Time is never kind to sculptures, inscriptions or to paintings and frescos, not even to temples or forts. Paintings fade with light or the material on which they are painted disintegrates. However inscriptions or stone carvings remain a little longer. The earliest records of traces of Vaishnavism in art are not much older than 2000 years. Earlier signs than this have mostly been erased. However, in the recent years there has been more and more archeological digs in India. There we find traces of Vaishnava art, but most often than art itself, we find inscriptions and sometimes caves where such traces are preserved. Traces of prehistoric Vaishnavism have also been erased by the passage of different religious eras, such as the Buddhist era, Jain era, the Persian era etc.
Rajasthan is one of the earliest centers of the Krishna-Vasudeva cult. One of the oldest records was found in the Jaipur state by example, a Yupa inscription, dated CE. 279, which ends with the expression:
May Vishnu be pleased: may dharma increase.
The deity of Shrinathji is said to be a self-manifested stone deity that emerged from Govardhana Hill in Vrindavana. In the medieval times the deity was transferred to Nathdwara from Govardhana for protection from the fanatical Muslim ruler Aurangzeb who had Hindu temples systematically destroyed. The iconography of Shrinathji is connected to the narrative found in the Srimad Bhagavatam (also called the Bhagavat Purana) wherein Krishna lifts Govardhana Hill to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavana from a downpour of rain sent by Lord Indra, the King of the demigods. Early references to Shrinathji are found in ancient religious texts and literature long before the Christian era.
Bengal is one of the most important strongholds of Vaishnavism and the cult of Lord Krishna. It is however difficult to ascertain when Vaishnava art was introduced to this region. Unfortunately our knowledge of Bengali life in this ancient period is fragmentary.
A four-armed Vishnu deity was discovered in the village of Hankrail of the Malda district dated from the third century CE.
During the Pala-Sena period (11th-12th century CE.) Vaishnavism was widely flourishing and was found in different parts of Bihar. Many stone images of Vishnu from this period were found there. Gaya seems to have been an important centre for Vaishnavism mostly in the medieval period.
The documented history of Manipur begins with the reign of Meetei or Meitei, the King of the Ningthouja clan (33-154 CE), who unified the seven clans of Meetei society. The introduction of the Vaishnava school brought about significant changes in the history of the state. Vaishnavism came to Manipur during the 18th Century and caused a significant change in its history. The Meitei script was replaced with Bengali.
In Assam, Krishna’s name is closely associated with the early history of this region as well as the region of Manipur. It is recounted in the Puranas that in this region a demon king imprisoned 16,000 princesses that Krishna rescued in Pragjyotishapura. He released them all and married them. Again, His grandson Aniruddha came to Sonitapura in response to a love message from Usha.
Coming down through the ages there are archeological records where it appears that Vaishnavism was firmly established in Assam during the Fifth Century CE. According to a stone inscription near Umachala Ashrama on the Northern-eastern slope of the Kamakya, Maharaja Surendra Varman excavated a cave-temple dedicated to Balabhadra Swamin. Scholars have identified this temple as being established by Mahendra Varman belonging to the Bhauma dynasty of Pragjyotisha (late 5th Century - early 6th century CE.)
As in Bengal, Bihar and other parts of eastern India, Vaishnavism seems to have been prevalent in Orissa quite early. The sculptures of Ananta-gumpha point to the prevalence of Vaishnavism in Orissa. It belongs to a date around the first century BCE. The doorway of this cave contains ornamental arches, one of which has a sculpted figure of Lakshmi supported by elephants on lotus flowers – elements recognized as Vaishnava motiffs.
A stone inscription belonging to the 12th year of the reign of king Skanda Varman, a ruler from the Pallava Dynasty (around 345–355 AD), was found at Podagadth. It mentions the foundation of a pada-mula or footprint of Vishnu. The inscription says:
Hari was victorious and is victorious and will be victorious, this is not important in itself, for verily the Divine Hari is the conquest and the conqueror.
The area of Madhya Pradesh, as the archeological evidence shows, was one of the most ancient centres of the Krishna-Vasudeva cult. One of the earliest monuments recorded there is the inscribed Garuda column erected in Besnagar in the Second Century BCE. in honor of Vasudeva, by a Greek ambassador. The inscription is divided in two parts.
One part mentions that the column is erected by Heliodorus, son of Dion, and the second part refers to three precepts – self-restraint, charity and consciousness. This inscription expresses the essence of the Bhagavata religion based on the Vedic scriptures. Near this Garuda pillar the remains of a temple have been excavated.
In Andhra Pradesh our attention can be directed to the Chinna Prasasti from the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh dated around the Second Century CE. An interesting Vaishnavite plaque was recently discovered in Konda-mottu. It depicts the Pancha-viras of the Vrishni clan, including Krishna, along with a sited figure of Narasimha. This seems to be the earliest representation of Lord Narasimha discovered to date.
