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The Adoration of Cosmic Vishnu
Probably a replacement page for a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Mankot, Himachal Pradesh, India, Asia

c. 1710-1725

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Sheet: 5 13/16 × 9 13/16 inches (14.8 × 24.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2001

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A perfect circle defines the cosmic ocean of ultimate reality. Isolated within it, the four armed god Vishnu rests on the many headed snake Ananta (Endless), while his devoted wife, Lakshmi, massages his foot. Outside the circle, deities including Shiva, Brahma, Indra, and Vishnu himself, pay homage. This dual representation portrays both ever-present reality and the periodically created and recreated world in which we live.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    In a dream-vision, a perfect circle defines the cosmic ocean, the ocean of ultimate reality. Within, the snake named Endless (Ananta), depicted with seven heads, curves to accommodate the round space, its shape a solidification of the white-contoured ocean waves. On the snake lies Vishnu, in yogic sleep with open eyes. Saffron-clad with dark blue body, he carries his four attributes of discus (chakra), mace, lotus flower, and conch shell. He is the chaturbhuj, or four-armed iconic form of the god, as worshiped in temple sancta throughout India. He wears a typical early Pahari lotus crown and a long, multicolored garland. Lakshmi, his wife and the goddess of wealth, massages his foot.

    As is usual with an image of Vishnu asleep on the cosmic ocean, a lotus stem grows from the god’s navel. Here, however, instead of the four-headed god Brahma who usually sprouts from the flower’s center, four small figures appear, all kneeling with hands reverently folded toward the Lord. They are dressed as sages, three flesh-colored, the fourth and front blue-skinned like the god. They likely represent the four Vedas, the fundamental sacred texts of Hinduism—a revealed body of knowledge—also represented by the priestly god, Brahma. Thus while the image is closely related to the more usual birth of Brahma, it seems to emphasize the birth of the sacred texts as anterior and necessary to the birth of the phenomenal world. The painting was most likely the first page of Chapter 10 of the major Vaishnava text, the Bhagavata Purana, which details the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-6).

    Outside of the unbroken circle that describes the ocean of unchanging absolute, yet also within an abstract and transcendent space of the solid, hot-red ground, stately divinities pay homage to the godhead. To the right of the circle stands Indra, distinguished by the many peacock-like eyes that cover his body. He sports a mustache and sideburns, seen frequently in the mythological courtly figures attributed to the Mankot workshop that was probably responsible for this painting. Below Indra is Shiva, turned three-quarter face to display his third eye, his body whitened with ash and a tiger skin wrapped tightly around his waist as a lower garment.

    To the left of the circle gathers a more complex crowd. They include another figure of Vishnu himself, depicted almost as he is within the circle but with two rather than four arms, no garland, a simpler scarf, and only a lotus flower between his folded hands. Thus, as opposed to the Vishnu within the circle, who is equivalent to the primary deity in a temple, the outer Vishnu is himself an incarnate form, part of the periodically manifest world. Below and in front of him stands the third Brahmanical male deity, the priestly creator Brahma himself. His four visible heads look in all directions, and in one of his four hands he carries a book on which is written standardized phrases honoring Lord Vishnu.

    Behind these deities stand two men in ritual-performing garb. Like Indra, they have mustaches and sideburns as well as crowns and jewelry, but no attributes distinguish them. It is thus impossible to say if they are additional deities, as Stella Kramrisch believed, or some other type of being.1 In front of them is a white cow gazing at Vishnu with an expression of blissful devotion. She is Surabhi, foremother of all cows, who emerged from the primeval ocean of milk to bless the world with plenty, as she comes out of the strip of ocean that runs along the bottom of the page. (A balancing strip of sky would have originally appeared at the top but has been cut away, leaving only a thin blue line.) In the text, Surabhi holds primary importance in this episode, for it is she who first approaches Vishnu to beg him to incarnate and rid the world of the demonic Kansa, a feat he accomplishes as the avatar Krishna.

    Except for the cow, who worships with her eyes, all figures stand with hands folded in the posture of devotion and hold rosaries or lotus flowers. Through these ritual trappings they worship the ultimate divinity within the circle of unchanging, all-encompassing reality. Indeed, the entire painting may be thought of as paradigmatic of the Hindu temple itself, or perhaps the temple may be seen as a physical re-creation of the concept expressed in this story. Within an apparently circumscribed yet infinitely inclusive space—the sanctum—is enshrined the ultimate, iconic form of the godhead, surrounded and worshiped by the inhabitants of each temporary, illusory creation.

    Kramrisch first attributed this painting to Mankot.2 It certainly bears a stylistic resemblance to the Bhagavata Purana manuscripts attributed to that region (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31,32): eyes are large, open, and curving upward; black mustaches are common; garments are pneumonically rounded; faces show upturned noses and distinctive outlines; and there is a preference for a solid, hot background color, dark swirling water, and a few large figures of equal scale. Yet the painting differs from works arguably from the Mankot workshop as well. Not only is it less polished and finely detailed, but some of the details themselves deviate. Here, for example, the eyes are even larger and more heavily outlined around the lower lids, faces are fuller and features more pointed, and the lotuses of the crowns are minimized.

    Two published paintings—The Adoration of Rama,3 in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and Kali Triumphant,4 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London—may also be related to the Mankot workshop. While it cannot be argued that all three are by the same hand, they do show variations from the Bhagavata Purana pages that have been securely assigned to Mankot ( Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31,32), which begin to tell a broader tale of paintings produced in that workshop early in the eighteenth century, perhaps transforming what at first appear to be inconsistencies into workshop variations. Indeed, it seems likely that this painting of Vishnu on Ananta may have been intended to replace a missing first page in the “horizontal” Mankot Bhagavata Purana. Not only do its dimensions concur if the cropped borders are taken into consideration, but another replacement page, now in the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, appears to relate to this work in style.5 It is likely that the replacement pages were made not long after the completion of the original series, perhaps only ten or fifteen years later, although clearly not by the same accomplished artist responsible for the “vertical” Bhagavata Purana series ( Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31,32) from the Mankot atelier. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 98-99.

    1. Stella Kramrisch. Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986, p. 182, no. 108. Terence McInerney has speculated that they are the sages Markandeya and Narada, who witnessed the primeval creation, yet their royal regalia seems to belie this possibility.
    2. Ibid.
    3. RVI 1206.
    4. I.S. 126-1951; W. G. Archer. Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills: A Survey and History of Pahari Miniature Painting. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1973, vol. 2, p. 52, Chamba no. 7.
    5. Shiva Comes to Yashoda to Gain Darshan of Krishna (B. N. Goswamy, personal communication, 2000).