Dasavatara Images in Ivory in the National Museum, New Delhi

Art History/Craft History, Research

Dasavatara Images in Ivory in the National Museum, New Delhi

Pathak, Anamika


Dasavatara, (Das=ten and avatara =incarnation or descent) of Lord Visnu, is the most popular concept of Hinduism, which has been widely worshipped by the Hindus in one or the other form.’ Stone, bronze, terracotta, painting on pata (cloth), a wood were the most accepted material on which a number of images of Visnu were made.’ Apart from these materials, ivory was also used for making the image of a deity. The earliest reference of deity made from ivory is of seated Buddha from Kashmir region, which belongs to eighth-ninth century A.D.’ From seventeenth century onwards several images of gods-goddesses were made in ivory and National Museum at New Delhi has a good collection of such images.” Among the various gods-goddesses images, the most attractive images are the Dasavatara of Lord Visnu, which has been intricately carved on three objects. First, is the most attractive example of a small home shrine, second is a box and third is the manuscript cover. Small and beautiful, all these ivory objects have been carved with high quality of aesthetics, in the most outstanding manner. The focus of this paper is twofold; first to look at the aesthetic qualities of Dasavatara images of the National Museum collection and second aspect is to examine as to why these objects were made. Especially when, the ivory being a bone medium, is forbidding for worship. Before discussing any further, I would like to discuss the three objects illustrating Dasavatara images.


Magnificently carved, this small ivory shrine depicts the most popular ten incarnations of Lord Visnu’s images (fig. 1). All the images are carved in round and beautifully arranged on a stepped base, which is made of sandalwood, but figures are made of ivory. Four armed image of Matysa (fish) avatara has been placed on the topmost step and the very next step of the shrine depicts two avataras; Kurma (tortoise), Vardha (boar). The third step illustrates the images of Narasimha (man-lion), Vamana and Paragurama, while images of Rama, Balarama, Krsna and Kalki incarnations are fixed on the foremost frontal step. All the images are in standing posture and stands on double lotus oblong shaped base. Matysa, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha and Kalki images are four armed, which conveys the idea of the God’s supremacy. All of them hold larikha, cakra in their two hands, while the other two hands are in abhaya and varada mudra except Kalki incarnation, which holds a sword and a shield. Remaining images; Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama and Krsna are two armed and hold different attributes. Vamana holds umbrella and water vessel while Parasurama carries axe and bow. Rama holds bow and arrow and Balarama is carrying the mace while the other hand is in abhayamudra. Krsna is carrying the stick/flute and sankha in his two hands. All the incarnations wore dhoti as a lower garment and are adorned with jewellery like; necklace, bangles, armlet and kiritamukuta (crown) except Vamana, who is without crown. Carved in round, all the images illustrate the intricate details with prefect body proportion and great aesthetic qualities.

The sandal-wood base of the shrine is fully covered with ivory sheet and backdrop of the shrine is decorated with perforated ivory screen. Jalidar (lattice work) screen is divided in three parts by the European style pillar. Shades of black on the base of the ivory shrine look beautiful because of the jail work of the screens. Stylized full-blown flower pattern on top of the screen adds charm to the object. An ivory strip on the wooden edges of the steps and base of the shrill depicts the foliage pattern. The pillars at the back and tiny knobs on the edge of shrine make I attractive and complete.

In Trivandrum, south India, artists were the specialists of making such images.’ The screen and the base of shrine are decorated with black paint and this reminds the craftsmanship of Mysore artist.6 The delicate plain images carved in round appears to be from Trivandrum, which have been fixed on painted base in the backdrop of screen providing a beautiful example of Mysore school of ivory painting of south Indian tradition. The intricate carving with great art and aesthetic places this piece to the period of late eighteenth or early nineteenth century A.D.


Small rectangular ivory box depicts Dasavatara images of Lord Visnu on the sidewalls pa of the box an Dravidian style temple architecture is on the lid’s inner portion (fig. 2). Remaining portion of the box is plain such as; upper portion of the lid, walls of inner portion and base of the box.

Three out of four sidewall panels illustrates ten incarnations of Visnu, which have been worked in small compartments like arrangement. Each compartment is divided through pillar and has arched decoration on the upper portion of the compartment. The front wall panel depicts four incarnations, arranged clockwise, Matsya, Kt-Irma, Varaha and Narasititha. Next side panel illustrates Vamana, Parasurama and Rama incarnations and the fourth side panel illustrates the three forms of Visnu; Balarama, Krsna and Kalki avatara. All the incarnations are in standing re and are carved in low relief.