In Tamil Nadu, a considerable number of verses extol Lord Vishnu as the chief deity among many gods mentioned in the Sangam literature. He has been described under various names such as Malor, Deivamal, Mayon and Nediyon. It is interesting to note that these epithets also apply to Krishna. This was an accepted fact in Tamil literature. Mayon is dark and Valiyon white which helps us to further understand that those names apply to Krishna and Balarama.
The Pundarikaksha temple near Trichy has inscriptions which point to significant contributions of Pallava, Hoysala and Vijayanagara kings. It belongs to the 8th – 9th Century. On the base of the vimana and in the svastika tank, we find a series of sculptures showing representational scenes with Krishna’s dance, and the subjugation of the serpent Kaliya.
In Kerala, the tradition of Krishna worship seems to be very old. An inscription was found at Pagan, which contains a verse from the Mukunda-mala in Grantha alphabet and a prose passage in Tamil characters of the 13th Century. This inscription probably formed part of the Vishnu temple in Pagan. It shows the popularity of the Mukunda-mala as a devotional poem written by Kulashekara, a competent ruler founder of the Chera Dynasty, around 800 CE.
The Bhagavata cult seems to have been well known in Maharashtra, West India, as early as the 2nd Century BCE. Several inscriptions have been found such as the Nanaghat inscription of Queen Nayanika, which opens with an invocation to Sankarshana, Vasudeva and other divinities. Cave inscriptions can be found containing Vaishnava appellations, such as a Nasik Cave inscription ascribable to the reign of Gautami-putra which mentions Prince Vishnu-Palita who was an officer in charge of Govardhana.
Paunar, in the Wardha district of Maharashtra, seem to have been an important center of Vaishnavism.
“There was found a Vaishnavite sealing ascribed to the Shaka-Satavahana times (2nd Century A.D.) It contains a short inscription reading: nama purushottama ittamamya. It is quite possible that a devotee at a Vaishnava shrine at Paunar offered this sealing.” (Journal, Numismatic Society of India, No. XXX. 1968, pp. 215 ff)
Another discovery is some interesting sculptured panels from the 4th or 5th Century, representing King Bharata meeting Lord Rama at Chitrakuta. It shows Sita clasping Rama’s arm and Bharatha holding the left hand of Rama. Lakshmana on the other hand has turned his face away appears disconsolate. The figures have characteristics of the Gupta-Vataka art.
At the ancient town of Malhar, a four-armed Vishnu deity was discovered here in 1960, bearing a Prakrit inscription in Brahmi script which is assignable to 200 BCE. This is one of the oldest representations of Vishnu.
In Gujarat, the major part of Krishna’s life was spent in Dvaraka in Saurashtra. It is modern Dvaraka that makes the best claim of representing the ancient site. In and around Dvaraka are numerous places and temples. Here it is where the Gomati River meets the sea and where temples to Indra, Varuna and Surya-Narayana were built on the ancient rock. Later, the temple of Krishna as Lord of Dvaraka (Dvarkadisha) was built. They stand there admittedly of a later date, but were very likely built on the ruins of older temples, probably of identical deities.
Vaishnavism had a great influence, not only on the literature of Gujarat during the 15th to 18th Century periods, but also on the pictorial art of that period. The earliest paper manuscript of that time is from the Gita-Govinda with illustrations in Gujarati style from the 15th century.
Vaishnavism flourished in Kashmir side by side with Shaivism and Buddhism. The main source of the history of Kashmiri Vaishnavism is the Nilamata Purana and the archeological relics. There is, however, not much material to throw light on the history of Vaishnavism in Kashmir till the 6th century CE.
Some Vaishnavite finds in the Medieval period have been reported from Punjab which was considered part of the Indus Valley Civilisation along with Kashmir in ancient times. A four-armed figure of Vishnu was discovered in Janer in the Forozepur district and a similar figure was found in Mandian in the Kapurthala district. Those figures belong to the 11th-12th Century. There was another discovery of a Vishnu head and a bas-relief of Vishnu from Dholbaha in the Hosiapur dated from the 11th-12th Century.
In conclusion, India, as well as surrounding countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and all other countries that were part of greater India in the past, have many undiscovered archeological treasures and traces of Vaishnavism.
News is floating about of more and more archeological discoveries and wonders, such as the discovery of ancient Dvaraka under the ocean with stone structures and stone anchors dating back over 3000 years BCE. Vaishnavism and Vaishnava art is older than the recent discoveries mentioned above and many more finds are resurfacing with more archeological research. However, it is difficult to trace any art before the Christian era since time erases everything and most of the greater Indian subcontinent was conquered by the Mauryan Empire during the 3rd Century BCE. whose rulers took advantage of the disruption created in the wake of the departure of the Greeks. Yet the most reliable traces before that time are the Vaishnava literatures such as the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and other great Vaishnava scriptures.
Excavation of Bhagavath shrine where the Narayana-vatika
Inscription was found.
The cave temple of Mandapeshwar dedicated to Balabhadraswamin
The Garuda pillar also known as Heliodoros pillar
Dwarkadisha deity in Dwaraka
Gita Govinda Manuscript, Krishna and the Gopis in the forest- (1550)