Unlike a seated image, the statue’s height and breadth mutually balanced, and different members, well-composed, or one sculpted along a support – a relief carved over a plaque or rock, this Lord Vishnu-like modeled imposing four-armed standing image represents sage Dhanavantari, the divine physician of gods and the originator of the Ayurveda, the Indian science of medicine. Though in a standing posture – usually an active mode, there is on the face or rather in the entire being of the image reflection of deep absorption, that is, the image represents two frames of mind, one, deep concern, obviously for mankind, and readiness to guard against pain, ailment and suffering, and the other, meditation – perhaps exploring within the means to fight it out. Sculpted out of a marble block with various body-parts – arms in particular, and sash, stretched beyond the rest of the figure, unsupported and detached, the image reveals not only the rare artistic skill but also as rare artistic boldness.
The statue is a masterpiece by some sculptor from Jaipur in Rajasthan, a centre of marble art since medieval times known for both, purity and fine quality of stone as well as for the distinction of its art. The marble, out of which the image has been sculpted, is rare in purity not revealing a vein, grain or variation in colour and greatly contributes to the divine lustre that it emits. Brilliantly painted – the figure’s form in light blue, obviously the body-colour of Lord Vishnu who is believed to incarnate as Dhanavantari, though not as dark as Vishnu’s which could hide the marble’s lustre, black for hair and parts of eyes, all ornaments in gold, turmeric yellow for ‘antariya’, red for sash, and a blend of gold and black for halo and for designing borders of wears, the image of the celestial physician has been sculpted over a rectangular base which with corners cut takes octagonal form. For giving it a proper seat’s look its top has been painted in gold. A halo on the top – a circle radiating from his face, designed as if the great serpent Shesh extending its multi-hoods over his head, appropriately balances this octagonal base.
The four-armed image of Dhanavantari carries in upper hands two of Lord Vishnu’s attributes, the disc and conch, while holding in the normal right, the sash-end, and in the normal left, a golden pot believed to contain nectar. In all iconographic traditions in India – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or even folk, the pot is the common symbol of medicine. The pot-holding image of Buddha is classed as Medicine Buddha, and Hanuman with a pot is the folk deity who cures from every ailment. However, under Hindu mythology it was Dhanavantari who couriered the pot of ambrosia from the ocean’s depths when the ocean was churned for ‘amrita’ – ambrosia, jointly by gods and demons. Hence, pot has a different significance with Dhanavantari. With his right foot inclining to move the gods’ physician has been represented as standing. His figure has been modeled as of one in perpetual youth with a round face angularly curving towards the chin, large open eyes with arched eyebrows, a well aligned nose and moderately sized lips, broad forehead and a well-defined neck. He is in Vishnu-like ‘pitambara’ – yellow, ‘antariya’ – lower wear, and a red sash carried over his left shoulder, left arm and around waist. Both garments have golden border. He is putting on a few but elaborate ornaments and rich crown with a large ruby in the centre.
As the mythical tradition has it, long long ago gods and demons joined hands for churning ocean and obtaining ‘amrita’ that it contained in its bottom. The ocean yielded fourteen jewels Dhanavantari being one of them. In these jewels Dhanavantari had greater significance for it was him who couriered the pot containing ‘amrita’ for which the ocean was churned. Being the protector against all maladies and thus the protector of life, Dhanavantari commanded greater respect from gods than any of the other jewels, even Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, their commander for gods were beyond death but not beyond maladies. Though only another strain of the ocean-churning myth, Dhanavantari was the son of Lord Vishnu. It is said that soon after he emerged from the ocean and saw Lord Vishnu Dhanavantari prayed him to take him as his son. Unable to grant his prayer then Vishnu promised him to grant it in next birth and allocate him a seat and part of offering made to him at the yajna. Accordingly, in next birth Dhanavantari was Vishnu’s son born by his blessings. Hence his images have a four-armed form and some of his attributes.
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.