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In this 11th-century sandstone carving, the cosmic ocean teems with life and serves as a resting place for Vishnu , 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.

Click here or on the sidebar to learn more about the image of Vishnu at the temple.


Vishnu rests on the massive body of Shesha , the king of the Nagas , 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 remains.


Brahma , 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 together.


Vishnu’s lower right hand holds his mace, or club, symbolizing mental and physical strength. Here, as he lies outside of time in a state of rest, his mace droops in his hand.


In Vishnu’s left hand, he holds a conch shell, the source of the five elements — water, fire, earth, air, and sky — and of the sound of creation.


Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi , 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 garbhagriha (womb chambers) and are topped by tall towers (vimanas ), covered with bands of sculpture, like jewel-encrusted crowns. These elaborate sculptures were carved by shilpis , 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 sthapathi , a master temple architect from India, according to a collection of ancient principles of architectural design known as the Vastushastras , 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 more.

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.


Vishnu’s chakra is a weapon, a spinning disc with sharp, serrated edges that he hurls at his enemies.


The emblem at the top of the hill is a tilak , 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 incarnation, Rama.

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 anew.

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 Bhudevi , which literally means “the goddess who is the earth,” and who is also a wife to Vishnu.

Site Credits

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University
571 South Kilgo Circle