This magnificent brass-statue represents Lord Vishnu reclining over the coils of the great serpent Shesh against a moderately sized golden bolster, and his consort Lakshmi, seated holding his feet and massaging them. The figures of Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi, as also the bolster he is reclining against, are glistening like gold but in delightful contrast the figure of the great serpent Shesh has been anodized in deep brown – the great serpent’s natural body colour and the colour of the earth that Shesh incarnates. The great serpent has coiled under Lord Vishnu’s figure like a cushion elevated to a bed’s height. The artist conceiving the statue has designed the coiling serpent like an artistic couch – narrow towards the feet, and wider towards the head – a conch-like appearance, one of Lord Vishnu’s initial and essential attributes. Besides, the great serpent Shesh has canopy-like held its seven-hooded head over Lord Vishnu’s head. In Indian iconographic tradition this form of his image is known variously as Sheshasayi, Sheshasana, Shesh-shayana and Shayana-murti. The Narayan Upanishad – one from the group of minor Upanishads, classes this form as the most accomplished and calls it Narayan.
For public worship or private, or even for its aesthetics, the Vaishnava Murtishilpashashtra – iconography of Vaishnava images, as well as the Vaishnava tradition of sacred images, prescribes three classes of images of Lord Vishnu. These are seated, standing and reclining. Seated images are in ‘yoga-mudra’ – yogic posture and are known as Yoga-murti. Though Lord Vishnu is considered as one of the Adi-gurus – founding teachers of Yoga, his images in ‘yogasana’ – yogic posture, are very rare. One of his better known seated images enshrines the sanctum of the sacred pilgrimage seat at Badarinath in Himalayan hill range. His standing images are more common and reported from the 2nd-3rd century AD itself. However, Lord Vishnu’s more characteristic and ultimate image-form is one as reclining on the coils of the great serpent Shesh. This image form – the reclining one, is his final icon to emerge after the other two. One of its early and brilliant examples, datable to sixth century, is seen in Dasavatara temple of Gupta period at Deogarh in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
Each of these three classes of images has its own symbolic dimensions and significance the breadth of Shayana-murti being the widest. Yoga-murti Vishnu explores within – an attempt at knowing who he is – the initial state of his being. As the Devi-Bhagavata has it, after the Great Deluge, a child Vishnu emerged floating on a fig-leaf asking the void, ‘who he was’, and then a voice – the Great Goddess, disclosed to him as to who he was and what for he had emerged. The standing position suggests act, his readiness to command, to protect or punish – a monarch’s role. Exploration within and an act beyond are timed for time scales every act whoever performs it; presence – ‘vyapti’ that is Lord Vishnu who is Vishnu by being ‘vyapta’, is beyond time. Shayana-murti is the timeless presence that pervades the entire cosmos timelessly. The great serpent Shesh stands for entire Creation and Shayana-murti pervades both, the body of the great serpent, and the Creation that the great serpent manifests. Here Lakshmi – riches, prosperity, fertility, abundance, as also beauty and grace that Lakshmi manifests, serves him incessant.
In exact adherence to the tradition of Vaishnava images, this four-armed image of Vishnu carrying all characteristic attributes : ‘chakra’ – disc, ‘shankha’ – conch, ‘gada’ – mace, and ‘padma’ – lotus, in his hands, is rare in plasticity, modeling and anatomical proportions. It abounds on one hand in a king’s splendour, and on the other, in a woman’s grace. Unlike instruments of war disc, conch and mace are merely symbolic as if included for revealing his identity. Whatever the myths in regard to his exploits against demons, on his face there enshrines only divine quiescence, and in his entire being, great benevolence. He has sharp features, three-fourth shut lotus-eyes, bold eye-brows, a well-defined forehead and round face with pointed chin, all modeled after best of iconographic traditions. Not in blue, the mythical colour of his body, the artist has conceived his figure in glistening gold. Though elaborately bejeweled and richly costumed, the figure of Lakshmi has been modeled like an humble wife incessantly engaged in serving her lord.
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.