Sharabha: An Incarnation of Virabhadra

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Item Code: PM84
Water Color Painting on Patti PaperFolk Art From The Temple Town Puri (Orissa)Artist: Rabi Behera
12 inches X 18 inches
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This painting, a traditional Orissa pata-chitra, illustrates the legend of Sharabha, the bird form of Virabhadra that Shiva created by infusing into it his own lustre for subduing Narsimha, the fourth of Vishnu’s ten incarnations. Under one interpretation of the text Sharabha appears to be Shiva’s own incarnate form, while under the other, that of Virabhadra. As commanded, Sharabha not only destroyed Narsimha’s vain ego but also his form and wore his skin on his body winning for him the epithet Narsimhakrittivasana.

The legend of Sharabha appears in the Shiva Maha Purana in Tratiya Shata Rudra Samhita, in Chapters 11 and 12. As the text has it, Sharabha looked like a huge bird covering the sky with his breadth, as also like a massive beast having attributes of a human being. In this representation Sharabha’s iconography and anatomy are almost identical to this textual image of the divinity. The folio represents a huge eight-legged bird conceived like a white lion with a majestic crown on his head and gold ornaments on the back, feet and around the neck, and endowed with great agility and all-pervading vastness. On his lion-like face, and even body, Sharabha has a feeling of complete detachment and quiescence. He is seen lifting with nails of his hind legs the blue-bodied Narsimha by his abdomen.

The blue-bodied Narsimha, the body-colour of Vishnu whom Narsimha incarnates, is represented in the folio as helpless and defeated praying for his release with folded hands and Sharabha is lifting him as a crane lifts an unanimated mass. Sharabha has pierced his nails into Narsimha’s belly like iron-hooks of a crane’s arm. Narsimha’s lion face is quite identical to Sharabha’s but while Sharabha’s reveals detachment and divine quiescence, Narsimha’s, fear and helplessness. The artist has painted on the upper left corner a four-armed image of Lord Vishnu. Corresponding to the Narsimha image Vishnu, with his forehands folded, is also in a submissive posture. Two devotee figures on bottom’s left stand astonished and hail Sharabha for subduing Narsimha who by his atrocities had begun tormenting even the common masses. The female figure upholding Narsimha’s body seems to be merely an artistic innovation.

As is the legend in the Shiva Maha Purana, Narsimha, Vishnu’s half lion-half man incarnation, had a limited objective of killing Hiranyakashipu, the demon chief and the father of the known Vishnu’s devotee Prahlad. As scheduled, Narsimha killed Hiranyakashipu but the energy that burst in his body while killing Hiranyakashipu did not cool down and he inclined to kill many more. First he made other demons his target but his passion to kill only increased. He then targeted also the common masses and even gods who approached Shiva for redeeming them from the atrocities of Narsimha. Shiva summoned Virabhadra and instructed him to go to Narsimha and persuade him first with politeness and then with force not to torment innocent. Virabhadra tried to convince Narsimha by both methods but instead of, the arrogant Narsimha attacked Virabhadra. For a moment Virabhadra disappeared and in his place burst a dazzling lustre and out of it emerged a form, a blend of the forms of bird, animal and human being, with a massive size covering the entire space from the earth to the sky. The text named it Sharabha. In a moment it overpowered Narsimha who, subdued and defeated, prayed for mercy.

Image of Sharabha from the Gate of Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.

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