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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



The article traces the genesis, evolution stages and symbolism of the Varāha myth in Indian literature and explores its application through art for proclaiming the potency and legitimacy of political powers, especially under anarchical circumstances. Enumerated in the twin iconographic aspects of cosmic zoomorphic yajñavarāha and anthropomorphic avatāra bhūvarāha forms, under various Vedic and Paurāṇic texts, the motif was probably a case of psychological transmission of an idea through the visual medium. It was rather creation of the image of a victorious king restoring the fortunes of his dynasty/empire in the likeness of the mythical Varāha. Moreover, this Vaiṣṇavite motif may also be seen as beginnings of the rejuvenation of Hinduism after an interlude of heretical sects’ hegemony.The artistic ingenuity and technical expertise achieved by Chālukyan artists in chiseling the rock-cut forms is particularly brought forth through a comparative analysis of the manifestations in Bādāmī caves with rock-cut and structural creations at other Chālukyan and Gupta sites. 

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The Myth and the Legends

The Varāha or boar, as a saviour of Earth, has been a popular motif in Indian literature and art. In literature the genesis and evolution of Varāha motif can be traced to two forms: cosmic and avatāra. The cosmic version given in the Vedic Saṁhitās and Purāṇas identifies Varāha respectively as Prajāpati and Brahmā and in that capacity co-relates him with the Earth as its creator. The earliest association of Varāha and Earth finds mention in the Bhūmi Sūkta of Atharva Veda. [XII: 1:48] Varāha as Prajāpati is referred to in the Taittirīya Saṁhitā [7.1.5.] and the Kaṭaka Saṁhitā. [Prasad 1989: 6] According to the Kapiṣṭhala Kathā Saṁhitā [6.7] Prajāpati, by assuming the Varāha manifestation, entered the primordial waters and brought up the soil, exactly to the size of his snout, which became the earth. Then he, in the form of Viśvakarmā, designed various creations within her until she assumed appearance of Pṛthvī. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa [XIV: 1-2, 11; Kakati 1950: 39] also identifies the Emuṣa Varāha, lifting Earth from underwater, with Prajāpati.

Besides Vedic texts Paurāṇic scriptures like the Mārkaṇdeya [47.1-13], Viṣṇu [I.4], Matsya [248. 62-79], Vāyu [6.1-11], Kūrma [I.6.1-25] and Brahmāṇda Purāṇas [I.5.1-11] have related Varāha to Brahmā, who lifted and rescued the Earth from pātāla after the clout of Nārāyaṇa entered his body. Thus, they enjoin upon the dual aspects of Brahmā and Nārāyaṇa, merged and symbolized in the Varāha form. His affinity with Brahmā has also been affirmed in the Rāmāyaṇa. Therein the resemblance between the two is enumerated variously. The Epic acknowledges that Brahmā assumed the form of a boar; while a more specific version describes Viṣṇu in the form of Brahmā as having accomplished the task of Earth’s rescue. [Nagar 1993: 5] Furthermore, in some of the scriptures such as the Viṣṇu, Matsya, Vāyu, and Brahmāṇda Purāṇas, he has been projected as a yajñavarāha, an aspect also assigned to Brahmā in relation with Nārāyaṇa. These texts have likened Varāha’s body parts to various constituents of the yajña, thereby expounding the cosmic image of yajñavarāha. The popularity of this representation is apparent from the fact that a Śilpa text like the Aparājitāpṛcchā also highlights the Varāha’s cosmological character. [Adhikaraṇ 25: 1-17: 58 ff.].

The avatāra aspect of the Varāha is elaborated upon at length in the Mahābhārata. Quite significantly, in these references, unlike those in the Vedas, Purāṇas, and Rāmāyaṇa, Varāha form represents Viṣṇu instead of Brahmā. In a way, as suggested by Maheshwari Prasad the Mahābhārata marks culmination of the process of Viṣṇuization of the Varāha kathā. [1987: 289] The association of Varāha with Viṣṇu facilitated inclusion of the myth under the Vaiṣṇavite doctrine of incarnation or avatāra. The word avatāra is derived from the root avatri, i.e. to descend. [Singh 2009: 438] It does not simply refer to Viṣṇu’s ability to assume various forms at different points of time. The Gītā states explicitly that he does so with a specific purpose - to uphold the dharma and annihilate the adharma. From fourth - fifth centuries AD, with the ascendancy of Vaiṣṇavism, the concept of avatāras of Viṣṇu had become very popular, restoring and sustaining the worldly order through various manifestations.

The earth, itself an obvious symbol of goodness, was ever the rightful recipient of protection thus extended by benevolent Viṣṇu. Subsequently, the role of savior of the Earth was passed on from Brahmā to Viṣṇu and duly incorporated in the avatāra cycle whereby the Varāha myth acquired popular legend form. The Varāha’s act of saving the Earth from drowning has been explained in terms of saving her from deluge and from demonic foes. For example, the Harivaṁśa Purāṇa refers to Viṣṇu assuming Varāha form twice: once to raise the earth from the waters and secondly, to kill Hiraṇyāksha. [3.40.2-21] Regarding the first act, it has been said that the population on the Earth [Bhūdevī], the support of all beings and the creator of all sorts of grain, had increased to such an extent that she could not bear its weight. Consequently, succumbing to its burden, she sank down a hundred yojanas under the waters. Therefore, responding to her prayers, Viṣṇu incarnated in a boar form and raised her from the nether worlds.

