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Sutradhara’s tales: A handsome Vishnu statue amongst the ruins reveals Pune’s tryst with the “Golden Age”

PUNE The study of cultural history is based on nature and scope of evidence, either in textual, material or oral form
By Saili K Palande-Datar
PUBLISHED ON FEB 24, 2021 12:54 PM IST

PUNE The study of cultural history is based on nature and scope of evidence, either in textual, material or oral form. No amount of imagination compensates for the lack of evidence.

Often, the lack of evidence means a break in continuity of timelines and fragmentation of collective historical understanding. This poses a great challenge to comprehend historical events.

Hence, a true “sutradhara” is on the constant look out for new exciting pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to complete the picture.

The various coins and coin hoards found in the vicinity of Pune reflect a strong Satavahana and Kshatrapa dynastic presence.

A significant discovery was also made in July 1974 at Rajangaon, 30km from Pune, when a Kshatrapa coin hoard of 1,518 coins was discovered. These coins, studied by Dr Shobhana Gokhale, Dr Deo and Dr M K Dhavalikar, consisted mainly of silver coins of the Kardamaka branch of the Western Kshatrapas.

Western Kshatrapas were Indo-Scythian by origin and involved in international trade in northern western India.

Back in Pune city, excavations revealed terracotta pottery dating to the Vakataka period (5th-6th century CE), above the Satavahana layers.

Now, who are these Vakataka folks? Vakataka dynasty is one of the lesser known, but significant dynasties of not just Maharashtra, but India.

They are contemporary to the famous Gupta dynasty in the north, of which Chandragupta Vikramaditya is a well-known king.

History also informs us of the poet par excellence, Mahakavi Kalidas, spending time in the Vakataka courts in Vidarbha.

The proverbial “Golden age” in Indian history has been attributed to this period of Guptas by earlier scholars. Such times are characterised by large-scale development and achievements in various areas. These fields included engineering, art, science, technology, literature, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy. Recently studies by scholars offer more nuanced narrative attributing the golden age not to Gupta alone but to combined Gupta Vakataka age around 5th to 6th century CE. The era saw great strides and achievements in literature and especially art and culture which essentially defined Indian art. Testimony to this golden age is sufficiently found in art sculpture and paintings at Ajanta caves, carrying legacy of Vakataka reign.

Recent studies offer a more nuanced narrative attributing the golden age not to the Guptas alone, but to the combined Gupta Vakataka age around 5th to 6th century CE.

It was only by sheer luck and presence of mind of Mr Balkawade, that we could preserve the significant marker of the Indian classical age from Pune.

The renovation of a 200-year-old Lokhande wada in Kasba peth was in full swing on December 23, 1999. The demolishers hit a stone masonry chamber while digging the foundation 20 feet underground. And to everyone’s wonder, a near intact sculpture of lord Vishnu was exposed.

The digging caused some damage to the idol. The owners were reluctant to preserve the damaged sculpture of lord Vishnu and decided to submerge it in river water.

Thanks to vigilant citizens, Balakawade was informed.

The sculpture is a masterpiece and has immense historical value. It measures 20 inches by 11 inches.

The sculpture is a samabhanga sthanaka (standing, balanced on two limbs) and has four arms. The upper hand holds a cylindrical mace and the other hand holds a disc or sudarshan chakra. The lower arm holds a conch or panchajanya shankha in akimbo and the other arm is in partial varad mudra.

The end of the mace merges in a small lady-like figure which is the feminine personification of kaumudaki gada, or mace of Vishnu. The other attendant like male figure could be the personification of shankha purusha or conch resting its head. It is interesting to note that Padma, the lotus flower, an original attribute of Lakshmi is absent. The handsome figure is carved in complete relief and has rectangular headgear which is a style attributed to the Kushana Gupta period. The headgear in the rear has a feta-like appearance.

An Ekavali ornament is seen around the neck alongwith kundala in the ears. The figure doesn’t wear a yadnopavit, sacred thread across the chest nor has a sri-vatsa symbol of Lakshmi. The figure wears a lower garment and has a long twisted cloth strap, characteristic of Kushana-Gupta period figures.

The sculpture has an extension at the bottom to place it in a niche. This handsome Vishnu has calm and classical features which reflect great style and craftsmanship of 4th century CE. The stone is schist or soapstone, black and fine grained. The entire surface of sculpture is polished.

How it came to be and where it came from, are many questions which remain unanswered.

The exceptional sculpture was saved and is safely preserved with the Lokhande family, today. Marking an important milestone in Pune’s journey it truly is a classical enigma to be admired.

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