Published Jul 15 2013, by

Stele with Agni


Actively worshipped for thousands of years, Agni is the Vedic god of fire and heat. As the fire of life, Agni appears at the fire altar, at the domestic hearth, in the fires of procreation, and in the digestive fires of the stomach. In his role as an intermediary between humans and the gods, Agni also transports man’s offerings to the gods in the sacrificial fire. Gradually absorbed into the pantheon of Hinduism—a syncretic religion assimilating elements of the Vedic cosmogony—Agni is associated with a guardian role, protecting the southeastern quarter of the universe. A popular deity, he is commonly depicted with his wife, Swaha, or with his vehicle, a ram or a goat.

In a distinctive pictorial format, many of the characteristics canonically associated with Agni are articulated in this stele. Standing tall and upright in the center, Agni has been carved in relief as a portly, four-armed, bearded, and bejeweled deity with a stylized flaming halo. His primary hands display the kamandalu (water pot) and the varadamudra (gesture of blessing). Agni’s heavyset frame contrasts starkly with the slim, sinuous figures that flank him, including his goat vehicle—rendered as a diminutive animal—immediately to his left. Overall, this central image is one of power and permanence in a hallmark medieval style, with features evocative of the great temples of Khajuraho in central India, similarly crafted in the long-favored medium of sandstone.

The ornate slab behind the main figure of Agni consists of three distinct registers of densely carved imagery in raised relief. A group of attendants forms the upper register, and devotees, and possibly human beings, comprise the lower register. Dividing the two is a middle register composed of an intricate leogryph motif displaying lions atop elephants. The ornate imagery of the upper register has two subsections with makaras (mythological dragonlike water creatures), dancers, and gandharvas (celestial musicians) on the border and, on either side of the flaming halo, two pavilions sheltering deities. In the left pavilion, a figure of Brahma (the creator) is present; in the right, a figure of Shiva (the destroyer).

It is possible that the damaged section of the upper register—depicting the realm of the gods—originally displayed a figure of Vishnu (the preserver), the sole missing member of the Hindu trimurti (triad). Agni’s omnipotent centrality among all the figures in this composition links the registers and illustrates his role as an intermediary between the human world and that of the gods.