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In this 11th-century sandstone carving, the cosmic ocean teems with
life and serves as a resting place for
preserver of the
universe. At different times, in different ages, Vishnu is called
upon to defend and bring order to a threatened world. In between,
outside of time, he sleeps.
Select highlighted areas to learn more about this sculpture.
One of the earliest versions this scene is found on the south
exterior wall of the 6th-century Temple of Vishnu at Deogarh, in
Uttar Pradesh, India.
This small brick temple in the form of a simple square is decorated with scenes related to Vishnu carved in niches on three sides.
In some ways, this early sculpture is like the Carlos one, but in others it is very different. Look closely to discover the differences.
In the 11th century, when the Carlos Museum’s sculpture was carved in
the area of Madhya Pradesh, India, a worshipper would have
encountered it in one of several bands of sculpture that completely
enveloped the towers of a temple as seen here.
The image of Vishnu Resting on the Cosmic Ocean can also be seen on
the exterior of the Hindu Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
or on the sidebar to learn more about the image of Vishnu at the temple.
Vishnu rests on the massive body of
the king of the
who are serpent deities. Shesha, a giant cobra, is depicted in art
with many heads — usually seven or nine, but sometimes hundreds or
even a thousand. On this sculpture, only part of the multi-headed
hood of the snake remains. The hood, where all the planets of the
universe are said to reside, encircles Vishnu’s head in protection
and Shesha sings songs of praise to Vishnu from his many mouths.
The Sanskrit word Shesha means “that which remains,” underscoring
Shesha’s presence here, in between the cycles of time. In the cycle
of creation and destruction, when the world is destroyed, Shesha
the creator god, emerges from Vishu’s navel, seated upon a lotus,
signaling that it is once again time for Vishnu to awake and for the world to
be created anew.
In the Hindu tradition, navels are associated with creation. They represent Mt.
Meru, the cosmic center or “navel” of the universe — the axis mundi — where sky
and earth meet. In India, temples were often built in the shape of a mountain
to symbolize Mt. Meru, the place where earthly and heavenly realms come
goddess of fortune and wealth, helps him to
rest by “pressing” or massaging his feet, an expression of
intimacy. Her presence in this scene is also related to creation.
Hindu gods are often shown with their spouses, to illustrate the
balance of male and female principles, and here, at the moment of
creation, that balance is especially important.
In many parts of India, Lakshmi is worshipped on the third day of
Diwali, the festival of lights held each fall. Devotees decorate
their homes, inside and out, with lights, inviting the goddess to
bestow blessings of prosperity. (Some say she loves cleanliness and
visits the cleanest homes first!)
The Cosmic Ocean, or the “ocean of milk,” is one of seven oceans in
the Hindu conception of the cosmos. In one famous story, Vishnu
convinces the gods to “churn” the ocean to bring forth amrita, the
nectar of immortality, so that they can live forever. As the ocean
churned, other precious things emerged from it as well—the king of
horses, celestial musicians, and even Lakshmi, the goddess of
wealth and beauty. Can you find them all in this image?
In the night sky, the Milky Way, with its rotating spiral form and
cloudy white color, is understood to represent the cosmic ocean.
The reclining Vishnu rests his head in his hand, his eyes closed.
His soft, rounded body seems to breathe slowly, in and out. But
this is not an image of laziness or indolence. In Hindu texts and
in daily life in India, repose is associated with creativity, and
periods of rest are built into each day. Vishnu is depicted at his
most creative, as he dreams the world.
The Hindu Temple of Atlanta
On a hillside just south of Atlanta in Riverdale, Georgia, the
stepped towers of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta rise, gleaming white
against the sky, crowded with sculptural decoration.
The temple is in the style of the temples of South India and was
constructed in the 1990s to serve the growing population of Hindu
devotees who have immigrated to Atlanta from that region. The square
shrines where statues of the deities reside are called
and are topped by tall towers
covered with bands of sculpture, like
jewel-encrusted crowns. These elaborate sculptures were carved by
Indian craftsmen who traveled to Atlanta to carve
each sculpture by hand, a process that took over three years.
The design of the temple was supervised by a
master temple architect from India, according to a collection of
ancient principles of architectural design known as the
the “science of dwelling.” These principles
determine the ways in which the ground must be prepared before
construction, the plan of the building, its decoration, and even the
rituals that take place inside.
Hindu temples are thought of as dwelling places for the gods, and the
two Riverdale temples, side by side, provide dwellings for two
deities, Vishnu and Shiva, and also house other related deities. On
the hillside outside the Vishnu temple three emblems identify the
building as a temple to the Hindu god. Click on each one to find out
A large shell common in the Indian Ocean known as a conch is one
of the sacred objects associated with Vishnu. In ancient times it
was used as a war trumpet. It is used today in Hindu worship where
it announces the beginning of worship. It may also accompany the
offering of flame or light to the deity.
The emblem at the top of the hill is a
a mark created by
applying vermilion, sandal, or ash powder on the forehead to
indicate devotion to a particular Hindu deity. This particular
tilak, a U-shape with a line in the center, is common among
followers of Vishnu.
The rising bands of sculpture on the exterior of the temple include
images of Vishnu in the form of his avatars such as Venkateswara, the
seventh avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, and other deities
associated with him.
Venkateswara, the particular form of Vishnu worshipped at this temple.
Part-man and part-eagle, Garuda is Vishnu’s vahana
(vehicle), on which he rides.
Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife.
Hanuman, faithful friend of Vishnu’s seventh avatar or
Over the north door of the temple Vishnu rests on the cosmic ocean in
between cycles of time, just as in the Carlos Museum sculpture of
this same scene. He lies upon the coils of Shesha, which here
actually fold to resemble a bed, his head protected by the giant
cobra’s many heads. His wife Lakshmi massages his feet and Brahma
rises from his navel, seated on a lotus, ready to create the world
The monkey-faced god Hanuman stands to the left, the winged
half-eagle, half-human Garuda to the right. Also present, to
Lakshmi’s left, is
which literally means “the goddess who is
the earth,” and who is also a wife to Vishnu.