'art & soul

Vishnu, of the Thousand Names

In the image of the Great Sustainer in the celebrated Hindu triad is embedded the great mystery, the paradoxical vision of the prime mover of all things, the one who animates all that there is, lying still, writes B. N. Goswamy

Vishnu Anantashayin. Bronze from the West Mebon, Angkor, Cambodia. Second half of the 11th century
Vishnu Anantashayin. Bronze from the West Mebon, Angkor, Cambodia. Second half of the 11th century

ONE knows the mythology, but also the image, well. One also knows the dhyana shlokas, even one of the many long texts, by heart, evoking his presence, his ineffable persona. Shaantakaaram, a verse begins: calm of appearance; bhujagashayanam: reclining upon the coils of the great serpent; padmanaabha: from whose navel the primal lotus issues forth; suresham: lord of all the gods.

Even though one knows that with these words one has barely begun to describe Vishnu, the Great Sustainer in the celebrated Hindu triad, the image stays in mind. For somehow in it is embedded the great mystery, the paradoxical vision of the prime mover of all things, the one who animates all that there is, lying still: strangely inactive, lost in thought, recumbent upon Shesha, the myriad-hooded serpent, floating upon the shoreless waters of eternity.

The meaning of it all may not dawn upon one ever, but perhaps every little thing, every little fragment of a ‘vision’ that comes one’s way, helps. When I think of Vishnu Anantashayin—this is how the iconic representation is often referred to—a succession of images and words comes to my mind. Heinrich Zimmer’s wonderful description, for instance, of how, in this very inactive state, there are the seeds of the beginnings of creation.

For when the urge to create rises, Vishnu will put one hand out to gently move the surface of the still waters, causing a small wave that will lead to an interaction between air and water and thus set the whole chain of creation into motion. Over aeons of time.

I pull out from the bank of my memory great sculpted images of Anantashayin Vishnu: from Deogarh and Aihole and Kathmandu. A vision of Vishnu lying in this state of grace and serenity that Malavika Sarukkai, the greatly gifted Bharatanatyam dancer, raised on the stage at Chandigarh some years ago, surfaces in my thoughts. And each time this happens, a measure of quietness, and of wonder, descends.

This sense of quiet and wonder was further enhanced for me recently when I chanced upon an image of Vishnu Anantashayin from Cambodia: from the celebrated Khmer period. I have never travelled to Cambodia; so it is a photographic reproduction of the image that I am speaking of. But even as a photograph the impact that the image makes is stunning.

It is a bronze image, the largest bronze that was ever cast in the whole of south-east Asia perhaps. Only a fragment of it has survived: fortunately, however, the head, two arms on one of which the slightly raised head rests, and a small, uneven part of the torso. But from the scale of this fragment, it has been estimated that the whole image must have been some 16 feet in length. Now the fragment is part of the collection of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

There is a little story attached to the discovery of this image which needs to be told perhaps. The image is believed to have been installed by King Udayadityavarman (1050-1066) in the great 11th century Vishnu temple of West Mebon, the exquisite central shrine of the West Baray, one of the vast water reservoirs of Angkor. But the temple is now in a mouldering state, with very little that was inside it once, now intact. As long ago as 1936, pillaging had started. The Archaeological Department of the Government— the country was under French rule at that time— had placed a ban on things being taken out and sold, but small objects found or dug continued to be offered to European visitors by local villagers.

In December of that year a villager from the neighbourhood reported to the authorities the discovery of a statue which, he claimed, he was led to by a dream in which Buddha appeared to him asking to be ‘released’ from the place where he was buried. He guided a team of archaeologists, led by Maurice Glaize, to a site where, at the end of the causeway, they found the image buried, face down, in a shaft a meter below the surface.

The ‘Buddha’ of the villager’s dreams—the country is predominantly of Buddhist persuasion—turned out to be the Vishnu that we speak of here: the ‘West Mebon Vishnu’. The image was in a desperately broken state. The head and the portion of the torso apart, there were other pieces: a potion of the lower back, the right thigh, some parts of two arms.

All of these are now carefully preserved in the National Museum, and archaeologists, having taken careful measurements and weights of these, are working with digital images of all the fragments in the hope of being able to ‘reconstruct’ the statue. However desirable, that end seems, as yet, to be a long way off, though. The fragments are not easily available for viewing, and there is word that a great deal is still missing.

Whether or not a complete reconstruction—or a computer-generated image—of the whole will come about, and whether or not one will eventually have to enter ‘the museum of our imaginations’ to view the whole, one does not know. But many people are at it, with some young scholars from the University of Sydney helping out.

Meanwhile, there is the great head of this masterful work to contemplate and revel in the elegance of. There are the familiar Khmer features that almost define the style: full curved lips, arched eyebrows, curling moustache, fleshy cheeks, broad shoulders. One takes them in but, above all, there is that hint of a smile on the face, now child-like, now cosmic and all-knowing. A calm radiates from the face, even though the mystery of what goes on in that mind remains unfathomable, and therefore un-utterable.

Even in this fragmented state, the ‘West Mebon Vishnu’, produced by some anonymous artist a thousand years ago, is a deeply affecting work. What is it that Andre Malraux, who had spent some early years of his life in ‘French Indo-China’, say about works such as these? "Each masterpiece purifies the world", he wrote, "and their common lesson is that they exist, and the victory of each artist over his servitude converges in an enormous display, that of art over human destiny".