Nimtala and Cremation : Kolkata

Nimtala and Cremation : Kolkata

I recently received a request from a student of architecture in India for some photographs I had taken of Nimtala Cremation Ghat, Kolkata. He had seen them on my website and wanted them to support his University thesis on devising plans for a new cremation complex, reflecting both the ‘socio-cultural inclusiveness of cremation activity’ and his wish to ‘present death as a reality and a symbol of reverence in Indian context’. He also asked for my views regarding Nimtala cremation complex as a ‘sacred space’.

My last visits were in January 2015, when I visited twice. The complex is only a little way upstream from the buzzing flower market at Howrah Bridge and is reached before coming to the potters village of Kurmatuli, both favourite places of mine in Kolkata. Rather than catch public transport I often walked along the Hooghly river enjoying the activity along the ghats, stopping and having a chai occasionally as well as enjoying the cool breezes which swept off the river.  One of the stops I would make for chai was at the cremation complex.

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A Stretch of Goddess

Kolkate Ganges 2013

The notion that a river can be a Goddess intrigued me even before my, and my son’s,  trip to the Kumbh Mela in February 2013 .

Water has long been considered to be a medium of spirituality and its presence, often as a purifying agent, plays vital roles in many of the world’s religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. There are also examples of stretches of water being considered sacred ( eg River Jordan ), and examples of deities being personified through water. In the UK  Holy Wells and Spas have been used for their healing properties for centuries and, once dedicated to Celtic gods and goddesses as in Aqua Sulis at the city of Bath,  were later adopted by Christianity and named after Christian saints.

That an entire river can be a living Goddess in the 21st Century, and continue to be worshipped and its waters be considered sacred and pristine  by millions of people despite overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to gross pollution, is surely an anachronism.

The map above shows the Ganges as it flows through the centre of Kolkata. Marked on the map are the key locations I had chosen to visit for photographs, both in relation to the festival and their general significance to the local role of worship with the Ganges as a centre of influence. The white line running along the length of the Ganges river delineates the course of the old railway track once used industrially, taking unloaded stocks from wharfs and jetties and warehouses no longer in use. It now runs through shanty towns and slums where families live and children play within touching distance of the track providing much need transport provision through this part of the city.

It also shows the location of my hotel, a good 2 mile walk every day to the Howrah Bridge and Flower Market.

Starting from the bottom of the map, and taking each locality one by one, the following are brief descriptions of each locality.

Adi Ganga

The Adi Ganga was the original route the West Bengal Ganges took on its journey to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Over hundreds of years though it declined, became silted up and communities developed upon its reclaimed banks. Eventually the river Hooghley became the primary river and continues today as the Ganges in name, issuing the waters from West Bengal into the Bay of Bengal in a delta many hundreds of miles wide and together with many other tributaries of the Ganges.

Some reminders of Adi Ganga’s former grandeur remain, most notably Kalighat, a spectacularly dark temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali in which goats continue to be ritually slaughtered in order to satiate Kali’s desire for death and blood. The temple is one of the Shakti Pith ( centres of power ) and regarded as a particularly fierce manifestation of the Goddess. Huge queues of devotees wait their turn to enter the temple, where non-Hindus are not permitted, to witness the slaughter. Against the outside walls of the temple the bodies of the goat sacrifices are gruesomely dismembered, dead carcasses suspended by one leg onto a notch on the temple wall as the butchers do their work.

All around small piles of smouldering ash still issue smoke into the fetid air, pungent incense sticks purify some of the odours and lurid, phantasmagorical depictions of Kali watch over the scene. Queues stretch through the carnage and others come and go, like wraiths in a scene from another century. About 50 metres from the Temple the Adi Ganga slowly flows past, where a modern day Asian version of Charon ferries people across the black waters for the price of 1 rupee, whilst on the ghats there are 2 red effigies of Savitri reclaiming the life of her dead husband Satyavan from Yama, the God of Death.

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A stall holder with a large sun umbrella sells offerings, incense sticks and bright red vermilion powder wrapped in little newspaper sachets. The powder is emptied onto Savitri and rubbed down the length of her forehead, as if re-inforcing her tikka symbol of marriage in her efforts to rejuvenate her husband. Red bangles are left on her wrists and Satyavan’s abdomen as the devotees retire.

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At the same time young boys search the riverbed for coins, using magnets attached to string, guarding their found treasure under their toes or in oversized trouser pockets which bulge as they swing their magnets time and again. Around them dogs gnaw at the bones of goats and fiercely squabble with large raven like birds as decomposing carcasses float downstream. Kalighat is a bubble from another dimension, a tirtha where realities clash and the division between the world of order we occupy intersects with another darker reality.

I spent time on the river bank amidst some of the small dwellings which house entire families. A boy pointed out movement in the water and I saw a snake swimming across the fetid water, its body writhing and wriggling as it made progress. It vanished once it reached the far bank.

Princep Ghat

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My interest in the Princep ghat was fuelled entirely by its incongruous position as being some distance away from the Ganges and positioned virtually beneath the new suspension bridge across the Ganges. Its history is semi-interesting and was built to the memory of James Princep, an English scholar who translated the inscriptions of Ashoka The Great, ancient Emperor of India, in 1841. Restored in 2001, along with a section of the Ganges river banks into something of a recreational area in 2012, it held no significant interest for me and visiting once I did not return.

Babughat

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Babughat is one of the largest ghats on the Hooghly/Ganges in Kolkata. Built in the time of the British Raj it is a memorial to a ‘zaminder’, or Indian aristocrat, called Babu Raj Chandra Das by his wife. Married at the age of 11 Rani Rashmoni succeeded him and continued to manage his business affairs extremely successfully. She often opposed the Raj, especially in matters of tax collection, and defended the interests of the poorest both financially and philanthropically, funding the building of many ghats, temples and contributing to major libraries and colleges. Interestingly she held Durga Puji celebrations at her home each Autumn, hosting all night jatras, (folk theatre). Rather than proceed with charges against her for her defiance, the Raj acceded to her many requests for fear of public opposition and rioting in her support.

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Today, as with many ghats, Babughat is in a state of great disrepair. It is a popular ghat and busy 24 hours each day, partly due to the proximity of the train station and the bus depot behind it. Many devotees come for puja there and it is very popular in the Durga Puja festivities. Because of its size and ease of access many of the larger Durga idols are brought for immersion here. The crowd is subsequently enormous and although personally attracted to the idea of photographing the immersions there, the crowds and the distance from Kumartuli put me off.

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I regret not spending more time at Babughat; it clearly is a major point of worship along the Ganges/Hooghly river and worthy of greater consideration.

Millenium Park

I was looking forward to visiting Millenium Park but in the end saw little there to interest me. It is a long narrow parcel of land between the railway line and the riverbank which has been developed into recreational park with seats, a small fun fair, other rides for children and kiosks where snacks and refreshments can be purchased. There is a small fee for entering the Park which effectively keeps out the poorest members of the community.

There are views over the river but few ghats; it is place for time out in the hurly burly of a frenetic city, with little room for the passion of faith or devotion. I was so disappointed I took no photographs.

Flower Market

Kolkata (12 of 124)

The flower marker at Mullick Ghat was one of the prime draws to Kolkata for me, equal in emotional intensity and attraction to the actual Puja celebrations and the region of Kumartuli. The combination of the three visually rich subjects, each individually powerful in its own right, proved finally irresistible. In considering how to approach the market photographically I was conflicted between trying to represent the natural colours of the flowers themselves or to concentrate on the portraits and personality portrayal of the people working there. Before I made my fist visit I did not know which approach I would adopt.

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After my fist visit there I knew that the stronger images, by far, would be the creation of portraits.  My earliest interest in photography arises from a social conscience that I struggle to find in any defined way any more. Early interest in and love of the photography of the American Farm Security Administration who documented the incredible hardships of families living in the Great Depression in the southern and central plains of the USA has long defined my passion for photography. The idea of documenting such lifestyles with large format cameras has remained with me and I continue to own 5 large format cameras I no longer use. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein filled my imagination and together with a potentially conflicting interest in fine art photography, a dichotomy still existing and represented by the decision I had to make at the Flower Market, my first 2 serious photographic book purchases were by Walker Evans and Brett Weston.

My interests developed along a conventional photographic trajectory into mostly American photographers but also developed a political edge with admiration for photographers such as Tina Modotti and the whole Mexican post-revolution left wing art movement of Rivera, Kahlo and Siqueros, a political interest and affinity still maintained by photographing Spanish Civil War sites with an anti-fascist slant. Years of overwork and controversy have perhaps blunted these ideals but something powerful still motivates me.

The portrayal of workers at the market would fit in with these ideals, as well as paying homage to more contemporary human interest photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado.

The link with the flower market with this project is that the flowers sold there ( and some say it is the largest flower market in India if not Asia ) are predominantly for spiritual use.

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Howrah Bridge

Kolkata Ganges-1999

The Howrah Bridge, built in 1943 replacing a pontoon bridge,  is a cantilever bridge originally linking the two cities of Howrah and Kolkata (Calcutta). On 14 June 1965 it was renamed Rabindra Setu, after the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Indian and Asian Nobel laureate.  It is still popularly known as the Howrah Bridge.

The bridge is a famous symbol of Kolkata and West Bengal and carries a daily traffic of approximately 100,000 vehicles and possibly more than 150,000 pedestrian.  It has no spiritual significance that I am aware of ( though I guess providing access across the body of a Goddess for so much humanity warrants some merit ) but my interest is that it features in the background of so many photographs of Kolkata that it has become almost iconic and mandatory for inclusion in any visual project of the waterfront of the city.

I only ever crossed it by foot but it was always an experience,  with streams of Bengalis crossing in both directions.  The signs at either side of the bridge give explicit instructions for appropriate pedestrian conduct in large letters.  The bridge also provides very good elevated views across the flower market.

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Nimtala Burning Ghat

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The themes of death, re-incarnation and attainment of moksha are fundamental to the Hindu faith.  Rituals around death  ( Antyesti ) are equally important and complex and a description of them can be found here.  Hindu tradition has always been to burn a body on a funeral pyre close to a river;  electric crematoria are becoming more popular and at Nimtala a choice of either is available.

Nimtala burning ghat was founded in 1827.  Electric crematoria were added late in the 20th century and in April 2010 a major redevelopment provided  eight electric furnaces and 8 external pyres for conventional cremation.  An air-conditioned waiting room was also constructed on the first floor.

The burning ghat is situated approximately midway between Kumartuli and Howrah Bridge and it is a convenient place to sit,  drink some water and take breath.  A row of colourful stalls selling flowers, incense and other objects for rituals lined the entrance to the Ghat and a line of people sat on the ground, some with deformities, plaintively asking for offerings. Behind the stalls ran the railway line and beyond that was Bhootnath Shiv temple, established in 1850. A queue of people were waiting outside for a plate of free food; a banana, rice, a small cake and a vegetable mix.

Having seen burning ghats a number of times I am no longer shocked by public, external cremation.  There is something entirely natural about public cremation given the religious and cultural context of India and it would be disrespectful to be negative about it.  Sitting on the seats watching the pyres,  with the Ganges/Hooghley at my back, sometimes smarting from the smoke blown up by sudden gusts of wind and being entirely accepted by relatives of the deceased remains though a surreal experience.  Most if not all of the body is obscured by stacks of wood but sometimes there are glimpses of a stranger’s skin being licked and consumed by the stoked flames. I am perhaps more disturbed by the animals which wander freely around these facilities; goats, dogs and water buffalo, all of which find food from the remains of the pyres.

I was told that the body’s remains are emptied into the Ganges/Hooghley as is conventional at Varanasi, though I have also read that the holy ash can also be collected by the family a day or so after cremation.

