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Chapter 6


The Decline of Creativity in the Design of Multiple Brahmanical Sculpture in North India


When the plan of this roughly formulated but symbolically sophisticated synthesis reached Kannauj1 in the ninth century (while Gurjara-Pratihāra domains were at their most wide-spread) it was evidently taken up with zeal and iconographically perfected, though in an idiom quite different from that of its source, Deogarh, and expressing a greatly simplified religious concept.

Until recently, the transitional stage in the development of Viśvarūpa imagery between Deogarh in the eighth century and the mature Kannauj style in the ninth was an iconographical blank. With the brief appearance in Europe in early 1982 of a grey sandstone fragment (Plate 65), however, some evidence of this transition came to light. The fragment, 27.9 centimetres high, represents the upper right section of the populated prabhāmaṇḍala of a Viśvarūpa sculpture which appears to have been the immediate predecessor of the better known Kannauj images to be discussed below; in view of the very close iconographical similarities, there can be no serious doubt that this fragment also comes from Kannauj or its vicinity. Stylistically, the sculpture is still heavily dependent on post-Gupta influence. The boundary of Bhairava-type heads also harks back to the fifth century Bhankari fragment at Mathura (Plate 49); the heads seem to grow from each other on clearly defined necks, a continuity which echoes Gupta prototypes (Plates 53 and 55). It should be noted that there was evidently a fifth head on this side of the broken nimbus, as the remains of jaṭābhāra below the fourth face show: this was no aṣṭabhairava group of the kind which was to appear in the later over-developed image (Kannauj-4). The alternation of the hairstyles in this transitional fragment- a piled up and bound chignon followed by a centrally parted unbound style with inward-curving wings of hair-was perpetuated in later developments at Kannauj (see Plates 67b and 69).

The strict organization of group-gods into serried ranks on the face of the nimbus may also derive from the rows of ṛṣi figures in the Mathura fragments, for this type of straight formal alignment is found neither at Gaḍhwā (Plate 48) nor at Śamalājī (Plate 57). Here, on the remains of the right-hand half of the nimbus, the eleven Rudras are precisely depicted in a row of five above another of six, each figure holding a trident in its left hand and making an outward-leaning abhayamudrā with the right. This group provides the earliest definite evidence implying a division of the Viśvarūpa nimbus into radically differentiated and opposed halves; a less formally defined complementarity, however, was noted in the Deogarh Viśvarūpa in the last chapter.

Directly transmitted from the Deogarh experiment-there is no other known sourer-is the presence of Vedic gods on the highest level of the fragment below the containing chain of Bhairava heads. Only two of these figures remain, but they are large and vigorous in contrast to the small and cursorily executed deities on the top of later Kannauj versions. They represent, near the original centre, Indra, followed inward from the margin by Yama, Indra is mounted on his elephant, Airāvata, seated astride upon a 'saddle cloth'. He wears a tapering flat-topped crown. In his enlarged right hand he wields the double-ended, three-pronged vajra; his left hand and forearm rest upon the elephant's head. Yama rides bareback on the black water-buffalo, apparently reining in strongly with his left hand on a thong passing through the animal's nostrils, abruptly pulling up Its head. In his right hand he holds the yamadaṇḍa, at the top of which is a large knot) which may have represented a skull, aslope his right shoulder. He is bareheaded with long hair hanging loose. These same two gods appear in the Deogarh Viśvarūpa in exactly the same order and location on the nimbus, presented head-on [(Plate 63 and Figure 5.1, (E) and (F))]. Some of the Gupta-style influence in this Kannauj fragment may therefore be supposed to derive also from the archaising tendency of the image at Deogarh, parts of which were drawn directly from late Gupta sculpture there.

 This fragment thus represents the earliest of the surviving Kannauj revisions of the Viśvarūpa image. From its iconographical evidence we now know that the reformulation of that ancient theme took place basically within the inherited classical tradition of Mathura, but that it followed more immediately in the wake of the Deogarh experiment which combined in some degree elements from the older traditions of northern, western and north-western India. The theme itself, however, continued to defy the best attempts of sculptors to achieve an interpretation which would successfully integrate the complicated symbolism of the Viśvarūpa concept (a complexity generated by placing many different cult-figures together) into an adequate aesthetic framework.

In Kannauj itself, there survive three sculptures of this type, more or less intact, and a fragment: two images, turned up by the plough, have been privately installed in a new brick temple in the suburb of Makarandnagar, the fragment is in a nearby private museum, and the third image is in local police custody due to its disputed ownership. The two which have recently been enshrined are, in my view, the oldest of this group; and one of those, which I shall term Kannauj-1, is the forerunner of the other. Śamalājī-2. The fragment, an important piece, belongs to this earlier group, and I shall refer to it as Kannauj-3. The more celebrated sculpture Kannauj-4 which has been published as representative of the Kannauj school2 is, in fact, the latest of this group. Sivaramamurti3 considered it in 1974 to be 'a supreme example of early medieval handling- of an age-old theme' which indicates that his view of it in 1961 ('a magnificent example of early medieval work')4 did not change despite the discoveries of the two earlier pieces.

The earliest surviving connection with Deogarh is the sculpture that I have designated Kannauj-I (Plate 66). It is housed in the shrine of a small modern brick temple, called the Rām Lakṣmaṇ Mandir, in the Kutlupur area of Makarandnagar suburb, Kannauj. The dates of its discovery and instalment cannot now be determined as the local community leader claims to have kept no written records. The image is cemented into the central of three niches in the back wall of the garbhagṛha, where it is regarded as an icon of Rāma. It is carved from red sandstone and has a total visible height of 169 centimetres, the main figure being 128 centimetres tall, while the maximum visible width is 75.6 centimetres. The main image of Viṣṇu is a nine-tāla figure (the dimensions held by the śāstras to he ideal for the image of a god)5, within what was probably a twelve- tāla composition: the vertical distance above Viṣṇu's crown is two and a half tālas, and one might assume that the base portion buried in the cement of the niche measured a half- tāla Because the sides and plinth are hidden by this cavity, it is unfortunately impossible now to reconstruct the plan according to which it was designed; I cannot determine whether or not it is based upon overlapping ellipses as are the Śamalājī  and Deogarh sculptures.

The main figure in the composition, its anatomy well pro-portioned and confidently executed, is Viṣṇu standing in a dahanche tribhaṅga posture. The god has six arms as at Deogarh, the attributes being disposed in the following manner, numbered from front to back.

(Right hands)

(Left hands)


Raised as if in abhyamudrā, but the hand is broken off;


Śaṅkha, inverted (point downwards);




cakra, with tassel streaming backward and upward at 450;


broken, rests above head of an attendant.


kheṭka, inside turned outward.

The mace (gadā) is inverted--as is the conch (Śaṅkha)-and was evidently held, or supported, in a curious manner, the second right hand being turned inward toward the body and the fingers curled over the top of the handle. It is apparently the stump of this broken right arm which is to he seen on the elbow of the raised front right arm. The broken third right hand seems to have been clenched and turned outward away from the body, suggesting that it held a sword upright (which would balance the shield in the third left hand) the blade of which is presumably concealed by the side of the niche.

The Viṣṇu figure wears a long vanamālā which loops over the shoulders, through the crook of the elbows, and hangs down below the knees. This is the way in which it was intended that the garland should hang in the Deogarh image, before the recutting of the front right arm. The adhoṃśuka is rolled diagonally from the right hip to the left knee, with a long central fold between the legs and a chain with tassel hanging on the right thigh from a girdle below the top of the garment. There is no dagger. The yajṅopavīta is long, curving inward to disappear under the diagonal folds of the lower garment and re-emerge over it below the right hip. Body adornment consists of bracelets, triple-wound armlets of a kind similar to those worn by the Deogarh figure, a three-strand necklace with a central ornament and makara-kuṇḍalas pendant from very elongated, slit ear lobes. The crown is an elaborately decorated kirīṭa-mukuṭa, a circular band with peaks on the front and the two sides surrounding a tapering kirīṭa which is square and plain on the top.

The deity is long-haired, with sausage curls spreading along his shoulders as at Deogarh, while the hair is represented by incised vertical lines below the rim of the crown. The original eyes were over-laid with shells painted with black irises when the image was re-installed; the true facial expression is therefore masked. The four side-heads, represented in profile and emerging from behind the central human head, are of the same animal avatāras as those appearing in the Deogarh image, but appearing in this disposition:

