Nrvaraha delivering the goddess Earth

 

Best of the Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum of Sagar University:

Nṛvarāha, delivering the goddess Earth
Eran (Sagar), Madhya Pradesh
5th century A.D.
Sandstone
185×95 cm
Cat. No. 1 (R. 303)

 

Varaha rescuing the Earth. Eran, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century. Harisingh Gour Archaeological museum, Sagar University, Sagar
Varaha rescuing the Earth. Eran, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century. Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum, Sagar University, Sagar

In the early stage of the emergence of vaiṣṇavism Varāha, the boar, had been associated with Brahmā the Creator and Prajāpati the ‘Lord of Creatures’, only later becoming established as an incarnation of Viṣṇu. The mythological story originates in Vedic literature and is later related in several Purāṇas. The earliest reference to the Varāha as Emuṣa is found in the Ṛgveda (VIII, 77, 10) while the Atharvaveda informs us that the Earth opens herself to the wild boar (XII, 1, 48). In the Viṣṇu Purāṇa it is said that at the beginning of the eon (kalpa), Brahmā created the living beings. When the earth submerged under the ocean, Brahmā entered it in the body of a boar and delivered the earth. In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (2, 7, 1 and 3, 13; 3, 18-19) it is mentioned that with a view to creating the universe, the Lord of Sacrifice became desirous of lifting up the Earth, which had sunk into the lower regions, and assumed the form of a boar. Here the act of lifting the Earth is already attributed to Viṣṇu. The Agni Purāṇa informs that Hiraṇyākṣa, a demon (asura), vanquished the gods and took possession of their heavenly capital, and the gods had recourse to Viṣṇu, who assumed the form of a boar to help them and slew the demon Hiraṇyākṣa.

Varaha, back view
Varaha, back view

The Varāha has two major iconographic forms, i.e. the semi-human form (Nṛvarāha) with a human body and a boar’s head and another entirely zoomorphic form. According to the iconographic texts, Nṛvarāha has four arms, two of which should hold the conch-shell (śankha) and the disc (cakra), the third hand rests on the leg and the fourth one remains at the waist. The right leg should be slightly bent and made to rest upon the bejewelled hood of the serpent Ādiśeṣa, who should be sculpted in the company of his wife. The boar’s face of the god should be tilted slightly upwards. According to the Viṣṇudharmottara, the Earth Goddess Bhūdevī is carried on the left elbow of the deity or is seated on the god’s bent right leg as related by the Vaikhānasāgama, her own legs hanging down. The Śilparatna mentions Bhūdevī being carried by Varāha on the tusk. The goddess should carry a blue lotus (nīlotpala) in one of her hands and watch her Lord with admiration and wonder. Varāha’s one foot should rest upon the serpent Ādiśeṣa and the other on a tortoise.

Varaha rescuing the Earth. Eran, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century. Harisingh Gour Archaeological museum, Sagar University, Sagar
Varaha rescuing the Earth. Eran, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century. Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum, Sagar University, Sagar

The earliest figure of Varāha in relief comes from Mathura and belongs to the Kuṣāṇa period. In the Gupta Age, the cult of the avatāras became widespread and among these Varāha gained much popularity. In the central part of India, the beginning of the 4th century A.D. saw the rise of a new power, the Gupta dynasty. Samudragupta (335-375 A.D.), the illustrious son of the Gupta emperor Chandragupta I, brought the region of Eran (ancient Erakaṇya) into his empire. Samudragupta himself visited Eran many times, accompanied by his wife, sons and grandsons. In one of his inscriptions, Eran is called ‘pleasure city’ (svabhoganagara). During his regime, Samudragupta’s eldest son Rāmagupta was administrator of Eran, a strategic centre of the Gupta domain. After Samudragupta’s death, Rāmagupta surrendered to the Śakas. Rāmagupta’s younger brother, Chandragupta II (380–413/415 A.D.) killed the Śaka king and completely uprooted the Śakas from Central India. The depiction of the Boar incarnation delivering the Earth, which became very popular with Gupta artists, most probably refers to this great victory of Chandragupta II as a secondary reading of the story. The cult and iconographic representation of Varāha became very popular in the region of Central India; from the 5th to the 13th century A.D. a great number of Varāha images, both in the semi-human and the zoomorphic type, are found from this vast area.

Varaha, back view
Varaha, back view

The famous Nṛvarāha, now preserved in the Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum, might have been originally erected in one of the twin sanctuaries between the Viṣṇu and Nṛsiṃha temples of Eran during Budhagupta’s reign (476-495 A.D.) or sometime between Candragupta II and Budhagupta. Its heavy but well-formed limbs, together with the simplicity of rendering, express primal power while the pose suggests invulnerability and victory. Varāha is two-armed and stands in the ālīdha posture with his left leg kept firmly on a vertical pillar, probably indicating a rock. His right hand is held akimbo. The small figure of Bhūdevī is shown hanging weak and lifeless on the right tusk of the Boar with her left arm hooked over it. Half hidden behind the right leg of Varāha, a small female figure stands on a high pedestal. She holds, as if a rope, the stem of a lotus, the flower of which covers the top of Varāha’s head like a small cap. Varāha wears a broad necklace and a garland of flowers (vanamālā). His lower garment is wrapped around his waist with a big knot in front, its heavy folds falling down between his legs. The pedestal of the statue has a short inscription of two lines in Gupta Brāhmī script, which mentions the names Srī Maheśvaradatta and Varāhadatta, the two donors of the image, who could be either father and son or two brothers.

(Author: Zsuzsanna Renner. Published in the Catalogue of the Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum of Sagar University. Northern Book Centre, New Delhi, 2012)

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