation is often taught to Indian classical dancers:

Yato hasta stato drishti (Where the hand is, the eyes follow),
Yato drishti stato manaha (Where the eyes go, the mind follows),
Yato manaha stato bhava (Where the mind is, there is the expression),
Yato bhava stato rasa (Where there is expression, there is mood i.e., appreciation of art).

The mudras, thus help the dancer to express and tell their story. While some mudras, as depicted, are from the dance family, some are from the yoga family as well. 

02
of 09

The Open Palm Mudra

The Open Palm Mudra
The Open Palm Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

In Yoga, the flat palm is often used during Shavasana (corpse pose) in which the person lies on his back and relaxes with palms facing upwards. Medically, palms are also a release point for body heat and warmth. A peculiar Buddha statue that is found in many houses also has the same mudra and is called the Abhaya mudra, which is a blessing for being fearless.

03
of 09

The Tripataka Mudra

Third finger bent mudra
Third finger bent mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

This third finger bent mudra is known as the 'Tripataka' in Indian classical dance forms that depicts three parts of a flag. This hasta (hand) mudra is generally used to depict a crown, tree, pigeon, and arrow among other things in dance forms like Kathak and Bharatnatyam.

04
of 09

The Chatura Mudra

Chatura Mudra
The Chatura Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

When the thumb is held at the base of the index, middle and the third finger, we get the 'Chatura' hasta (hand) mudra. It is used to depict gold, grief, lesser quantity and wittiness in the Indian classical dance forms.

05
of 09

The Mayura Mudra

The Mayura Mudra
The Mayura Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

In Pataka hasta mudra when you bring together the tips of the ring finger and the thumb, the Mayura mudra is formed. The word 'mayur' means peacock and is often used to depict the bird, but in Indian classical dance forms, it is can also be used to depict decorating the forehead, someone very famous or even putting kajal or kohl in one’s eye. In yoga, this mudra is called the Prithvi (Earth) mudra. Meditating in this mudra helps increase patience, tolerance, and concentration. Also, it helps reduce weakness and dullness of mind.

06
of 09

The Kartari-mukha Mudra

The Kartari-mukha Mudra
The Kartari-mukha Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

This particular hasta-mudra is known as the kartari-mukha (scissor’s face) mudra. It is used to depict corner of the eye, lightening, a creeper or disagreement in Indian classical dance forms. In yoga, this mudra can be accompanied with padmasana. It is believed to improve your immune system and eye power.

07
of 09

The Akash Mudra

The Akash Mudra
The Akash Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

This mudra increases the space or Akash element within the body. It is formed by joining together the tips of the thumb and the middle finger. Practicing this mudra during meditation helps replace negative emotions with positive ones. It is meant to help concentration and achieving the other energies in our body too.

08
of 09

The Pataka Mudra

The Pataka Mudra
The Pataka Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

In Indian classical dance forms, the open palm or flat palm mudra usually depicts a flag and is known as Pataka. There is a very small difference in the Pataka and the Abhaya or ‘be brave’ mudra. In the former, the thumb is joined to the side of the forefinger. In the classical dance forms, it is often used to express what the Abhaya mudra depicts.

09
of 09

The Nasika Mudra

The Nasika Mudra
The Nasika Mudra - at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3) in Delhi. Photo (c) Subhamoy Das

This Nasika mudra is used in the anulom-vilom or alternate nostril pranayama breathing technique. It is important to fold in the index and middle fingers because this stimulates specific ‘nadis’ or veins in your body, and this adds value to your pranayama practice. It is useful for improving breathing and concentration.