Museum Treasure: The bearded Rama

It is quite fascinating how popular culture, iconography and art shape, influence and reiterate perception, both consciously and unconsciously. Anything that is different from the familiar is either missed or dismissed as a gimmick. In rare cases, it opens up a whole new world and triggers off a new understanding. Something like this happened in February when I visited the Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum at the Jaisalmer Fort, where I was forced to acknowledge that I was not immune to internalising popular perception.

I was at the sculpture gallery at the Museum and idly registering apsaras or dancing girls, a Saraswati, a carved panel, and a bearded figure with a bow. Though the pose of the figure appeared relaxed, it’s expression said otherwise—fierce eyes, and a grim and stern countenance seemed to radiate tension. While, the arrow in the figure’s hands and the bow slung on it’s back suggested a brave warrior, the elaborate crown and extended ear lobes from heavy earrings suggested a that this was, perhaps, the figure of a king.

Bearded Rama, Sculpture, Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum, Travel, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

So who was it, I asked myself. When I saw the information board for this sculpture, I almost dropped my camera !

It was a sculpture of Rama, and a representation like none I had seen before. Popular art always shows Rama as a young man in good health, who is clean-shaven, with a bow on his left shoulder and quiver full of arrows on his right. His right hand is always raised in, what I call, a blessing gesture. Whether as a prince in Ayodhya or facing a life in exile, or as the King of Ayodhya, Rama’s expression is always kind, benevolent and serene; almost beatific. He is Maryada Purushottam Rama. In other words, the popular representation of Rama is always that of a God, and never that of a prince, a husband, a son, a father, a king or a warrior, or even the human being that he was.

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The sculptor, who is sadly not mentioned or acknowledged here, has not only presented Rama as a king and a warrior, but has also given him a local flavour with a mustache and beard style favoured by many local Rajput men even today. The stern expression on Rama’s face, so in contrast to his popular image, somehow made him far more real and believable than his portrayal in art and television for me.

This sculpture thrilled, delighted and challenged my own perceptions of Rama and left me wondering as to why had I never envisioned Rama as the Kshatriya prince or as the warrior he was. It also served as a reminder, once again, for me to look and appreciate, but always with an inquiring mind. 🙂

Have you seen representations in art that went against popular perception? I would love to hear about that and request you to share your experiences here.

PS: In my shock and excitement over seeing this, I completely forgot to note down details of the sculpture. You see, I could not go beyond,”Lord Rama”. So if someone has seen this sculpture and has the details, please share them here. Thank you. 🙂

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

22 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The bearded Rama

  1. wonderful, Sudha! !trust you to notice something like this in a museum…. which just shows that, no matter where a museum is, or how good, there is always something interesting to see!!! about the sculpture, wow!!! wonderful representation…. its great to see him as a human, as a king, instead of a god!

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    1. Thank you, Anu. I knew, actually hoped, that you would like it 🙂

      I found this sculpture fascinating for another reason as well – the indicators for this sculpture being Rama is there (the bow and arrow) and yet, the bearded face would not let me believe that this was Rama. It also goes on to show how much we believe in face value. Literally !

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  2. that’s such a fascinating sculpture! whoaa! I am still recovering some of the architectural marvels I witnessed on my Heritage Karnatka trip and now this one is certainly another in the league! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Every region in India has its own architectural marvels and each one is incomparable. And no matter how much you read about them and se their pictures, nothing can prepapre you for the real thing. 🙂

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  3. Beautiful interpretation. I love Shiva’s character in the trilogy by Amish, Immortals of Meluha and Secret of Nagas. M planning to give a positive shade to Ravan in a blog post:)
    Cheers
    Vishal

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  4. Thats a fantastic find and only YOU in the whole world are capable of capturing such a unique piece…I would have just noticed and walked off 🙂

    When Ramayan began on TV, my mom was not very happy..why Amma I asked her, wont more people know about the story..its better na

    Well, thats one thing, but I fear that this would mean a total lack of imagination on how God looks..I had a perception of Lord Rama since my childhood in my mind, and now, I feel very cheated that the guy playing Rama doesnt look like the guy in my perception :):)

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    1. No, I don’t think you have noticed and walked off; you would have stopped, looked and seen what I saw. 🙂

      I like to imagine that the brilliantly gifted sculptor was actually illiterate and who internalised the stories and songs narrated by the wandering bards. Based on that he gave a face, forma and figure to his Rama, the one that he identified with. It is far removed from the popular perception of Rama fed to us, but I feel that when this was made centuries ago, it would have been just another personal interpretation of Lord Rama.

      Did you also notice that in the sculpture, Rama has a bindi type of marking rather than the naamam he is usually shown sporting in representations today?

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  5. Very interesting post! Loved your interpretation of it! 🙂

    I am amazed by your ability to notice and interprete such things. Honestly.

    I think all art forms of gods and goddesses are influenced by the local culture. For instance, if you go to Gujarat, you will find Ganesha idols wearing the traditional turban and leaning on a traditional carved swing. In South India, you will find Ganesha idols with umbrellas, as is the tradition. But then, Ganesha is the most versatile of all gods – he has been molded into everything from a doctor to a computer operator today. 🙂

    I have seen the same with paintings of other gods and goddesses, too.

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    1. Thanks, TGND. Glad you liked the post. As I mentioned in reply to your comment on an earlier post, I have multiple interests, and art and mythology is one of them 🙂

      I agree that all art forms are influenced by local culture and I see examples all around. For instance, Mother Mary in Vellankanni wears a sari, while the Jesus rises out of a lotus flower with peacocks on either side at the St. Thomas Basilica in Chennai. (You can read more about it here: https://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/on-the-peacock-trail-from-mayilapuram-to-mylapore/) But no matter what, the gods/goddesses are immediately recognisable.

      But with this sculpture of Rama, even though there was a bow and arrow, the beard and expression were distracting enough to even attempt an identification.

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  6. Your observation is brilliant. I read somewhere that it was actually Raja Ravi Verma’s inital artistic imagination of depicting gods and godesses that gave way to this mass movement of worshipping them in that particular image. It is still the same image we worship and visualise Gods as! But the museum scultpure you saw in Rajasthan, shows there is another way to look up to or represent the diety. Shows how naturally the regional flavour mixes with the popular knowledge and creates something absolutely new.
    How wonderful finally, to see Lord Ram like this, a prince, a warrior and somehow more human…really does broaden the prespective.

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    1. I don’t think Raja Ravi Verma even thought that his artistic imagination of gods and goddesses, a fresh and new visualisation for its time, would lead to something like what is prevalent today.

      I feel that artists of yesteryears had far more freedom in the interpretation and visualisation of their works. Which is why they managed to mix local flavour with the prevalent knowledge at that time. Somehow I can’t imagine a calendar or poster art of Rama with a beard being today and the artist not being sued !

      Yes, it is wonder to see a human aspect of Lord Rama. I like to imagine that since he was an Arian, he must have been quite hot-headed. Just like his image here 🙂

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  7. As usual, you have an eye for the unusual 🙂 But, yes, sculpture actually has its own code – as I know from the little I have seen of South Indian Sculpture – and who a sculpture represents is deciphered based on the code for how that person/entity is expected to be depicted. Deviations are rare.

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    1. As you have rightly pointed out, sculpture, iconography and even dance forms have their own code and rules for how a person/entity is represented. In that respect, this sculpture has a bow slung on the left shoulder and instead of a quiver full of arrows, the figure is holding an arrow in its hands. So first thought is Rama. But the, the beard, the pottu instead of a naamam, the expression is so un-Rama like, if you know what I mean. Deviation it definitely is, but it is a clever one.

      I even thought if it could be Karna (because of the earrings that the sculpture had), but then since there was no body armour, he was ruled out. Then was it Arjuna? Again, I could not be sure. So Rama it was. 🙂

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  8. you had me hooked at the heading.. Rama and a beard!.. never.. didnt even think of him with a 5 o’clock shadow 🙂 🙂 Loved the scuplture. Loved the different take. thanks for sharing it.

    by the way, for a long time I though Rama was a bengali born in Ayodhya, like I am a bengali born in Jamshedpur. 🙂 🙂 I suppose this was courtesy the bengali amar chitra katha comics dad got me. 🙂

    Love your lovely blog. Please keep writing.

    Thanks so much,

    Indrani

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    1. A very warm welcome to my blog, Indrani. Delighted to see you here and your comments. I think the only God that we associate a beard with is Brahma and he isn’t even worshipped ! And as for Rama being a Bengali born in Ayodhya, how can we be sure that he wasn’t ? 😉

      Do keep visiting.

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  9. This is news to me. Even with my limited knowledge on Indian mythology, I had never seen or imagined that Rama could be depicted thus. I somehow feel that the sculpture has a lot of Persian/Egyptian influence, especially the eyes and the beard. The mustache and the rest of the body embellishments have, however, the local Rajasthani flavour.
    Is that an apsara or a dancing girl at the base of the sculpture?

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    1. Come to think of it, you’re right, The beard does seem to have a Persian influence. And it is not surprising as Jaisalmer was along an important trade route. Do you think, the sculptor travelled to Persia or met Persian sculptors and was inspired by them? Or was the sculptor a Persian himself?

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