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Chapter 2


Development in the Gupta Period 


The image, standing within its own square shrine, is nearly as tall as the height of the lintel, overlapping the border at the top and probably at the feet where it is damaged, so that it stands about 25 centimetres high. It is the smallest complete multiplex Viṣṇu sculpture known, and is the only one which figures in a narrative context. A man, presumably the leader of the proper left procession associated with the moon god, kneels just within the shrine facing the image, his hands joined in the namaskāra-mudrā, in a clear worshipping posture. Behind him, in the antarāla or antechamber of the temple, stands a servant who holds the pole of a parasol aslant through the shrine door so that the head of the parasol is directly above the worshipper who is thus to be regarded as a member of royalty. Such aristocratic homage implicity magnifies the status of the god and makes explicit its ritualistic association with the ruling kṣatriya class; to this latter point I shall return in Chapter 4.

An iconographic analysis of this image is complicated by two factors: firstly the inevitable weathering of the stone and con-sequent blurring of detail; and secondly, the apparent lack of formal structuring of the very feature which characterizes Viśvarūpa icons, namely the multiplicity of figures or heads around the upper part of the image. It is precisely this latter feature, the unorganized arrangement of the multiple aspects of the god, which makes it unique among the remaining images of its type.

The icon has been described in some detail by Joshi.31 and by Harle.32 A vanamālā curves over the massive shoulders, passes between the front arms and the body at waist level, and forms a loop above the ankles. There appear to have been six arms. Of the front pair of hands, the proper left is lowered to hip level and probably held the conch, while the right seems to have been raised in the abhayamudrā. The middle pair of hands each rest upon the head of a flanking figure; these presumably represented he āyudhapureṣas Gadādevī on the right and Cakrapuruṣa on the Ieft, weapon-personifications respectively of the mace and disc of Viṣṇu (A further pair of diminutive figures flank the god, closer to him than the latter two, probably representing the consorts of Viṣṇu, Puṣṭi and Srī-Lakṣmī.) These three hand-held objects and the abhnyamudrā would conform to the normal iconographical pattern of a standard Viṣṇu image. The super-added pair of hands, however, which usually wield the sword and shield, are raised to shoulder level with no recognizable objects held in them. It may he suggested, in the absence of any similar image as an object of comparison, that these hands were raised figuratively to 'support', and demonstratively to connect, the multiple aspects around the upper half of the Viṣṇu figure to the god: as I have mentioned, there appears to he no organized pattern in the arrangement of these aspects to make such a connection visually implicit, as will be shown to he the case in other Gupta-period versions. Alternatively, and in keeping with the symbolism of the frieze as a whole, these hands may have held up the solar and lunar discs as did the apical Kālarudra in Sculptures 5 and 1 I discussed in Chapter I (Plates 17 and 30)-an instance of Vaiṣṇava borrowing of Śaiva symbols.

The head of the Viṣṇu figure is completely effaced. Harle33 finds it unaccountable that the face 'seems to he that of a horse, or possibly a lion.' In view of its completely damaged condition, this supposition can only be based upon the elongated contours of the smashed facial area. There can be no certainty in this matter, but it must be equally possible that the face was originally carved in the usual human form, surmounted by the typically tall crown (kirīṭta) of Viṣṇu. However, on the assumption that the face was equine, then this is not the Viśvarūpa of the Gītā but the Hayagrīva or Hayaśiras form of Viṣṇu described else-where in the epic. Relying upon Hopkins' study of epic mythology,34  I find reference to the god identified with the solar horse in the Mahābhārata, which could be related to the Gaḍhwā image. Hopkins states:

As sun too he [Viṣṇu] is Aśvaśirā Hariḥ ... for which reason, as the sun-horse rising from the sea, he identifies himself with Uccaiḥśravas, the loud-noised sea (6, 34, 27, as it is said: 'Here (out of the sea) rises the sun with the head of a horse, filling the world made beautiful (by him), and causing it to be filled with voices' (5, 99, 5)... So the Mare's head is at once a demoniac and divine form of fire, identified as such with the sun...

It may be observed in this connection that, whether or not the conjoined 'natural' head of the Viṣṇu figure in the relief is equine, the face of a horse certainly appears to rise above it, as Harle35 has noted. It may even be the bust of a horse-headed figure which is represented above the remains of the kirīṭa: such equine images were carved above the crown of multiplex Viṣṇu icons having a human central face, in the late- and post-Gupta periods (Chapters 3, 5 and 6). Surrounding this apical figure and the conglomeration of disembodied heads which envelops the upper half of the main figure in a more or less circular formation, is a mass of flame. Such an explosion of fire, in association with the horse's head at the top of the composition and the many heads, could represent the dawn-horse filling the world with voices, in accordance with the epic passages cited by Hopkins. There is, however, no proof in any of this imagery that the main figure originally had the head of a horse, especially as the horse-head appears separately at the apex of the composition.

The description of the Viśvarūpa of Viṣṇu seen by Arjuna towering above the battlefield as given in the eleventh canto of the Gītā makes no mention of this form having an equine countenance. Here the emphasis is upon the multiplicity of fares and the dazzling, fiery radiance of the vision. Thus one reads the following, in Zaehner's translation.36

'[A form] with many a mouth and eye and countless marvellous aspects ...'(I 11.10.ab). '[Behold this] God whose every [mark] spells wonder, the Infinite, facing every way!' (11. 11 .cd). 'If in [bright] heaven together should rise the shining brilliance of a thousand suns, then would that perhaps resemble the brilliance of that [God] so great of Self,' (1 I. 12). '... a mass of glory shining on all sides-so do I see You,-yet how hard are You to see,-for on every side there is a brilliant light of fire and sun. Oh, who should comprehend it?' (11.17bcb). '... So do I see You,-your mouth a flaming fire, burning up this whole universe with your blazing glory.' (11. 19,cd). 'Ablaze with many-coloured [flames] You touch the sky, your mouths wide open, [gaping], your eyes distended, blazing: so do I see You and my inmost self is shaken: I cannot bear it, I find no peace, 0 Vishnu!' (11 .24). 'On every side You lick, lick up,-devouring,-words, universes, everything, with burning mouths. Vishnu your dreadful scorching rays of light fill the whole universe with flames-of-glory, scorching [[everywhere]. (11.30).

Here, surely, is the scriptural source of the central panel of the Gaḍhwā relief; and the kṣatriya figure kneeling to pay homage to the image is following the example of Arjuna in worshipping this ferocious cosmic vision of Viṣṇu: '[Arjuna], wearer of the crown, hands joined in veneration, trembling-, bowed down to Krishna and spake again with stammering voice, as terrified he did obeisance' (11.35bcd).

The main connection between the Hayaśiras form of Viṣṇu and the Viśvarūpa vision is the fire associated with both. This relief could, on this basis, represent either: but as there is little or no other sculptural evidence of a Hayaśiras or Hayagrīva aspect of Viṣṇu being enveloped in flames-or, indeed, in a mass of heads-whereas Viśvarūpa sculptures are invariably surrounded by multiple heads and smaller figures, the latter interpretation of this image seems to be the more probably correct. It is not impossible, of course, that the Gaḍhwā figure represents a combination of the two, the horse-headed form of Viṣṇu being here uniquely employed as the central figure of the Viśvarūpa, although I find no scriptural basis for such a form.

My own interpretation of the lintel as a whole is that it represents the trisandhya, the three divisions of the day, at the junctions of which ritual is performed to 'join' the stages of time (symbolically including the trikāla-past, present and future) together: sunrise, noon, and nightfall. Thus the sun as Sūrya rises on the left of the frieze (presumbly the lintel was to be seen from the north) and moonrise occurs at the opposite end as Candra, the course of the day being upheld at the centre by noon, when the sun is in the zenith, at which point Viṣṇu as the blazing axis mundi is manifest. But my other remarks concerning the elements in this composition relevant to later images of the Viśvarūpa type remain, in my view, valid.

