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Viśvarūpa

Chapter 5


THE DEOGARH Viśvarūpa...

 

7. The module of proportionate measurement of images is generally agreed to be the length of the face (from the hairline to the chin) which is subdivided into twelve units called aṅgulas.16 This module is termed the Ma: thus, for example, a daśatāla image would consist of (I0 x 12 =) 120 units of height, variously distributed to accomodate different parts of the anatomy. Now the face of the image of Viṣṇu in the Deogarh Viśvarūpa is exactly as high as one of the twelve levels (E-F); each of the horizontal divisions of the composition is therefore a tāla, and the Viṣṇu image itself stands eight tālas high (aṣṭatālamūrti) from Bb to H, within a twelve-tāla composition. Level H marks the top of the god's crown. E the rim of the crown and the top of the face, F the chin, G the heart or chest, J the belly, midway between J and Eb the genitals, Ab the knees, Gb the base of the shin and Bb the base of the toes (Figure 5.4).

Fig. 5.3 Planning diagram. Deograh B

In this way, the oval outline of Śamalājī, the prabhāvalī of heads from Mathura, and the classical scale of proportions were integrated in planning this experimental image.

Fig. 5.4 Planning diagram. Deogarh C

It appears that the horizontal lines through Ga, Ba and Ea may have been used to indicate the chest-level of the figures representing Brahmā, Hayagrīva and Śiva as they rise above Viṣṇu: counterparts of line Bd-Bd passing through G, which indicates the level of Viṣṇu's chest. But the figures on either side have been sculpted without regard to any systematic scale of proportions or spatial layout relative either to each other or to the main figure in geometric terms. However, their grouping does have its own kind of logic, even if its presentation is somewhat phantasmagorical. In this, the population of the prabhāmaṇḍala seems to have been carried out on much the same principle as was that of the enlarged śiraścakra of the Mathura fragment from Bhankari. The artistic aim there and at Deogarh seems to have been to reveal a spontaneous manifestation of gods, heroes and seers within the compass of Viṣṇu's effulgence, as if appearing in the manner of visions in a dream, emerging from and taking shape against the background of the nimbus (rather than, as at Śamalājī, constituting the nimbus).

Organization is evident in the intentional division of these figures into two distinct moieties, the right half dominated by Indra being kṣatriya and the left, dominated by Agni, being brāhmaṇa in character. Moreover, the four side-heads of Viṣṇu also lend specific qualities to each half. The man-lion, Nṛsiṃha, and the turtle, Kūrma (X and Z in Figure 5.1) are associated with heroism, the one in his battle with the heretic Hiraṇyakaśipu and the other in his supporting Mandara at the churning of the ocean between the divine and demonic factions. They overlap the kṣatriya side headed by Indra (E) in Figure 5.1. On the other hand, the boar, Varāha, and the fish Matsya (Y) and (W) have associations with the rescue of holy men, the fish having saved Manu from the flood and the boar the submerged Earth with the priestly guardians of religion caught among his bristles. They overlap the brāhmaṇa half governed by Agni (D). Viṣṇu wields his sword amid the warrior half and displays his shield in association with the magico-religious group. These symbolic connections are so clearly to be seen, but again one senses that this is only an artistic first sketch. Surely the live Vṛṣṇi heroes (the five Pāṇḍava brothers?) grouped around the sword, for example, could be better rendered if they were more uniform in size and displayed more individual characteristics. They seem merely to be 'roughed out', awaiting further thought and discussion before a final version of the sculpture is planned and executed. If they were intended to represent the Vṛṣṇis, then the one feature distinguishing them as such-the severence from his kin of the heretical member of the clan, Sāmba, by the sword-arm of Viṣṇu, as he was by the blade in the Śamalājī image (the disembodied head numbered 6 in Figure 5.1, (H) in Figure 3.1) -wrongly numbers them as an original group of six instead of five. Whatever its identity, this group, and the severance by the sword of one of its members, again suggests an acquaintance at Deogarh with some śāstric text or remembered verses from Śamalājī. Above them, the better known figures of the twin horsemen, the Aśvins, and of Yama, god of the dead, with his goad or noose and riding the black buffalo, are more confidently rendered, while Indra on his elephant might almost have been copied from the frieze at the top of the Śeṣaśāyyin panel on the Daśāvatāra temple about one kilometre away.

The seven sages (there is also a tiny head beside Brahmā and another above the boar's snout which one scarcely knows whether or not to include) in the left half of the prabhāmaṇḍala, like the five or perhaps six heroes around the sword in the opposite half, cannot he identified. Those shown with the upper parts of their bodies all hold up their right hand in the abhayamudrā and are swathed in robes which hang across their left shoulder. Little more can be said of them. The first of these saptarṣis, the Bhārgava seer Vasiṣṭha, whose name usually heads the lists of sages, is the probable identity of figure 1 in Figure 3.1. In the sculpture he is shown near Agni, appearing to block the fire-god's progress on his ram: of all the seers' wives, it was his, the faithful Arundhatī, whom Svāhā could not impersonate in her returning of Agni's passion, according to the mythology. Vasiṣṭha, therefore, would be represented as preeminent among the group of seers and closest in rank to the god Agni. The rest are probably Atri, Viśvāmitra, Gautama, Bharadvāja, Jamadagni and Kaśyapa, but there is nothing in the sculpture to distinguish them. The identification of these figures, therefore, depends upon their general appearance-long hair piled up on their heads with, in one case (the head numbered 4), a beard, and the absence of any vāhanas or weaponry-and upon their number as a distinct and separate group within the āgneya half of the nimbus. Such a group-identity on one side of the Viṣṇu figure is an invention of Deogarh and is to be transmitted to Kannauj where the culmination of the experimentation seen in this sculpture is to take place.

In contrast to this strict division of the aureole into two halves of different character, there is one feature common to both. That is the presence of cows or bulls. Two are carved in profile beside the Nṛsiṃha and Kūrma heads in Indra's half, while on Agni's side there are three, two in profile above the shield of Viṣṇu and another head-on beside the lotus throne of Brahmā. Those in the right half are placed next to the Vṛṣṇi group (if such they are), perhaps to indicate the cowherd community of Vṛndāvana in which Kṛṣṇa in particular rose to prominence. On the other side, one of them might represent the wish-granting cow of Vasiṣṭha, Nandinī, but again it is impossible to be precise. A pleasing characteristic of these animals is a certain light-hearted realism which is introduced in their portrayal. Apart from their irregular positioning-suggestive of their freedom to wander where they will-two of them are shown clambering on to parts of the Viṣṇu image itself, a liberty which would never be allowed the more solemn human figures. On the left side, for example, one has placed its forehooves upon the top of Viṣṇu's shield as if it were mounting a hillock in its path, while the lower of the two on the right places its forelegs somewhat precariously on the truncated lingers of the god's abhaya hand-originally, that is, upon the lotus before it was recut, as if the creature were venturing uncertainly into the water, mistaking lotuses floating on the surface for firm ground (a common enough sight where cattle graze near a lotus-filled pond). This intimate and charming association of the cows with the comparatively gigantic figure of Viṣṇu suggests both that the god's identity is being shown as merged with that of Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva, known from his days at Vṛndāvana as the Cowherd (Gopa, Gopati and especially Govinda) or the Chief Cowherd (Gopendra), and that the populated nimbus is, at least in part, to be regarded as his special heaven, the Goloka.

The densely populated, egg-shaped effulgence of Viṣṇu, when conceived as a world, leads one to speculate upon the role in which the designers of this image had cast Viṣṇu in elevating him to Viśvarūpa status. There is no evidence here of the vision of Arjuna as recounted in Bhagavadgītā 11. As in the Śamalājī image, and unlike the Mathura fragments, the figures within the nimbus face outward, away from Viṣṇu and the three figures above his crown; the seers in the āgneya half do not proceed toward the central axis, hut manifest themselves like ripples on a lake drifting away from the place where the cast pebble fell. They, and all the creatures whose prototypes appear in this image, are generated by Viṣṇu through Brahmā as demiurge. Although Brahmā appears seated upon his lotus, that lotus does not grow from Viṣṇu or from the waters (nāgas) as it does in the Śeśasāyyin panel on the nearby Daśāvatāra temple. Here Viṣṇu is erect, not supine; he separates Brahmā from the fertile waters rather than reclining upon their surface. Above Viṣṇu's crown, Brahmā appears independent of the greater god: his lotus is made to hover above the crown, with no evident connection. Independent Brahmā, as recorded in the twelfth book of the Mahābhārata, is dangerous as a creator:

