The Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum at Nawalgarh in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan was built in 1902. Originally a residence and known as Podar Haveli, it was converted into a museum after major renovation and restoration works were undertaken of the frescoes and murals that cover every inch of its exterior and interior walls.
The Haveli Museum, which is over 100 feet long, is supposed to have 750 frescoes on its outer walls, passages, two courtyards and all the rooms in the lower level. Every fresco/mural is detailed and covers themes from mythology to local folk tales to whimsical depictions of everyday life.
Though there were many stunning works of art at the Haveli Museum, there was one that caught my eye — more for the unusual subject than for the quality of art. It was like an Ardhanareeshwara, but instead of the composite image of Shiva and Parvati, it was one of Vishnu and Lakshmi.
The right half of the image is the male Vishnu in blue with the gadaa (mace) and chakra (disc), while the left half is the fair Lakshmi with a pot and a lotus in her hands. I was intrigued and at that time (this was in January 2014) thought it was the artist’s (probably a Vaishnav) reimagination of the more common Ardhanareeshwara.
I would have continued thinking so if a reader had not mentioned that this was probably based on Lakshmi Narayana and asked me to explore that myth. I did and to my surprise found that the composite image of Vishnu and Lakshmi was known as Vaikuntha Kamalaja. A rare depiction, this composite image is also known as Ardhanari Narayana, Vasudeva Lakshmi and also Vasudeva Kamalaja. I also came across this beautiful depiction housed in the Philadelphia Museum. This composite form is supposed to be to have originated in Nepal and then spread to the Bihar-Bengal regions in India.
Considering that the banias or traders and merchants of Shekhawati travelled extensively, we can guess where they got the inspiration from. Did they bring back a print of Vaikuntha Kamalaja from their travels or did they just describe this composite form to the painter?
Whatever was the mode of transfer of this idea, the painter needs to be lauded for adapting the composite form in a style that is immediately recognisable as Shekhawati or Rajasthani.
This is the first and only time I have come across a Vaikuntha Kamalaja. What about 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.