Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Figure of Brahma with a hamsa, or goose
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Figure of Brahma with a hamsa, or goose


    • currently in research collection

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  • Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

    Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

    This small stele shows the god Brahmā standing in abhaṅga (or samapada), a pose in which neither leg is bent and consequently no flexion is imparted to the body. Behind him is a haṃsa (goose). The little figure with his hands in the gesture of respect or salutation (añjali) is presumably a devotee and possibly the donor. The two small figures on either side at the top in the flying position are iconographic markers, like the parasol in other instances; celestial creatures of no individuality, they simply reflect the divine stature of the god and the respect due to him. Their hands are also in añjali.

    The god is three-headed; the hair of the central head is arranged in three tufts (triśikhā). In his upper hands he holds a staff and, almost certainly, the long narrow rectangle of a palm-leaf manuscript (pustaka). Unfortunately the lower hands are damaged or missing. This is particularly unfortunate since the identification of this image is uncertain because of iconographic ambiguities and contradictions, and it has been suggested that it represents Skanda (Kārttikeya), the son of Śiva. Skanda’s vehicle is a peacock, which the bird portrayed here might well be and, as a young prince (Kumāra), he is often shown as triśikhin. On the other hand, his multiple heads, when shown, number six, having been nurtured by six mothers. The book moreover, as symbolising the Vedas, is not one of his attributes, whereas it is definitely associated with Brahmā, who is usually depicted with three heads.

    The slight iconographic uncertainty attending this image may be due to the fact that while Brahmā had a commanding position in the Vedas, the sacred hymns composed c.1250 B.C. upon which the early Brahmanical religion was based, and, as the Creator, is still considered a member of the traditional Hindu trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva, most of his attributes were usurped in time by the other two divinities and he never became the object of a cult. Temples dedicated to Brahmā in India are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

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