Vamana and Mahabali: An Iconographical Inquiry into the Legend

Written by Lalkrishna M, Research Scholar, Centre for historical Studies, JNU, Delhi (


The historical memory of any individual and society is temporary. Any memory can be manipulated or erased from the collective memory, if not reminded and preserved properly; an example for this can be the legend of lord Trivikrama and Mahabali. The legend of Vamana, otherwise known as Trivikrama, which means “one who strides over the three worlds” and Mahabali has been subject to various interpretations and distortions. According to the Puranas, Trivikrama was the son of Rishi Kashyapa and his wife Aditi. The concept of Trivikrama can be traced as far as back to the Vedic period. In earlier times, Trivikrama was regarded as the deity of perpetual motion, which moves forward the entire cosmos. In the later traditions, the deity was incorporated into the Dasavatara concept. Trivikrama is mentioned in many prominent ancient treatises such as Yaska’s Nirukta. The popular festival of Onam, celebrated in Kerala is closely associated with the Vamana- Mahabali legend. The legend can be briefly narrated as follows.

Bali’s story goes like this: He was the son of Asura ruler Virochana and grandson of Prahlada, the renowned devotee of Vishnu, who was able to defeat the Devas thanks to the strength he gained through religious penances. As a result, Indra was pushed out of his kingdom, which upset Aditi, his mother, who begged to Vishnu to be born as her son, defeat the Asuras, and restore Indra to his celestial dominion. As a result, Vishnu assumed the avatar of Vamana, and went to the site where Bali was performing his hundredth Ashvameda sacrifice; an important Yaga described in the Vedas, and begged him for some land to be given as a gift. When Bali saw the Brahmin lad disguised as a Brahmachari or Vedic student, he dutifully honoured him and requested him to offer for himself whatever he desired as a sacrificial present. Sukracharya, the guru of the Asuras, knowing that the young Brahmachari was no other than Vishnu himself, warned his disciple Bali to be careful in making promises. The noble and generous-hearted Bali however, paid no heed to this warning and said that, if Vishnu who, as Yajna-Purusha, is the divine embodiment of the sacrifice and for whose acceptance he was offering the sacrifice, had himself come to him to ask for a favour on the occasion of the sacrifice, he would consider it to be the greatest honour shown to him, and would certainly promise to give him anything asked. The boy then asked Bali, the emperor of the Asuras to bestow upon him the gift of just three paces of space, which was of course readily promised and confirmed by the ceremonial pouring out of water. At once this Vamana, the young dwarfish boy, assumed a gigantic form; with one pace he measured the whole of the Bhuloka or the earth world and with another the Antariksha-loka or the mid-world between the earth and the heaven. There was thus nothing left for measuring out the third pace of space which Bali had promised. What happed then-after is subject to many interpretations and is the subject of discussion here.

In the academic narratives, the Vamana-Bali legend in context of Kerala has stimulated heated debates, discussions and re-interpretations based on philosophical, religious and political views. However, the objective of the present study is to trace the patterns in which Vamana- