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Matsya Avatar: The Fish Incarnation of Vishu Slaying the Demon Hayagriva

Accession Number

Matsya Avatar: The Fish Incarnation of Vishu Slaying the Demon Hayagriva


Artist Nationality
Indian (South Asian)

Object Creation Date
circa 1830

Medium & Support
ink on paper

6 in x 8 ¾ in (15.24 cm x 22.23 cm);20 ½ in x 22 in (52.07 cm x 55.88 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Mary Paul Stubbs in honor of Professor Walter Spink

Label copy
Matsya Avatar: The Fish Incarnation of Vishnu Slaying the Demon
ca. 1830
Ink, opaque watercolor on paper
Gift of Mary Paul and Bruce Stubbs in honor of Walter Spink, 2016/1.205
The Hindu god Vishnu has ten primary avatars (or manifestations); here he
appears as Matsya, a fish avatar. Matsya forewarns the first man, Manu, of a
great flood in order to preserve living creatures and their ways of life. In later
versions, Manu is also tasked with rescuing the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of
Matsya has a four-armed human torso and a lower half in the form of a fish. In
his hands he holds a text that likely symbolizes the Vedas, a discus, a conch
shell, and a mace; these are the traditional attributes of Vishnu. He is positioned
near the center of the work, towering in victory over the demon Shankhasura,
who has been wounded in the side. Shankhasura’s blade has been broken in
two, emphasizing his defeat. In the background, a four-headed figure (the Hindu
god Brahma representing the Vedas in figural form) is worshipped by a group of
three figures.

Subject matter
"The fish incarnation of Vishnu slaying the demon Hayagriva. In the Bhagavata Purana, there is a fight between Matsya and Hayagriva who had stolen the Vedas, the book of knowledge needed for the regeneration of the world, while Brahma was asleep. Lord Vishnu in this manner saved his true devotees from dissolution so as to hand down divine knowledge and saved the Vedas from destruction so to ensure creation after the dissolution."     The written description in the sale catalogue when the piece was originally purchased by the donor.

Physical Description
Painting of a woman emerging from a fish's mouth in front of a red-skinned man emerging from a shell. Both are in a body of water and observed by people in the background. 

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

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