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Unlike most other multi-faced manifestations of various deities that assimilate repeats of their own faces, however great their symbolic breadth, or diverse dispositions or states of mind that they represented, the faces that the image of Panchamukha Hanuman assimilates belong to five absolutely different animal domains believed to incarnate Lord Vishnu, not symbolically conceived but each with a distinct identity, distinct anatomy and a body of well sustained independent myths. Symbolically the Panchamukha image of the monkey god Hanuman manifests the accumulated ‘good’ that the animal world ever accomplished through its various species and assisted divine endeavour to sustain the creation and maintain order. Except a blend of human anatomy defining the rest of the figure and adding mythical dimensions the faces that Hanuman in his Panchamukha form assimilates belong to five animal species, namely, Vanar – monkey, Varaha – boar, Hayagriva – horse-faced, Narsimha, a half-man-half-animal form, and Garuda – the great bird associated with Lord Vishnu in his various incarnations : all trans-human divinities in the Vaishnava line.
Though this image of Hanuman has five faces, each with its own iconographic distinction and crown, and correspondingly ten arms carrying in them various attributes, it consists of a single torso absolutely a man-like : a man-like attired and bejeweled. Besides the normal two hands held in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varad’ in the rest eight the image has been conceived as carrying ‘purna-ghata’ – ritual pot, sword, mace, noose, ‘parashu’ – battle axe, arrow, shield and bowl. His ‘lalitasana’- posture, with left leg laid over his lotus seat as engaged in yoga, and right, suspending down the lotus seat revealing absolute ease and beauty, is a sitting mode confining strictly to human domain. Elegantly conceived ‘antariya’ – lower wear, large ‘vaijayanti’ – a garland of fresh celestial flowers descending down the seat’s base in typical South Indian Vaishnava tradition, Vaishnava ‘tilaka’-mark on the foreheads and the lotus-seat, all are the elements from humanized Vaishnava iconography.
Of the five faces that this image of Panchamukha Hanuman assimilates the one in the centre : that of Vanar – monkey, is Hanuman’s own. Contended variously an incarnation of Shiva, Surya as also the son of Marut – wind-god, Hanuman was born to assist Lord Vishnu when he incarnated as Rama mainly in his battle against the Lanka’s demon-king Ravana. The face on the extreme right is that of a boar, obviously a representation of Lord Vishnu in his Varaha incarnation he had for restoring into her place the Earth that the notorious demon Hiranyaksha had uprooted from her place and taken to Patala – nether world. Under another mythical tradition Varaha had restored to Brahma his Vedas that Hiranyaksha had stolen. The Varaha face has been conceived like one of Riksha – bear. Maybe, the artist had in mind Jamvan, a bear, who played a vital role in the story of Rama, especially in the life of Hanuman. On the extreme left is the horse-faced Hayagriva, a form Lord Vishnu took to for eliminating a demon with the same face and same name. Right to Hanuman’s own face in the centre is the great bird Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s mount that also had a vital role in the Ramayana. On the left to the central face of Hanuman is Narsimha, Lord Vishnu’s half-man-half-lion incarnation that he took to eliminate Hiranyakashipu who under a boon had immunity against death either at the hands of a human being or an animal. Vishnu incarnated in this composite form that was neither man nor animal and killed the demon.
A brilliant example of South Indian iconographic model, the statue, carved from a piece of fine timber in the wood’s natural shade, represents the monkey god Hanuman as the central figure of the image, and other four faces, his aspects. Hanuman’s figure with two legs but five faces and ten arms is exceptionally symbolic. It suggests oneness of the goal and direction but multiplicity of acts and alertness of mind that always characterized Hanuman’s being. Apart, this form of Hanuman represents him as the aggregate of the entire trans-human or animal world. Narsimha and Varaha are Vishnu’s direct incarnations, Hayagriva, his semi-incarnated form, and Garuda, his mount; however, accomplishing only some specific objective they fail to equal Hanuman, a mere servant of one of Vishnu’s incarnations. Hence, their assimilation with his form is just as its iconic components. The monkey god has been represented as seated in a classical posture over a large lotus seat installed over a stylized lotus base under an elaborate ‘Prabhavali’ conceived on strict South Indian lines : the base part, a pedestal and half columns carried over mythical lions, and the circular upper, consisting of conventionalized lotus design, an elaborate Kirtti-mukha, and flanking on either side under it, a pair of homage-paying celestial females.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.