Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu’s incarnations as innumerable, however the Dashavataras or the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu shown here are celebrated as his major appearances. He is said to still descend to earth in any of his avatar to restore the cosmic orders for preservation and peace. When Vishnu directly descends himself on earth in the form of Krishna, Rama or Narasimha, it is called Sakshaty avatar and when he indirectly empowers life to represent him in the form of Naravada Muni, Parshuram, Vyasa etc, it is called Avesa avatar.
The wooden panel shown here contains the most popular Sakshaty and Avesa avatars of Lord Vishnu, carved in excessive beauty and fineness. Starting from the left, Matsya (half fish-half man) avatar with the lower body (fish body) carved in beautiful scales and the upper human body with four hands holds his iconic implements to save the world from cosmic deluge. Kurma (Tortoise avatar) is fashioned in a realistic tortoise shape having a distinctive chiselled shell in the lower end and a striking long haloed crown that glorifies his head. Varaha who rescues goddess Earth by killing the demon Hiranyakashyap is also called Boar avatar as it has the head of a boar and body of a human, structured in accurate lines and its head turned sideways. Narasimha (half man-half lion) avatar is the fourth in order and has the head and claws of a lion while the body of a human; sculptor has naturally designed the lion face with hairy brows and fearsome moustache and expressions highlighting his creative defeat of demon Hiranyakashyap to rescue Prahlada. Vamana avatar is the most unique disguise of Lord Vishnu as a monk-short heighted and fat belly, carrying an umbrella and kamandalu in either hands; sculptor has carved him in his iconic peaceful and decent vibes of expressions and gestures justifying his act of testing Mahabali’s kinship.
This bearded sage with an axe and kamandalu is Parshurama, garbed here in an organized horizontally striated dhoti and ornaments; revered for his aggressive as well as serene nature to kill all the adharmi kings and other warrior companions. Maryada Purushottam Sri Rama is the central figure of ancient Hindu epic Ramayana who killed the demon Ravana. He stands here carrying bow and arrows, ornamented in lavish jewels and a stylish flower aureoled crown. Kalki avatar or the future lawgiver stands next in a dignified stance and garbs and is said to incarnate after Kali yuga with immense power to destroy evil. Easily identifiable Lord Krishna postured in his usual self plays the melodious murli with anterior hands and rear hands hold the attributes to kill his uncle, Kansa. The last seen on the panel is Hayagriva or the horse headed avatar, carved in apt horse head shape and the body of a human; four hands holding usual implements to kill demons Madhu and Kaitabha, who had stolen the vedas.
The beauty of this panel lies in its alluring South Indian styled carvings including the pillars on the vertical edges and a mesmerizing border of floral pattern. Its dark-light color and large size will enhance the spirituality as well as aesthetic nurture of the wall.
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Vishnu’s usually accepted ten incarnations are : Matsyavatara – Fish incarnation, Kurmavatara – Tortoise incarnation, Varahavatara – Boar incarnation, Narasimhavatara – half lion-half man incarnation, Vamanavatara – Dwarf incarnation, and his incarnations as Parasurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna and the Horse-headed Kalki. Of these first three are his incarnations in animal forms : fish, tortoise and boar; the fourth, half animal-half man, the fifth, the man but disproportionate to human anatomy, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, human beings, and the tenth, which is yet to take effect, is sometimes claimed to emerge as one riding a horse, and at other times, as one being half man-half horse. Opinions vary in regard to his incarnation as Balarama. Some texts, Vishnu Purana in particular, alternate Balarama with Buddha who they revere as Vishnu’s ninth incarnation.
On its extreme right and next to it the panel portrays respectively Vishnu’s Fish and Tortoise incarnations. The artist has carved the four-armed figure of Vishnu carrying in its upper hands the disc and goad and holding the other two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’ emerging from the body of a fish, and another, exactly identical, from the body of tortoise. In his Matsyavatara Vishnu is said to have saved Manu from the great Deluge. Some traditions acclaim that as the Great Fish he had rescued the Vedas. During ocean-churning, when the ocean’s bottom was unable to contain Mount Meru : the churning rod, Vishnu incarnated as Tortoise, slipped under the Mount and held it on its back and thus churning was accomplished.
The third figure and the fourth, having normal human anatomy, except that the third has the face of the boar, and the fourth, that of the lion, both carrying the same attributes as the first two, are respectively Vishnu’s Varahavatara and Narasimhavatara. As the tradition has it, Hiranyaksha, a notorious demon, once uprooted the earth and carried her to Patala-Loka – nether world, and hid her there. Thereupon Vishnu incarnated as Boar and after killing Hiranyaksha carried the earth on his tusks and installed her back in her place. Vishnu had incarnated as Narasimha for killing the atrocious demon Hiranyakasipu who had from Brahma the boon that he would not be killed by either the man or animal. The boon did not provide immunity against Narasimha who was neither man nor animal.
Vishnu incarnated as Vamana for deluding the demon chief Mahabali. A notorious demon but a great donor, Mahabali granted him a piece of land measuring the Vamana’s three strides. Expanding his form Vishnu covered the entire cosmos in two steps, and for the third he put his foot on the demon’s body and pushed him into the nether world. Vishnu incarnated sixth time as Parasurama, a Brahmin with ‘parasu’ – battle-axe, in hand for chastising the arrogant kshatriyas who mad with power did not hesitate in targeting sages and even in killing them. Parasurama destroyed Kshatriyas twenty-one times, and thus also their ego. The wood-panel has conceived Vamana, as also Parasurama, Rama, Balarama and Krishna with normal two arms and without the disc, goad, mace or ‘abhaya’. In the panel Parasurama carries ‘parasu’, Rama, his bow, Balarama, his plough and Krishna his flute. All ten figures’ anatomy, wears, ornaments, are on Vaishnava lines. The horse-faced Kalki has been conceived as four-armed carrying in the upper two the same disc and goad as carry Vishnu’s early incarnations, though in the other two, he carries a large dagger and a steel-head to blow with.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.