A mighty Gupta-era masterpiece from MP

To grasp the innumerable figures on the Eran Varaha, some of which still remain unidentified, a viewer has to take a circumambulation round the spectacular sculpture, and move the head up and down.

Published: 16th April 2022 01:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2022 01:03 AM   |  A+A-

(L-R) Varaha sculpture in Eran, Madhya Pradesh (Gupta era, c. 510 CE). The Garuda pillar in Eran (485 CE).

Eran in Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh, contains a red sandstone sculpture of Varaha, which stands as a milestone in Indian art for many reasons. It is a round and freestanding work of magnificent scale (11 feet in height). The divinity is shown in the theriomorphic form of a wild boar and Bhudevi (Goddess of Earth) is depicted as a graceful woman. When demon Hiranyaksha hides the Goddess in the ocean, God Vishnu takes his third incarnation of Varaha, kills the demon and lifts her up. To grasp the innumerable figures on the Eran Varaha, some of which still remain unidentified, a viewer has to take a pradakshina (circumambulation) round the spectacular sculpture, and move the head up and down.

The body of Varaha is covered with rows of standing figures of bearded rishis wearing thick robes, hair plaited into a bun on the head. They carry water pots in the left hand and the right is placed either in abhaya mudra (reassurance) or vismaya mudra (wonder). At the front of the boar’s body, the rishis are shown up to the knees, and at the back only the heads. Such a delineation clearly hints that Varaha has lifted up Bhudevi completely, but the rishis are still emerging step by step. The chest bears the seven planets, which have been enumerated in the early texts. The same, in my opinion, clearly suggests that the work represents the Visvarupa (Universal Form) of Varaha, whose chest has surpassed the planets in the sky. The floor carved with patterns of waves, serpents and the like denotes the ocean. Originally, this sacred image must have been in a four-pillared open mantapa (pavilion), which enabled devotees to have a glimpse of the deity from all directions. 

Varaha is garlanded with a broad necklace that has 28 roundels with figures, which to the best of my knowledge remain unidentified. Each ear bears flying Gandharvas, and the snout a woman with her hands on the hips that might represent Vak (speech). The mouth displays human-like square rows of teeth, instead of the snuggle-tooth of a boar. The tongue emerges delicately from the mouth as if to affectionately lick the woman on the snout. The sculpture also includes a male divinity, now mostly destroyed, but interpreted as Vishnu. The nape of Varaha bears a unique square block with four seated figures, which are badly damaged and remain unidentified.  

Wild boars have relatively slender legs, but the Eran Varaha has bulky ones, which remind me of the legs of an elephant. Technically, the massive legs have enabled the sculpture to remain intact till now. Further, ancient Indian literature draws an interesting analogy between the wild boar and the elephant. For instance, in Allasani Peddana’s poem in Telugu, the Manu Charitra (c. 1517 CE), a tribal man meets King Swarochi and describes boars in the forest. The stanzas, in my translation, go as follows: “O king! What can I say about the boars’ strength? They topple easily ripe bamboos with their snout, bend them as if they were pith, and grab the bamboo rice grains, and chew them at the corners of their foamy mouths; they are indeed elephants without trunks.” The Markandeya Purana in Sanskrit (pre-Gupta/Gupta era) contains Manu’s legend, and the Eran Varaha was created in the same period. The Purana may or may not contain the same analogy; nevertheless in India, the boars must have been viewed as “elephants without trunks” since ages.            

The Eran Varaha inscription mentions the divinity by name Narayana and states that the image was consecrated in c. 510 CE by Dhanya Vishnu, the great grandson of Indra Vishnu, who was an exponent of the Maitryana School of the Yajur Veda. In the same year, King Toramana
(c. 493–513/15 CE) of the nomadic Huna clan had occupied the region after defeating Goparaja, the feudatory of King Bhanugupta (c. 510 CE). Earlier in 485 CE, during the reign of Buddhagupta (476–495 CE), Dhanya Vishnu and his elder brother, Maharaja Matr Vishnu, had erected the Dhvajastambha (stone banner column of 13 metre height), which bears two addorsed figures of Garuda in human form with a pair of wings, a serpent in the hands and a wheel between both the heads.

Erecting pillars for religious and political reasons has been an ancient custom; Varaha in the form of boar with innumerable figures and forms on the body was indeed new then in Indian art, and was replicated elsewhere later, mainly in Madhya Pradesh. Dhanya Vishnu’s inscription reads, “Om! Victorious is the God, who has the form of Yajna Varaha, who in the act of lifting the Earth, caused the mountains to tremble with the blows of the strong snout; (and) who is the pillar of the house that is the three worlds.” The Eran Varaha masterpiece, in my opinion, made Dhanya Vishnu a dhanya jeevi (blessed living being).   

Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam


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