The second interpretation relates Varāha incarnation myth with the annihilation of demon Hiraṇyāksha. This event is explained variously. According to the Bhāgvata Purāṇa [III: 13: 13-30] Hiraṇyāksha was killed by the Varāha when he tried to obstruct him from raising the earth. Another version postulates that during the process of creation Brahmā found Pṛthvī, intended for inhabitation of the created beings, missing. Asura Hiraṇyāksha had hidden it under depths of the ocean. As Brahmā sat in contemplation, Viṣṇu emerged from his nostrils in the form of a giant Varāha. This primeval Ādivarāha then plunged into the ocean and after killing Hiraṇyāksha rescued the Earth. Hence, it is apparent that the myth and related legends are given in literature in varied versions.

Varāha avatāra is also enumerated in the Liṅga [I: 94], and Padma [Uttarākhaṇda, Adhikaraṇ 237:10-29] Purāṇas. Amongst non-paurāṇic texts, the Abhilāshitārtha Chintāmaṇi, Rūpamaṇdana, Devatāmūrtiprakaraṇa [V. 72-76], and Śilparatna [25.112-116], etc., assigns Varāha to the avatāra chakra and elaborate upon its iconographic canons.



Varāha’s Iconography

Textual evidence and temple sculptures reveal that the idea of Viṣṇu’s ten avatāras was more or less standardized in the early medieval period. Likewise, the Varāha motif iconography has been prescribed in several texts with slight variations. According to the Varāha Purāṇa [114.6] it was six thousand yojanas long and three thousand yojanas broad and thus covered nine thousand yojanas. It evolved under the twin aspects of zoomorphic yajñavarāha and anthropomorphic bhūvarāha forms. The yajñavarāha form has been vividly described in the Padma [Uttarākhaṇda, Adhikaraṇ 237:10-29] and Vāyu Purāṇas. For instance, it comprised of several figures. Its feet were the four Vedas; its tusks were the stakes to which the sacrificial animals were bound; its teeth the offspring; the tongue was agni or the sacrificial fire; the body hair was likened to darbha, i.e. holy grass; its eyes were symbolic of day and night; the ear ornaments represented Vedāngas; the mucous flow from its nose was the ghee offered to the agni by the sṛuva, i.e. ladle symbolized by its tuṇda or snout; its head was revered as the seat of Brahmā; the bowels formed the udgātṛī priest, while the genital organ constituted the hotṛī to officiate upon the yajña. Its grunt corresponded to the sāma ghoṣa while the air breathed was the antarātmana; its bones constituted the mantṛas; and the blood was the soma rasa. The vedī or altar was symbolized by the Varāha’s shoulders whilst the haviṣ or yajña offering was its neck. Thus, its whole body connoted a yajñaśālā [Wilson 1961: 28], i.e. the hall of sacrifice. In a way, the above mentioned texts have comprehended and conveyed the entire cosmos in terms of the yajñavarāha’s body.

The avatāra bhūvarāha form as given in the Vaikhānasāgam [Nagar 1993: 73] represents human body with a boar head. It is conceptualized as four armed, two of which hold the śaṅkha and chakra. Of the remaining two hands, the left hand is to support Bhūdevī seated on his bent right lap with her legs hanging down while the right hand is to encircle her waist. The right leg is to be slightly bent and inclined upon the bejeweled hoods of Śeṣanāga in company of his spouse. Some texts recommend positioning of Bhūdevī on the Varāha’s left shoulder or left elbow. Furthering the iconographic details the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa [III.79.1-11] describes the Varāha in ālīḍha posture, lifting the earth on the tip of his tusk. The Varāha Purāṇa also describes the Earth, with its mountains, forests, islands and cities, raised up by his left tusk; clinging to his white tusk the Earth looked like clod of clay with lotus stalk. [114.7-9] The Liṅga Purāṇa [70. 119-32] offers a variant while mentioning that after lifting the Earth the Varāha began process of various creations such as mountains, continents, animals, humans, etc. The Harivaśa Purāṇa [3.35.29-41] also elaborates upon his iconographical details.


Symbolism of the Motif

The allegorical notion underlying the Varāha myth primarily remained the rescue of the earth, either from natural or from circumstantial crises. However, the actual reasons for its rise and popularity as an artistic motif may be gauged in the backdrop of the political and social conditions prevalent in ancient India, especially in wake of the foreign invasions on Indian territories and their subsequent liberation by the Indian powers. For instance, the north-western regions faced series of foreign incursions initiated under Cyrus [558 – 553 BC], and followed by those of Alexander, Seleucus, the Indo - Greeks, Śakas, Pahlavas, Kuṣāṇas, and later the Hūṇas.

Such onslaughts were, most of the time successfully, combated by the indigenous rulers. Quite interestingly one may notice that such liberation acts, at times, coincided with the resurgence of Brāhmanical cults, rituals and Vedic social systems. For instance, Chandragupta Maurya successfully resisted the Greeks in alliance with his Brāhmaṇ counselor Chanakya. Religiously Chandragupta himself was inclined towards Jainism, especially in the later part of his life, while his grandson Ashoka patronized Buddhism. Despite this, the period witnessed restoration of the Vedic social hierarchical vara āsram dharma that had been disrupted in the wake of events during sixth century BC and the base origin Nandas’ rule over Magadhan territories before Mauryas. Moreover Viṣṇu was a well known deity by this time. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in Chandragupta’s court, described the popularity of Vasudeva in the region of Mathura during fourth century BC.

After decline of the Mauryas, the next two dynasties to wield political power, Śungas and Kaṇvas, remained Brāhmanical by faith. With the foreign incursion threats persisting, the Śunga rulers, especially Pushyamitra and Agnimitra, effectively warded off the Greek penetrations from Indian mainland and dispelled all possibilities of disintegration. They also proved instrumental in the revival of Brāhmanical cults and rituals, suggested by their patronage to Brāhmaṇ scholars and Sanskrit language; besides performance of aśwamedha yajñas. One such yajña, performed after victory over Greeks, was officiated by Patanjali, the composer of Aṣṭādhyāyī. However, in spite of Brāhmanical resurgence, other religious traditions continued as evident from the flowering of Buddhist art at Sāñchī and Bharhūt.

Southwards the Sātavāhanas also fought against the foreign invaders and particularly, were successful in checking the penetration of the Śakas in the South. Though followers of Brāhmanical faiths, they observed tolerance towards other sects. As a unique characteristic the Indian culture, instead of succumbing to foreign invaders, exhibited remarkable capacity to absorb them within its fold. To cite a few instances, amongst the Indo-Greeks while King Menander ‘Milinda’ accepted Buddhism; Heliodorus, ambassador of Antialcidas of Taxila at Kasi king Bhagabhadra’s court, had erected a garuda-dhvajā in honour of Vasudeva, as mentioned in an epigraphic record found at Besnagar. [Raychaudhari 2000: 288] Likewise the Śaka, Pahlava and Kuṣāṇas rulers, with the adoption of Indian names, religions and languages, were also assimilated within the Indian society and culture.

Next significant phase in the Brāhmanical resurrection was marked by rise of the imperial Gupta dynasty. Besides unifying extensive regions, the Gupta monarchs, specifically Chandra Gupta II, Kumara Gupta and Skanda Gupta, emerged victorious against the Śaka and Hūṇa onslaughts. The Gupta reign claims several cultural landmark features including the evolution and transformation of ancient Brāhmanical faith into organized Hinduism. The initiation of Hindu temple architecture under their patronage; anthropomorphic delineation of deities and emergence of religious sculptures; canonization of theological texts; acquisition of classical form by Sanskrit language, etc., constituted part of such developments. Most of the Gupta rulers called themselves Bhāgvatas, worshipped Viṣṇu, adopted garuda-dhvajā, performed aśvamedha yajña, and gave generous grants to Brāhmaṇs. The Vaiṣṇavite concept of Viṣṇu’s ten incarnations acquired substantial popularity. The Daśāvatāra sculptural relief panels in Deogarh temple, Jhansi district (U.P.) is an artistic testimony to this fact. Under the prevailing milieu the popularity of the Varāha myth of salvage of earth, may be likened to a projection of the benevolent and protective prowess of the ruling monarchs, emphasized through religious imagery.

V.S. Agrawala [1963: 1-40 and 1963 a: 199-236] has detected a close association of the Varāha theme with the history of the country, especially during the Gupta times. He assigns credit to Chandragupta Vikramaditya for the annihilation of vestiges of foreign rule and applauds him for empire extension up to the ocean on the east and the sea on the west, by dint of his respective conquests over Vanga and Aparanta. This accomplishment also finds artistic corroboration in the colossal Varāha relief at Udaigiri. [Nagar 1993: 80 f.] Along with the Varāha it exhibits a royal figure standing at one end, which has been identified as Chandragupta, politically synonymous with the Mahāvarāha and referred to as deva by his contemporaries, as he had liberated the country from the foreign domination of the Śakas.

During the post - Gupta period the country was again inundated by numerous foreign invasions and every time an indigenous ruler repelled such encroachments, the act was equated with and hailed as the deliverance of the earth by the Varāha.

