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Christophe Hioco

Vishnu Padmanabha
Pala Period, 11th-12th c.
Length : 25 1/4 inches

While the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are widely depicted throughout Hindu art, they appear in a wide variety of shapes, some more rare than others. Here we have a somewhat unusual depiction of the god of the sustaining principle.

This fragment of a stele depicts the god Vishnu in the reclining position. From his navel springs a lotus bud on which appears a four-headed Brahma, the creation god of the Hindu Trimurti.

Here Vishnu has four arms and holds his usual attributes: the chakra in his upper left hand, the conch in his lower left hand and the mace in his upper left hand. He rests his head in his other right hand. His legs are in a peculiar position, with his foot being massaged by Bhumi, the goddess of the earth.

The god is depicted in his supreme incarnation, crowned with the royal tiara. He is wearing jewellery made up of bracelets, necklaces and earrings, among others, and has on a richly decorated dhoti. We can also see the strands of the Brahman cord across his chest.

To the left of Vishnu, we see his wife Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune, recognizable by her fly-whisk, and on the right, Sarasvati, goddess of the arts, playing the vina. Perched on his lotus bud in the posture of royal ease, Brahma appears in his supreme incarnation. With three heads visible and four arms, he is a full-bodied figure with a protruding stomach and a round face.

The shape of the bodies is typical of Indian art, with powerful volumes yet flesh that would appear to be soft to the touch. Vishnu is represented as a svelte young man, with a bit of a stomach. His arms and legs are a balanced blend of delicacy, strength and suppleness. He is wearing a short dhoti held at the waist by a jewelled belt with a buckle shaped like a kirtimukha, the mask of protection.

The unusual iconography of this piece lies in its incarnation as the god Narayana, where Vishnu is venerated as the lord of the formless universe, resting on the coiled serpent, Shesha. He is present at the appearance of Brahma, who will preside over the new manifestation of the universe.

From the 8th to the 12th century, the states of Bengal and Bihar produced sculpture in black and grey stone, essentially Buddhist under the Pala sovereigns (8th to 11th century), then Hindu under the reign of the Sena, of Brahman origin (11th and 12th centuries). It was specifically under the Pala and Sena reigns that the great university of Nalanda reached its peak of glory, attracting thousands of students from numerous countries to the largest religious and scientific teaching complex of its time.

Provenance: former private collection, Italy.

all text, images Christophe Hioco


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