At the time of the creation, the Grandfather, full of fiery energy, created living beings. These creatures increased in age and number to excess, hut they did not die again. Then there was no space anywhere between creatures; there was no space to breathe, so congested was the triple universe. He began to worry about how he could destroy them He became angry, and from all the apertures of his body a tire shot forth. All creatures, moving and still, were burnt by that great blast of anger when the Grandfather become angry.

Then Rudra the Pillar, the lord of Vedic sacrifices,... the god with tawny matted locks, spoke to Brahmā about succour and refuge The Pillar said, 'Know that I am concerned about the creation of living beings. You have created these creatures; do not be angry with them, Grandfather...'

'I am not angry,' said Prajāpati, 'nor is it my wish that living creatures should cease to exist. But in order to lighten the earth I have sought this destruction. This goddess Earth, oppressed by the burden, has kept urging me to destroy them, for she is sinking into the waves under the burden, great god...' The Pillar said 'Have mercy; forbear this final destruction-I beg that all creatures may be subject to repetitions of birth and death.'...

But as the noble Brahmā suppressed the fire born of his anger, from all the apertures of his body a dark woman appeared... Then the god, the first, the lord of people, summoned her and said. 'Death, kill these creatures ...'... Thus Death was created by the god, and when the appointed time has come she destroys creatures as is proper ...'17

The description of the world in this extract fits the crowded oval of the Deogarh sculpture. And the tiny figure at the base, upon whose shoulders Viṣṇu seems to stand, although in fact his feet are set upon the nāgas on either side, does not support the god's feet with her hands as do her Kashmiri prototypes,18 but has her hands joined in a gesture of supplication. This could be the Earth demonstrating her burden-which is the entire oval above her and its teeming population-sinking into the waters between the two nāgas. Periodic death and destruction in the form of Rudra -Śiva then appears at the apex of the oval, diametrically opposite her, to help lighten her load, while between him and the endlessly creative Brahms sits Hayagrīva- Vāgīśvara, knower of the Veda and preserver of ṛta, universal harmony and balance. This vertically overlapping sequence of three figures above Viṣṇu perpetuates the Kuṣāṇa populated pillar construct (Source no. 2A). From Śiva are seen falling away the dead on either side; but they are to be reborn, in accordance with his request in the Mahābhārata passage, for their descent will carry them through the waters of dissolution only to reemerge as does the goddess Earth. It is as preserver of this recurrent cycle, the support of both birth (Brahmā (A)) and death (Rudra- Śiva (C) ) and the balance between them (Hayagrīva (B)), that Viṣṇu stands interposed between the world of Earth and her burden, which he himself  supports.

This interpretation of the main part of the image (I have dealt with the figures standing on the plinth elsewhere)19 seems to explain the concept of Viṣṇu which the śilpins at Deogarh sought to express in this experimental sculpture, incorporating forms and figures from Śamalājī, Mathura, the north-west and Deogarh itself to produce a unique exercise in iconographic fusion. With all its shortcomings, the Deogarh Viśvarūpa a remains a brilliant synthesis and marks the critical turning point in the post-Gupta multiple Vaiṣṇava iconography of north India.



16 S. Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Calcutta 1946, reprinted Delhi 1980, Vol. II, pp. 309 ff; also J. N. Banerjea, The Development of Hindu Iconography, Calcutta 1956, pp. 315-29.

17 Translation by W. D. O'Flaherty, Hindu Myths, A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit, Harmondsworth 1975, pp. 38-43.

18  See Pal, Bronzes of Kashmir, plates 8, 9 and 10.

19 Maxwell, 'Deogarh Viśvarūpa', pp. 11-12.

 

 

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Oxford University Press 1988