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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 53

Hiranyakashipu performs penance in order that Brahma might grant him powers of invincibility Pahari, Nainsukh family workshop,c.1775–90

Folio from a series depicting the Bhagavata Purana (see cat. no. 51) | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold and silver metallic paints on paper with wide painted margins | 30.5 × 38.4 cm (folio), 23.8 × 31.7 cm (image) | RCIN 925229

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In his incarnation as the boar Varaha, Vishnu killed the younger brother of the asura (‘malign god’) Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu vowed to kill Vishnu in revenge and here performs yogic penance to the god Brahma in order that he may be granted a boon. He stands inside an anthill covered by grass and bamboo and holds his arms above his head with only his toes touching the ground. His hands clutch a rosary, around which his fingernails have grown inches long. The asura’s severe penance has generated a fire, seen on the left, which has scorched the demi-gods who solicit Brahma to intervene and put a stop to it. In the upper right, Brahma flies towards the king on his mount Hansa. Impressed by Hiranyakashipu’s ascetic act, Brahma restores him to full capacity of mind and strength and agrees to grant him his wish.

While the treatment of Brahma follows standard conventions (see cat. no. 49), Hiranyakashipu strikes an unusual figure. Often depicted in demon form with black  hair, here he is instead a human with a long and bushy golden-brown beard, appropriate to his name, literally meaning 'golden haired'.