TORSO OF A NAGARAJA (‘SERPENT KING’)


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TORSO OF A NAGARAJA (‘SERPENT KING’)

NORTHERN INDIA

UTTAR PRADESH, MATHURA REGION

KUSHAN PERIOD

2ND CENTURY AD

H. 59 CMS, 23 INS

W. 61 CMS, 24 INS

D. 18 CMS, 7 INS

A dynamic and muscular mottled red sikri sandstone torso of a Nagaraja, or Serpent King, in a heroic posture with his right arm raised to heaven in the chakravartin gesture, adorned with a bracelet and basubands.

Note: Clean, repaired break to right arm.

Nagas are protective serpent deities, associated with water and guardians of the treasures concealed in the earth. The gesture of raising the right arm towards heaven is a characteristic of a universal monarch (chakravartin) in ancient India. It summons the life-giving rainfall to the Earth. This is also the function of the chalice in the left hand of our sculpture.

Mathura is located on the right bank of the Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganges some 150 km south of Delhi in Uttar Pradesh. It sits at the junction of India’s trade routes and by the first century AD was a thriving religious and commercial centre. Described by Ptolemy as a ‘City of Gods’, early Indian texts state that the inhabitants lived by trade rather than by agriculture. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all coexisted peacefully, along with the worship of nature-spirits, and traders and acolytes brought religious and cultural influences to the city. Mathura’s heyday lasted from the first to the third century AD, until the Sasanian incursions of the mid-third century. Despite a partial revival under the Gupta rulers of the fourth to the seventh century, the city never regained its former glory and eventually lost its position as a commercial and religious centre. Mathura sculpture is typically produced from mottled red sandstone quarried locally. Popular motifs include sensual young women, mythical beasts, nature and water spirits (yakshis and nagas), architectural elements, flora and fauna, and bacchanalian scenes. Mathura sculpture is often fleshy and full figured, and its protagonists (both religious and secular) are dressed in diaphanous clothing with multiple folds. While its form is essentially Indian, the influences of Greece and Rome, assimilated via the Silk Road, are also present.

References: For a related example from the Heeramaneck Collection in the LA County Museum, variously described as a Nagaraja or the Hindu God Balarama, see cat. no. S59 in P. Pal, Indian Sculpture, Vol. 1, Los Angeles, Berkeley and London: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with University of California Press, 1986. Balarama was fond of drinking and is also often depicted holding a chalice.

The Musée Guimet has a spectacular example of a Nagaraja torso, also holding a chalice- see cat. no. 9 in A. Okada, Sculptures Indiennes du Musée Guimet, Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2000.

Provenance: Private UK collection.

Previously in a private Spanish collection

Acquired from Rossi and Rossi, London in the 1980s.