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Chapter 5



Turning from Śamalājī and Parel in western India to the seventh eighth century period in central north India, one sculpture in particular stands out as the most original, and possibly prototypical multiple image of the generic type termed 'Viśvarūpa' in this book. This is the icon of Viṣṇu Viśvarūpa at Deogarh in Uttar Pradesh (Plates 63 and 64). Its design and iconography appear to derive mainly from Śamalājī and Mathura, while its past-Gupta style is executed in the distinctive idiom of Deogarh itself. There are also unmistakable signs of a north-western influence. From this coalescence of form and iconography from different regions expressed in a conservation local style, there emerges an image which gives every appearance of being, if not the immediate prototype, at least a representative sculpture displaying all the experimental features to be found-modified in greater or lesser degree-in all other known Viśvarūpa icon-types of north India that can be dated in the eighth century or later. Because of its complexity, I include here a key diagram of the image (Figure 51), with letters and numbers identifying the various component figures.

This sculpture shows even sign of having been a true sculptural and iconographical experiment in the sense that it seems unlikely ever to have been intended for worship in a temple. It was, or in my opinion turned into, a mere exercise, As no successor images of the type have been found at Deogarh, it seems likely that the project-if there really was one-to develop an icon suitable for ritual worship at Deogarh was discontinued after this initial failure. The Śamalājī image, some 250 years earlier, may well have been the result of a similar series of trial sculptures which have not been found; or perhaps the failures were broken up when an acceptable formula had been worked out which successfully combined an iconographical conception initiated at Mathura with the local Vaiṣṇava cult view of a Viśvarūpa image of their god in terms of their own sculptural techniques. Certainly the Śamalājī image appears too fluent to have sprung straight from the drawing-board, so to speak, into an image which was to be imitated for generations afterward;1 there must have been a considerable amount of experimentation. The Śaiva heptad at Pare1 was also an experiment, but so well executed that it seems to have been abandoned for diffierent-  religious-reasons, as I have suggested.


A - Brahmā

K - Garuḍa

W - Matsya

B - Hayagrīva

L  - Lakṣmī      

K- Kūrma

C - Śiva

M - Bhūdevī     

Y -Varāha

D - Agni

NN - Nāgas

Z - Nṛsiṃha

E - lndra

O - Cakrapuruṣa

1-6(R.) Vṛṣṇivīras (?)

F - Yama


P - Independent


1-7(L.). Saptarṣis

Fig. 5.1 The Deogarh Viśvarūpa. Key diagram

Here at Deogarh, I think that the reason for failing-though the sculpture remains, in my view, a magnificent failure--was simple: two minds, differently trained, were brought to bear upon a single problem. One of these minds was Kashmiri, or at least came from the north-west, while the other was indigenous. The problem was to devise a Viśvarūpa icon of Viṣṇu using both of their inherited skills in addition to what was known of the successful formulations of Mathura and Śamalājī. The end result was catastrophic in that their differences of opinion, so clearly evidenced in this sculpture, led to the idea being given up completely, so that there never was a fully developed Viśvarūpa Viṣṇu icon of the Deogarh school. However, the attempt was considered worth finishing, and the lessons learned in the process appear to have borne fruit elsewhere, principally at Kannauj to the north. This sculpture thus represents all the evidence we have to connect the Vaiṣṇava Viśvarūpa iconographic tradition of northern and western India during the Gupta period with that of the north in the Gurjara-Pratihāra period, which saw the final formulation established at Kannauj and thence transmitted throughout the north. The Deogarh experiment took place between the decline of the Guptas and the rise of the Gurjara-Pratihāras at some point during the eighth century: it is difficult to be more precise because the sculpture is executed in the local style of the sixth century, some parts of it being copied directly from the panels of the famous 'Daśāvatāra' Viṣṇu temple at the foot of the hill on which the sculpture was discovered.2 This archaising tendency tempts one at times to place an earlier date on the piece3 but the conception of the image and certain iconographic features are definitely not Gupta.

That this was an experimental sculpture and not a final version intended for a temple is demonstrated by several factors. The plinth or base is far too narrow to have lowered the centre of gravity sufficiently to allow the image to be free standing-when excavated and set on stone blocks4 it had to be leant against a wall; nor is it pierced at any points which would have facilitated its fixture against an interior wall. It is also the wrong shape for an external wall panel, being cut in the shape of an oval except at the base, instead of being rendered in high relief upon a rectangular slab. (The Śamalājī mage, and that at Parel, have fairly massive bases which could be seated in or on a temple floor.) Nor was any sign of a tenon projecting downward under the plinth discovered. Secondly, the placing of the many figures in and around the large prabhāmaṇḍala is quite haphazard, leaving some areas crowded while other surfaces have had to be left plain. This indicates the absence of a properly drawn up plan by which to locate the figures in a significant pattern: a complete contrast to the careful planning behind the Śamalājī image and the Parel heptad. At the same time, a definite conception which the image was intended to express can be detected, as I shall explain below. The essential intermediate stage between the conception and realization of the image namely precise diagrammatic planning--was evidently only half formulated when sculpting commenced. Thirdly, and by far the most salient evidence, is the badly cut front right hand of the main figure, raised in what is intended to be an abhayamudrā against the right shoulder (Plate 64). The forearm is raised awkwardly, doubling over the upper arm, and is too thin; the hand itself is almost round, the fingers stubby when compared to the large, long-fingered and capable looking hands of the other five arms. In my opinion, this is definitely the result of recutting, and the cause, I suggest, is this. The north-western śilpin who participated in this sculpture carved this front right hand holding, as was normal in Kashmir at the time,5 a large and fully opened lotus. The local sculptor, unable to reconcile this with the iconographic norms of central north India, sought to rectify matters by shaping this combination of hand and lotus into an abhayamudrā, using the lotus blossom as the surface to rework into the shape of a hand, which explains its curious circularity. In recutting this arm, he lost the vanamālā which was draped around the shoulder and through the crook of the elbow; hence, while cutting deeper to the surface of the background-which is otherwise plain beneath this arm-he left a vertical section for shaping into the lost section of the garland, which on this side therefore hangs down behind the shoulder without crossing the arm at all, although some lines were scored across the recut arm (and: for some reason. across the wrist) apparently to give the impression that the vanamālā remained in its proper place. In an experimental sculpture, this gesture to conformity after recutting would have sewed as a reminder when it came to sculpting the final version.

How and why the hypothetical Kashmiri śilpin came to be working at Deogarh remains a mystery. But the presence of a north-western iconographical approach is the only factor which satisfactorily explains the two most irregular features of this image which were not altered, possibly because they were considered trivial: the small figure rising between t he feet of the main Viṣṇu image (M in Figure 5.1), and the dagger thrust into the waistband o f the latter's adhoṃśuka.  Both of these were widespread in the north-western iconography- of multi-headed Viṣṇu from the eighth-ninth century onwards.6 the diminutive supporting figure at the base being present even in a bronze of the sixth-seventh century.7 But they were totally alien to the Vaiṣṇava iconography of the central north in this or any other period. And that the image was made at Deogarh can hardly be denied in view of its style, which has smothered any trace of a Kashmiri style-except in the shape of the dagger which, with its wide curved horns in place of a pommel, is an exact copy of Kashmiri prototypes.8


In order to make sense of this exercise in experimental iconography, it is necessary first to examine what-if any-planning preceded its making; The essential form of the image9 consists, as does that of the Śamalājī sculpture, of an egg containing a 'tree', or in this case a forked yūpa,10 floating upright upon the waters which are represented by nāgas. Defining the oval around the greater part of its periphery is a series of heads, eleven on each side, descending from the apex one above the other; below them, the curve is continued, though not entirely fluently, by the bodies of Gadādevī, the personified mace, and Cakrapuruṣa the personified disc (Figure 5.1, figures L and 0 respectively), the base of the oval being rounded off by the multiple hoods and serpentine bodies of the nāgas (Figure 5.1, the two (N).)

The peripheral heads are clearly derived from the Mathura tradition (Chapter 2, pp. 137-9 and Plates 49, 52 and 53), the Śamalājī images having no such margin to their prabhāmaṇḍalas. They are disembodied, forming a series merely by repetition-a rakṣāvaḷī or ritually protective boundary-with no overlapping suggestive of an emanatory progression. It is possible that on the proper right side it was intended that there should be twelve, the last in the series being placed adjacent to the lowest, under the sword-hand of Viṣṇu (6 in Figure 5. 1), for the sake of symmetry. As I have indicated elsewhere.11 the heads on the proper right are crowned, those on the left bare-headed with their hair worn in rather flat jaṭābhāras, suggesting that the former represent kṣatriya types, the latter brāhmaṇa types. Alter-natively the distinction may have been between Adityas and Rudras, in which case the numbering was inaccurate in the sculpture, as there should be twelve of the former and eleven of the latter.12 However, this distinction between the two sides of the rakṣāvaḷī is worth noting, for it is an entirely original idea which was never to be emulated despite its symbolic potential. It might well have been developed to relate worshippers belonging to the two highest varṇas, the priesthood and ruling military aristocracy, to the image and so to each other's complementary- social duties according to their dharma as sanctioned by divine authority. At Deogarh, it may have been intended to inculcate such a doctrine by dividing the rakṣāvaḷī, but it was apparently not developed because of the abandonment there of the icon-type.

The personified weapons are inherited from the Gupta tradition at Mathura: although the Bhankari fragment (Plate 49) is lost below the hips, the āyadhapuruṣas became a standard in Viṣṇu images there (Plates 43, 45)-and also, of course, in Kashmir and other regions of the north-west13 whet-c, as in the Deogarh sculpture. Gadādevī holds a camāra in her right hand. By contrast, the Śamalājī image has anthropomorphic Garuḍa and Śrī-Lakṣmī in these locations beside Viṣṇu. Only at Deogarh: however, do they form part of the oval shape of the main composition. The inference in the case of these two figures clearly is that their iconographical identities as understood at Deogarh were borrowed from Mathura and the north-west, whereas their positioning in the sculpture was an original idea on the part of the sculptors at Deogarh. Certainly the nāgas-both as representatives of the pre-creation pralaya state and as the figures forming the base of the oval-could only have been borrowed from Śamalājī; until the creation of the kannauj Viśvarūpa type of Viṣṇu, snakes and serpents were associated only with supine or seated Viṣṇu in images of the type termed Śeṣa/Ananta-śayyin and Anantāsana-both of which are represented on the Daśāvatāra temple at Deogarh- and also, of course, in the Śamalājī image itself. In the Deogarh Viśvarūpa, Viṣṇu for the first time appears erect upon the nāgas, in the iconographic tradition of Kṛṣṇa Kālīyadamana, although the religious significance in the two cases is quite different. The religious construct with which V Viṣṇu is identified within the cosmic egg is, in the Śamalājī image, the tree; at Deogarh, standing Viṣṇu as the universal axis is conceptually allied to the Vedic yūpa of the forked type used in sacrificing to dual divinities such as Indrāgnī, as I have demonstrated elsewhere.14 Indra and Agni being the dominant gods at the top of the two halves of the oval (E) and (D) in Figure 5.1. The god as single axis thus divides his hegemony between both sides of the oval and the figures within them.

The essential diagrammatic planning upon which this main construct was based appears to have been relatively simple when compared to the theoretical diagrams behind the Śamalājī image and the Parel heptad. It was derived, the general shape of the Deogarh sculpture would suggest, from the 'śilpaśāstra' which dictated the compositional structure of the Śamalājī image and its successors,15 but only in outline: the śilpins at Deogarh were attempting to create their own Viśvarūpa image and drew upon Śamalājī  theory only as far as it coincided with their basic conception of a new icon of Viṣṇu at the centre of his creation. The prabhāvalī of heads, inherited from Mathura, had to be accommodated within this scheme, along with a scale of proportions suitable for a standing figure of Viṣṇu. The working diagram appears to have been built up in the following stages (Figures 5.2-5.4).

1. The first line incised upon the slab was the vertical centre line.  

2. Three contiguous circles were described with their centres upon this line, each having a radius one-sixth the desired height of the icon from the base of Viṣṇu's feet to the apex of the entire composition. The centres of these circles and the points where their circumferences intersected the centreline were then marked (Aa, Ba, H, F, J, Ab and Bb). (As the image was designed to show Viṣṇu as the universal axis, these three circles may ritually have signified the three worlds or triloka which the god pervades.)

3. Two overlapping ellipses were inscribed next, with a common locus at the centre (F); the upper ellipse had its second locus at the point of contact between the middle and upper circles (H), and the lower had its second locus at the point of contiguity between the middle and lower circles J). The radius of each ellipse was half the total height of the three circles F-Aa and F-Bb). These ellipses intersected (at points C, left and right) on a level with the mid-point of the vertical axis (F). The horizontal centre line (C-F-C) could thus be incised. (The two ellipses were probably conceived in cosmogonic terms as the two halves of the Brahmāṇḍa, as in the Śamalājī image.)

Fig. 5.2 Planning diagram. Deogarh A

4. The horizontal axes of the two ellipses (Ad-Ad and Bd-Bd) were next incised, intersecting the vertical axis at right angles (at E and G), and these two points of intersection were used as the centres about which to describe the two circles of a radius equal to the diameter of the first three circles. These two circles intersected on the median line (C-C) and the points at which their circumferences intersected the vertical axis were marked (Ea and Eb, Ga and Gb).

5. The vertical axis was now divided into twelve equal parts between Aa and Bb. Horizontal lines at right angles to the vertical axis were incised through these points, dividing the double ellipse into twelve equal levels.

6. Two steps were now required to position the eleven heads on either side of the upper ellipse (see Figure 5.3):

a. First, two lines were incised through the intersections of the periphery of the middle circle with Bd on one side and Ad on the other, crossing at the centre of the circle (F) which is also the centre of the whole double ellipse. These lines marked the base of the periphery of heads on either side (and, in their upward extensions, the bottom of the sixth heads from this base). Parallel lines were then drawn from the intersections of the lower large circle with Bd on one side and the horizontal line through H on the other, crossing at point E. This procedure was repeated upward, the lines crossing at points Ga, Ba and Ea on the vertical axis at an angle of 300 from the horizontal.

b. Next, an inner upper ellipse was drawn to define the width of the brabhāvalī, using the same two loci (F and H) with a radius reduced by the distance between the 300 lines, so creating on the periphery a series of twenty-two 'squares' with two curved sides within which the faces were located.

1 This image was being copied as late as the 8th century A.D. (see Chapter 3 note 1); there was a period of some 250 years during which imitations were being made.

2 As far as I know, it was Mme O. Viennot who discovered this sculpture in 1966, and who kindly gave me directions as to how to find it myself in 1975.

3 I first estimated a 'late sixth or at most an early seventh century date for this icon': T.S. Maxwell, 'The Deogarh Viśvarūpa: A Structural Analysis', AARP8, December 1975, p.19.

4 Ibid., p. 8 and fig. 5.

5  See P. Pal, Bronzes of Kashmir, Graz 1975, plates 2,8 and 84b.

6 The dagger and the Earth-goddess were present in single-headed Kashmiri images of Viṣṇu: ibid., plate 10.

7 The famous bronze in the Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin, also illustrated by Pal, ibid., plate 8.

8 The shape of the dagger may be compared with that worn by a 9th century Kashmiri Viṣṇu: Pal, ibid., plate 10.

9 A brief and inaccurate description of this little-known image appeared, rather mysteriously, in Sheo Bahadur Singh, Brahmanical Icons in Northern India, New Delhi 1977,p.101, with no illustration. I had already published it in 1975, the year in which I examined it and reported it to the then Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, M. N. Deshpande. No record of its existence could be found at A.S.I. headquarters, New Delhi. Singh dated the image to the 5th-6th century and gives no reference as to the source of his description. I have found no other published account of it.

10 Maxwell, 'Deogarh Viśvarūpa', pp.12-17 and Diagrams, p. 23.

11 Ibid., pp.11-13 and figs. 9 and 10.

12 For the origins of these groups, see M. Stutley and J. Stutley, A. Dictionary of Hindusm, Its Mythology, Folklore and Development 1500 B.C.-A.D. 1500, London 1977, under Aditya(s), p.3, and Rudra(s), p.254. Also G. Liebert, Iconographic Dictionary of the Indian Religions, Hindusm - Buddhism - Jainism, Leiden 1976,pp.. 4-5 and 242.

13 Pal, Bronzes of Kashmir, plates 8, 9 and 10.

14 Maxwell, 'Deograh Vośvarūpa', pp.15-17.

15 See Note 1, supta; as he iconography formula was transmitted through generations of śilpins for about 250 years, some kind of memorised or written śāstra must have existed.



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Oxford University Press 1988