The third wall panel of the box, which is at the back, depicts the elaborate Rama Darbara scene. Rama-Sita is sitting on throne in the center with his brothers and the Hanuman standing on the right side, while saints are sitting on their thrones on the left.

The inner portion of box’s lid portrays Dravidian style temple architecture. The innermost portion of the temple depicts two images of Lord Visnu. In the first, he is reclining on Sesanaga in the other form. He is in standing posture and flanked by Bhu Devi and Sri Devi. Door guardians Jaya-Vijaya are standing on either side of the entrance gate. Small Devi shrines are ar the entrance and around the main shrine. Depiction of Garuda, saints, Devis are in small compartments, which have been arranged vertically on both sides.

All the incarnation images have been carved in relief and to highlight the figurative aspect the images more boldly; artist has painted the images with light green colour. To give the three mensional effect artists has used the red and black colours on the background of the images, ich adds attraction to object. This appears to be the workmanship of Mysore artists of early nineteenth century.


The manuscript cover in two parts has been carved with Dasavatara images on the reverse side while; obverse side illustrates the floral design (fig. 3). Each cover illustrates the five incarnations, which have been carved in compartments under a niche. The front side of both the manuscript covers depicts bold floral creeper and foliage of flower and leaf along with full-blown lotus motif in the center, which is having hole to thread the manuscript.

One side of the cover depicts the God’s first five forms, which are: Matysa (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha .(man-lion) and Vamana (dwarf). All the images are crowned and four-armed; in two of the hands they hold sankha and cakra, while other two hands are in varada and abhaya mudra. Similarly, the other panel illustrates the next five forms of Visnu, which are: Parasurarna, Rama, Balarama, Krsna in the form of Jagannatha and Kalki incarnations.

All the incarnation icons carved in low relief, but the images are showing a lot of power, energy and every one on the move. The small manuscript cover follows the proper sequence of incarnations. Krsna’s Jagannatha’s depiction as well as workmanship of this object appears to be done by the Orissan artisans of nineteenth century.


In all the three objects, artist has carefully followed the iconography of Visnu and a proper sequence of His incarnations, as mentioned in the ancient texts. No doubt these are great work of art, but the question is why these images were made? Whether, these are made for worship or these are made just for decorative purpose? When seen under the light of religious sensitivity of Hindus, they never recommend for making the deity’s ivory images.

Worship of deity’s personified form or icon started somewhere in first century A.D.’ Before that, man use to worship the nature. Then, early Vedic Aryans’ religious life revolved round the glorification in prayer and yajna.8  Gradually, image worship became the popular religious and philosophical solution to overcome from the difficulties faced by the human being. Its practicality made the thinkers to find out the suitable material, the appropriate tala-mana (dimension and iconometry) of the icon making. And then a detailed description was made regarding the iconography of deity, size, proportion of body, `ayudha‘ which they use to hold, their dress, ornaments, seat, etc. Several texts were written which talked about almost the whole aspects related to iconometry. The important ones are Agama literature9‘, Puranas10, Samarangana Sutradhara11, Aparajita Prccha12, Rupamandana 13, Visnudharmottara14, etc.

The icon planning is not a ritual but also a scientific pre-requisite. Any planning, if it is scientific must start with correct proportions as laid down in the sastras, before fashioning an image out. These texts talk about the materials as well, in which the deity has to be made. Many of the Vastu Sastra texts mention the type of materials from which an image of a deity can be made, which are six,15 seven,16 eight17 or nine18 in number. Even Samarangana Sutradhara goes further when it says that by making deity’s image in different materials and worshipping it, the gain of a devotee is different, which says:19

Icon made of                                     The rewards gained

Gold                                                     Health

Silver                                                    Fame

Copper                                                 Progeny

Stone                                                    Landed property and victory

Wood                                                    Longevity

Lekhya                                                  Wealth

Lepya                                                    Wealth

Ivory as a medium for making deity’s icon was not mentioned in most of the iconography texts except one reference, which is in the Agama literature. According to Agama literature, six varieties of materials are recommended for making the images of deities which are; wood, stone, precious gems, metals, earth and also a combination of two or more of the aforesaid.20 Another authority mentions three more mediums, besides six, which are brick, kadi-sarkara (a preparation the chief ingredient of which is the limestone) and danta (ivory).21

From seventeenth century onwards, a lot of images of God and Goddess were made in ivory. This was the phase when a lot of Christian images were made in ivory under the influence of Europeansn22, who came in India for trade, but also brought their religion. Picking the ivory artwork as souvenire by the European official at the time of return to their country land after finishing their duty in India also encouraged the ivory carvers to experiment new subject and variety of objects.23 Probably all these circumstances became the reason for the use of ivory for making the Hindu God and Goddess images. Bengal, Orissa, Mysore, Trivandrum became the center for making the deity’s image in ivory during this phase.

