Vishnu as Vamana (dwarf-avatar)

Historical period(s)
early 18th century
South Indian School
Opaque watercolor, gold foil, and paper applique on cotton
H x W: 21.7 x 13 cm (8 9/16 x 5 1/8 in)
India, Tamil Nadu, Possibly Tirupati
Credit Line
Purchase — Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hindu painting

chakra, dwarf, Hinduism, incarnation, India, lotus, naga, umbrella, Vamana, Vishnu, WWII-era provenance
Provenance information is currently unavailable
Previous Owner(s)

Terence McInerney Fine Arts Ltd.
C. L. Nowlakha
Ramanand Chattopadhyaya
Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd. 1842-mid 1970s


South Indian painting is a relatively new field of study as also of disovery. While the murals in temples and palaces have been known for a long time, paintings on paper or cloth have only recently begun to emerge. This double-sided painting on cloth, that depicts the vamana or dwarf avatar of Vishnu on one side, and Vishnu reclinging on his serpent on the cosmic ocean on the reverse, is a rare piece. It belongs to a series that seems to have formed an accordion-like temple hanging dedicated to the ten (or more) incarnations fo the god Vishnu; two other paintings of the set featured the Narasimha or man-lion avatar, and the Jagannatha trio of Krishna with Balarma and Subhadra.

The term "Tamil Nayaka" is a useful one to describe this painting, as well as those produced during the 17th and 18th centuries to decorate walls and ceilings of Tamil Nadu temples like Chidambaram or Tiruvarur, and palaces like Ramnathapuram. Faces are generally shown in profile with a long nose and staring eyes picked out in white. Limbs are curved and fully rounded, "inflated" with the breath of prana. In the Ramanathapuram murals, it was a common practice to have lotuses hanging from the ceilings, as seen in this painting; however, they are not depicted as rounded and full as here. This painting, while belonging to the Tamil Nayaka tradition, seems to have been produced in its northernmost areas, and quite possibly from the Telegu region. It must be remembered in this context that the Nayak rulers used the Telegu language and script for the labels attached to their paintings as often as they used Tamil.

Published References
  • Thomas Lawton Thomas W. Lentz. Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. vol. 1 Washington, 1998. p. 196, fig. 1.
Collection Area(s)
South Asian and Himalayan Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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