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Volume: II, Issue II, July-December 2011



In Indian mythology Varāha occupies an important role—particularly in the incarnation tradition of lord Viṣṇu. This article critically analyses the textual and artistic evidences relating to the mythology and iconography of Varāha. In Indian iconography the earliest figure of Varāha in a relief is known from Mathura, which belongs to the Kuṣāṇa age. The depiction of the boar incarnation delivering the earth, became quite popular with Gupta artists. From Gupta dynasty onward several such figures have been discovered from Central India including the famous Udayagiri depiction. Different forms of Varāha are known both from texts and art evidences. Bhūvarāha, Yajñavarāha and Pralayavarāha—these three are the most popular forms. Even among them Bhūvarāha found most favour due to its socio-political connotations reflecting on the socio-political environment of the society.

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In early stage Varāha had been associated with Brahmā, but later on he became popular as an incarnation of Viṣṇu. In Bhāgavata Purāṇa it is mentioned that with a view to create the universe, the Lord of Sacrifice became desirous of lifting up the earth, which had sunk into the lower regions, and assumed the form of the boar.1 Here the act of lifting the earth is attributed to Viṣṇu2. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa  has a mention that at the beginning of the kalpa, Brahmā created the living beings. When the universe (earth) submerged under the ocean, Brahmā entered in the body of a boar and saved this earth. The Agni Purāṇa informs that Hiraṇyākṣa, a demon, vanquished the gods and took possession of their heavenly capital, and that the gods had recourse to Viṣṇu, who, to help them, assumed the form of a boar and slew the demon Hiraṇyākṣa.

The Varāha has three forms—Bhūvarāha, Yajñavarāha  and Pralayavarāha. Vaikhānasāgama refers to the figure of Bhūvarāha as having the face of a boar in association with a body of a man. Varāha has four arms, two of which hold the Śankha  and the Chakra, the third hand rests on the leg and the fourth one is shown as kept on the waist. The right leg should be slightly bent and made to rest upon the jewelled hood of the mythical serpent Ādiśeṣa, who must be sculptured in company of his wife. The boar face of the god should be slightly tilted up. Bhūdevī is seated on the god's bent right leg, her own legs hanging down. The Śilparatna mentions Bhūdevī being carried by Varāha on the tusk. Varāha's one foot should rest upon the serpent Ādiśeṣa and the other on a tortoise. The Agni Purāṇa and the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa have this description in detail.

In Yajñavarāha and Pralayavarāha the forms of Viṣṇu's incarnation are described as seated in lalitāsana posture upon a throne. His two hands hold Śankha and Chakra and the third hand remains in abhaya mudrā. The fourth hand rests upon the left thigh. In āgamas and tantras there are several references to these images.

In Indian iconography the earliest figure of Varāha in a relief is known from Mathura, which belongs to the Kuṣāṇa age3. It bears an inscription. Although its head is damaged, the thick neck, massive body and the small female, obviously the Earth, clearly indicate it to be a Varāha image. The four-armed Varāha stand in ālīdha posture. According to D.M. Srinivasan, the extra arms hold disks engraved with identical images of Sūrya and his horses, an unusual motive with the Varāha4. Varāha 's body is decorated with a plain vanamālā and the śrīvatsa emblem. This is the only occurence of the emblem in the Vaiṣṇava art of the Kuṣāṇa Mathura.

N.P. Joshi has doubted one other image of Mathura Museum to be of Varāha.5 Its height is six and a half inches. According to him "it is a unique Varāha-faced Yaksha-type figure (M.M. No. 1254). This two-armed figure is broken below the abdomen. A long-necked flask is held in the right hand, and what may be a flower bud is kept in the left. The identity of the image is problematic; the possibility of its being another Varāha icon can not be ruled out."

The beginning of the fouth century A.D. saw the rise of a new power, the Gupta dynasty, in the central part of India. Samudragupta, the illustrious son of the Gupta emperor Chandragupta I included the region of Eran (ancient Erakaṇya) in his empire. Samudragupta himself visited Eran many times, accompanied by his wife, sons and grandsons. In one of his insciptions, Eran is called as 'svabhoganagara'6. Samudragupta's eldest son Rāmagupta was administrator of Eran during the regime of Samudragupta. Because Eran was a strategic centre of the Gupta domain, therefore, Samudragupta kept Rāmagupta there. After the death of Samudragupta, Rāmagupta  surrendered before the Śakas, who were enemies of the Guptas. Hence, Rāmagupta 's younger brother, Chandragupta II, with his unusual adroit, killed the Śaka king and saved the prestige of his family. Chandragupta II not only defeated the Śakas but ultimately he completely uprooted the Śakas, not only from Central India but from the Saptasaindhava region to Vāhlīka Pradeśa for ever. This happened to be a great victory of Chandragupta II. The depiction of the boar incarnation delivering the earth, which probably signifies the above event, became quite popular with Gupta artists. Prof. K.D. Bajpai rightly says that "not only at Udayagiri, but also at Eran and other places of Central India, several such figures have been discovered. It may be surmised that the two large size statues of Varāha and Nṛisiṁha found near the Viṣṇu temple at Eran and some other statues at Eran were carved during the time of Chandragupta"7.   

The statue of Varāha at Eran in animal form measures 16' x 11'. The whole body of Varāha has decorative bands with the carvings of saints, deities and others. The right tusk of the boar is holding up a female figure, representing the rescuing of the Earth by the boar incarnation of Viṣṇu. The statue bears an inscription of the first regnal year of the Hūṇa king Toramāṇa and it records the construction of a temple, to enshrine this colossal Boar image, by Dhanyaviṣṇu, whose brother Mātṛiviṣṇu was not alive at that time.

Another beautifully carved image from Eran is of a two-armed Varāha. Varāha stands on a pedestal very stoutly. His left hand rests upon a leg, which is bent upward and kept firmly on a vertical pillar. The right hand is kept on the knee of the second leg which is straight. The goddess Earth is shown hanging on the tusk of Varāha with her uplifted left hand. Varāha wears a broad necklace, a vanamālā  and a dhotī as lower garment of which a long knot is shown in front side. A small-size female devotee stands beside the right leg. Its pedestal has an inscription in Gupta Brāhmī script, which mentions the names Srī Maheśvaradatta and Varāhadatta, the two donors of the image. These two may have been father and son or brothers. This sculpture is presently housed in Harisingh Gour Archaeological Museum of Sagar University. This museum has also collected some unique sculptures of Vārāhī, the Śakti of god Varāha, from Sagar which belong to between the 8th to 12th century A.D. Besides, in some Mātṛikā panels and lintels, the goddess Vārāhī is represented very well.

The colossal rock-cut image of Varāha in Udayagiri cave is remarkable. The two-handed Varāha is shown standing on the Śeṣa, and he supports the goddess on his snout. Several saints are carved here in rows. Dr. V.S. Agrawal again confirms it that this image got carved here by the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II, after he conquered his enemies, the Śaka-kṣatrapas8. He has identified the figure behind Śeṣa, seated on his heels, as the Emperor himself9.

Another image of the 5th c. A.D. is reported from the Daśāvatāra temple of Baḍoh.10 The right hand of Varāha is kept on the waist and his left hand holds a lotus on which goddess Earth is standing. Varāha's left leg is placed on the hood of a Nāga couple.

One other mutilated image of Varāha is at Allahabad Museum11. In a stone slab, among the four figures, one of which contains the image of Varāha holding the goddess Earth on his left arm. Below his feet the Nāgapuruṣa is in añjalīmudrā. The left leg of the god is on the serpent's chest and the other is on the coils12.

During later Gupta and early medieval periods Central India produced innumerable number of Varāha sculptures with distinguishing features. Rahman Ali says that "in the later-Gupta period the popularity of the images of Nṛi-Varāha was considerably increased; and hence these were displayed more in number rather than enshrining it in the independent shrines. This trend may, however, be seen in Gadarmal temple at Badoh-Pathari (Dist. Vidisha)"13.The dynasties like Gurjāra Pratihāras, the Paramāras, the Chandellas and the Kalachuris have given welcome addition in the production of Varāha statues, which are very important from the iconographic point of view. A good number of Varāha sculptures of Pratihāra period are known from Naresar, Batesar, Amrol, Baḍoh-Pathari, Mubarakpur (Vidisha), Indragarh, Mandsaur, etc.

The Varāha images of Khajuraho are notable specimens of the Chandella period. Mostly Varāha is shown in standing posture with the image of Pṛithvī sitting on the elbow of his left upper hand and Varāha is only looking at her. Dr. Urmila Agrawal writes that "the god at Khajuraho has his arms on the kaṭi, holding Gadā, Chakra and Śaṁkha with the Pṛithvī  seated on his third arm in which he holds Chakra"14. The huge Varāha image of Khajuraho in the Varāha temple is worth mentioning. It is well carved with hundreds of deities, Nāgī and Pṛithvī. Like Khajuraho, an image of Varāha made of red sandstone is known from Ajaigarh (Panna). The whole body of Varāha is beautifully carved. The Nṛivarāha image of Kālanjara is four-armed and is beautifully ornamented15.

The Gwalior Museum has two peculiar images of Varāha belonging to the 9th century A.D. The first image is four handed holding the mace in upper right hand while the lower right hand is in kaṭihasta mudrā. Its upper and lower left hands hold the disc and the conch respectively. The goddess Earth is shown seated cross-legged on the folded upper left arm of the god. The second image is almost identical to it, except for the order of the conch and the wheel in the left hands of the god. In both of these sculptures a small dagger is attached to the belt of the god on the right side16.

Some other Varāha scuptures are preserved in the museum of Bhanpura, Scindia Museum, Gwalior, Ramban Museum, Indore Museum, Ujjain Museum, Vidisha Museum and Allahabad Museum which are well-come supplement of the early medieval period. Some notable sculptures found from Dudhai and Chandpur (District Lalitpur) are worth mentioning. One famous Ādivarāha sculpture found from Dudhai is now housed in the Lucknow Museum. In Chandpur there are ruins of a Varāha temple and a huge figure of Varāha, 5 feet and 5 inches high, is installed there. Its whole body is highly decorated. Mahendra Verma says that it is one of the finest images of Varāha17.   

Thus, the iconographic representation of Varāha cult became much popular in the region of Central India. Right from 5th century A. D. to 12th century A. D. an overwhelming number of Varāha images are found from this vast area.


  1. Bhagavata Purana , Nirnaya SagarPress, Bombay, 1916, 2,7,1 and 3,13; 3 ,18 and 19.
  2. T.A.Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography, The Law Printing House, Mount Road,  Madras, 1914, Vol. I, Pt. 1 pp.128-29.
  3. M.M. No.65.15.
  4. Mathura the Cultural Heritage, Edited by D.M.Srinivasan, American Institute of Indian Studies,New Delhi, 1989,P.387.
  5. N.P.Joshi, Mathura Sculptures, Archaeological Museum, Mathura,1966, App.II, pp. iii-vii ,pl. 101.
  6. J.F.Fleet,C.I.I., Indological Book House, Varanasi, 1963,Vol.III, pp. 18 ff.
  7. Bajpai, K.D., Sagar through the Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, University of Saugor, Saugor, 1964,p. 11.
  8. Gupta Yugmen Madhyadesha Ka Kalatmak Chitran, Nagari Pracharani Patrika, Vikramank, P. 48.
  9. Solar Symbolysm of the Boar, Varanasi, 1963, p.36. Another author, however, identified the Figure as Samudraraja (Haripriya Rangarajan, Varaha Images in Madhya Pradesh: An Iconographic Study, Somaiya Publications, Mumbai, Delhi, 1997, p.132 
  10. Kalpana Desai, Iconography Of Vishnu, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1973, p.75, fig.59.
  11. Museum No. 292.
  12. Kalpana Desai, ibid, p.75.
  13. Ali, Rehman, Art and Architecture Of Dasharna (Malva) region, Sharda Publications House, Delhi, 2008, p. 158.
  14. Agarwal, Urmila, Khajuraho sculptures and their significance, S.Chand & Co., Lucknow,1964, P.37. 
  15. Sullere, S.K., Ajaygarh aur Kalanjar ki Dev Pratimaye, Ramanand Vidya Bhawan, Kalkaji- 19, Delhi, 1987,P.150.
  16. Kalpana Desai, ibid,p. 77.
  17. Verma, Mahendra, Chandel Kalin Kala aur Sanskriti, Ramanand Vidya Bhawan, Delhi, 1992, p. 116.


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