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A particularly surreal experience occurred when one of the pyre attendees ( who oversee the cremation and add further combustibles as required, including occasionally what looked to be ghee causing the flames to whoosh up into the air ) came over and asked my name. I told him and he instantly stood to attention, saluted me and asked me to take his photograph. It seemed like an instant throwback into some historical relationship of master and servant; I took his photograph as he requested but explained that he didn’t have to salute me. His colleague, tending the fire in the first photograph, subsequently remembered me on future visits and went out of his way to come over and welcome me back to the ghat on each occasion. This was a really nice gesture I thought.

Kumartuli

Kolkata (51 of 124)

This region of potters and sculptors occupies an area in north Kolkata and was the furthest along the river I had planned to travel.  Rising from obscurity to international fame over a relatively small number of years, thousands of idols depicting Indian deities are produced annually for festivals both within India and also abroad.  Traditionally using clay obtained from the adjacent river Ganges,  sculptures are now available in stone, bronze, fibre glass and other materials.  Deities available to order include those of Durga, Kali, Jagadharti, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartikeya, Viswakarma, Shiva as well as other religious and non-religious models such as freedom fighters, famous personalities and renowned writers.

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I visited Kumartuli most days for 2 weeks during my stay in Kolkata and witnessed effigies of Durga be transformed from straw and wooden frames into  beautifully painted and dressed representations of Durga,  her children and the defeated demon Mahishasura. Not only were idols being created in workshops but semi-completed sculptures could be seen along streets, beside the railway line near the slums and in small courtyards dotted around Kumartuli. Most were covered in plastic to prevent the midday sun from drying out the clay too much or to protect the almost completed forms from being damaged by rain.

The creation of the sculptures followed strict traditions and abides by dates on the Hindu religious calendar. Examples of this include collecting the clay on the Hindu date of Akshaya Tritiya from a river ( preferably the Ganges ) and mixing the gangetic clay with a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis ( sex worker region ) of Kolkata. An important event is ‘Chakkhu Daan’, literally donation of the eyes. Starting with Devi Durga, the eyes of the idols are painted on Mahalaya or the first day of the pujas. Before painting on the eyes, the artisans fast for a day and eat only vegetarian food.

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The sculptures ranged from miniature porcelain like representations to colossal 15 foot high creations, requiring up to 10 men to drag the larger idols from workshops onto lorries for conveying to Pandals or family homes. Once in lorries the sculptures would be securely fastened by rope, covered in plastic sheeting to protect them from rain and, accompanied by the blaring of toy horns and trumpets by small children thronging the clay idols, slowly driven off towards their destinations.

Eschewing roads, many idols were transported from Kumartali by river, using the Ganges/Hooghley itself to mostly cross to the far bank, where lorries would be waiting there, thus saving much time avoiding a drive through grid-locked Kolkata. The skill required to load the larger statues without damage was considerable. Again to much arm waving, joyousness and the blaring of horns Durga and her family, together with the slain demon, made their way across the sacred river to their temporary abodes.

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I had hope to constrain my visits to only this stretch of the river side,  but there was a ghat just a hundred yards north of Kurmartuli which held some important pujas and hosted more immersions of Durga than at Kurmartuli so I found myself extending my original plans slightly to incorporate these events.

A Strange Story of Banana Trees

A Strange Story of Banana Trees

Well the festival has been and gone and I am now at Varanasi at the Yogi Lodge listening to John Mclaughlin over the speakers in the empty restaurant area. The owner is  called Ahmed with a love of western music and regularly Pink Floyd, Doors and other esoteric ( I imagine to most Indians ) tunes blast out. It is the same hotel that my son and I stayed in 8 months ago after our trip to the Kumbh Mela. Ahmed tells me he is going to Canada next March to work there full time; he wants to see something of the West.

