The images of most Hindu and Buddhist deities can be identified through a combination of features-the way they sit or stand, their clothing and ornament, and who or what accompanies them. The presence (or absence) of multiple heads and limbs, the position of hands, the objects they hold, and the colors are further clues. These features, known as attributes or cognizances, together make up a deity's imagery or iconography (literally, "drawing of an icon"). The iconography is prescribed in ancient religious texts, and images must be made accordingly. As guides, artists sometimes prepare manuals in which they sketch the iconography of various deities and note the appropriate colors.
Diverse positions of the hands, known as mudra, symbolize a range of emotions, conditions, and situations-charity, reassurance, meditation, teaching, argument, and more. What the gods hold in their hands-a sheaf of grain, a book, a weapon, or other device-indicates their personality, functions, and powers, and helps to identify them. A greater range of these characteristics can be shown when there are multiple heads and arms.
The way the gods and goddesses sit or stand are also important identifying features. In addition, various associated animals, birds, and other beings known as mounts or vehicles (vahana) distinguish the deities. For example, a humanized bird, Garuda, accompanies Vishnu, the bull Nandi is Shivas companion, a queer little mouse or rat stays close to Ganesha, and Chamunda squats on human figures.