fig. 1 <br/>
<em>The course of the Sun God</em> <br/>
Indian, 19th century<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
18.10 x 43.66 cm<br/>
Presented by Maj. G. B. Walker 1957<br/>

Bhagavata Purana illustrations from a 19th century Deccani school


In 1957 eleven Indian miniatures were generously presented by Major G. B. Walker as Rajput paintings. 

The paintings are horizontal in format and are decorated with a narrow border of flora in gold and brown. Although at first glance they appear to be the same size, five of them are about 5 cm longer and 1 cm wider than the others. Due to rough handling in the past, almost all of them have suffered loss of paint which causes them to appear unattractive.

But under close examination, the exquisite and delicate beauty of the delineation of figures, trees and architecture become more evident. The style of painting appears to be eclectic in nature, and combines the various styles of painting that existed in India from the 16th to 19th centuries. Deccani style, which is an amalgamation of Persian, Rajasthani and South Indian styles, appears in the treatment of rocks, foliage and the background of the miniatures. However, in the headgears of the Deities and the kings, and the sarees of the ladies, the influence of South Indian Tanjore style is very evident. In the treatment of the drapery folds and architecture, the influence of the Mughal style is discernible. Based on these facts we may conclude that the probable provenance of these miniatures is Shorapur, a small Samasthan of Hyderabad. Very little investigation has been conducted into the Shorapur school of painting although there is a valuable contribution by Jagdish Mittal.1Jagdish Mittal, ‘Deccani Paintings at Samasthans of Wanaparthy, Gadwal and Shorapur’, Marg, vol. XV, no. 2 (March 1963), 43–62. Shorapur style is a small segment in the Deccani school of miniature painting which flourished from the middle of the 16th century onwards in the Deccan plateau. Originally a Sultanate style, which is a mixture of Persian and the indigenous style, prevailed under the Sultans. When the Vijayanar Kingdom, a stronghold of Southern India, was captured by the Sultans of Deccan plateau, a strong south-lndian element permeated the existing style of painting. The Mughal rulers from Delhi invaded Deccan at various times finally defeating the Sultans and In 1681 Aurangzeb established his capital at Aurangabad. This event brought the Mughal school of painting in closer contact with the Deccani school and Hyderabad became the centre of culture. A fairly important style of painting emerged in Hyderabad and the subsidiary Samasthans, such as Shorapur and Wanaparthy. Shorapur, where the miniatures in question probably came from, was ruled by a family which came originally from Mysore state. The Tanjore style was prevalent in the Mysore state, hence the apparent South Indian flavour in the Shorapur miniatures which have the illustrations to Puranas and depiction of royal personages as their themes. 

It is clear that the miniatures from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria illustrate scenes from the Bhagavata Purana written around 10th century. Purana, which literally means ‘old’, represent oral tradition in the written form, and contain numerous Hindu myths, religious instructions and hymns in praise of the Almighty God. There are eighteen major puranas and upapuranas or minor puranas. Most of the major puranas carry the same mythology in different versions varying according to their sect, namely Vaishnava Puranas or Saiva Puranas. The Bhagavata Purana, a Vaishnava Purana, relates the glories of the benevolent Vishnu, who is one of the Hindu Trinity, and his divine sports played to protect his creatures. As in the case of others, Bhagavata Purana is also treated in the form of a dialogue, hence it is interesting to note that in several of these miniatures, the narrator and the listener are both included in the composition. These illustrations are not complete by any means nor excellent in quality but are quite interesting iconographically. This article, therefore, gives more importance to the iconography rather than to the artistic merit. It appears that the painter intended the miniature to be an illustration and not viewed as an independent painting. 

When examined closely, it appears that the paintings have been executed by two different individuals who will be referred to as hand A and hand B. Hand A appears to prefer dividing the surface into compartments by using buildings and trees. Within these compartments the figures are neatly and sometimes decoratively arranged. Figures are smaller and stiffer and the concentration is on the sumptuous decorations and detailed delineation. Leaves, poppy flowers and elaborate designs on pillars are very carefully and delicately painted with small brush strokes. The background is invariably filled with a flat wash of a grass-green colour with no demarcation of horizon.