The time in Kolkata was a trying time. It rained heavily most days and, with the extreme humidity, I often returned to my hotel soaked to the skin. The regions I frequented were invariably turned to mud or watery gangetic clay,  and spending time at the flower market and the ghats was frustrating,  often ankle deep in a variety of oozing and slimy substances.  The fringes of these areas were also used frequently as latrines so it does not bear thinking about what I was often wading through.  Kumartuli,  the fascinating old region where statues of Durga were constructed from skeletons of straw and covered by clay,  was less traumatic and always stimulating.

I had grossly underestimated the size and importance of Durga Puja festival in Kolkata.  Upon arriving in the West Bengal city advertisements for the Festival were everywhere and the English speaking newspaper pushed under my hotel room door provided full explanations of all the major events,  Pujas and Pandalls across the city and instructions as to get to them.  The corporate nature of the Festival rapidly became evident too;  with most advertisements bearing the name of corporate sponsors including telecommunication and financial services companies.

All around the city workers were pushing hand-carts with lengths of thick bamboo through the busy traffic,  eventually depositing their loads at collection sites of bamboo poles.  I was to discover these poles were for the making of the Pandals which are large temporary shrines created to house the idols of Durga,  often in elaborate and spiritually rich designs.  Although mostly traditional,  more interpretative and modern designs of the Durga legend are becoming common and the newspaper compared Pandals,  giving prominence to the new innovative and daring interpretations.

Despite the feverish excitement,  unseasonable daily rain was causing worry that the Festival would be a washout,  and meteorological predictions of a possible cyclone over the weekend of the festival dampened the mood further.  Kolkata,  a sprawling,  unfeasibly congested city often constipated at its heart by interminable traffic jams,  and breathing the collective breaths of hundreds of thousands of homeless people or those living in slums at the sides of major roads,  was holding its breath for better weather.

The downpours were incessant and heavy.  Flash flooding occurred at the heart of the city almost instantly and dissipated just as quickly as people,  often barefoot in sandals, gingerly splashed through small rivers and seas of water which,  although clean when it fell,  had quickly co-agulated with the dirt and grime and uncollected refuse in the gutters to become sluices of filth and odious matter.  Ankle deep in many places,  it was virtually impossible to avoid paddling through the currents and passing cars created waves which undulated up and down peoples shins. Although extremely wet, Kolkata had avoided the third largest cyclone in history ( according to a newspaper I read ) which had hit some 400 miles away, killing some 30 people. The loss of life would have been far higher if not for the early warning of the storm and a huge evacuation which the Indian authorities co-ordinated. Only Katrina and the storm which hit Bengal some ten years, when 10,000 people died, have been greater in severity.

The legend of Durga Puja is very simple.  The Hindu Gods created a woman to defeat a demon who had forced the Gods to leave their homeland.  The Demon’s only weakness was a vulnerability to attack by a woman,  and Durga,  a synthesis of all the powerful Gods in a female form,  was created specifically to exploit that weakness.  The battle lasted for 10 days ( though in legends 1 day in the God’s chronology is equal to a thousand earth years ) before the demon was smited and the Gods could return to their home again.  Durga,  called the Divine mother,  has been feted since.

I queried how best to approach my task of photographing the Festival.  My knowledge was essentially basic,  and although the newspaper provided practical hints and tips I didn’t really want to travel to and find far flung areas across Kolkata.  I quickly learned that the Metro,  although providing cheap transport,  was often packed to the gills and was at best uncomfortable and at worst horrible.  My task,  as I had set myself,  was to photograph the spiritual nature of Durga Puja and its relationship with the river Ganges.  The Ganga is in itself a Goddess and a lodestone for thousands of devotees every day who swear to its purity,  despite its murky appearance and ubiquitous scientific research which confirms its pollution with untreated sewage. People come every day to pray, bath,  wash and clean their teeth in its waters despite other people,  just yards away,  urinating and defecating publicly on its banks.  Also people elect to die on its riverbanks,  be burnt in open funeral pyres and their remains be flushed into the flowing waters,  a surefire way of achieving moksha,  or Hindu heaven,  and be freed from the travails of rebirth and a further bout of suffering another life.

My locus was to be the stretch of Ganges between the Adi Ganga ( the original Ganges which is now a narrow, festering and polluted stretch of river which still bears indications of its former glory in the form of Kalighat temple and several burning ghats ) and Shobobazar, a little north of Kurmantuli where the clay idols are made for this and every other major festival not just for Kolkata but elsewhere in India and idols are also shipped abroad.  This is  a distance of approximately five miles,  but features  riverside ghats,  the large new Millenium park, the flower market,  the Howrah bridge, burning ghats and Kurmantuli.  These are all connected by frequent bus services and an old industrial railway line now used as an important part of the inner transport of the city,  bisecting slums as it makes it way along the banks of the Ganges.  Although I chose to often walk the riverside,  when the rain was particularly heavy and my umbrella was temporarily overcome, the other options were welcome.

The Festival was divided up into different days,  each of which has a specific spiritual significance and traditional rituals,  some of which occurred publicly,  but many happened in the privacy of people’s homes in the form of lifestyle changes for a day or two;  either a specific meal or abstinence or puja/ritual families followed.  Some rituals occurred at dawn,  others in the evening or throughout the night.  Many of the public celebrations at the ghats were accompanied by the rattling of drums,  the blowing of conch shells,  the filling of holy vessels with Ganga water,  the lighting of candles,  the burning of incense,  the ringing of handbells and the mixing of ingredients,  together with Ganga water,  to create vermillion paste which was then smeared on the foreheads of devotees.  Some of the rituals were reminiscent of those from the Kumbh Mela but others were different.

On one particular morning devotees often in family groups brought banana trees to be immersed in the waters of the Ganges,  which were then carefully wrapped in beautifully coloured cloth,  revered and prayed to,  and I was told that this ceremony honoured the God Ganasha’s wife,  who herself was a banana tree.  The story I was told on the ghats early that morning was that Ganesha,  the popular elephant God, was so ugly that no woman would marry him and only a banana tree would have him.  This was contradicted in another version of the story I later read suggesting that a banana tree would not argue with either Ganesha or his mother,  Durga,  and would not usurp Durga in her relationship with Ganesha.  This seems to be a reference to the universal issue regarding mother’s relationships with sons, and appears to be a Hindu variant of this.

The banana tree is held in much esteem in Bengal but it was strange to see men, always men, wade into the tepid waters of the Ganges clutching their tree, immersing themselves with it and then speaking with devotion and emotion to it before carefully wrapping it in cloth and returning to dry land where the ceremony would continue.

One particular family arrived with a colourful parasol to the great interest of the crowds gathered there. Someone whispered to me that the family were of the royal family of India and lived in the palace of Shobabazar, where a Puja was to held over the festival weekend. I decided to visit the Palace later that weekend, especially so as it is reputed that the whole Durga Puja activities in its present form were first enacted in that Palace to please Clive of India, and other officials of the Raj, in 1757 following the British success at the Battle of Plessey. Incredibly, the Palace even has a Facebook page detailing the Durga Puja events here.

My strategy for photographing the festival was then to spend almost my entire time on this stretch of the Ganges, documenting the inter-related activities and its peoples over the festival period. The other advantage of this was that I could easily transpose from one location to the next in minutes to take advantage of the weather, specific events or the height of the Ganges which is tidal even in Kolkata. A further decision I made was to focus my interest in the idols entirely around Kurmatuli, even though the immersion of idols might be more dramatic on other ghats. Kurmatuli was where the idols were produced from gangetic clay and where I would watch them being returned on the last day of the festival.

As the morning became drifted on I decided to walk back towards the flower market, but the rat tat of drums continued as more banana trees continued to brought to the Goddess Ganga; I was told this procession of offerings by many independent families would go on throughout the morning and even to the early afternoon.

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Kolkata Flower Market

Kumartuli Artisans

Along the Ghats from the Adi Ganga to Shobazar

Adi Ganga

Religious Iconography