A feat of daring imagination, highly innovative, and hence as much rare, this cedar wood sculpture represents a vision of Lord Vishnu with ten additional faces, his own being eleventh, From a workshop at Trivandrum, in Kerala, now a seat of master artisans especially skilled in carving cedar wood sculptures worldwide known for their elegance, great distinction and unique quality, the statue has the flavour of earlier Mysore sandal images. Relatively a large size statue, 33 inches tall, 14.5 inches in breadth and 6.5 inches thick – not common dimensions for a cedar wood statue – as the cedar wood itself is quite expensive, it represents Lord Vishnu in his cosmic form – Vishnu in his wholeness.
In iconographic tradition images of Lord Vishnu are conceived mainly in two postures, one in ‘khadgasana’, that is, standing position, and other, in ‘sayanasana’, that is, leisurely reclining. The ‘khadgasana represents him as cosmic commander in readiness to proceed either to protect a devotee or to redeem one from some calamity; usually his images as cosmic commander are in ‘abhay-mudra’. When at leisure he is represented as reclining in Kshirasagara – the ocean of milk, on the coils of the great serpent Shesh, and Lakshmi, his consort, massaging his feet. While his image in standing posture manifests Lord Vishnu’s active aspect, his ‘sayanasana’ image represents his auspicious presence by which he pervades the cosmos. In ‘sayanasana’ he is represented as stretching over the body of the great serpent. In iconographic and metaphysical traditions the great serpent Shesh is seen as symbolizing cosmos. Thus by pervading the body of the great serpent Vishnu pervades the cosmos with his auspiciousness. As the two aspects could not be synthesized in one form, the artist has used the pedestal’s face for representing his ‘sayanasana’ image and thus his auspicious aspect. The two hexagonal sides of the pedestal have been used for representing the images of tall turban-wearing Vamana and the flute-blowing Krishna, the fifth and the eighth of Vishnu’s ten incarnations.
Besides representing these two aspects : Vishnu, ready to act, and Vishnu, an auspicious presence pervading the entire Creation, the artist has revealed in the statue Vishnu-related other contexts too. The Rig-Veda often alternates Vishnu with sun – Surya. Traditionally Surya moves in a chariot driven by seven horses. Though the inclusion of a three horse-driven chariot in Lord Vishnu’s iconography is an absolutely new element and sounds strange, it is certainly not meaningless. This feature is indicative of Vishnu’s oneness with Surya. Vishnu as Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer in the Mahabharata. He is believed to have delivered the entire Gita when atop his chariot. The presence of the chariot reveals this context too. Besides that the great serpent Shesh is a regular feature of Vishnu’s iconography, canopying his ‘khadgasana’ image with its hood is complete deviation from the established tradition. The great serpent had unfurled its hood over the new-born Krishna when in torrential rains his father Vasudeo was transporting him across the river Yamuna under devastating flood. Inclusion of Shesh unfurling its hood over his image might have been made also for revealing this context.
Except in his manifestation as Baikuntha Vishnu, in which form his images have been conceived with three faces Lord Vishnu’s images are conceived with a normal single face though with four arms, not normal two, giving him Chaturbhuja name. A bold imagination this image has been modeled with eleven faces, his own in the centre while five on either side. These faces bereft of attributes that reveal each divine figure’s identity appear to be sage Bhragu, Narsimha – his fourth incarnation, Ganesha, Shiva’s son whose ‘agra-puja’ Vishnu had himself prescribed, Rama, his seventh incarnation, and Shiva on the right side, and Balarama, his ninth incarnation, Hanuman, his devotee and servant in his incarnation as Rama and also otherwise, Yama, the presiding deity of death that Vishnu commanded, Parashurama, his sixth incarnation, and a Shaivite saint. Thus, with Krishna and Vamana carved along the pedestal and Narsimha, Parashurama, Rama and Balarama – all of his incarnations in human form, forming the part of his face, the statue represents Lord Vishnu in his totality. The image, raised over a tall hexagonal podium with a dark brown base unit, has been conceived with sixteen arms; except the normal right and left held in ‘abhay’ and ‘varad’, in other fourteen hands the image holds various divine weapons.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet.