God Vishnu’s third incarnation, Varaha (wild boar), has been widely represented in ancient Indian sculptures, paintings and even in modern prints. One version of the tradition says that the Earth was sinking as it was unable to bear the weight of the constantly growing population and the consequent increase in grain production. And so, Varaha saved the Earth by lending his support. Another widely known account says that when the demon Hiranyaksha stole Bhudevi (Earth Goddess) and hid her in the ocean, Varaha recovered the Goddess from there. The origin of both the versions, in my opinion, seems to be connected to the natural behaviour of the boar, which digs wet grounds constantly with its snout and tusks for food.
Of all the visualisations of Varaha lifting up Bhudevi, a few sculptures of the Gupta era (4th to 6th centuries) stand out from the rest as great masterpieces of Indian art. Udayagiri, near Vidisha (Madhya Pradesh), contains 20 rock-cut caves, including a large niche (Cave 5), which covers the myth in a panel of outranking scale and incomparable magnitude. The composition and its meaning, to be honest, could only be grasped at the site of the work or with the aid of dozens of photographs, but not just one. Archaeologist Debala Mitra has published a monograph on the iconography of the panel, though I have not been able to read her book so far. Many art historians have also written about various aspects of the work. But for now, I only discuss a few significant features of the panel.
The work, in my opinion, comprises three distinct pictorial spaces: the upper half of the background, with many groups of divinities, represents the sky; the lower half, with a few figures and subtly carved wave patterns, denotes the ocean; and the front floor, with figures on an uneven surface, signifies the Earth. Thus, the composition clearly hints that the magnificent figure of Varaha (about 13 feet in height), having a well-built human body and a ferocious boar’s head, has not only rescued Bhudevi, in the form of a graceful woman, from the seabed but also lifted her up to the realm of the divinities.
The Varaha figure is shown wearing a pleated garment around his waist and a long and thick vana maala (flower garland), the typical attribute of Vishnu. He stands firmly with his right leg on the ground, and the left on the coils of Nagaraja (serpent king), who apparently came up from the sea floor, and is paying his homage to the divinity. The body, which is inclined a bit to the left with noticeable forward thrust, clearly hints that the lifting of the Goddess has happened just a few moments earlier. The hand gestures—the right one firmly holding the hip, and the left inflexibly resting on the left knee—vividly suggest the pride with which the victorious rescuing had been accomplished by the divinity. Bhudevi, who is still clinging on to the boar’s tusk, appears to be trying to sit on the left shoulder of her saviour.
Small figures of Brahma in a lotus, Siva on the Nandi, Narada and Tumburu carrying musical instruments surround the head of Varaha. Behind the head and torso, different groups of divinities are shown standing in rows one after the other. They include the Saptarishis (seven sages), but others remain unidentified. In the front are the 12 Adityas (Solar Deities) having halos, Agni and Vayu (Fire and Wind God) having fiery and puffed-up hair respectively, eight Vasus (demigods of Indra/Vishnu), and 11 ithyphallic Rudras (of Siva) having three eyes. One more group of nine figures are identified as Gandharvas (a class of celestials). The number nine, to my mind, suggests that they might indeed be representing Navagrahas (nine planets), which go well with the Visva-rupa (Universal Form) Varaha. Below the ‘planets’, 32 figures, standing in two overlapping rows, have been identified as sages wearing tree barks and holding a rosary and water pot in their hands. The number 32 reminds me of the age-old category of the 32 vidyas (knowledge). Therefore, in my opinion, each sage seems to represent a master of one vidya. On the Earth, a figure behind the right leg of Varaha is identified as Laxmi/Bhudevi; two figures behind Nagaraja, one kneeling and the other standing, as Chandra Gupta II and his minister, Virasena, or a royal donor and his attendant respectively; and another one, emerging out of the waves, as Samudra (Ocean God). In addition, the composition also includes Ganga and Yamuna (River Goddesses), and so on.
An inscription states that the Udayagiri Varaha shrine was consecrated in 402 CE by Virasana, a loyal subordinate of Chandra Gupta II (c. 375–415 CE), who had conquered the Udayagiri region (Malwa) in about the same year. The Guptas ruled from Prayaga (Uttar Pradesh) where River Ganga and Yamuna meet. Chandra Gupta’s father, Samudra Gupta (c. 335–375 CE), was named after samudra or the ocean. Many such historical aspects have led art historians to draw allegorical parallels between various figures and forms in the panel and the actual individuals and incidences of the time.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam