A watercolour painting depicting Vishnu and his ten avatars, dating to the beginning of the 19th century. South Indian in style, the painting was given to the East India Company Library and Museum in 1806 by Sir John Sinclair, a Scottish politician and writer.

The painting

The painting consists of a central panel showing Vishnu the Preserver with his consort Lakshmī on the left and his vāhana or mount, Garuḍa on the right. Surrounding this central panel are ten smaller paintings depicting the daśavatāra, ten manifestations or avatars of Vishnu. Starting in the upper left corner and moving in an anticlockwise direction, these are: Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Tortoise), Varaha (the Boar), Narasiṃha (the Man-Lion), Vāmana (the Dwarf), Paraśurama (Rāma with the axe), Rāma (depicted here in a green hue), Balarāma (‘Rāma the strong’, holding a plough), Krishna (depicted with his characteristic blue skin) and finally Kalki (with a horse’s head and said to mark the end of Kali yuga, the current cycle of existence).

Why is it so important?

Painted in a South Indian style, using thick washes of watercolour and gold paint, the image lavishly depicts Vishnu, shown in the central panel with his emblems, chakra (the discus) and shankha (the conch) in his upper hands, gadā (the mace) held in his lower left hand while the lower right hand is in abhaya mudra, the gesture which dispels fear and provides divine protection.

As sustainer of the universe, Vishnu descends to earth assuming various forms whenever evil threatens to overturn the cosmic order. The painting shows these different manifestations, some of which are in half-man half-animal form. A number of them are depicted holding Vishnu’s emblems, others are shown with their own specific weapons or attributes.