Understanding Indian Sculpture

Sculptures are increasingly becoming popular investment grade collectibles. In some recent Modern art auctions during the end of 2018 Sadanand Bakre, Prodosh Dasgupta and Adi Davierwala sculptures sold for record-breaking prices.

Inspirations while creating these modern masterpieces date back to Classical Indian Art sculptures.

While exploring the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, Mumbai sculpture gallery, I came across this beautiful 7th century CE pink sandstone Sheshashayi Vishnu ceiling slab of the Huchchappayyagudi Gudi Temple in Aihole, Bagalkot District, Karnataka that intrigued me. The artistic interpretation of the Sheshashayi form of Vishnu is a later development in the Vaishnava shrines and became of high importance in regions of South India as compared to North and East India, as Vishnu became the supreme deity.  Size proportions play a vital role representing Vishnu as the supreme deity. Before such Shayanamurtis (reclining from of Vishnu) came into being, Vishnu was generally depicted largely as sthanakamurtis (standing posture) popularly in samabhanga or asanamurtis (sitting posture).

To elaborate on the mythical story of the narrative represented in this ceiling slab here is an excerpt from Encountering the Goddess, pg. 36:

"When the universe dissolved into the primordial waters at the end of the age, the blessed lord Visnu,

Having stretched out (his serpent) Sesa (as a couch), entered into (abhajat) Yoganidra (i.e. entered into the sleep of yoga).

Then two terrible Asuras named Madhu and Kaitabha arose from the dirt in Visnu's ear (and) set out to slay Brahma.

Brahma Prajapati dwelt in the lotus in Vishnu's navel, And having seen the two fierce Asuras and the sleeping Visnu,

With single pointed concentration, for the sake of awakening Visnu, he praised Yoganidra, who had made her abode in the eyes of Visnu."

Indian Sculpture: Tradition, Forms, Composition and Style

The way to identify with sculptures in classical Indian Art is to understand their iconography. Vishnu forms the central element of the panel with the asuras Madhu and Kaitabha subordinate to him. Lakshmi stands with her hands folded in deep devotion beneath Vishnu's feet. Lakshmi signifies prosperity as Vishnu's shakti. Lakshmi is generally represented as a shrivatsa symbol on Vishnu's chest. Above are two apsara like figures almost looking like masses of clouds joyfully sailing through the air.

Vishnu has four hands representing the four directions as compared to two. "While the North Indian icons of Narayana were four armed from the beginning (at Udaygiri), those of the south were two-armed till as late as the 8th century AD" pg 105 Nanditha Krishna. Therefore probably this must be just the beginning of representing Vishnu with four arms in the South.

Generally Vishnu's attributes the shankha (conch), chankra and gada (mace) are held in his hands but here they float in the milky primordial ocean as he is in deep slumber for the four months of chaturmas (monsoon season). The forth attribute of a lotus is missing in this sculpture and Brahma on the lotus coming out of Vishnu's navel is absent. "While the North Indian images of Narayana included Brahma rising from the lotus, the creator , he did not appear in Southern iconography till nearly the 8th century." pg. 105 Nanditha Krishna.

Vishnu lies on Adisesa or Ananta (the endless) who is another form of himself. He is a serpent with a thousand heads on which he supports the earth. His body and his hoods are also represented as forming the couch of Vishnu and the canopy above his head protects Vishnu when he lies asleep during the interval between creations. The material used is pink sandstone, which is a uniform textured and evenly grained rock usually cream to pale pink in color. The sculptor achieved his desired shape by light chisel strokes or by gradual carving with a flat knife and shaped the naturalistic curves of Vishnu's rounded cheeks and his elegant body form.

The evolution of the Naga form is seen through the number of hoods or the shape of its coils. In the current sculpture we are examining the Naga is of Chalukyan form. From the 5th to the 6th cent BC onwards, "the simple undulations of the Naga are developed into regular curled coils." pg. 81 Nanditha Krishna.

Composition plays a vital role in bringing about the essence of drama in the narrative of the mythological stories represented. The harmony of the space division of the composition of the Sheshashayi plaques can be analyzed in this sculpture. All the figures around Vishnu are there to guard his sleep. They surround him from all sides creating a middle space of profound timeless peace.

There is an essence of drama brought about between the clash of the horizontal mass of Vishnu and the compact vertical mass of the Asuras. This duality of juxtaposition in his intrinsic smiling expression as compared to the occurrences happening outside can thus become a symbol of the eternal struggle between light and darkness, between the forces of creation and destruction which simultaneously and in alternation work the everlasting transmutation of life.

This duality in composition also relates well to the myths relating to Vishnu's Maya narrated by Zimmer.

"The secret of Maya is this identity of opposites. Maya is a simultaneous and successive manifestation of energies that are at variance with earth other, processes contradicting and annihilating each other; creation and destruction, evolution and dissolution, the dream idyll of the inward vision of the god and the desolate naught, the terror of the void, the dread infinite."

By Nainvi Vora


  1. Krishna, Nanditha 1980: Art and Iconography of Vishnu Narayana, Taraporevala, Bombay
  2. Boner, Alice 1962: Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture, Cave Temple Period, Leiden E J Brill, Netherlands
  3. Zimmer, Heinrich 1990: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization edited by Joseph Campbell, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, Delhi
  4. E. B Havell: The Ideals of Indian Art, E P Dutton and Company, New York
  5. Benjamin Rowland 1981: The Pelican History of Art. The Art and Architecture of India. Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Penguin Books
  6. Padigar Sriniwas 1996: The Cult of Vishnu in Karnataka, Directorate of Archeology and Museums, Mysore
  7. Blurton, Richard Hindu Art. London. British Museum Press. 1992.
  8. Encountering the Goddess- A Translation of the Devi Mahatmya and a Study of its Interpretation by Thomas Coburn