Thus, politically the Varāha may be held as a device to create an imagery of the victorious king. Creation of this royal symbol was rather a case of psychological transmission of an idea through the visual medium. The Śilpa Śāstrīya iconography of the mighty Varāha and narrative of the Varāha legend proved quite helpful in this endeavour. The image emphasized the ruler’s ability to keep the social order intact, in accordance with the dhārmic injunctions. It gained popularity as an eloquent symbol of the royal might of the conqueror that destroys the enemy, rescues the land from oppression and re-establishes dharma. Moreover, the Varāha images were not simply replica of the ruler’s persona rather they underlined the parallel drawn between the royal patron and the divine image. Attesting the Varāha with royal attributes such as kirīṭa [crown], āyudha [weapon], bhūaa [ornamentation], etc., marked the extension of concept of royalty in its sublime form to iconography. Similarly, the divinization of royalty emerged as a consequent phenomena. Thus, the image of the deity, triumphant over the demons who dared to dislocate the established order, reinforced the image of the king who asserts his ability to keep the kingdom under control, irrespective of any external onslaughts. That the image of the ruler was consciously made to identify with that of the Varāha is also apparent from the Bhanduk Plates [EI XIV: 121 ff.] of Rāṣṭrakūṭa king Krishna I, which describes the Pralaya Mahāvarāha as lifting the earth that had become anguished on being submerged in the Kali waters. Thus, it underlined an allegory between the exploits of the divine Varāha and the temporal ruler’s accomplishments.

Religiously, the association of Viṣṇu with the establishment of universal order by redeeming the Earth conferred a high sanctity on the Varāha myth, especially, during the Gupta period, faced with intermittent foreign aggressions. It is quite obvious that protection of the general interests of the people always played a crucial role in legitimatizing power by projecting a benign image of the ruler. Thus, simulation of the imagery of a king, being endowed with divine grace and performing popular religious rites, was often attempted by monarchs to claim public acceptance of their authority, more so if they chanced to belong to base origins. In this context, the Varāha image was not only a suitable preference for establishing affinity with the divine forces but also for claiming enhanced social prestige and marking revitalization of Hinduism.

Widespread in Northern India, the Varāha cult also made inroads down the South where the motif was taken up by the Chālukyas as their dynastic crest, i.e. lāñchhana. Several of the Chālukyan eulogies including the famous Aihole epigraph celebrate their feat of conquering and unifying the earth under the banner of Varāha lāñchhana [EI VI: 4-12].

Synonymous with political prowess, splendour and religious fervour, the motif was profusely sculpted and embossed on Varāha type coins, and sculpted in both relief and round plastic forms.


Artistic Representations of the Motif

The Varāha raising the Earth from the nether world, both in anthropomorphic as well as zoomorphic forms, has been a favorite motif in Indian sculptural art. Historically, its earliest depiction may be seen in the Bhita sculpture dating back to second century BC. The discovery of a Varāha slab with Kharoṣṭhi inscription indicates its rendering during the Kuṣāṇa period. [Joshi 1966: 101] The Gupta age massive rock-cut Varāha from Udaigiri [Nagar 1993: 80 f.] may be regarded as extremely well proportioned. Besides, a fragmentary Varāha image preserved in the Mathura Museum; a pillar representation in Bharat Kala Bhavan; Varāha representations from Deogarh and Bhitargaon brick temples, are other prominent Varāha illustrations belonging to the Gupta times.

The popularity and southwards expansion of the motif, especially in the Pallava regions, is attested through epigraphic evidences. For instance, comparative references in Kailāśanātha Temple inscription [SII III: 13] equating Rajasimha with Varāha; in Vunne Gurava Palem Plates [EI XII: 91-98] equating Parameshvara I with Varāha and in the Kāśakkudi Plates [SII II: No. 73] equating Nandivarman II with Varāha. The Pallava Varāha and Ādivarāha maṇḍapam reveal finer art representations. Varāha was also carved in the Chālukyan structural temples and rock-cut caves as being discussed below. The popularity of the motif continued through medieval times.



Religious Background of the Chālukyas and Significance of the Motif

From around third century AD South India was faced with the infiltrations by the warlike Kalabhras from the northern borders dismantling the established political order. [Aiyar 1956-57: 94-100; Arunachalam 1979] The Velvikudī grant [EI XVII: 306] of Pāndya Neduñjadaiyan denounced them as kali-araśar or evil kings, whose invincible arms uprooted many adhirājas and upset the social order by confiscating all charitable devadānas and brahmadeyas - gifts or land grants exempted from revenue, made to the temples and Brāhmaṇs, respectively. Nilakanta Sastri has opined that Kalavar-Kalabhras were probably a widespread tribe whose large scale defection to the heretical faiths resulted in a political and social upset lasting over some generations [1964: 19].

