Published Sep 23 2013, by

Stele with Vishnu Trivikrama

In the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu (the preserver) is the protector of the universe and the maintainer of social order. During the Pala period (c. 730–1197), this cosmic deity was the most popular god of the Hindu pantheon, especially in his form as Trivikrama (Lord of the Three Worlds). The story of Trivikrama, in which Vishnu conquered the heavens, Earth, and the netherworld in three successive steps, is a popular theme in the stone sculpture of the late Pala period in particular. Vishnu’s heroic feat epitomizes his nature as an all-pervasive deity who peacefully established his dominion and continues to sustain it in a prosperous manner.

In this stele, Vishnu Trivikrama is depicted as a kingly figure dressed in a dhoti (loincloth garment), bedecked with elaborate jewelry and an ornate crown, and standing in an unflexed frontal posture on a low lotus platform. His four arms display the attributes of his Trivikrama form, the gada (club-like mace) in his upper left hand, the padma (lotus) in his lower left hand, the chakra (wheel-like discus) in his upper right hand, and the sankha (conch) in his lower right hand. The vanamala (forest garland), reaching down to his knees in the center of the composition, is an additional attribute of the deity.

On either side of Vishnu Trivikrama are the smaller figures of Lakshmi and Saravati, his two consorts, who stand in an accentuated tribhanga (thrice-bent) posture atop smaller lotus platforms of their own. Lakshmi occupies the space immediately to Vishnu’s left and is depicted holding a cauri (fly whisk); Saravati, the goddess of learning and the arts, who is grasping a vina (a distinctive stringed instrument), is to his right. Her presence is a feature distinctive to the art of eastern India. On the outside of each consort are additional diminutive attendants, each holding a cauri.

A pair of vidyadharas (celestial beings who are bearers of knowledge) emerges from the clouds to appear in the upper portion of the stele, the pointed finial of which is decorated with an apotropaic kirtimukha (animal mask) in raised relief, designed to ward off evil. Balancing this design is the base pedestal of the stele, which has been subdivided into five projecting sections in the pancha ratha (five-chariot) configuration to support the entire composition. This attention to balance further manifests itself in the regular use of hierarchic scaling throughout this sculpture, the goddesses portrayed as smaller than the central deity but larger than the attendant figures. This aspect, the overall iconography, the intricate craftsmanship, and the use of chlorite as the sculptural medium denote the stele as a classic late Pala-period ensemble.