The South Indian Vaishnava devotees consider the image of Venkateshvara, or Balaji, as the holier than that of any one of Vishnu's incarnations. They believe that Venkateshvara, or Balaji, is Lord Vishnu's manifestation in his proto form and not an incarnation that realises him only in degrees. Tirumala is thus Vishnu's only abode on the earth or rather anywhere in the three worlds for, as the tradition has it, it was Tirumala where he permanently settled after he had abandoned Baikuntha, his heavenly abode. His presence here is thus full and absolute. This statue of Tirupati Balaji characteristically depicts this pre-eminence of the deity over Vishnu's incarnated forms. The artist has carved Balaji as his principal theme but at the same time and to suggest his deity's distinction from Vishnu's incarnated forms has carved in the panel below Vishnu's ten incarnations, which suggests his status as Balaji above them.
In this rendition, or rather in his manifestation as Balaji, Vishnu is in his own form and being, as the one, and the only one in absolute unanimity, who presides over the entire creation, the time and the space, which also scale his incarnated beings. Venkateshvara has been represented here as pervading the entire Prabhavali, or the fire- arch, which, by its three rimmed formation, stands in symbolic tradition for the entire cosmos, the earth, the world below and the world above. The artist has further emphasized this mythical realism by creating around the deity yet another prabhavali to consist of floral strings, three on its right and three on its left and the outer one ringing above its crown. To complete his deity's cosmic impact, the artist has carved over its right and left breasts Shridevi and Bhoodevi, one representing the ocean and all its riches and treasures and the other representing the earth and her fertility and boons of life. Apparently also Vishnu as Balaji occupies in the statue the prime position, the sanctum Isanctorum, while Vishnu's all ten incarnations, Matsya, Kurma, Varah, Narsimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna and Kalki have a subsidiary placing. This further defines Balaji's pre-eminence over other forms. Incidentally, in this Dasavatara panel Balarama has substituted Buddha as Vishnu's ninth incarnation. .He has been also elevated to the eighth position, that is, before Krishna, obviously because he was elder to him. The identity of various incarnations has been discovered in their characteristic faces and attributes, which they are carrying.
Besides its capacity to define this unique theological aspect of Vaishnava thought, as a work of art also the statue is a masterpiece of woodcraft. It has been erected on a high pedestal, which consists of a flat base, tapering middle and projected and well- moulded roof. The tapering middle, which is its taller part, has carved on it in relief, within a recessed frame, Vishnu's ten incarnations known as the Dasavatara. The roof has over it an elevated footing rising on circular arch motifs. It has, in its centre, an inverted lotus vedika, which has consecrated on it the image of the deity contained within a fire- arch representing three worlds. Its apex consists of the auspicious kirtimukha, representing the spiritual transformation of 'the material'. Deity's lower costume, which forms a semi-circular frill around the feet level, consists of floral garlands ringing around the deity figure in numerous courses.
The deity wears a towering crown consisting of various patterns with kalasha motifs surmounting it. This kalasha motif is a novel aspect in Vaishnava iconography. The kalasha, or pot, symbolizes the womb pregnant with life, prosperity and riches and is hence symbolical of both, the earth and the ocean. This adds a new dimension to Vaishnava iconography, as this is the very object of Vishnu's being, but rarely manifesting in his iconographic representations. The typical Vaishnava tilaka, a vertical red mark contained inside a white frame, which covers three-fourth of deity's forehead, nose and eyes, is the characteristic feature of the iconography of Venkateshvara. The deity has four arms, though only the two of them are visible. The left one of them is suggestive of holding the usual Vaishnava mace in it and the right one is in abhaya and displays the mark of padma, another essential attribute of Vishnu. The other two arms are not visible. The deity is holding its usual disc and conch, which is suggestive of two other arms in which they are carried. The nagabandha, or the armlets and girdles around the waist consisting of serpents, is yet another new element added here in the iconography of Balaji. It has been obviously imported from Shaivite iconography. The image has been lavishly bejeweled as deserves that of Lord Vishnu, who is the master of all jewels. Sharp features, a perfect posture and minute details are other outstanding features that define the wondrous craftsmanship of the statue.
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.