By comparison, hand B shows more imagination in the composition, in the placement of figures and architecture, and in the introduction of blue sky, giving a sense of atmosphere. Where hand A would employ a conventional flower-bed in the foreground, hand B introduces a stream with water birds or a fountain. The figures are larger and livelier and there is a closer adherence to the text. Trees are drawn more naturally and a greater variety of birds is depicted. Both the artists employ chalky white for architecture and hot colours such as vermillion, yellow and pink for the attires of personages. 

Since the space is limited in this article only five miniatures have been selected for illustration. Miniatures depicting scenes from Rama avatar, Vamana avatar, the abode of Vishnu, and an episode from the life of Dhruva have been omitted. Two other miniatures repeat the themes The Course of the Sun and The Sacrifice of Dakha and are also omitted. 

The miniature in figure 1, painted by hand B illustrates the course of the Sun as described in the Bhagavata purana.2Krishna – Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Srimad-Bhagabatam, trans. by J. M. Sanyal (5 vols; Calcutta, Oriental Publishing Co., 1954) II, Bk. V, 83–90. There are two golden chariots on either side of a mountain which is surrounded by four cities. The mountain in the centre is the Someru mountain which has four extensive cities: Indra, Yama, Varuna and the moon on its sides. On the left of the mountain is the Divine Sun, the Lord of light extending his rays to all the worlds, and he is recognised by the Chariot with the one wheel, (the year) of twelve spokes and drawn by seven steeds. Aruna, the charioteer, as described in the text, has his countenance towards the back. The figure on the chariot on the right is most probably the Moon. 

fig. 2 <br/>
<em>Creation of the universe and the Varaha avatar (Boar incarnation)</em> <br/>
Indian, 19th century<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
17.14 x 42.54 cm<br/>
Presented by Maj. G. B. Walker 1957<br/>


The illustration shown here as figure 2 is executed by hand B and depicts the creation of the world3ibid., I, Bk. II, 34–7, 52–3. and the Varana avatar or Boar incarnation of Vishnu.4ibid., I, Bk. II, 57–63. On the left are two groups of four persons who are conversing. Obviously, the first group represents Sukadeva (the Son of Vyasa composer of the Bhagavata Purana), who is relating to the King Parikshit the discussion between the Sage Maitreya and Vidura, represented by the second group, regarding the creation and saving of the earth by Vishnu. In the centre, Vishnu is seen resting on the calm waters and a lotus flower comes out from his navel. The lotus flower bears Brahma, the four faced God, the creator of the Universe, from whose forehead emerges a form carrying the emblems of Shiva, thus completing the form of the Hindu Trinity. On the extreme right is the depiction of the third incarnation of Vishnu as a boar who dived into the ocean and brought forth the earth which had lain submerged in the bottom of the abyss. On the left is the small boar that issued from the nostril of the Supreme Being and in an instant grew as large as an elephant. The figure in the centre is Vishnu himself in the form of a boar attacking the demon who obstructed his way when he plunged into the waters. 

fig. 3 <br/>
<em>Liberation of the elephant Gajendra and the churning of the sea of milk</em><br/>
Indian, 19th century<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
17.14 x 43.02 cm<br/>
Presented by Maj. G. B. Walker 1957<br/>

The illustration (fig. 3) painted by hand A, shows the Kurma avatar or the tortoise incarnation of Vishnu5ibid., III, Bk. VIII, 20–38, 47–51. and also the rescue of the elephant Gajendra by Vishnu.6ibid., III, Bk. VIII, 5–17. On the left, the wicked crocodile is shown, seizing the foot of Gajendra, king of the elephants who was sporting with his retinue in the pool of the golden lotuses. Vishnu along with his consort Lakshmi is seen on the top corner rushing down on his Garuda (half man and half eagle) to rescue Gajendra in answer to his prayers. This rescue and the death of the crocodile are illustrated by the presence of the Chakra, the circular weapon of Vishnu near the throat of the crocodile and also by the posture of the elephant who is kneeling in front of the Divine Beings paying his obeisance. On the right is the depiction of the churning of the sea of milk by the Gods and demons to obtain the Ambrosia that would revitalise them. During this event Vishnu, the benevolent God, was incarnated as Kurma or the tortoise, in order to support the Mandara mountain which was used as the churning rod. In the middle foreground of the miniature the Mandara mountain in the centre of the ocean is seen resting on the tortoise. On either side are the Gods and the demons holding the tail and the head of the snake Vasuki respectively, using her as the churning cord. In the background are represented the objects that came out of the churned sea of milk, namely, the cow (Kamadhenu), the horse (Uchchaihsravas), the elephant (Airavata), the tree (Parijata), divine maidens (Apsaras), Goddess Varuni, Goddess Sree and Dhanvantari holding the vase full of Ambrosia. On the extreme left, Shiva can be identified by his emblems the trident and the kettle drum. He is seen following Mohini, who is in fact Vishnu himself in the assumed form of an enchantress to allure the demons away from the Ambrosia that came from the sea of milk.

fig. 4 <br/>
<em>The childhood of Krishna and the destruction of Hansa</em><br/>
Indian, 19th century<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
16.82 x 39.05 cm<br/>
Presented by Maj. G. B. Walker 1957<br/>


The illustration in figure 4 by the hand A shows the childhood of Krishna who was Vishnu incarnated to destroy the tyrant Kansa.7ibid., IV, Bk. X, 33–8, 173–86. On the left Krishna is seen as a child, a boy and a cow herd amidst the cow herd clan. On the right is the illustration of the episode when Krishna and his brother Balarama wrestled and overthrew their enemies who were set against them by King Hansa. Krishna is seen killing the elephant Kubalayapeera, sent by Hansa and once again he is shown leaping on to the balcony where Hansa is seated, seizing him by his hair in order to fling him down to his death. 

fig. 5 <br/>
<em>The enmity between Daksha and Shiva</em><br/>
Indian, 19th century<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
16.82 x 39.05 cm<br/>
Presented by Maj. G. B. Walker 1957<br/>


Illustration by hand A (fig. 5) shows the enmity between Prajapati Daksha and his son-in-law Shiva.8ibid, II, Bk. IV, 8–38. On the left of the miniature, in the central section of the palace, Daksha is seen performing sacrifice. On the left section of the palace are his invited guests Vishnu, four-faced Brahma, Indra and other Gods seated. On the right side is Sati, the daughter of Daksha and wife of Shiva, who is angered by the fact that her father insulted her husband by not having invited Shiva to the sacrifice and is in the act of renouncing her body. On the left Narada, the heavenly messenger, is represented as imparting the news of the death of Sati to Shiva at Shiva’s golden abode on Mount Kailasa. Shiva can be recognised by the emblems he is carrying and also the presence of Nandi (bull), his vehicle being on the roof of the palace. 

When Shiva was angered by the news of the death of his wife there sprang from his locks a person of a terrific form with the complexion of cloud, carrying numerous weapons in his several arms. He was named Virabhadra and in the centre of the miniature he is striding towards Daksha’s palace to annihilate him at the command of Shiva. 

On the extreme right Daksha, who was restored to life by the intervention of Brahma, is depicted in deep meditation with his thoughts on Vishnu. Vishnu in answer to his prayers is appearing to him in person, in all his glory carrying his emblems, the conch and the wheel (chakra). 

The task of identification of the subject matter throughout has been made easier by the fact that the painters adhered closely to the iconography and the text. Vishnu and all his incarnations can be identified by the blue complexion and the emblems wheel (chakra) and the conch (Sankh). Shiva is recognised by his trident and kettledrum, Brahma by his four faces and Balarama by his fair skin. 

A stylistic evaluation and discussion of other miniatures is in the course of preparation and will be published at a later date. 

Emma Devapriam, Curator of European Art before 1800, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1977). 


1              Jagdish Mittal, ‘Deccani Paintings at Samasthans of Wanaparthy, Gadwal and Shorapur’, Marg, vol. XV, no. 2 (March 1963), 43–62. 

2              Krishna – Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Srimad-Bhagabatam, trans. by J. M. Sanyal (5 vols; Calcutta, Oriental Publishing Co., 1954) II, Bk. V, 83–90. 

3              ibid., I, Bk. II, 34–7, 52–3. 

4              ibid., I, Bk. II, 57–63. 

5              ibid., III, Bk. VIII, 20–38, 47–51. 

6              ibid., III, Bk. VIII, 5–17. 

7              ibid., IV, Bk. X, 33–8, 173–86. 

8              ibid, II, Bk. IV, 8–38.