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Chapter 6


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


The same tāla-system was employed, but the figure of Viṣṇu is more attenuated, the curves of the body straightened in conformity with the geometry of the tribhaṅga line on which it is based, resulting in a stiffer and less natural pasture. One receives the impression that the sculptor had been instructed to 'tighten up' the whole composition in this version and to correct certain errors committed in Kannauj-1. One such correction evidently consisted of giving the god his full complement of eight arms, instead of the six supplied to Kannauj-1 as to the Deogarh image. The attributes were also changed to the following dispositions, as far as it is possible to judge after a considerable amount of breakage. Again, they are numbered from front to back.



Right hands


Left hands


Raised as if in abhayamudrā, but the hand is broken off


The fingers rest casually on the rolled adhoṃśuka, and the thumb is extended acres the thigh.


Broken off


Cakra, with tassel streaming back horizontally.


Broken off


Broken, extended forward holding a smashed object which was probably the śaṅkha.


Broken off        


Extends diagonally behind arms I and 3 to grasp bow, thumb holding the string against it, on the margin of the stele.


Probably the third and fourth right hands held the mace, a section of which remains, and an arrow or sheaf of arrows. That the second right hand held a sword appears unlikely in the absence of a shield on the left, and there is no evidence of the blade on the side of the stele which is visible, but it may have been depicted on the very edge and so be hidden within the niche.

Viṣṇu is again portrayed wearing the long vanamālā, but it has had to be most unconvincingly pulled around the inside of the elbow of the front left arm, which is straight. The adhoṃśuka is represented in a similar fashion, but with straight lines relieved only by the extravagant loops of the yajṅopavīta. There is no extra decoration such as the chain hanging upon the right thigh. The dagger is again absent. The keyūras are of the same design, but wound around the arm only once to end in exaggerated upward and downward curves, and the makara-kuṇḍalas are less ostentatious, as is the double-strand necklace. Although of the same design, the crown is thinner and taller, and the flat top of the kirīṭa is decorated with an eight-petalled lotus in low relief.

Long curls again spread upon the god's shoulders, but they are perfunctorily, executed. The face has been damaged, like that of Kannauj-1, and the shells over the eyes cover any expression that they may have conveyed. The profiles of the four animal avatāras project in the same clockwise order; some attempt has been made to render their outlines more uniform-the body of the Kūrma is flattened and the Varāha head projects less, while the cakra is held well away from the Nṛsiṃha head (instead of partly concealing it as in Kannauj-1) to allow its full profile to balance that of the Matsya.

The figures on the plinth give the initial impression of being the same as those in Kannauj-1; in fact, the iconography has been fundamentally altered. Thus the figure of Bhūdevī, emerging between the god's feet, extends her arms to support a foot with each hand. This supportive role is borrowed directly from the north-western iconography of multiheaded Viṣṇu.9 The nāgas flanking her (their lower halves again buried in the modern concrete base) have seven-headed snake canopies and are represented in abbreviated form. Their hands do not touch Viṣṇu, being held together in aṅjalimudrā.  The functions of the Earth-goddess and the serpents in Kannauj-1 are thus reversed in Kannauj-2. At the extremities of the plinth are the obliterated remains of two figures, now quite unidentifiable. Above the figure on the left stands a male figure with an elaborate jaṭā hairstyle, large vṛtta-kuṇḍalas and a necklace, his hands joined in the namaskāramudrā; this is evidently the counterpart of the devotee in the same position in Kannauj-1 and the Śamalājī image. The corresponding figure on the right carries a bow in his left hand, possibly representing Arjuna, awed by the vision of Viśveśvara Viśvarūpa as described in Bhagavadgītā 11. Two female figures flank the god behind the nāgas. That on the right carries no attributes, her right hand resting upon her thigh and her left hanging loosely at her side. The other carries a short-handled cāmara over her right shoulder and with her left imitates the casual hand-position of Viṣṇu. Unlike her counterpart in Kannauj-1, she does not gaze up at the god but glances down-ward, as does the female opposite. These two figures compared with those on the plinth of Kannauj-1, appear more demure, though they are relatively taller and less of their anatomy is hidden by the nāgas, who are smaller; neither carries a lotus, and the cāmara has been passed from the figure on the right to the one on the left. These changes may be of little or no true iconographical significance-they presumably still represent the two consorts of Viṣṇu- but they are symptomatic of the extent of the alterations made to a single image-type, at the same workshop and within the space of a few years. Certainly they indicate the fact that there was no fixed iconographic formula by which the Viśvarūpa image of Viṣṇu was to be made. No rigid, ritualistic canon governed image-making; there was no norm, deviation from which would bring down calamities of various kinds upon the heads of the worshippers, at least for these images. Artists developed, trimmed and altered their techniques with great freedom and apparently with impunity, since Kannauj-1 and -2 would have been installed in contemporary shrines in the same city, the differences between them plain for all to see. Nevertheless, habits evidently died hard: the figure of Gaṇeśa noticed in Kannauj-1 above the figure-of Śrī-Lakṣmī, where his presence could be accounted for in humorous, if somewhat devious terms, reappears in this sculpture, now hopelessly displaced between the cakra and the top of Viṣṇu's bow, where any connection between him and Lakṣmī would never be understood.

The first figure to rise from the lotus engraved upon the top surface of Viṣṇu's crown is similar to the corresponding figure in the Kannauj-1 version, though the hair is straight, not curled, and drawn up into a chignon, while more of the body is visible, apparently standing in a dehanche posture. In this version of the icon, I think that this figure does not represent Vāmana-who seems to appear elsewhere-but Buddha as an avatāra; possibly the lotus from which he emerges is intended to identify him as such. The second figure rising above him is again three-headed Brahmā, here represented as somewhat more corpulent, the stomach musculature being roughly indicated by a cross incised over the navel as in Kashmiri images. The third and apical figure is now headless and its right arm is lost; the left hand supports a pot. Most probably this was, as in Kannauj-1, Hayagriva or Kalkin - although in view of other iconographical changes in this sculpture, this cannot be taken for granted.

Paraśurāma and Rāmacandra stand in the same positions on either side of this vertical register as they do in Kannauj-1, but here they are supported by lotuses stemming from the blossom carved on the crown of Viṣṇu.10 The figures of Balarāma and Buddha which appear beneath them in Kannauj-1 are omitted. However, there is a curious figure beside the crown of Viṣṇu on the right. It depicts a small, bowed figure upon another lotus pedestal holding a staff in its left hand and raising its right with index finger extended, exactly as if it were lecturing the top of Viṣṇu's head. This is the figure which I suspect represents Vāmana, the Dwarf incarnation, though why he should appear to be delivering a one-sided discourse to the gigantic form of Viṣṇu into which he was transformed is difficult to say. It recalls, in its absurdity, an image from the Rāmāyaṇa where the wily Hanuman, in order to converse with the giant Rāvaṇa, rises upon his seemingly endless tail which he coils beneath him until he is on a level with the demon's head.11 Possibly we are meant to see in this touch of humour the Dwarf reminding the gigantic form of Viṣṇu that it was only through manifesting himself as one so small that the god was able to attain his enormous stature. There is no corresponding figure on the other side of Viṣṇu's crown. Counting the four side-heads of the god and taking Hayagrīva at the apex-if it was he who appeared there-as Kaklin, only nine avatāras are represented.

Around the upper margin of the stele there are six figures, as in Kannauj-1, but they are here larger, better organized and more clearly executed. To the left of Rāma, Indra again appears first, this time seated upon his elephant, with a mass of unkempt hair and holding the vajra in his right hand. Beside him is Yama astride the buffalo, riding toward the centre with the yamadaṇḍa in his left hand. Behind him is an unmounted figure, facing the other way, with a sword or staff held aslope his right shoulder. It is possible that this is some hero of Vaiṣṇava legend, such as Bhīma, but there is nothing in the iconography which definitely identifies him as such. On the other side, next to Paraśurāma, appears Agni with a jaṭā hairstyle and a beard, riding the ram toward the centre. Another rider, his vāhana either eroded or not represented for want of space, follows Agni, left hand on hip, the right hand lost; as in Kannauj-1, this single mounted figure may stand for the Aśvins, but more probably represents Vāyu riding the mṛga. Behind him, in the position corresponding to that of 'Bhīma' opposite, stands another unmounted figure, also facing away from the centre. He has a bhairava appearance, with a large head, bulging eyes, what appears to be a circlet of skulls in his hair, and carries a thick-ended pole which may be the khaṭvāṅga. This appears to represent Śiva as Bhikṣāṭana. This 'frieze' along the top has thus been organized into a pattern: two mounted Vedic gods on either side of the centre, with a hero at one extremity and an 'anti-hero' (Bhikṣāṭana) at the other.

There are only eight Rudras, each carrying a trident in his left hand and holding up the right in abhayamudnā as in Kannauj-1, in the right-hand side of the stele, arranged in two rows of three and one row of two, the latter pair standing upon a lotus. In the opposite half there are nine Ādityas, in three rows of three, each wearing a pointed crown (unlike the flat-topped crowns of these figures in Kannauj-1), a kavaca (omitted from the Ādityas in Kannauj-1) and holding up a lotus blossom in each hand. The Āditya who appears above the snout of the Varāha side-face is provided with a lotus to stand upon, thus separating him from the avatāra, just as the Vāmanāvatāra opposite is provided with one to raise him above the Kūrma. Clearly, one of the required revisions in this version of the image was avoidance of the kind of informality found in Kannauj-1 and the Deogarh sculpture, in which certain figures might stand upon each other or upon the hand-held emblems of the god. (Nevertheless, a tiny figure has been inserted between the. Ādityas beneath Indra., another between two Rudras beneath Agni, and yet another between the legs of the first and second Rudras in the top row. It is impossible to identify them, but their haphazard appearance is almost reassuring.) Greater symmetry was apparently also called for, resulting in reduced numbers of both Rudras and Ādityas; the presence of Vāmana in the right half made up the number of figures on that side to nine, thus balancing the two halves. Further, the symbolically opposed yet complemental relationship between lndra and Agni, plainly depicted in the Deogarh sculpture, was here recognized anew and re-affirmed by placing them at the head of the two halves of the composition, instead of representing them both on the same side as in Kanrrauj-1. It is apparent, however, that the overall grasp of this symbolism was already lost. Thus Indra and Yama would be better placed above the Rudras, in company with Śiva Bhikṣāṭana, and Agni and Vāyu would have more relevance to the Āditya side of the image.

From what little can be seen of the curved top margin of the stele, it appears that it was enclosed on the edge by a succession of faces (as in the fragment Kannauj-3), but the concrete into which the sculpture is set and the liberal painting of it with lime has almost completely covered the profiles.

The iconography of Kannauj-2 and Kannauj-1 may be com-pared using Table 6.1 (p. 259), and Table 6.2.

Table 6.2

Kannauj-2: Summary Diagram

Paraśurāma Hayagrīva


Bhikṣāṭana   Vāyu     Agni  Brahmā Indra   Yama    Bhima





8 Rudras





9 Ādityas



Arjuna (?)




Bhūdevi Nāga -?-

Stylistically, Kannauj-4 (Plate 69) is typical of late Pratihāra workmanship: crisp, deeply cut, ornate and seemingly intelligent, executed to an oversimplified plan in a fluent idiom. One might say that the acid test of any sculptural school's ability to organize and express its concepts clearly is the making of a Viśvarūpa image of Viṣṇu. Kannauj-4 manifests a quick, decisive approach to the problem of so much multiplicity, with no ponderous hesitations over matters of geometrical symbolism or iconographic symmetry. That the result is not as fine a sculpture as has generally been supposed12 will become apparent in this discussion of it.

 As at Deogarh, and unlike Kannauj-1 and -2, the main Viṣṇu figure is an eight-tāla image, but the height of the whole composition within which it stands is ten tālas (one and a half tālas above the god's crown plus a half tāla beneath his feet) of which the median line passes through the band around Viṣṇu's waist, A semicircle of three tālas' radius, centred on the vertical axis one third of the distance down from the top of Viṣṇu's face-that is, on the point between his eyebrows-provided the curve for the top of the stele, the sides of which were then cut straight down to the base. No ellipses em; nor were they to be employed again in planning subsequent sculptures of this type in north India, which reverted to the circular populated nimbus invented in the Gupta period at Mathura.

Above the crown of Viṣṇu's, the emergence motif, first noticed in these Viśvarūpa images in the figure of Hayagrīva emanating from the central crown of the Śamalājī image, is seen again in exaggerated form. An uncrowned head and a right hand held in the abhayamudrā are all that first arise, probably representing Vāmana, as in Kannauj- 1. From Vāmana arises Hayagrīva as the central of the three figures above Viṣṇu, the same position as he occupies in Deogarh sculpture, the left hand lowered with an indistinct object upon the palm and the right hand raised in the abhayamudrā with a rosary across the palm. The top figure may be Brahmā, or this identity may have been changed to that of Śiva in his four-faced manifestation (the four standing for five - paṅcānana, paṅcavaktra) generating from each of his side-faces the heads of four of his Aṣṭabhairava forms which in this version are seen clearly to encircle the top part of the stele. This feature clearly derives directly from the Gupta versions of the Vaiṣṇava Viśvarūpa at Mathura (Plates 49 and 55), the meaning of the differentiated series of heads on either side of the Deogarh image being either not understood or considered too original and idiosyncratic to be worth perpetuating.

Beside this vertical series of three figures and the god's crown stand six figures, one on its right and five to its left. The single figure on the right, axe in hand, is the Bhārgava priest-turned-warrior, Paraśurāma, the sixth incarnation who destroyed the kṣatriyas when they took over priestly activity from the brāhmaṇas. Opposite him stand Rāma Dāśarathi, bow slung over his left shoulder and holding an arrow point downward, next to his brother, Lakṣmaṇa, who is similarly armed. Below them is a trio of gods who represent the three major gods after Viṣṇu. They are led by Brahmā with a single head and carrying a kamaṇḍalu who is followed by Indra with his vajra, as in Buddhist sculpture. Śiva in his wandering mendicant shape, Bhikṣāṭana, the khaṭvāṅga over his shoulder symbolizing his severing of Brahma's fifth head and so marking him as a despised brahmahan or 'brahminicide', brings up the rear: a nice sectarian counter-part to Rāma Jāmadagni opposite, the brāhmaṇa who slew kṣatriyas in a righteous cause.

Below the latter, in neatly serried ranks, stand the eleven Rudras, all with jaṭas and holding a triśūla; opposite, below Rāma and his brother and the three inferior gods, the twelve Ādityas, each a miniature Sūrya with a tall, tapering crown and holding up a lotus blossom in each hand, are positioned where there is space for them above and around the extended left arms of Viṣṇu. The distinction of caste (in its sense of varṇa) which is represented in the Deogarh image is echoed here in the opposition of Paraśurāma and Rāmacandra (the ambivalent priest-warrior versus the true kṣatriya) or in the pointed difference between Paraśurāma and Śiva Bhikṣāṭana (the virtuous priest who exterminates the warrior caste versus the degraded god who slays the archetypal priest), but in a confused fashion which is neither straightforward humour nor a direct opposition of symbolism, being rather distorted by sectarian attitudes and by a certain cleverness at visual punning. There was a certain amount of lively amusement in Kannauj-1 and even Kannauj-2, but this image seems to me stilted and humourless.

The main Viṣṇu figure is iconographically complete. The front hands hold the conch and display the abhayamudrā. The bow and arrows, omitted from the Deogarh trial sculpture and from Kannauj-1, are held in lowered hands-not a convincing solution to a positioning problem which the designer of Kannalj-2 had already shown to be awkward, resulting in a clumsy tangle of arms-where Gupta images (and the Deogarh sculpture) had held the personified mace and disc, which are elevated in the Kannauj sculptures. And finally, the sword and its counterpart, the circular shield, the latter dispensed with altogether in Kannauj-2, no doubt as an impossible complication, which is a puny object with no realism in its depiction. (In Kannauj- 1, the shield served at least a symbolic function, partly 'shielding' or eclipsing the cakra which seems to slide out from behind it like the sun against a background of Ādityas.)

The distribution of these seven objects among the eight hands is hopelessly confused. The rearmost hands hold the mace and shield (instead of the disc), while the third pair touch the arrows in their quiver (where the mace formerly stood) and hold the disc, so that the second pair hold, on the left the bow with the string facing front (as in Kannauj-2) and, in the broken right, the raised sword. This was the artistic solution to the problem of symmetrically arranging too many attributes in a confined area, and one sympathises with the designers. However, any semblance of reality in pairs of hands holding complementary attributes has clearly been abandoned and with it, surely, the symbolic equilibrium at the centre of which the god in anthropomorphic form stands. The re-arrangement of the sequence of the animal-avatāra side-heads appears also to have been carried out for artistic reasons: the large head of the Matsya, now second in the clockwise sequence, balances in shape that of the Varāha opposite; the head of the Kūrma is stretched up to fill more space opposite the Nṛsiṃha head and the sword blade adjacent to it distracts the attention from its basically unalterable small size. Again, artistic exigencies have destroyed a symbolic balance.

It will have been noticed that only eight of the avatāras have so far appeared: Turtle, Fish, Boar and man-Lion projecting from the central head of the god; Vāmana and Hayagrīva emerging from his crown, with Rāma and Paraśurāma on either side of them. The sculptors were clearly concerned to fit in the remaining two, but had no plan as to where to place them in relation to the others, who are all grouped closely together. Their solution was simply to use an otherwise blank area below the four Bhairava heads on the right margin of the stele, Vacant because the space taken up by Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and the three devas at the top of the opposite half is occupied on the right only by Paraśurāma. Had the three gods below Rāma and his brother been omitted or evenly distributed across the top of the stele-a design for which there were precedents in both Kannauj-I and -2-then all ten avatāras could have been symmetrically placed at the top of the composition, as in Kannauj-1. However, the price of inserting the devas, whose diminutive presence is scarcely more than sectarian propaganda, on the side of the Ādityas is that the last two avatāras, out of sequence, are represented one above the other on the right-hand edge behind the mace: Kalkin above Balarāma.

Two nāgas flank the feet of the god as at Deogarh and in Kannauj- 1 and -2, but their bodies, far from forming a basis for the composition as at Śamalājī and Deogarh, curve away from him. The central figure on the plinth, introduced to north India from the north-west at Deogarh, has here either been misunderstood or radically reinterpreted. It is transformed into a third nāga with a triple cobra-hood like the other two, and the feet of Viṣṇu stand upon its coils. That the presence of three nāgas has any meaning consistent with the rest of the image seems most unlikely. This total reorganization of the base strongly suggests that when this image was made, the significance of the triple base-consisting of the Earth-goddess between two nāgas symbolizing the waters-which was a coalescence of Śamalājī and north-western iconography, could no longer be understood and was for this reason altered.

The curious disorganization of the weapons in the hands of Viṣṇu, the breakdown in the sequence of the avatāras, and the meaningless triplication, and separation, of the nāgas: these three major factors demonstrate that this image marks the point at which Viśvarūpa imagery, in becoming standardized, lost its coherence and, along with it, the vision of Viṣṇu as the centre and axis of a stable universe.

It was, however, this last Kannauj sculpture which became the standard model upon which were based subsequent Viśvarūpa icons. An example of the perpetuation of it, complete with mistakes, abbreviations and misunderstandings, is the image found at Bhuili, near Varanasi, and now in the grounds of Banaras Hindu University (Plate 70). The prabhāmaṇḍala has reverted to a circular nimbus enclosed by twelve Bhairava heads and populated by a few representations of the avatāras, Rudras and Ādityas; the side-heads of the animal incarnations are still further confused in their sequence; and below the base, on the front of the plinth, squat three very small, identical nāgas. This image marks the end of inventiveness and creative thought in the iconographical planning of multiple brahmanical sculptures in north India.


9 P. Pal Bronzes of Kashmir, Graz 1975,plates 8,9 and 84b (the latter is in the Hari-Rai temple of Chambā, and not in the Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa, as Pal implies.

10 The explicit connection of multiple figures by the ramifications as a plant did survive, as evidenced by Kannauj-2.

11 I have seen only one depiction of this incident in India art; it is one of the wood-carving above the architrave of the garbhagṛha in the Markulā Devī temple at Markulā/Udaipur, Himachal Pradesh.

12 Its excellence has been proclaimed especially by Sivaramamurti (supra, Notes 2 and 3) and also by A. Ghosh, 'Some Sculptures from Kannauj', Roopalekhā XXIV, 1-2,pp. 1-3.


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Oxford University Press 1988