Vishnu with his consorts Shri Devi and Bhu Devi
Pala period, ca. 12th century
Gift of Dr. Richard Nalin (79.138)
Vishnu stands in the straight upright position called samabhanga. This sturdy pose symbolizes the god’s role as upholder of cosmic order and preserver of the universe. He bears four attributes: the conch shell for summoning troops to battle (symbol of eternal space); the club for vanquishing enemies (symbol of eternal law); the discus––a throwing weapon (symbol of eternal time); and the lotus (symbol of purity and ever-renewing creation). He wears a tall crown, jeweled ornaments, and a garland that falls to his knees.
On either side of Vishnu stand his two consorts, Shri Devi (an alternate name for Lakshmi), holding a fly whisk and lotus stem, and Bhu Devi, holding a stringed musical instrument. In religious writings usually only one female, Lakshmi––the goddess of fortune––is mentioned as Vishnu’s wife, but in sculptural depictions from eastern and southern India the god is often flanked by another figure, usually misidentified as Sarasvati but who is actually Bhu Devi––the earth goddess––understood as another aspect of Lakshmi herself.
Below Vishnu is his special animal (vahana), the eagle-like Garuda, seen in a crouching pose. Other divine or human figures populate the extreme bottom edge of the stele, and still other celestial beings are shown on the upper edges. At the very top is an auspicious symbol called a “face of glory” (kirtimukha).
The artist’s skill in the carving of the sculpture is clearly evident. The figures’ bodies are carefully proportioned. Costume details and jewelry are rendered with precision. The clinging drapery of the goddesses is subtle and does not obscure their forms. The overall sense of grace and beauty conveyed by the stele is meant to appeal to the viewer, just as the Divine appeals to the human soul.
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"I still remember the feeling of awe and disbelief when I was alone and walked in the room with those casts." --Ruth Tofle, chair of architecture, winner of the 2013 distinguished faculty award from the MU Alumni Association