(Right)  (Left)
Kūrma Varāha
Matsya Nṛsiṃha


The original location of the heads of the Man-Lion and Boar to right and left of the central fact, invented at Mathura and perpetuated at Deogarh despite the addition of the two extra side-heads, has thus been re-arranged. This disposition of the heads of Viṣṇu 's animal incarnations around the god's face seems, in fact, to be unique to Kannauj. It is not easily explicable since all other north Indian schools, and north-western iconography, preserved the original placement of Nṛsiṃha on the right and Varāha on the left. It appears to be the case that the sculptors at Kannauj, conceiving the animal incarnations as manifest within the śiraścakra of Viṣṇu, as indeed they were in the Gupta sculpture of Mathura, should, when their number was increased to the full four, be represented pradakṣiṇā order around the (omitted) halo. Thus in the 'standard'6 list of ten, the daśāvatāras, the first four are, in sequence, Matsya, Kūrma, Varāha, Nṛsiṃha. This is the order in which they appear, clockwise, around the head of Kannauj-1.

It might be noted here that, in the list of the 'twenty-four images' (caturviṃśatimūrtayaḥ) of Viṣṇu, distinguished by the pradakṣiṇā order in which the four principal Vaiṣṇava emblems are held, the main Viṣṇu image in Kannauj-1 is termed Nārāyaṇa, Whose Origin is The Waters (the latter being represented by the nāgas). This identity would be applied to the main figure according to Padmapurāṇa 4.79,7 assuming that the front right hand either held a lotus or-which is more likely-was posed in the abhayamudrā but still regarded as the lotus hand of the god. However, since this distribution of attributes is by far the most customary in north India, it may very well be that the Kannauj sculptors were following tradition rather than deliberately making 'Nārāyaṇa 'the central figure of their Viśvarūpa image.

A tiny female figure, presumably Bhūdevī, rises between the feet of Viṣṇu, her hands in aṅjalimudrā, as at Deogarh. On either side, visible only from the waist upward above the modern concrete base in which the sculpture is seated, are two nāgas with triple cobra-hoods behind their heads, each supporting one of the god's feet with both hands. This is the same concept, expressed through a greater degree of anthropomorphization, as that seen at Deogarh where the feet of Viṣṇu stand directly upon the serpentine bodies of the nāgas, unsupported by the Earth-goddess. The nāga on the left of the god has, in the left ear, a large vṛtta-kuṇḍalas in the form of a stylized blossom, while the ornament in the right ear, and in both ears of the other nāga, are simple, smaller kuṇḍalas. Despite these distinctions, the human torso of both nāgas is masculine. On either side of Viṣṇu, behind the nāgas, stands a female figure of exaggeratedly voluptuous shape. The one on the proper right is unlikely to be Gadādevī, as the elevation and angle of the mace in Viṣṇu's second right hand make contact between them impossible; probably she represents Puṣṭi or Sarasvatī, second consort of the god, holding the stern of a now broken cāmara in her right hand. Her counterpart on the left would then be Śrī Lakṣmī, holding a large lotus in her raised right hand, while her left rests casually in her girdle.

There is some carving in low relief on the back slab above these females on either side, behind the arms of Viṣṇu hut not between his arms and body. The relief work to his right cannot be identified, but that on the left represents, beneath the second left elbow of the god, a standing Gaṇeśa holding in his right hand a bowl into which his trunk dips. Represented on so large a scale; this elephant-headed son of Pārvatī is definitely out of place in this image and, as the sculpting appears to he original and not in a later style. I can only suggest that he is brought in here either as a curious jest on the part of the sculptor, or else, mistakenly, to give an identity to (one of) the lustrating elephants in images of Gaja Lakṣmī, for he appears immediately above the senior consort of Viṣṇu.

At each extremity of the plinth is a completely obliterated figure. Behind each of them stands another, that on the right severely damaged; the corresponding figure on the left, however, is clearly male, with a jaṭā hairstyle and closed eyes, holding some small object, perhaps a lotus, to his chest with his right hand, reminiscent of a similar figure in the same position on the plinth of the Śamalājī image discussed in Chapter 3.

