This bronze-cast from one of the workshops in Swamimalai, a great centre of bronze-casting in India, represents Hayagriva, the horse-faced incarnation of Vishnu, also known as Ashva-shirasha, along his consort Marichi also spelt as Marishi, widely linked with Lakshmi, sometimes Lakshmi seen as an incarnation of Marichi, and sometimes, Marichi, as Lakshmi’s. In sectarian lines that perceive Hayagriva as the incarnation of pure knowledge Marichi is seen as light of the sun taking an anthropomorphic form. As the light of the sun shows the path to knowledge Marichi is Hayagriva’s main instrument to operate with. However, Hayagriva is more popularly seen as an incarnation of Vishnu, and Marichi, as one of the forms of Lakshmi. Inherently associated with Lakshmi the lotus is the only attribute that this icon of Marichi is carrying in her right hand. With her left hand she is signaling release.
Though revered in Vaishnava pantheon just as one of Lord Vishnu’s minor incarnations, not one among his ten or twenty-four, Hayagriva has Vedic origin and is an early divine form. In Vedic literature Hayagriva is alluded to as the incarnation of Yajna. Later, Taittariya-Samhita perceived Yajna just as a transform of Vishnu. Maybe, as Yajna was seen as the transform of Vishnu Hayagriva, the Vedic incarnation of Yajna, was also seen as Vishnu’s incarnation. However, Hayagriva’s iconic form is first realized in the Brahmanda-purana where sage Agasta is said to have encountered in the city of Kanchi a four-armed divine form with horse’s face and human form carrying in his hands ‘chakra’ – disc, conch, ring and book, broadly the attributes of Vishnu, book being Brahma’s, also in Vaishnava line. The divinity was obviously Hayagriva. Sage Agasta was a Vedic sage. Thus, too, Hayagriva has a Vedic origin.
Sage Agasta’s myth does not explain how Hayagriva had a horse’s head. It was only subsequently that there cropped up a number of myths as to how Hayagriva got the horse’s head. The most popular among them is one appearing in the Panchavinsha Brahmin. The scripture narrates how once Agni, Vayu, Indra and Yajna held a joint yajna on condition that they would equally distribute among them its proceeds. However, on its conclusion Yajna ran away usurping all its proceeds. Other gods pursued him but with his divine bow Yajna defeated all gods. With no other option left gods entered into a conspiracy against Yajna and got the string of his bow eaten by moth, and when so disabled they decapitated his head. However, when entreated, gods forgave Yajna and revived him by transplanting a horse’s head on his torso. Another myth relates to Vishnu who finding the demon named Hayagriva invincible in the battlefield got the string of his bow eaten by moth and then killed him. However, for this sin the face of Vishnu himself was broken. On gods’ request Vishwakarma repaired his face replacing the broken one with the horse’s as that alone was readily available. According to Devi Bhagavata, under the blessings of Devi the demon Hayagriva could be killed only by someone who had similar appearance and name; hence for killing the arrogant demon Vishnu transformed into a horse-faced form and also adopted Hayagriva as his name. Hayagriva as an incarnation of Vishnu is in live worship, though in temple art, such as at Khajuraho, Hayagriva’s images have been more widely used for adorning a temple’s façade.
This bronze image with its rare distinction, both the theme-wise as also in its rare craftsmanship, every feature discovered with great precision and minuteness, represents Hayagriva with his consort enshrining ‘prabhavali’ – fire-arch, which with its half column base on either side looks like a sanctum door. The independently cast fire-arch that elevates on either side over half pillars as the sanctum doors usually comprise – a perfect circle, rises along a decorative motif looking like peacock feathers and aligns on the top with a ‘kirttimukha’ motif. Though at Swamimalai some 1300 artisans are still engaged in the craft all pursuing similar standards of bronze-casting the rare qualities that this image reveals are simply outstanding. The image of the deity has been conceived as seated in ‘lalitasana’ on a lotus seat installed on a rectangular platform. The four-armed image is carrying in its upper hands the disc and the mace, while the deity’s normal right hand is held in ‘abhaya’, and with the normal left he is holding his consort seated on his left thigh. Both are putting on routine ornaments with helmet-type towering crowns and tight-fitted lower garments. Marichi is putting on an elaborately worked breast-band.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.