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Though all three are Vishnu’s forms, the glory of the one in the centre is beyond par. Seated on the coils of the Great Serpent Shesh in ‘lalitasana’ – the posture revealing great aesthetic beauty this form of Vishnu reveals greater majesty than do other two forms. He is seated in full ease revealing sublime grace. Like a majestic canopy the Great Serpent is unfurling its five-hoods over the Great Lord. In the theological tradition Shesh is seen as manifesting the Earth that Vishnu pervades. Thus symbolically the wood-panel, while representing Vishnu as seated over the body of Shesh, portrays him as the all pervading Supreme. His form on the right is in ‘Tri-bhanga mudra’ – a posture with three curves. With his three curves he pervades, commands and nourishes all three worlds and all cosmic regions. Vishnu’s standing posture is his operative image suggestive of his readiness to rush to protect and redeem his devotee from every calamity.
Lord Krishna, enshrining the niche on the left, is also a ‘Tri-bhanga’ posture. In Krishna’s iconography ‘tri-bhanga’ is the essence of his being for in his incarnation as Krishna Vishnu had emerged on the earth to constantly operate, which the ‘tri-bhanga’ posture symbolises. Right after his birth Krishna was engaged in operating against evil and in eradicating it in its one form or the other. For emphasizing this aspect of the image the artist has rendered the curves of Krishna’s figure as sharper and has also carved a figure of cow, symbolic of the earth, along him suggesting that he is more earth-inclined. He has been represented as playing on his flute. Flute is a worldly attribute but the means of utmost sublimation and redemption from the worldly bonds : the essence of Krishna’s Vaishnava devotion.
All three images, even Krishna’s, are four-armed carrying alike in their upper arms disc and conch, though unlike the two proto-forms of Vishnu that carry in the lower left hand a mace and the right is held in ‘abhaya’, Krishna is holding in them his flute. Typical of South Indian tradition, the figures of Vishnu, as also Krishna’s, are glistening with the gold’s lustre, not blue-hued, the colour that the tradition attributes to Vishnu and his incarnations. They are wearing the characteristic ‘pitambara’ – yellow lower garments, and Vaishnava crowns. Their crowns do not have the usual towering height. The crowns’ moderate height, and all figures’ broad flattened noses, upwards slanting eyes, volume and bulk and marble images-like finish and elegance are typical features of South Indian wood-carvers’ art.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.