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Vishnu as Varaha, the Cosmic Boar


Artwork Details

Vishnu as Varaha, the Cosmic Boar
circa 10th century
22 7/16 in x 18 5/16 in x 6 1/2 in (57 cm x 46.5 cm x 16.5 cm);22 7/16 in x 18 5/16 in x 6 1/2 in (57 cm x 46.5 cm x 16.5 cm)
Museum Purchase made possible by the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection Fund


March 28, 2009
The body of Vishnu’s boar-headed incarnation, Varaha, forges a diagonal bolt through this sculpture. His right foot is planted decisively at the corner of its projecting base; his left is flexed for leverage on a lotus pedestal. Against these rooting forces his body surges upward, culminating in an acutely raised snout. The magnitude of Varaha’s gesture and his relative scale suggest a superhuman strength, and his feet are splayed apart in a position that defies human physiology. In Hindu image making, the remarkable form of a god’s body reveals his or her boundless capacities. In this case, Varaha’s distinct posture depicts a well-known Hindu episode in which Vishnu took the form of a great boar to rescue the world from a demon who had imprisoned the earth beneath the cosmic ocean.
(Label for UMMA South and Southeast Asia Gallery Opening Rotation, March 2009)

Subject Matter:

Stories of the incarnations of Vishnu are very common and various groups of different numbers of incarnations are found. The most standard one is of ten, the Dasavatara. Varaha, the boar incarnation is number three in the series. The first five are non-human or at least full-sized human, the fifth being a dwarf. The Cosmic Boar was necessary to save the Earth goddess who had been captured by a demon and dragged to the bottom of the ocean. Varaha dived into the sea and saved the goddess. This is a myth that is sometimes associated with other India-Aryan flood stories as is the first incarnation, Matysa, the fish.

Physical Description:

This intricate stele has a large Varaha in the center. He is in the archer’s stance, with his right leg extended and his left leg bent resting on a lotus held up by a male and female snake figures. They have human bodies from the waist up and knotted snake bodies below. Varaha has a human body with the head of a boar, his head thrown back supporting the figure of the earth goddess who holds on to his snout. A lotus leaf acts as an umbrella over his head. Three of his four arms are intact with his right one at his hip holding a broken lotus, only the stem survives, and the two left hands holding a conch at his chest and a discus at his knee. The broken arm held the club and the top of it is still visible next to the pavilion on the left over his shoulder. Besides the two snake figures, three figures stand on the base to either side, the other one female, while the others are male. The inner two hold the conch and discus and can be considered shankhapurausha and cakrapurusha, the personifications of the two weapons. The figure in the center on the left ahs his hand raised over his head and the one on the right holds an arrow. They stand against pilaster forms, each surmounted by a pillared pavilion. To the sides of the pillars, vyalis (a composite animal) decorate the columns, a conventional throne motif and above them on the outside some devotee figures, the one on the right is broken. Against the pillar a broken animal figure is to the right and a seated devotee is seen on the left. The two pavilion forms house gods. The one to the left houses a small four-armed image of Brahma (three of his heads show, the central one with a beard) holding his usual attributes, a ladle for ritual and probably a pot, etc.. That on the right houses a four-armed figure of Shiva holding a trident and other attributes. The top of the stele is broken, but there is a devotee to the left and a row of seven figures all with hand up in a reassuring gesture and the other holding a pot. Could there have been two more and represent the nine planets? They do not appear very different one from the other.

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