boss, ceiling, temple-reliefOn display
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This splendid circular composition of eight male figures, their legs interlocked and radiating out like the spokes of a wheel, is in the finest early post-Gupta (c.AD. 550-950) style, with a rhythm and a liveliness which is characteristic at this time of the carving of ceiling slabs and figures on door lintels rather than of full length images of the gods. Note the quality of the carving and precision, to within millimetres, of the placing of the interlocking legs and feet
Carved ceiling slabs are a feature of temples in the Deccan and northern India after the Gupta period. At this time they bear relatively simple compositions of gods and demi-gods; in later times they become almost incredibly intricate, with scores of figures in increasingly abstract patterns, but the sculptural qualities much diminished. The circular shape and relatively small size of this slab suggest it once belonged to the porch of a small temple; alternately it may have adorned one portion of a coffered ceiling in the hall of a larger shrine.
Each figure holds a sword, and there are indications, of clouds (or flames?) in very low relief on the ground. These are not sufficient clues to enable the right figures to be indentified. Being eight in number suggests the aṣṭadikpālas or guardians of the eight directional quarters, but by this time these have individual identities. The aṣṭamūrtis related to the different elements (fire, air, water, etc.) seem more likely candidates in view of the relief carving on the ground.
One authority, however, has suggested that these figures, in what is essentially the "flying" poser, might be vidyādharas, magicians and semi-divine creatures of the air. They do not, as a rule carry anything but wreaths or garlands. The name means literally “bearers of magical powers”. Viṣṇu’s sword is named Vidyā on occasion and the ceiling slab could, in a Viṣṇu temple, be a meaningful and appropriate semi-verbal, semi-visual pun. Another possibility is that eight Vasus, creatures of the elements, are represented here.
An engraving of a roughly similar slab was published by Burgess and Cousens as being one of two in a small ruined temple at Vadnagar. It shows sixteen men holding swords similarly grouped, although the legs, partly due to the increased number, are more awkwardly arranged. The number sixteen does not immediately suggest a group of deities. From its style the slab appears to be of a later date.
In: Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987)
Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 32 on pp. 24-25, pp. xiv, 12, & 40, pl. 5 (colour) & p. 24
Piper, David, and Christopher White, Treasures of the Ashmolean Museum: An Illustrated Souvenir of the Collections, revised edn (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1995), no. 119 on p. 114, illus. p. 114 fig. 119