Museum Treasure: The Bhu-Varaha at CSMVS sculpture gallery

The sculpture gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) has many treasures within, with some of them being more impressive than the others. One of the “quieter” sculptures is that of a 10th century Varaha from Karnataka.

On my visits to the sculpture gallery, I would give this sculpture — which is about 3.5 feet in height and about 2 feet in width — only a cursory glance, passing it over for other exhibits. It was not until I had to write an assignment as part of my Indian Aesthetics course at Jnanapravaha, where I had to choose one of the sculptures in the gallery that I had my first good look at the Varaha.

And regretted not having paid attention to it before, so rich were the details and the iconography. At the end of my detailed tour of the sculpture gallery, there was no doubt which sculpture I would be writing about. 🙂

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According to Hindu mythology, Varaha is the third of the Dashavatars, or the 10 most commonly accepted and recognised incarnations of Vishnu. In this avatar, Vishnu takes the form of a boar or a varaha to rescue the earth, Prithvi or Bhudevi, who has been taken captive by the asura Hiranyaksha at the bottom of the ocean. Vishnu, as Varaha, dives into the ocean, battles with and kills Hiranyaksha, frees Bhudevi and lifts her out of the ocean, restoring balance to the universe.

The Varaha is depicted in the zooanthropomorphic form with a human body and the head of a boar. Since Bhudevi is shown associated with Varaha, this form is also known as Bhu-Varaha. This sculpture of Varaha represents that moment after Hiranyaksha has been vanquished, Bhudevi has been rescued from the ocean depths, and order has been restored. The stance and posture of Varaha indicates that it is a moment of triumph; the hand on the hip suggests relaxation and even confidence and triumph.

Bhudevi is the figure sitting on Varaha’s upper left arm and appears to be looking directly into the face of her rescuer. Though the details of both Varaha’s and Bhudevi’s faces are not clear, the tenderness and the possessiveness with which the former seems to hold the latter is unmistakable. If we were to follow the line of sight then Varaha would be looking directly with tenderness into Bhudevi’s, his consort’s face. Bhu Varaha 2

The other figures in this panel are Naga or Sesha, on whose head rests Varaha’s left leg, Garuda on the left and Lakshmi on the right — all three are an part of the iconography of Varaha. The horseshoe-shaped frame of the sculpture has shallow reliefs carved on them, including the Dashavatar in a miniature form on the sides. While some of the avatars (Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Vamana) are clear, others (Rama, Krishna and Kalki) are not. The reliefs on the uppermost part of the frame are not clear enough to be identified.

The Varaha dominates the sculpture with his right foot touching the base and his crown in line with the upper part of the horse-shoe shaped frame of the sculpture. What I loved most about this sculpture is how the sculptor has used Varaha’s posture and body to delineate the different realms of the world and underscore his cosmic nature.

While the lower limbs or legs encase the underworld and the ocean in which the Nagas dwell, the upper limbs or hands suggest the earthly realm. The Dashavatar (all of which were incarnations of Vishnu on earth) reliefs on the horse-shoe shaped frame are carved within the portion covered by the length of the arms. The remaining area above the face of Varaha is, perhaps, the realm of the gods. In this way, the cosmic nature of Vishnu as Varaha is depicted.

I never cease to be amazed by the simplicity and the complexity of how stories, legends, myths are communicated through sculptures. Look at a sculpture cursorily and one can identify it and perhaps move on, as I do quite often. Look closely and a whole new world opens up with layers of meaning before you, as I sometimes do.

And that is the inherent beauty of Classical Indian Art.


Note: This post is a condensed and modified version of the assignment I submitted as part requirement of my PG Diploma programme in Indian Aesthetics at Jnanapravaha Mumbai.


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.


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