In the exhibition's central hall, Shiva’s mount Nandi the bull marks the entranceway, as he does to every Shiva temple. Usually we would expect to next encounter a statue of the God Shiva, perhaps performing his cosmic dance - arguably the most iconic image in Indian art. Instead, we are faced with Discobolus, one of the most famous statues from the Ancient Greek world, and another object that expresses philosophical ideas of balance and harmony. Surrounding him are three figures from Indian mythology that embody strength, vitality and movement. Juxtaposed together, these objects illustrate how people from different times and cultures express ideas through objects in remarkably similar ways. They mark a fitting starting point as we embark on our journey through India and the World.
Western Ganga, About AD 800–900
Rishabha (commonly called Nandi), the mount of Shiva, is imagined as a bull known for his strength. He is usually positioned at the entrance of every Shiva temple. Gods in India often act through their semi-divine vahanas. A vahana is literally a transporting instrument, a vehicle that can transport us, or our wishes to god as much as it transports gods from place to place. Vahanas are symbolic and are known for their physical strength and prowess.
The Townley Discobolus
Roman copy after Greek statue
This Roman copy of the ancient Greek sculpture of Discobolus, or discus-thrower, is one of the most famous sculptures from the ancient world and the British Museum. It shows an idealised athlete – naked, refined and eternally youthful – seemingly captured in the moment before releasing the discus. Discobolus embodies the idea of balancing opposing forces. In the rhythm and harmony of his proportions, the ancient Greeks saw an underlying order behind the chaos of the world.
Mandala, Madhya Pradesh
Nagpur Central Museum
Vishnu, the god for preserving order, rides two different mounts—the powerful solar bird called Garuda that harnesses the might of the skies, as well as the naga serpent called Ananta (meaning eternity) who occupies the earth, the water and the netherworld. Garuda, who is a kite or eagle, is of course the archenemy or complementary force to the serpent (naga). Together, the two allow Vishnu’s domain over all realms.
Probably 20th century
Andhra Pradesh, India
Hanuman is a monkey or vanara (forest being) who aided Rama – the fifth incarnation of Vishnu and the hero of the epic Ramayana. He was possessed of supernatural strength, steadfast loyalty and bravery, and is usually depicted as partly human. His example provides one reason why celibacy (brahmacharya) is admired and considered an aide to physical prowess and mental strength. Hanuman remains one of the most popular deities of Hindu worship and is the patron deity of traditional Indian gymnasiums or akhadhas.
Pitalkhora, Maharashtra, India
National Museum, New Delhi
Yakshas are nature spirits who occupy a space between the human and divine realms. This yaksha is a bharvahaka who, rather like Atlas in Greek mythology, lifts heavy gateways, buildings, and roofs. He comes from the world of dwarf ganas – characters whose size belies their strength. They are known to be mirthful and dancing characters symbolically communicating divine will.