Nava-naari-kunjara or the nine-women-elephant motif is familiar to many as it has been widely represented in pre-modern Indian paintings and sculptures in many parts of the country. The motif was often shown independently, i.e. without any rider. In some examples, Kamadeva (God of Love), Radha and Krishna, or even a king has been shown riding the elephant, which is formed by nine dancing women who cling to each other. Now let us look at the Navagunjara motif, a form made up of parts of nine different beings, that occupies a pivotal position primarily in Odisha art, literature and culture.
In the tradition of Sri Jagannatha of Puri, Navagunjara is considered as representing Eswara (Supreme One) and as the Visva-rupa (Universal Form) of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. The composite figure consists of the head and neck of a peacock, a slender waist topped with the hump of a bull, and a serpent as the tail. The figure stands on the three legs; the left foreleg that of an elephant, and the hind legs that of a tiger and deer. The right foreleg, in the form of a human hand, holds a lotus in full bloom. In a few examples, the head of a rooster is shown instead of the peacock. In my opinion, the peacock’s head perfectly suits the form as the myth is associated with Krishna, whose head is often shown decked with the feather of a peacock.
The motif of Navagunjara must have existed in the folklore of the region from the beginning of the Puri temple and its legend. But the related tradition was first narrated in the Sarala Mahabharata written in Odiya by Sarala Das (15th century), who is hailed as the Adi-kabi (first poet) of the language. Siddeswar Parida, who assumed the pen name of Sarala Das later, is said to have been a soldier in the army of the Gajapati King, Kapilendra Dev (r. 1434–1467), who had captured many areas in South India, in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—up to River Cauvery—that were then part of the Vijayanagara Empire.
The Sarala Mahabharata narrates many myths, including that of Navagunjara, which were not present in the original Sanskrit version by Vyasa Muni. Accordingly, Arjuna, the third of the five Pandavas, had done a great penance for a long time, and in the end, Navagunjara appeared before him. Arjuna, fearing for his life, initially pointed a weapon against the unique ‘creature’, but after noticing the lotus in the right hand, he realised that it represented the Virat-swarupa of Vishnu-Krishna and offered his obeisance to the divine form.
In Odisha art, Navagunjara is shown independently as well as with Arjuna. A scene of Arjuna worshipping the Virat-swarupa is carved on the northern side of Sri Jagannath temple in Puri, and the outer circumference of the Neela Chakra (blue discus) atop the central tower of the temple also contains eight carvings of the same composite form, with all facing the flagpost above. The subject is painted on the exterior walls of many homes in Puri and other places. In the Pata-chitra tradition of paintings on cloth, palm leaf, wood and paper, which are still widely produced by many artists of a village named Raghurajpur, near Puri, the same theme is frequently represented. On the traditional Ganjifa (round playing cards), the vibrant figure of Navagunjara is shown on the king card, and that of Arjuna on the minister card.
As mentioned earlier, many areas of South India were under the rule of the Gajapatis for a long time, from about the mid-15th century to c. 1517. Incidentally, a small panel in the ceiling paintings (c. 1510) of the mahamantapa (great pavilion) of Sri Virupaksha temple at Hampi shows Arjuna worshipping Navagunjara.
The theme, to the best of my knowledge, is very rare in Vijayanagara art. Edward Moore (1771–1848) in his book, The Hindu Pantheon (1810), published a line engraving of Navagunjara with the name tag of Viratarupa. The engraving was done by Matthew Haughton (1766–1821), a British painter and engraver in London. Moore had collected a painting of Navagunjara from Charles Stuart (c. 1758–1828), who worked as an army officer at Kolkata under the East India Company. Stuart wrote several newspaper articles and books on Hinduism, including Vindication of the Hindoos (1808), and became well known in his own lifetime as the Hindoo Stuart. It’s possible that Stuart had gone to Odisha and collected the picture from the region, most likely in Puri. Both Moore and Stuart had extensively quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita of Krishna from the Mahabharata. A stanza of the Gita says, “There Arjuna could see the totality of the entire universe established in one place, in that body of the God of Gods.” The stanza, in my opinion, perfectly matches with the visualisation of Navagunjara.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam