Pilgrimage on a Necklace: Pendants with Puranic Imagery

National Museum - New Delhi

Vaijayantimala, Necklace Of Vishnu
This necklace, from the National Museum's collection, is composed of nine square pendants, each inset with a finely painted plaque encased within a gold frame. The frames have borders with triangular projections that are folded over to hold the plaque in place. Bunches of gold beads suspended from flat gold discs decorate three sides of the frame. Along the upper edge each pendant is fitted with five flower-shaped loops. The pendants are strung together on a new red and gold cord to form a necklace.  

With each pendant illustrating a story from the Bhagavata Purāna – one of the most important ancient Indian philosophical texts dedicated to Vishnu and Krishna, this necklace acts as a portable manuscript. Followers of Vaishnavism belong to one of four philosophical schools passed through successive disciples known as sampradāyas. These schools are Sri Sampradāya, Brahmā Sampradāya, Rudra Sampradāya and Kumāra, Nimbārka or Sanakādi Sampradāya.

The necklace was specially made for a member of the Sanakādi Sampradāya sect evident from the first pendant on the left of the necklace, which bears the word “Sanadik” painted on top.
According to the Puranas, Vishnu descended to the earth several times, each time assuming different incarnations (avatars) to destroy evil and restore cosmic order. While there are ten great incarnations of Vishnu, the Bhagavata Purana chronicles more than twenty avatars.

Each pendant in the necklace functions like a manuscript page and illustrates a story or incident from the Bhagavata Purana related to the origin and spread of the Sanakādi Sampradāya and the different forms that Vishnu assumed to save the cosmos and mankind from annihilation. Although there are only nine pendants in the present necklace, it is most likely that these are part of an original necklace comprising many more pendants.

The paintings are beautifully executed and the scenes portrayed in minute detail. The figures are set against a leaf green background; rivers and lakes are painted in blue and clothes, weapons, jewellery and other details are rendered beautifully. An entire narrative is compressed into a single miniature square plaque and outlined with a black, gold and red border.

Necklaces such as this one were specially commissioned. They proclaimed the wearers' sect and devotion to their chosen god. They also served as portable shrines and were worn on pilgrimage. They functioned as beautiful visual aids to narrate stories of the gods and goddesses and as a constant reiteration of the believer’s conviction that devotion to Vishnu and Krishna would lead to liberation (moksha) from the cycle of births and deaths.

The first pendant features the painting of the Four Kumaras – the boy sages who were the first creations of Brahma the Creator, born of his mind and his supreme knowledge. The Bhagavata Purana considers them to be the first of the many incarnations of Vishnu.
They are shown standing against a green ground and the word 'Sanādik' painted on top.

The four perfect boys, Sanaka, Sanat Kumara, Sanandana and Sanatana, remained eternally five years old, unmarried (kumaras) and took lifelong vows of celibacy. They were devotees of Lord Vishnu and travelled the world teaching the Vedas and the glories of Vishnu and his many avatars.

The second pendant features Lord Brahma and his vehicle the swan (hansa) standing on a seat in front of him on top and the four Kumaras seated before the sage Narada holding a musical instrument (vina) at the bottom. The word Hansa is painted on top.

According to the Bhagavata Purana, Kumaras posed a question to their father. Unable to answer the question, Brahma called upon Vishnu, who assumed the form of a swan - traditionally known for its ability to separate milk from water.

Vishnu is believed to have revealed the Bhagavata Purana, celebrating Krishna as the supreme Godhead, to Brahma who then taught it to the Kumaras. They passed it on to sage Narada, who then transmitted it to sage Vyasa, who wrote it down. The plaque illustrates this transmission of knowledge.

On the third pendent is the image of crowned Buddha. In Vaishnava tradition Buddha is considered the ninth incarnation (avatars) of Vishnu. In a world filled with disorder, confusion and war, Vishnu incarnated himself as Buddha, to bring order and to teach mankind knowledge, peace and non-violence

He is shown seated on a mat, leaning against a cushion with a halo around his head. He is attired in yellow, his left hand on his lap and the right palm held at the chin imparting divine wisdom. The word 'Buddha' is painted on the top.

Buddha, was born as Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of Kapilavastu. His childhood and youth were spent in luxury. However, four sights that he encountered – sickness, old age, death and a monk who had renounced all worldly pleasures – made a deep impact on him. At the age of 29, he left his palace to seek answers to all the suffering in the world. In the course of deep meditations, he gained knowledge and became Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” The rest of his life was spent in spreading the gospel of peace and compassion.

The fourth pendant depicts the scene of a sacrifice, known as yajna or yagna. Two figures are seated in front of a sacrificial fire. The figure on the left has a ladle in his hand and is pouring clarified butter into the fire; the figure on the right is making an offering. Ritual vessels are arrayed on the ground and a decorated canopy is erected behind. The word Yagna is painted on top.

Yajna or Yajneshwara, the Lord of Fire Sacrifice is mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu in the Bhagavata Purana. According to legend, when there was no Indra or king of gods in the heavens, Vishnu in the form of Yajna and ruled the heavens. Sacrifices, worship, prayer and offerings to the sacred fire or yajna were considered essential rituals. Sacrifices are considered to be a link between humans and Vishnu and are performed by priests to please the gods, seek favours and obtain liberation.

The fifth pendant features an elephant swimming in a lake filled with fish and crocodiles. One crocodile with mouth open has grasped the elephant’s leg. Lord Vishnu stands on the bank in front of the elephant and Garuda, Vishnu’s vehicle can be seen bowing in supplication. The word Gajendra is painted on top.

The story from the Bhagavata Purana is that of Gajendra-moksha or liberation of the elephant Gajendra from the clutches of the crocodile (makara) by Vishnu. According to legend, one day Gajendra, along with his herd, went to bathe in the cool waters of a lake. A crocodile suddenly attacked him and caught his leg.

All efforts by Gajendra to free himself proved futile. In desperation he uttered a powerful mantra and called out to Vishnu to save him. Hearing the call of a devotee, Vishnu appeared on the scene and using his powerful weapons, killed the crocodile. In gratitude Gajendra prostrated before Vishnu and was granted salvation (moksha) or release from the cycle of births and deaths.

The sixth pendant features a tortoise in a lake of fish with the waters being churned with a snake by gods on one side and demons on the other. Vishnu, beautifully bejeweled with crown, necklaces and bracelets, and with lotus flowers in his four hands is seated on top of a mountain that rises from the waters on the back of the tortoise. On the green grass behind, horses, angels, pots and other items are spread out. The word Kurma is painted on top.

The kurma avatar is the second of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. A sage cursed Indra, the king of gods, and all the benevolent gods lost their strength. The evil-minded deities or demons (asuras) declared war on the gods (devas). The weakened gods, facing constant defeat, desperately appealed to Vishnu for help.

Vishnu advised them to create a potion of immortality by pouring medicinal herbs into the ocean of milk and to use the majestic mountain Mandara as a churning stick. Since the devas were unable to uproot the mountain on their own, Vishnu advised them to enlist the help of the asuras. The opponents made a pact, uprooted Mandara and wrapping the serpent Vasuki around it, started churning the ocean. While devas held the tail, the asuras were given the head of the serpent whose poisonous breath depleted them of their evil powers.

However, the heavy mountain sank to the bottom of the milk-ocean whereupon Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise, dived deep into the ocean and supported the mountain on his back. The churning brought forth precious items including the Parijata wish-fulfilling tree, the crescent moon that Shiva took to adorn his head, pots of poison, Kamadhenu a cow that fulfills desires, a horse, beautiful damsels, pots of nectar all scattered on the grass behind.

From the within the deep ocean, the goddess Lakshmi also came forth, who Vishnu took as his consort as well as the conch, the bow, the mace and other articles that Vishnu appropriated. Finally, a pot filled with the nectar of immortality came out of the ocean, which the gods appropriated for themselves.

The seventh pendant of the manuscript necklace is painted with two half-horse, half-human figures. The dark-coloured figure with four arms, two holding the conch and the disc attributes of Vishnu and a sword and shield in the other two arms is confronting a light-coloured figure with two arms also holding a sword and two arms. They stand with weapons raised against each other. The word Hayagriva is painted on top.

Hayagriva, from haya meaning horse and griva meaning neck, is an incarnation of Vishnu having the head of a horse. The legend from the Bhagavata Purana narrates that the gods (devas) were confronted with a horse-headed demon gifted with the boon of invincibility from the Goddess Durga and the blessing that he could only be killed by another half-horse half-man, a hayagriva. After many futile battles they turned to Vishnu for help. Vishnu, seated with his bow by his side, was in deep meditation and could not be roused.

The gods sought help from a group of ants to gnaw the string of the bow and wake Vishnu. The string snapped with such force that Vishnu’s head was severed from his body. Aghast at what had happened, the gods turned to goddess Durga for help. Aware of the boon she had bestowed on Hayagriva, Durga advised the devas to obtain a horse’s head and attach it to the body of Vishnu, so that he too became a Hayagriva or half-horse, half-man. Brahma attached the head and Vishnu engaged in battle with the demon and killed him.

The eighth pendant bears the image of a seated multi-armed half-man, half-lion figure dismembering a figure lying across his lap and flanked by figures on either side. The word Narsingh is painted on top.

Narsingh or Narasimha is the fourth great incarnation of Vishnu. The heroic story of Vishnu assuming the ferocious form of half-man, half-lion to save the earth and mankind from destruction is recounted in the Bhagavata Purana. The demon-king Hiranyakashipu vowed to revenge the killing of his brother Hiranyaksa by Vishnu. To attain the necessary powers and strength, he undertook severe penance and prayed to Lord Brahma. Impressed with his penance, Brahma offered to grant him a boon. Hiranyakashipu’s demanded to be granted immortality. Brahma declined his request, saying that all living beings had to die. Brahma however granted him the power to choose his mode of death. Hiranyakashipu demanded that he be granted the boon that no man, beast, devil or god should have the power to kill him, that no weapons would overpower him, that his death would not occur during day or at night, and that he could not be killed indoors or outdoors, on earth or in the heavens. With his wish granted, the demon became practically invincible and proceeded to tyrannize the gods. When the gods appealed to Vishnu for help, they were reassured and asked to be patient.

Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlad was different from his father. He was kind, humane and an ardent devotee of Vishnu. His devotion and his belief in the omnipresence of Vishnu made Hiranyakashipu furious and he ordered that Prahlad be killed. However every effort by the guards to kill Prahlad was defeated. He was attacked with weapons, bitten by poisonous snakes and even trampled by mad elephants. Hiranyakashipu called upon his sister Holika, who had been granted boon that fire would not harm her, to sit in a bonfire with Prahlad on her lap – so that he would die and she would remain unharmed. However, while the fire of her sins consumed Holika, Prahlad’s complete devotion to Vishnu saved him.

Repeatedly he proclaimed his devotion to Vishnu, as the Supreme Being. Hiranyakashipu pointed to a pillar on the threshold of the palace and demanded if Vishnu was also in a stone pillar. Prahlad again responded that Vishnu was all pervading and omnipresent. Enraged, Hiranyakashipu smashed the pillar and Vishnu, in the form of Narasimha, half-man, half-lion (neither human or animal) emerged at the hour of twilight (neither day nor night), from the pillar located on the threshold of the palace (neither indoors nor outdoors) and placed Hiranyakashipu across his lap and using his sharp claws (no weapons) rips him apart and kills him.

The ninth pendant is painted with four figures. A heavily bejewelled king and queen pour water from a spouted vessel into the hand of a dark-skinned dwarf standing with hand raised in front of them. A one-eyed figure stands behind the dwarf image. The word Vaman is painted on top.

Vaman or vamana is the fifth of the ten great incarnations of Vishnu in which he manifested as a dwarflike Brahmin, descended to earth and defeated the demon king Bali. The story centers upon Bali, a demon (asura) who through great penance and perseverance had waged a battle against the gods and driven out Indra, king of the gods, from heaven. Responding to pleas from the gods, Vishnu assumed the form of a Brahmin student and came to the spot where Bali was performing a sacrificial ceremony. The pious king welcomed the learned dwarf and offered him anything that he wanted. Vamana requested just the land that three paces of his short legs could cover. Bali readily acquiesced and tipped the water pot (kamandalu) to pour an offering of holy water into the hands of Vamana.

However, Bali’s guru Sukracharya, recognized the Brahmin’s true identity and sought to warn the king. To stop the flow of water, he shrank in size and lodged himself in the vessel’s spout. Taking a spear of grass, Bali cleared the obstruction, but in the process blinded Sukracharya in one eye.

Once the water fell into Vamana’s open palms, he assumed the form of a giant and took the three paces that he had been granted. With two steps he encompassed the area from earth to heaven and from earth to the netherworld leaving no more land to claim with his third step. Humbled and recognizing Vamana as none other than Vishnu, Bali offered his own head for the third step and was banished to rule the kingdom of the asuras but granted immortality for his humility.

Credits: Story

Script and Curation - Dr. Usha Balakrishnan.

Exhibit Compilation - Vasundhra Sangwan & Rajalakshmi Karakulam

Photography - Hariom Maurya, Suresh Mahto & Yogesh Pal

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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