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Krishna Dancing on Kaliya
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola Period Late 10th-Early 11th Century
Copper Alloy
H. 34 in. (87.6 cm.)

Vishnu is regarded as the "preserver" of the world who has come down to earth ten times to defeat the forces of evil. Each time he has come in a different form--a tortoise, a dwarf, a lion-man, prince Rama, Krishna, the Buddha, and, in his last and future incarnation, as the horse Kalkin, who cleanses the world.

It is as Krishna that Vishnu is especially beloved. Krishna, who embodies the divine love between god and human beings, is known as a mischievous baby, a young boy, a cowherd adored by many, a slayer of demons, and a great lover.

How to look at this work
This statue depicts the story of Krishna's encounter with the multi-headed serpent-demon Kaliya. According to myth, Krishna was raised in the countryside by gopis (females who tended the cows). When he was a youth, Kaliya lived in a whirlpool in the sacred river Yamuna, terrifying the population and spreading his poison throughout the land.

When Krishna chased after a ball that had fallen into the whirlpool, Kaliya captured him. Krishna grabbed the central head of the serpent, forcing the demon to bow. Then he danced on Kaliya's head and sent him back to his natural environment, the ocean.

  1. Kaliya has three cobra heads that surround one human head, personifying the snake and indicating that he is a hybrid creature: a serpent-demon. The multiple heads suggest that he has varied powers.
  2. Treatment of Krishna's face and body
    Krishna is depicted in realistic human form.
    Krishna's gaze is serene and reassuring.
    His facial features are youthful.
    He has broad shoulders.
  3. Pose
    Krishna stands atop the hood of a serpent and hold the tail in his left hand.
    Krishna's feet are in a dancing pose. The knees are bent with the left foot planted on Kaliya's head. The right foot is poised on its toes.
  4. Hands
    Krishna grasps Kaliya's tail with his left hand.
    His right hand is held in the gesture of reassurance that tells the devotee to have no fear. Clothing and ornamentation
    Krishna wears a skirt called a dhoti (pronunciation "doe-tee") that is still commonly worn by men in South India.
    A jeweled belt lies over his dhoti
    Other adornments include hanging earrings, a thick necklace, armbands, bracelets, and anklets.
    Krishna wears the high crowned hat that identifies him as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Size is a major indicator of prominence in Hindu iconography. Here, Kaliya is significantly smaller than Krishna, showing Krishna's greater importance. As Krishna has already defeated the demon here, Kaliya looks up to Krishna with a reverent gaze, his hands placed together in submission.

Large-scale bronze images like this sculpture were (and still are) generally intended for use in temples. Devotees would visit a temple to be in a space sacred to the deity. The god is understood to inhabit the sculpture and therefore worshipers treat the sculpture as they would a god. In the act of worship, devotees can see the god and the god can see the devotees. Worshipers bathe and perfume the god, dress the image in robes, and ornament it with jewelry and flowers. During festivals, the statue of the deity might be taken out and carried in processions.

This image may have been placed in a temple dedicated to the deity Vishnu (since Krishna is a manifestation of that deity) or it may have placed in a temple dedicated to Krishna himself.

How this object was made
This bronze image was made using the "lost-wax" technique.

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