In Focus

Vishnu as Varaha

Vishnu assumed the form of Varaha, his third of ten incarnations (avatars), in order to rescue the earth, which had been sub­merged beneath the primordial sea by the demon Hiranyaksha. Following a great battle, Varaha successfully returned the earth, here personified as a female figure (Bhudevi) clinging to one of his tusks, as is typical in images of Varaha. The waters from which Varaha rescued the earth are suggested by the streams emerging from his head and by the lotus blossom over his head. This four-armed figure is depicted holding two of Vishnu’s princi­pal attributes, the mace (held in the upper right hand) and the conch shell (held in the lower left hand). The stance of this figure, the right leg firmly planted on the ground, the left raised as if walking upward, is typical of Varaha images ren­dered with a human body and boar’s head. Occasionally, however, Varaha is depicted in fully zoomorphic form, for example, in the Varaha temple at Khajuraho.

In several cases, large figures of Varaha such as this one were installed to com­memorate a king’s victory in battle, sug­gesting an analogy between the righteous victory of Varaha and the martial success of a monarch. The analogy in such cases is made clear by an inscription, lacking on this sculpture.

Although the precise provenance of this figure is unknown, it very likely comes from the region of Khajuraho. The pink sandstone is characteristic of this area, and the style of the figure personifying the earth is very close to that of figures on temples there dating close to the year 1000.

Excerpt from

F. M. Asher, "Vishnu as Varaha," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Have: Yale University Press, 2013), 88.

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