In continuation of Bhūdevī at the base and the main figure of Viṣṇu, there rises a vertical series of three small, overlapping figures (Source no. 2.A) such as appear in the Śamalājī and Deogarh sculptures. The first and lowest figure emerges from the very hack of the square top surface of the kirīṭa of Viṣṇu (Source no. 3B, eg., Plate 10). It has coiled hair, a small uṣnīṣa, elongated ears, wears a robe over the shoulders and a necklace, raises the right hand in abhayamudrā the palm crossed by an akṣamālā and lowers the left in varadamudrā with some minute object upon the palm. Despite its strangely Buddhist appearance, this may represent the Dwarf, Vāmanāvatāra, who is the counterpart of the gigantic form (Virāṭarūpa) which the central image of Viṣṇu quite literally assumes in contrast to all the surrounding figures. Vāmana is also the fifth incarnation, after Nṛsiṃha, in the 'standard' list of ten. The second figure, rising above and behind him, represents an unusually slim Brahmā standing, three-headed with three jaṭā-kalāpas merging above the central face. His right hand is in abhayamudrā with a rosary crossing the palm; the lowered left holds a kamaṇḍalu. The third, apical figure is Hayagrīva with a very distinct equine head. The right hand is broken off, and an object which is too eroded to be identifiable rests upon the palm of the left hand. If this figure is taken to represent the incarnation Kalkin in horse-headed form, then it replaces, in terms of Vaiṣṇava avatāravāda, the figure of Śiva at the apex of the Śamalājī and Deogarh images: either may assume the role of bringer of the apocalypse.

A standing male figure flanking the second and third figures of the central register on the proper right holds in his right hand the haft of an axe, the blade of which-distinguishable although damaged-rests upon his right shoulder: this is clearly Paraśurāma. His counterpart of the left holds an arrow, point down-ward, in both hands, and clearly represents Rāma Dāśarathi. A male figure standing below Paraśurāma, with a triple cobra-hood over his head and holding a goblet in his right hand, is Balarāma. Opposite him stands a figure having coiled hair and an uṣnīṣa, with his right hand in abhayamudrā and his left lowered to hold the edge of his long robe which reaches below the knees, appears to be transparent, and leaves the right shoulder bare. This can only represent Buddh2vatCa. All ten avatāras thus appear together in the upper part of the sculpture: the four animal incarnations around the head of the god and the remaining six centred on Brahmā above. Two of these avatāras perpetuate, in a more daring manner, the amusing touch of realism noticed in the Deogarh sculpture, where a cow was seen with its forehooves raised on to the shield and recut abhaya hand of Viṣṇu. Here in Kannauj-l, Balarāma and Buddha stand quite clearly with their feet placed upon the Kūrma and Varāha side-heads of the god. This feature may, of course, be purely whimsical: a minor inspiration such as carving an elephant above Śrī Lakṣmī, and giving it the identity of Gaṇeśa. On the other hand, a definite distinction may have been insisted upon to divide the animal from the human incarnations-or, indeed, to connect them: the Kūrma supported Mount Mandara at the churning of the ocean and it here supports Balarāma whose other attribute (apart from the plough) is the musala the pestle or churning-stick, while the Varāha conveyed from the depths of the ocean not only the earth but also the ṛṣis of whom the Buddha, however heretical in Vaiṣṇava terms, may he said to be a representative.

There are three wry small figures, remarkably crudely rendered, to the right and left of Paraśurāma and Rāmacandra, around the upper curved margin of the stele. On the left appears first Indra seated above, in a sort of mid-air lalitāsana, rather than upon his sketchily depicted elephant, Airāvata. Next to him stands a taller figure who seems to be Agni, with piled-up hair, a brad, the right hand in abhayamudrā and a pot (the ghṛta-pātra) in the lowered left; to his right, below Indra's elephant, is the head of his vāhana (the body being broken off) which is that of a ram, the ears and horns quite clearly depicted, facing the observer. Lastly on this side, there appears a standing figure holding up a rod ok goad in his right hand and a pot-like object in the left, which may represent Yama, god of the dead, holding the yamadaṇḍa. On the right, next to Paraśurāma, right hand in abhayamudrā with a bird as high as his knees in front of him, stands a figure who might be identified as Skanda with his peacock vāhana. To his right is an ithyphallic figure also with his right hand in the abhaya gesture and a kamaṇḍalu in his left, who is evidently Śiva as Bhikṣāṭana, the wandering mendicant, although the usual khaṭvāṅga is absent. Finally there appears a mounted figure, riding toward the centre. This is unlikely to he another depiction of Kalkin, especially in the company of two Śaiva figures, nor would the appearance of Revanta here seem to be of much significance. As there are at least two Vedic gods on the opposite side, this rider may stand for the Aśvins; more probably, however, he is Vāyu the wind-god, mounted on the deer (mṛga). The presence of Śiva, Skanda and Vedic deities at the top of this composition suggests a connection with the Deogarh image and, ultimately, with the Śeṣaśāyyin (Nārāyaṇa) panel of the 'Daśāvatāra' temple there, in which such gods form an upper frieze.