Stepped home shrine, small box for keeping religious things and manuscript cover, all these are objects appear to be made in Mysore centre and of date late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is not very certain the use of such images however one cannot deny the decorative use of such images of if at all these were used for worship then only within the home shrine. This reminds of the Bengal’s tradition of making Durga images and some ivory Durga images, perhaps carved for home shrines during the nineteenth century have survived in the collection of museums.24 In the end, one can say that whatever may be the use, aesthetic quality of such images is highly appreciated, which everyone should enjoy.


The early references of ten incarnations of Visnu are found in .Satapatha Brahmana and Taittiriya Samhita. Details are in T.A.G. Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography, I, pt. I, pp. 119-223, Delhi, reprint 1993; K.S. Desai, Iconography of Visnu, Delhi, 1973, pp. 62-41; N.P. Joshi, Prachin Bharatiya Murtivigyani, Patna, 2000, pp. 97-105.

Khajuraho temples depict number of Dasavatara images in stone. See K.M. Suresh, Iconography of Visnu from Khajuraho, Delhi, 1999, pl. 16-17, pp. 33-74; Large scale metal Vaisnava avatara frame from Devsar published by P. Pal, The Arts of Kashmir, Asia Society, fig. 47, 2007, p. 65; Jor Mandir group of temples, Bishnupur, depicts incarnations of Visnu images in terracotta published by A.K. Bhattacharya, Bishnupur Land of wrestlers, in P. Pal (ed.), Marg, Mumbai, 2003, pl. 9, p. 107; Dasavatara figures are painted on the pata published by J.P. Das, Puri Paintings, Delhi, 1982, pp. 58-59. National Museum has wood carving panel depicting Dasavatara images from Tamil Nadu.

P. Dwivedi, Indian Ivories through the Ages, Delhi, 1976, pp. 101-105.
Gansa- pl. 2; Visnu Sesasayi- pl. 3; Krsna- pl. 4; Radha- pl. 15; Krsna- pl. 14, published by K. Lai, Indian Decorative Arts, exhibition catalogue, Dresden, Germany, 1984; Dwivedi, op. cit., p. 134.
A similar type of images has published by T.A. Gopinath, cit., p. 123, pl. xxxv.
K. Pal and B.K. Roy, Ivory Works in India through the Ages, Census of India 1961, Delhi, 1967, 1r vol. 1, pt. VII-A, p. 109; Dwivedi, op. cit., pp. 128-129.
N. Banerjee, Development of Hindu Iconography, Calcutta, 1956; G. Michell, Introduction to Indian Sculpture, In the Image of Man, U.K., 1982, p. 14.
N. Shukla, Vastu Sastara, vol. II, Gorakhpur, 1958, p. 27.
Tala mana is Agama literature’s chief contribution to the canons of iconometry, D.N. Shukla, , p. 55.
Matysa Purana mentions silver, copper, precious stones, wood, iron, lead, stone, brass and pp mixture of two or more metal. Bhavisya Purana refers glass, silver, copper, stone, wood and painting, published by B. Malviya, in Visnudharmottara mei Murtikala, Prayag, 1960, pp. 108, 109.
Samarangana Sutradhara written by king Bhoja, who was the king of Dhar. He ruled Malwa around 11th century. Author provides the all information about architecture and iconography, D.N. Shukla, cit., p. 55.
Aparajitaprccha is written by Bhuvandeva, which provides more information about the Dravidian architecture and its iconometry. D.N. Shukla, cit., pp. 55-56.
Rupamandana is a post Samarangana and mirrors some of the later phases of development of Hindu Iconography, D.N. Shukla, cit., p. 70.
Malviya, op. cit., pp. 108-09.
Agama literature, Rao, cit., p. 48.
Samarangana Sutradhara, p. 94, and Bhavisya Purana, 108.
Sukranitisara, Malviya, cit., p. 108.
Matysa Purana, Malviya, cit., p. 109.
N. Shukla, op. cit., p. 94.
Rao, cit., p. 48.
Rao, cit., p. 49.
Desai and Gorakshkar, Images of Christianity, Ivory and wood icons from Goa, The India Magazine, June, 1985, pp. 40-47.
Archer, Company Paintings, London, 1992, pp. 225-26.
Dwivedi, cit., p. 133; M.K. Pal and B.K. Roy, op. cit., 1967, p. 107.


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