Mathura, 400 kilometres upriver from Gadhwa, is the most prolific Gupta centre of sculptural innovation. It is here that two pieces of archaeological evidence are found, both fragmentary, of the prototypical north Indian Viśvarūpa image (Plates 49 and 55).

The larger of these fragments is from Bhankari near Mathura.37 It consists of a torso of a typical Viṣṇu image of classical Gupta style (compare Plates 49 and 42) carved from red sandstone. The arms are broken but examination of the stumps indicates that they were originally four; over them hangs the remains of what must have been a long vanamālā. At the junction of the right shoulder and the neck appears the face of a lion; in the corresponding position on the left, the profile head of a boar lunges upward. There is no anatomical connection between these animal heads and the body of Viṣṇu: indeed, the space between the shoulders of the god and the base of the side-heads is occupied by the vanamālā where it passes behind his neck (Plate 51). Thus far, I have described an icon of the so-called 'Vaikuṇṭha' type, from which this far more complicated image was clearly developed. The 'exploded' photograph of this image (Plate 50) makes it evident that the central figure is that of the contemporary Viṣṇu icon-type with the lion and boar side-heads, illustrated in Plates 40,42, and 43.

The nimbus (śiraścakra prambhāmaṇḍala) of this fragmentary sculpture from Bhankari, is however, greatly enlarged. This expansion of the halo was necessary to provide a surface upon which to represent yet more figures-in addition to the two side-heads-in close association with Viṣṇu.

On the proper right side of Viṣṇu, upon the very narrow remaining portion of this half of the nimbus, only a single figure is to be seen. It appears immediately above the Nṛsiṃha face and could only have been represented from the chest upward; the objects held in the hands can no longer be distinguished. The crown, perhaps the most important feature of this figure from the point of view of the later development of north Indian Viṣṇu iconography is, however, preserved. It is a three-panelled head-dress not unlike that worn by Viṣṇu himself, although less richly adorned. In the proper left quadrant of the nimbus, none of the small figures is crowned. As will become apparent in subsequent chapters, this single remaining crowned figure in the right-hand half of the prabhāmaṇḍala of this sculpture is prototypical of a division between crowned and uncrowned figures flanking Viṣṇu as Viśvarūpa in later icons, which I take to be indicative of a kṣatriya/brāhmaṇa or āsura/daiva division in the developed iconography of these images. As in the Gītā, where the vision of Viśvarūpa arises between two related but opposed armies, the notion of conflict between-or the reconciliation of-two mutually antagonistic moieties is frequently to be found in sculptures of this paramount Vaiṣṇava deity. I have already remarked, in this connection, upon the opposition between sun and moon and the two converging processions between which a Viśvarūpa form stands enshrined, in the Gaḍhwā frieze.

The figure and disembodied heads on the left side of the damaged nimbus may be divided into three groups according to their positioning. The clearest distinction made by the designers of this image is that between the figures in relief on the extensive surface area of the maṇḍala (Plate 54) and those around the periphery (Plates 52,53).

Of the latter there are four, three of which are merely heads, while the second from the top is a bust with both arms preserved, all of which face outward, away from the main Viṣṇu figure and the populated surface of the nimbus. Seen head-on, they appear as a single chain, each emanating from behind the one below it. I shall refer to them, in ascending order, by the numbers P.1, P.2, P.3 and P.4.

Both the first two heads are severely eroded, but certain details can be distinguished. P.1, seemingly emerging from the left upper arm of Viṣṇu where it is overlapped by the vanamālā, is very similar in appearance to the central head of Kuṣāṇa sculpture 8 in Chapter 1 (Plate 25), with a short necklace, pendant ear-ornaments and the hair combed back to form a topknot. Certainly it bears a closer resemblance to the central head of that Kuṣāṇa image than to the faces of the Gupta Brahmā, illustrated in Plate 35, at Deogarh, The neck supporting head P.2 emerges from behind the topknot of P. 1. This second face has elongated ears and a mass of hair, combed broadly across the whole top of the head, to hang in a heavy loop upon the left side; this loop, although seriously eroded, can be seen extending to the very edge of the periphery-the coiffure was thus very similar to that of the well-preserved head at the top of the series, P.4 (Plate 53, top).

Third from the base of this ascending series, P.3 (Plate 52), rises from behind the preceding head and is visible from the waist upward. The hair is broadly combed back to form a wide, flat pile atop the head in a manner very like the treatment of the hair of the three faces of Brahmā at Deogarh. The long, pendant ear-lobes reach down to the shoulders and the figure wears a short, solid necklace. Although the surface upon which the rib cage would have been represented has broken off, the body appears to be somewhat emaciated; certainly the face-like that of P. l-is smaller and narrower than that of P.2 and P.4, which are round and full. The right hand is held against the stomach, where it probably held an object, perhaps a pot, which is now lost. The left hand holds the pole of an object which forks at the top and resembles rather the tridaṇḍa of an ascetic than a triśūla, aslope the left shoulder. The Brahmā like hairstyle, the relative slightness o f body and especially the tridaṇḍa are all features which point to this figure representing an ascetic, very probably an ambulant holy man who originally may have been intended to portray a particular ṛṣi or sage. As a type, he represents most clearly the difference in character between this left-hand side of the maṇḍala and the remaining portion of the right-hand side which, as I have already remarked, is characterized by a crowned figure representative of the aristocracy.

At the top of this peripheral series around what must originally have been a very extensive śiraścakra, P.4 is, like the lower two elements in the chain, merely a head emanating from behind the head of the figure below it (Plate 53). This head has the horizontally combed hairstyle of the type worn by P.2, large circular ear-ornaments and most significantly, a vertical mark upon the centre of the forehead which can only be the third eye associated with Śiva. The face is round and fleshy, with wide bulging natural eyes beneath arched brows, and the mouth seems to be slightly open. This is the best preserved of the four peripheral heads and its features, although not unprepossessing, are those of a raudra or ferocious countenance. This characteristic of the periphery in such icons was to become more emphatically represented, as will be seen in the other fragment at Mathura.

The periphery of the prabhāmaṇḍala regarded as a curved vertical series of figures, each emanating from that which precedes it as they ascend. This construct is inherited from Kuṣāṇa sculpture, a variation of Source no. 2.A. The ascetic figure bearing attributes (P.3) emanating vertically from the head of a lower figure similarly has Kuṣāṇa antecedents (Source no. 3B). The iconographers of the Gupta Viśvarūpa type of image clearly adapted such techniques to their own purposes, namely the provision of an extensive maṇḍala containing many small figures with a ritually protective boundary or rakṣāvali of outward-facing ṛṣi like figure-endowed, no doubt, with the magical powers of such ascetics-in an unbroken defensive chain. The concern here that there should be no hiatus in the series apparently derives from the need for continuous, all-round protection of the contents of the maṇḍala; whereas in such earlier constructs as the Nānd Viśākhayūpa, the basis of continuous emanation was theological, being derived from cosmogonic concepts akin to those of the Pāṅcarātra, in which the evolutionary process must not be interrupted lest the creation fail. The rakṣāvali of this Viśvarūpa sculpture shows no evidence of being an evolutionary series; the earliest evidence of images of the Viśvarūpa type incorporating such a vertically evolving chain of figures occurs in a sculpture in western India, which will be discussed in Chapter 3.

The second set of figures which may be regarded as a distinct group on the enlarged nimbus consists of two rows of miniature figures angled slightly upward from the horizontal (see Plates 49 and 52, 53, left), the upper series being a damaged row of five male figures, overlapped up to waist level by the heads of the lower series consisting of six mate figures. The heads of all but that on the extreme outer edge of the maṇḍala in the upper row are lost, and no evidence remains of their hairstyles. The first four figures of the lower row commencing from the crown of Viṣṇu, however, all have slightly differing hairstyles of the type associated with ṛṣi or holy men, the hair being braided or broadly combed back, sideways or to left and right of a central parting which ends in an upward-combed topknot. The damaged upper figures have their hands disposed in the same manner as the first four in the lower series and may thus be assumed to have been portrayed with similar coiffures. These nine little ṛṣi all raise their right hands in the abhayamudrā and hold a waterpot in the lowered left; this is most clearly to be seen in Plate 53, upper left, where the hands of the fourth figure in the upper row are quite distinctly discernible. The fifth figure in the Iower row is carved to a scale somewhat larger than his companions, appearing only as a head, with the hair arranged horizontally, and shoulders; like some of the smaller ṛṣi, he wears a short necklace. The figure next to him, sixth in the lower row and last of the whole group of eleven (Plates 52,53), has his hair combed up into a broad topknot, elongated ears and a necklace; in his right hand he carries a long sacrificial ladle (sruc) aslope his right shoulder. The number of figures in this group, eleven, suggests that they may represent the ekādaśa-Rudrāḥ; but there were almost certainly more, similar figures higher up, on the now lost upper section of this side of the maṇḍala. The Gītā mentions both the ṛṣi and the. Rudras, among other groups, as incorporated in the vision of Viśvarūpa.

paśyāmi devāṃs tava deva dehe


ṛṣīṃś ca sarvān................(11.15a and d)

svastīty uktvā maharṣisidhasaṅghāḥ

stuvanti tvām....................(11.21cd)

rudrādityā vasavo ye ca sādhyā


vīkṣante tvāṃ..........(11.22a and d)

 '0 God, the gods in your body I behold and all the [ancient] seers ..:

'... great seers and men perfected in serried ranks cry out 'All hail', and praise You.../'

'Rudras, Ādityas, Vasus, Sādhyas...gaze upon You...'38

I cannot identify the members of this group in the sculpture in iconographical terms, but these passages provide a scriptural authority for their massed, appearance in an image of Viśvarūpa.

The last group within the maṇḍala consists of only three figures: the larger (Plate 54- the photographs was taken so as to make the figure appear standing vertically in order to facilitate its study) is angled at about forty-five degrees from the horizontal, partly beneath and parallel to the jaw of the Varāha-head of Viṣṇu, while directly under its jaw appear two disembodied heads, side by side, tilted at the same angle (Plate 54). The larger, single figure has its left arm lowered, but the hand is lost; the right hand is raised in the abhayamudrā. He wears a necklace and has elongated ear lobes; the hair is combed back into a rather flat topknot. Behind the head is a large prabhāmaṇḍala upon the surface of which appear tongues of fire or, less probably, in view of their somewhat irregular shapes and number (at least ten can be counted and a large portion of the halo is concealed by the rakṣāvali figures), lotus petals. It might be suggested that this represents the earliest appearance of the Buddha as an avatāra of Viṣṇu; but this seems unlikely in view of the necklace-it is not the hem of a robe which encircles the throat-and the fiery nimbus. More probably, this deity is Agni, the personification of the sacrificial fire, whose iconography does not appear to have been fixed in Gupta sculpture; the circle of fire surrounding his head is almost directly below the sixth figure in the lower row of the previously described group of eleven, who holds the sacrificial ladle with which oblations are offered into the fire in Vedic ritual. The proximity of fire and ladle is plain in Plate 50. The association of the Viśvarūpa manifestation of Viṣṇu with fire is abundantly clear in the Gaḍhwā relief and in the relevant Gītā passages; the same text also identifies the Viśvarūpa with, among other gods, Agni (11.39). As for the two heads below this figure, they are so badly eroded that, apart from observing that they each have a similar coiffure with the flattened topknot and that they are evidently intended to be seen as a pair in view of their juxtaposition, it would be a worthless exercise to speculate upon their identities or possible dual identity.

Lines drawn transversely through these two heads and the large Agni figure, in conjunction with those drawn through the two rows of ṛṣi-like figures, indicate that a roughly radial pattern, approximately centred on the crown of Viṣṇu. probably formed the plan on which the iconographers organized the arrangement of these multiple figures. But on the evidence of only a broken, quadrant of the nimbus, it is not possible to reconstruct the whole pattern.

The other piece of evidence of the development of Viśvarūpa iron-types in the same vicinity is a red sandstone fragment39 from the Katra-Keśavadeva site at Mathura, popularly believed to be the very birthplace of Kṛṣṇa, the famous pilgrim centre called the Śrī Kṛṣṇa, Janmasthāna. It appears to be part of the rakṣāvali and populated maṇḍala surface from the proper right edge of a Viśvarūpa sculpture. The style is clearly Gupta, but considerably later than the previously discussed large fragment, as advances have been made both in iconographical definition and in the confidence and precision with which the figures have been sculpted. It is an accomplished piece of work, deeply cut into the stone, and it is a pity that so much of what originally must have been a very fine example of late-Gupta sculpture should have been lost. It is illustrated in Plates 55 and 56.

The upper of the two peripheral heads (Plate 55) has bulging eyes, a large fleshy nose, gaping mouth and a tightly curled short beard with wide, upward curving moustaches similar in appearance to the face on the north side of the Liṅga-pentad at Mathura (Chapter I, Plate 21). A short bead necklace hangs beneath the trirekha marks upon the throat and the ears are elongated by heavy circular ornaments. The hair is arranged in long coiled jaṭās somewhat resembling sausage curls on either side of a central parting and is bound about at the top by a band with a large circular ornament. In the middle of the forehead, the vertical third eye is most pronounced. It has no iris or pupil. The lower head (Plate 56), from which the upper emanates, is similar in appearance with the exception of the eyes, which have a slight but definite upward slant and the coiffure, which appears to consist of coiled jaṭās arranged in a circular topknot above shorter pendant ringlets in which is worn a grinning skull or severed head. There can be no doubt that these two peripheral heads are taken from the Śaiva iconography of the time and were probably intended to represent individual aspects of Śiva with specific names and identities. There is a slight angle between the centrelines of the two laces, a vertical disalignment which clearly indicates that the outer edge of the fragment was curved.

The remainder of the fragment, to the proper left of the Śaiva faces and inside the curve which they form, consists of six damaged ṛṣi-like figures. They are arranged in two vertical, curved rows, each figure rising from behind the one beneath it. There are four remaining in the row adjacent to the peripheral faces and two on their left. The hail-styles of five of these figures are more or less intact, and all five are variant arrangements of the, jaṭās characteristic of ṛṣis. All hold the empty right hand to the shoulder or chest in the abhaya or a teaching mudrā, and four of the figures have a kanmaṇḍalu, the ascetic's waterpot, in the left at waist level. As in the fragmentary sculpture from Bhankari, the peripheral heads are much larger than the figures within the preserved portion of the maṇḍala.

There can be little doubt that this is a fragment of a similar Viśvarūpa image, being a portion of the outer edge of the lower proper right side of the enlarged and populated nimbus. In this case, the ṛṣi figures appear upon the side opposite that upon which they are preserved in the earlier Viśvarūpa fragment. The inference could be made, therefore, that Viśvarūpa images at Mathura in the Gupta period consisted of Viṣṇu, with the lion and boar side-heads, surrounded by a multitude of ṛṣis into the midst of which were inserted various figures such as Agni and kṣatriya heroes of Vaiṣṇava legend. But the two images of which only these two fragments remain need not have been identical; as in the case of the animal faces of the so-called 'Vaikuṇṭha' images, the iconography may never have been fixed at Mathura. Elsewhere, however, very precise plans were being made to integrate a large number of individual figures with the Viṣṇu image.

31 N. P. Joshi, Catalogue of Brahmanical Sculpture, pp.87-8 and fig.8.

32 Harle Gupta Sculpture, pp.22-3 and 47.

33 Ibid., p.47.

34 E. W. Hopkins, Epic Mythology, Strassburg, Berlin1915, pp.203-204.

35 Harle, Gupta Sculpture, p.47.

36 R.C. Zaehner, The Bhagvad-Gītā with a Commentary based on the Original Sources, Oxford 1969,pp.305-10.

37 Mathura Museum no.42-3.2989.

38 Zaehner, Bhagvad-Gātā, pp. 306 and 308.

39 Mathura Museum no. 54.3837.


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Oxford University Press 1988