This half-meter tall bronze statue of the Vaikuntha avatar of Vishnu was uncovered in Northern Pakistan near modern Peshawar. The statue is believed to have been crafted sometime in the 7th century and was brought to the Museumfor Asian Art in Berlin sometime after 1900. The statue was likely crafted by Hindu worshipers in the region as images of Vaikuntha Chaturmurti, the representation of Vishnu as the Supreme Being, were especially popular in the northwest borders of the Indian subcontinent. The idol serves as an object of veneration to Vishnu and would have been placed in a temple for worshipers to offer prayer or small sacrifices. As a common tutelary deity for both commoners and locals in the area, as well as being considered the supreme being of the Vaishnavite sect of Hinduism, worship of the Vaikuntha was essential to good karma.
The Vaikuntha Chaturmurti was typically depicted standing with three heads. The center human, a lion on the right to symbolize his avatar Narasimha and a boar on the left for the avatar Varaha [Gupta 1974, 16]. Some depictions also had a demonic head on the back of the human to represent Vishnu’s Pradyumna form but this was not always included [Gail 1983, 299]. In his four hands are held the symbols of Vishnu: the conch shell, mace, chakra and lotus. The tiny earth goddess Prithvi sits at his feet to support the deity.
The statue was most likely crafted using the lost-wax casting method. A scale model for the statue was made in wax or clay by a skilled sculptor, then a mold of plaster made around the model. The wax could then cleared out and the resulting shell filled with melted bronze. After cooling, the shell was removed and the resulting statue cleaned and polished to remove any traces of the casting process. This was not a new technique and had been used in the nearby Indus Valley Civilization as early as 3500 BCE [Bartholomew 1977]. There’s no information on how the artifact was recovered or at what time it entered the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin.
Local Historical ContextEdit
This statue was found in the region of Gandhara, which includes the Peshawar valley and at times also encompassed nearby Taxila and the Swat valley. Up until around 644 it was under the rule of the Sassanid Persians until the regime fell to Arab invaders. For the next 200 years the area would be ruled by the Shahi of Kabulistan [Bartholomew, 1977]. Until the 6th century Buddhism had been the prevailing religion of the region but was rapidly being overtaken by Hindu influences from the Middle kingdoms of India. While the rulers would still be Buddhist for another 200 years [Bartholomew 1977], the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism was becoming more widespread in northern and western India. Vaikuntha Chaturmurti in particular was gaining cult status in nearby Kashmir and was the form of Vishnu most often used in temples for prayer [Cummins 2011, 238].
The Vaikuntha Chaturmurti statute is an example of not just the expanding influence of Hinduism in this period but also its diversification into new sects and cults. Hinduism diverged into various forms of monolatry, worshiping gods such as Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva and Shakti [Cummins 2011, 244]. While Vishnu has dozens of avatars, including prominent figures such as Krishna and the Buddha, the Vaikuntha Chaturmurti is a representation of both his early incarnations and position as the supreme power in the universe. This particular statue is interesting in that in its left hand sits Chakrapurusha, one of Vishnu’s personified chakra, while his mace Gadadevi is absent from his right hand [Cummins 2011, 242] . The other weapon was likely removed at some point as the hand is clearly in a position to rest upon the personification’s head but there is no obvious damage from the removal. Vaikuntha Chaturmurti is usually depicted with eight arms in art but only four in sculpture for simplicity [Desai 2012, 46]. He is also usually depicted standing but there are examples of him riding his winged mount Garuda. This statue is distinguished from those produced in the Kashmir region by the lack of the fourth demon head on the rear of the human head and by not having a sword or dagger tucked into his belt [Gail 1983, 303]. While the iconography might have slightly differed, worshipers from both regions would have recognized, understood and revered these icons as representing the supreme aspect of Vishnu.
The rise of Hinduism in Gandhara would be especially important after the fall of the Sassanid Persians and the Arabs arrived to invade the Indian Subcontinent. The shared Hindu and Buddhist religious culture helped unify the various regional kingdoms in India to push the Muslims back into Afghanistan. This area would remain under Hindu rule until it was conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1021 [Bartholomew 1977].
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