This politico-social upheaval attributed to the Kalabhras perhaps resulted from religious antagonisms leading to the dominance of the heretical orthodoxy. Their anti - Brāhmanical stance is suggested by the revocation of benefactions to Brāhmaṇs, references of patronage to Buddhist monks and scholars and the ascendancy of the heretical sects during this period in South India. [Sastri 1964: 19] Religiously, the next two centuries following the Kalabhra incursions witnessed the ascendancy of Buddhism and Jainism. Artistically Buddhism inspired the art of Ajantā and the Andhra country as suggested by the caves excavated at Ajantā and the images and stūpas at Amarāvatī, Bhattiprolu, Nāgarjunikoṇdā, etc. [Bachhofer 1929] Jainism found popular acceptance among the kings of Western Deccan and the Tamil lands. [Nahar and Ghosh 1917; Ayyangar and Rao 1922; Desai 1957] For instance, the Gangas of Mysore were associated with Jainism. [Saletore 1938: 7] Rachamalla of Talwad granted endowments to Jaina establishments in Coorg. [IA VI: 103] He also erected a Jaina shrine upon Valhmalai hill. [EI IV: 140] Similarly the Kadambas of Banavāsī, though performers of aśvamedha yajña, showed manifest favour towards Jainism.

The turmoil caused by Kalabhra interregnum was finally put to rest and order was restored by the almost simultaneous emergence of the mighty Pallavas and Pāṇdyas in the Tamil regions and of the Chālukyas of Bādāmī in Western Deccan. Along with establishing political stability, these dynasties also provided a stronghold to the Brāhmanical religions, hitherto struggling under onslaughts from the heretical sects and their patron powers. Vaiṣṇava devotionalism had acquired a strong expression in South India in the bhakti hymns of the Alvār saints. Consequently, many Vaiṣṇava temples and sculptures are attributed to the early medieval period. The Chālukyas, in particular, rejuvenated Vaiṣṇavism and other Hindu sects through various acts.

To begin with, they claimed legendary origin from mythical deities. The Chālukya rulers called themselves Hāritiputras of the Mānavyagotra - Padam Vishōh Mānavyasagōtrā (ā) m Hāriti- putrāā (m)… in several of their epigraphs including the Chiplun plates. [EI III: 51-2] The Handarike inscription of Vikramaditya VI’s times stated that Chālukyas were born in the chulka of sage Hāriti-Pañchaśikha. [Sircar 1970: 227-49] The eulogistic Vikramānkadevacharita by Bilhaṇa held that the ancestor of Chālukyas sprang from the chuluka of Brahmā at Indra’s request to create a hero for ending the evil doers on earth. [Pandey 1984: 87] Similarly the records of later Chālukyas of Kalyāṇī assigned their origin to Brahmā, his son Manu, his son Mānavya, his son Harita followed by son Pañchaśikhi Hāriti, and grandson Chālukya. [Sircar 1970: 227-54] This genealogy was perhaps a mythological elaboration of their Hāritiputra and Mānavasyagotra epithets. These versions of the origin and rise of the early Chālukyas were apparently based on Paurāṇic myths and legends to exalt their authority and perhaps carried no real historical substance.

Religiously, the Chālukyas remain synonymous with Paurāṇic resurgence. They revived Vedic sacrificial rituals suggested by the performance of srauta yajñas such as Vājapeya, Agniṣṭoma, Agnichayana, Paudrika, Aśvamedha, Hirayagarbha, Bahusuvara, etc., as recorded in their epigraphs. For instance, according to the Vallabheśvara inscription [EI XXVII: 8] Pulakeshin I, bearer of the titles of śrī-pṛthvī-vallabha, śrī-vallabha, vallabha, and hirayagarbha – prasūta, performed the Aśvamedha:

Aśvamedh-ādi yajñānām yajvā śrauta- vidhānatah


The Mahākūṭa pillar inscription [IA XIX: 17] of his son Mangalesha also portrayed him as the performer of several sacrifices including the Hirayagarbha and Aśvamedha yajña. Simultaneously they gave prominence to Śaiva Āgamas and Purāṇas; and assigned shrines, rivers and holy places with fresh religious significance. [Goswami 1959: 24] From the outset, the Chālukya kings offered worship to both Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva deities. The Varāha-lāñchhana indicated their Vaiṣṇavite affiliation while Śaivite leanings were apparent from the worship of Kārtikeya and Saptamātṛkās. The Bādāmī cave III inscription describes them claiming protection by the former and nourishment by the latter [IA VI: 363].

Religious endowments also reveal the Vaiṣṇavite leanings of Chālukyan monarchs. For example, under Kirtivarman I, Mangalesha got scooped the Vaiṣṇavite cave III at Bādāmī [IA VI: 363] and gifted the village Lāñjigēśvara for Viṣṇu worship. [Annigeri 1978: 234] He was a mahābhāgavata. Thus, the Vaiṣṇava religion received great impetus under the early Chālukya rulers. The later rulers also accepted Śaivism. Vikramaditya I, the restorer of Chālukyan empire, called himself parama - maheśvara [JBBRAS XVI: 1] while Vijayaditya erected the Sangameśvara temple at Paṭṭadakal. Considerably a large number of temples, nearing a hundred, both structural and rock-cut, dedicated to Śiva, were created at Aihole, Bādāmī, Paṭṭadakal, and Mahākūṭa. The Lākuliśa or Pāśupata sect remained popular. The existence of Kāpālikas has also been suggested on the basis of two goblin sculptures carved at Makuṭeśvara temple compound [Annigeri 1978: 236].The cult of Śakti-worship also flourished. Several sculptures of Mahiṣamardinī adorning the walls of Chālukyan shrines attest to the wide prevalence of śākta worship. These may be seen in the Rāvaṇaphadi and Durgādagudī caves (Aihole), Bādāmī cave I, and Tārābasappā temples. The Gaudargudī (Aihole) dedicated to Bhagvatī or Lakshmī further indicated the popularity of Śakti worship. The worship of Gaṇapati was also in vogue. Gaṇeśa images found in Bādāmī cave I, in the Tārābasappā and Huchchimallī temples, Aihole conveys this inference. The Bādāmī Gaṇeśa with Durgā and Kārtikeya has been suggested by Aschwin de Lippe to be the first appearance of the deity in South India. [1978: 138] Architectural evidences, such as the Aihole Badigergudī and Sūryanārāyaṇa Saūra temples indicated the worship of Sūrya too. The trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśa were probably equally revered. The usual practice seems to have them carved in the maṇḍapa ceiling with the main deity shown in the centre. This leaves no doubt that the five main Brāhmanical cults of Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Śāktā, Saura and Gaṇapatya flourished in the Chālukyan period.

Thus, the religious life under the Chālukya kings was marked by the revival of Hinduism; the erection of and endowments to numerous edifices; and the adoption of Brāhmanical motifs of iconography. As such the Varāha, in keeping with its intense political and religious symbolism as discussed above, was an obvious choice for their dynastic insignia. As already mentioned the sinking of the earth symbolized her sufferings while the Varāha conveyed her saviour. While exalting their authority the Chālukyas did stake claims to being redeemers of the earth from evil doers, by comparing feats with the divine powers. For instance, the Lohāner plates of Pulakeshin II [śaka 552] began with one verse in praise of the Varāha incarnation of Viṣṇu and another in appreciation of the arm of king Satyasraya. [EI XXVII: 39-41]


Manifestations of Varāha Motif in Bādāmī Caves

With their rise to political eminence in the sixth century AD, the Chālukya rulers began to patronize artistic tendencies on a grand scale. The sites of Aihole, Bādāmī and Paṭṭadakal in particular emerged as the hub of their art experiments and enterprises [Cousens 1926]. Coupled with the creation of grandiose structural edifices was the unprecedented carving out of rock-cut caves at Aihole and Bādāmī. Those at the latter center are more noteworthy by dint of better conception, proportions and style of execution than at the former site.

Located in southeast Bijapur, in Karnataka, Bādāmī served as an early capital of the Chālukyas. The site has four caves in all, hewn out of sandstone rock. Among them caves II and III comprises of Varāha sculptures. Cave III is the most ornate, impressive and largest of all early Chālukya excavations. It bears an inscription [IA VI: 363] of king Mangalesha testifying to its being a royal dedication made in the year 578 AD. The large sculpted relief of Varāha rescuing the Earth is carved next to this inscription. This placement was perhaps no coincidence and it seems that the Varāha besides being their dynastic symbol, also symbolized, emphasized and glorified the Chālukyas’ role as protectors of the earth.

Politically the various rulers of this dynasty faced the dual challenge of saving and consolidating the empire against external aggressions and subjugation of the alienated subordinates. They indulged in regular, incessant warfare with their adversaries including the ‘prakrityamitra’ Pallavas as described by the Vakkaleri Plates [Goyal 1987: 259-62] of Kirtivarman II [śaka 679]; faced bouts of civil war; occasional eclipses of sovereignty and encroachments on their territorial integrity when their power remained in abeyance. Each time they could rise above the occasion and restore the fortunes of the dynasty just as the mythical Varāha who had saved the earth.

Cave II Representation (Fig.1)

Of the canonical bhūvarāha and yajñavarāha forms, the Chālukyan art reveals carving of the former one. The portrayal in Bādāmī cave II mukhamaṇḍapa wall stands on the east, within definite architectural frame and over dado gaa panel. [Tarr 1970: 164] The composition is more diagonal. Its controlled relief exhibits the two-dimensional outlines predominating over the projection of the forms. The profile figure in pratyālīḍha pose has his left leg raised on to a lotus that rests on the coiling Nāgarāja representing the waters below. Bhūdevī stands on another lotus held in the Varāha’s natural left hand and lean against his tusk. Both Varāha and Bhūdevī wear crown, Bhūdevī even has a halo. The celestial beings above have changed their position in a way perhaps influenced by the concept of the āyudha purūṣas; they are smaller and less significant. [Lippe AA: 281] His natural right hand rests on his back. His second right hand holds the chakra and second left hand hold the śaṅkha while passing behind to support Bhūdevī’s body. Each constituent element in the relief is shown clearly either in profile or with full front.


Cave III Representation (Fig.2)

The cave III Varāha is still stepping on the Śeṣa coils placed with a dwarf between his legs. The king and queen of the ocean balance the group at the right and left. Two divine couples are floating immediately above the boar’s head. His back hands hold his emblems; the front right hand rests on the hip while the front left holds a lotus pedestal for Bhūdevī. He wears elaborate jewelry, crown and braided hair while Bhūdevī adorns neither crown nor halo. The stance is still erect and the Varāha’s torso is more cylindrical and less modelled than the one at Udaigiri.

The panel exhibits complex use of space. Its frame is the architecture of the cave, except for the dado gaa panel. It is not as consistently silhouetted as in cave II. It has rather been conceived in terms of a swelling mass that undulates particularly across the bottom of the panel where Hiraṇyāksha is caught in the flowing wash of nāgas and garlands. The pose is almost identical to that in cave II. The only noticeable variation lies in the treatment of the left arms. The natural left arm visibly curves behind Bhūdevī to hold the śaṅkha more explicitly than in cave II panel. The second left arm is physically not shown. It is rather indicated by the hand appearing out of the neutral space of the panel to support Bhūdevī’s padmapīṭha. The foreshortening and the plastic use of space implied here are both typical of the great sophistication found in cave III style. [Tarr 1970: 175]


A Comparative Analysis between Bādāmī and Udaigirī Images

The two caves’ panels reveal the technical expertise gradually acquired by the Chālukyan sculptors. In stance and robustness they almost follow the Gupta specimens from Udaigirī and Eraṇ [Smith 1911: pl. 58 c; Singh 1982: pl.37; Harle 1974]. The Gupta dvibhujī naravarāha in ālīḍhamudrā generally have the left leg placed on Śeṣanāga while the right leg is held tense and erect. Likewise Bhūdevī is usually represented clinging to his tusk. The Udaigirī two armed Varāha steps his left foot on the Śeṣa coils. His right hand rests on his hip while the left is placed on the knee. He has just lifted the earth’s wilted body with his right tusk, half resting on his shoulder, her feet supported by a rising lotus. His broad-shouldered, powerful torso is more modelled than at Bādāmī. As stated by Sivaramamurti, ‘Victorious is the god in the form of Varāha, the pillar of the mansion of the three worlds, who when he raised up the earth shook the mountains by the knocks from his tough snout’[1957: 49].

The Chālukya Varāha sculptures, however, initiated certain stylistic novelties as exhibited by the Bādāmī figures. For instance, the figure wears a thick ratna yajñopavīta, jeweled crown, holds śaṅkha and chakra in the additional upper hands while the lower right is in kaṭyāvalambita and the left holds a padmapīṭha for Bhūdevī. Besides, Bhūdevī has been provided a support under her feet by the Varāha’s lower left hand as prescribed by the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa. The śaṅkha placement in his upper left hand behind her further stabilizes her position. She stands gracefully while leaning towards the Varāha’s snout or shoulder. The composition in cave II is more diagonal. Herein both Varāha and Bhūdevī are shown wearing makuṭa unlike in cave III. Moreover, Bhūdevī also has a prabhāvalī. The Varāha steps on a padmāsana instead of Śeṣanāga hoods as in cave III. His vanamālā is also missing in cave II. Stylistically the cave III panel is linked with the adjoining śeṣāsana Viṣṇu by the nāginī who appears in both the panels simultaneously, offering instance of figures transcending their architectural frames.

The Varāha in cave II is significantly drawn back to a side with his right foot placed in the right corner providing him wide range for the stride. His head is bent downwards unlike in cave III. Bhūdevī is shown reclining passively, corresponding to Viṣṇu Purāṇa details wherein Bhūdevī offers surrender to Varāha, [Wilson 1961: I. IV] rather than standing with erect head suggestive of triumph. This relief is suggestive of projecting Varāha still in the midst of the rescue operation.


The cave III Varāha is more akin to a sthānamūrti, [Boner 1962: 119] i.e. a freestanding deity image with attendant devatās. Composition wise in cave III the action is fully centered on the Varāha and is not contrasted by any other counter movement. All the surrounding figures are not only smaller in proportion to him but rather also display passive attitudes. Bhūdevī herself, standing erect and vertical, appears exactly in line with the upward surge of the Varāha. Reaching only up to his snout she neither seems to weigh down his head by resting arm upon it nor disturb his rising movement by any bend of her body. This depiction offers contrast to the similar motif in Chālukyan cave XIV at Ellorā. Therein it is represented more dramatically with all the figures simultaneously plunging into action.

Thus, execution of the motif at Bādāmī offers variance. The cave III figure suggests tranquility, triumph and tenderness whereas cave II panel is full of physical action, dramatic content and dynamism.


Varāha Image in Aihole Rāvaṇaphadi Cave (Fig.3)

Varāha motif, in a simpler form, is also carved in the Aihole Rāvaṇaphadi cave. It is framed within a rectangular panel in the antarāla wall, nearly a foot above the floor. It is an essay in silhouetted forms and simplified volumes. Quite unconventionally it stands on the floor of its frame while the nāga couple has been pushed into the lower corner. The Varāha’s body is more slender, flat torso while the chest muscles are not modelled but just underlined. His foot does not rest on the padmāsana or Śeṣanāga. The left heel is raised from the ground in a dance pose like stance. The śaṅkha floats in the air without any visible support while the chakra is effectively balanced on his fingertips.

However, the problem of showing the left hands that must simultaneously support Bhūdevī and hold the śaṅkha also persisted here as in Bādāmī. His one arm extends parallel to the panel to support her feet as in Bādāmī cave II. But the natural arm is bent back at the elbow to accommodate the perching Bhūdevī with less effect than Bādāmī. The support less śaṅkha still floated in the upper corner.


Varāha Images in other Rock-Cut and Structural Edifices

The motif is carved on a pillar of the Konti Gudi temple at Aihole. Varāha figures are also carved in the Bādāmī Upper Śivālaya; Durgā temple; Paṭṭadakal Virūpāksha and Sangameśvara shrines; the Vaiṣṇava sub-shrine at Mahākūṭa; Ellorā cave XIV, etc. Further stylistic development of the motif may be visualized in the structural Durgā temple at Aihole [Rambach, Golish 1955: pl.9]. Its composition with a strong diagonal thrust bears resemblance to Bādāmī cave II. The chakra is held in the Varāha’s two extended fingers as if in prayoga mudrā while Bhūdevī is comfortably perched on the upper part of his left arm folded at the elbow. A smoothness and playfulness differentiate it markedly from the heavy and majestic aspect of the figures in Bādāmī and Aihole caves. Quite interestingly the Makuteśvara Airikeśvara temple Varāha’s sniffing Bhūdevī with the snout reveals a subtle intimacy. She sits on Varāha’s upper left arm as in Aihole cave and Durgā temple. His lower left hand holds the śaṅkha. This sculpture particularly reveals how Chālukya artists finally solved the problem of showing left hands, supporting Bhūdevī and śaṅkha, nearly two hundred years later. The Ellorā cave XIV stepping Varāha is similar to Bādāmī cave III; however, the Bhūdevī figure therein, gracefully leaning on his snout, is akin to cave II.

In addition to full-fledged Varāha representations, scenes of boar hunt [Iyer 1977: 81] illustrating Kirātārjunīya myth, i.e. the legend of Arjuna’s fight with kirāṭa Śiva in the Himālayas over the killing of a boar as described in the Bhāgvata Gītā, [Mahābhārata 4:34:31-32] are noteworthy in the Virūpāksha temple at Paṭṭadakal confirming popularity of the boar forms in art. This variety lends a distinct character to the Chālukyan art. In a way, it marks iconographic transition similar to their experimental architectural styles as seen at the tripartite sites of Aihole, Bādāmī and Paṭṭadakal.



Thus, it is apparent that art is a powerful medium for transmission of ideas. Seen in this context icons are concrete expressions of the ideas, institutions, and beliefs of contemporary pantheon. When studied comprehensively icons and motifs may reveal the social structure, its material matrix and political realities. This fact enables us to conclude that the mythical Varāha has enriched Indian literature and sculptural art as a popular motif. It may further be inferred that at given point of time in specific social formation, iconic forms of deities, such as that of the Varāha, had played important role in the divinization of kingship. It had created an influential visual imagery of the triumphant sovereign annihilating the foes in the likelihood of the divine Varāha, and thereby validating his temporal position.

Besides heralding the political sovereignty, benevolent monarchy and religious fervour of the dynasty, the motif also attested to the flowering of artistic talents under Chālukyan rule. Its canonical yet innovative carving in the two caves besides at other prominent art hubs leaves no doubt that while the Chālukyan artists were well versed in Vedic and Śilpa Śāstrīya injunctions, they were simultaneously also catering to their own creative genius. This is most apparent in the treatment of the additional hands; placement of the āyudhas, especially śaṅkha and chakra; postures and positioning of Bhūdevī; conveying the contrary expressions of tranquility, triumph, dynamism, anxiety, passivity and uncertainty; and above all, in optimal use of the available space within the cave interiors to depict the momentum of the action packed event. Quite effectively they intertwined religious tenets with the political fervor through the medium of art and the Varāha motif is the most significant testimony of this blending.



I am indebted for the valuable comments and insights provided by my esteemed guide and eminent art historian Dr. S.K. Gupta, former Head, Department of History & Indian Culture, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, for giving final shape to this article. The Varāha illustrations are courtesy the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), Gurgaon (Haryana), India.




AA: Artibus Asiae

EI: Epigraphia Indica

IA: Indian Antiquary

JBBRAS: Journal of the Bihar and Bengal Royal Asiatic Society

SII: South Indian Inscriptions

ASI: Archaeological Survey of India




Fig. 1. Badami Cave II Varāha

Fig. 2. Badami Cave III Varāha

Fig.3. Aihole Ravanaphadi Cave Varāha



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Fig. 1

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Fig. 2

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Fig. 3

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