 There are eleven identical figures in the lower, right-hand portion of the stele beneath Skanda and Bhikṣāṭana, clearly representing the ekādaśa-rudrāḥ. Each is two-armed, the right hand raised in the abhayamudrā and the left holding a triśūla, and all have jaṭā hairstyle. They are arranged in two upper rows of four and one lower row of three. The corresponding figures filling the left side of the stele, dominated by Indra and Agni, are the twelve Ādityas, in three rows of four, like miniature Sūryas. Here the concept, originated in the Deogarh image, of a Pabhāmaṇḍala divided into opposed hut complementary moieties, is perpetuated, albeit in simplified terms: where at Deogarh a kṣatriya half was set against a brāhmaṇa half, presided over by Indra and Agni respectively, each side containing figures which were differentiated even if only by their relative sizes, at Kannauj a regimented division into black and white, āsura and saura, is dominated by a motley association of godlings, some Vedic and some epic in origin. The Deogarh sculpture and Kannauj-1 are the earliest examples known which illustrate, in a single image designed to be a cult-icon, this balance of fundamental powers. In the former image, the balance is essentially between social group; in the latter, between supernatural forces which most closely correspond to them.  This association of a single figure with opposed groups, whether social or supernatural, derives at its most basic level from the mythology concerning Viśvarūpa, which can be traced from the Ṛgveda to the Bhagavadgītā and the Purāṇas, where the central figure gradually changes from a demon to the most colossal Vaiṣṇava vision of the godhead known in brahmanical scripture.8

Whether or not Kannauj-1 originally had a series of heads around the margin of the stele, as at Deogarh, cannot be ascertained because the image has been set deep into the wall of the modern temple. But the evidence of the fragment (Kannauj-3) in the nearby 'Purātatva Saṃgrahālaya' (Pls. 67a, b) suggests that there may well have been a number of Bhairava faces on the left edge of the sculpture at least, visible from the front only in low profile.

It thus appears that Kannauj-1 represents similar concepts to those expressed in the Deogarh image, but deliberately simplified both artistically and in import, and retains a sense of both humour though this be to a certain extent coloured by sectarian prejudice. The iconography of this image does not warrant a key-diagram, but it may be presented in summary form for comparative purposes (Table 6.1).

Kannauj-2 (Plate 68), known locally as Lakṣmaṇa, is housed in the same Rām Lakṣmaṇ Mandir as the Kannauj-1 version, in the niche to its right. It is carved from a pinkish buff sandstone and has a visible height of 162.5 centimetres, is 78.75 centimetres wide, the main figure standing 129.6 centimetres tall. It is clearly a product of the same workshop as Kannauj-1, being executed in the same style and almost certainly from an identical block of stone having the same dimensions, following the same basic design. But it is far from being a copy. It is rare to find two such complex sculptures, apparently made within a few years of each other, quite possibly by the same sculptor, manifesting so many iconographical changes.

Kannauj: The Decline of Creativity

Table 6.1

Kannouj-1: Summary Diagram

Paraśurāma Hayagrīva


Vāyu  Bhikṣāṭana Skanda Brahmā Indra Agni    Yama


Vāmana Buddha




11 Rudras





12 Ādityas







Bhūdevi Nāga -?-



1 This spelling is the most widely used today in the city itself and throughout north India, for example, on the local museum label in Plate 67a.

2 C. Sivaramamurti, Indian Sculpture, New Delhi, plate 33.

3 C. Sivaramamurti, The Art of India, Paris 1974/New York 1977, p. 231.

4 Sivaramamurti, Indian Sculpture, p.88.

5 S. Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Calcutta 1946, reprinted Delhi 1980,Vol.II, pp. 309-10.

6 J. Dowson, A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History and Literature, 1888,pp.33-8 and most subsequent writers, But see Gail, AAXLIV, 4(1983), p. 300, n.14.

7 A Danielou, Hindu Polytheism, London 1964,p.54 and text, pp.424-5: R.S. Gupta, Iconography of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, Bombay 1972,p.96, apparently reads the text differently, giving the same sequence of attributes but held in different hands.

8 T.S. Maxwell, 'Transformational Aspects of Hindu Myth and Iconology', AARP4, December 1973, pp. 59-63 and Appendix II, p.73.


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Oxford University Press 1988