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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 64

राम अवतार Rama Avatar

Mughal (Delhi or Awadh), <i>c</i>.1800

Fol. 21 from an early nineteenth-century album | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold metallic paint with decorative incising on paper; set into margins of plain and dyed papers with opaque watercolour and gold metallic ornament; on multi-layered support | 41.0 × 27.4 cm (folio); 18.6 × 12.3 cm (image) | RCIN 1005115.j

This painting is from one of two series in the Royal Collection that depict all ten incarnations or ‘avatars’ of Vishnu, known as the dashavatara. Vishnu, ‘the Preserver’, was compelled to descend to earth in these ten animal and human manifestations in order to restore dharma, cosmic order. Here, Vishnu is portrayed as Prince Rama, his seventh avatar, who slays the multi-headed and multi-armed demon King Ravana. As narrated in the Ramayana, Ravana has abducted Rama’s wife Sita and taken her back to his palace on the island of Lanka. With the help of his brother Lakshmana and an army of monkeys led by Hanuman (the monkey god), he is able to defeat Ravana’s armies and lay siege to Lanka.

Series depicting the ten avatars followed a long-established iconography and were popular with both local patrons and Europeans in South Asia, who commissioned them as souvenirs with which they could describe the Hindu religion to friends and family back in Europe.[204] Religion was a major preoccupation of intellectual thought in eighteenth-century Europe, but it was not until the late 1760s that discourses on Hinduism entered Enlightenment thinking.[205] In 1784, the famous Orientalist Sir William Jones was the first to use the term ‘avatar’ to describe ‘descents of the deity as preserver’ as expressions of ‘the omni-presence, wisdom and goodness of God’ in Hindu belief.[206]

  • rama avatar

  • [204] See the albums of Hindu deities commissioned c.1773–95 by the Swiss Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier (1741–95), BL MS Or. 4769 and Or. 4770.

    [205] ‘The Religious Tenets of the Gentoos’ in the second part of John Holwell’s Interesting Historical Events, relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan, published in 1767, and Alexander Dow’s ‘A Dissertation concerning the Customs, Manners, Language, Religion and Philosophy of the Hindoos’ from the first volume of his History of Hindostan, 1768. See Marshall 1970, p. vii.

    [206] Jones 1784. See also entry for ‘avatar’ in Yule and Burnell 1999. 

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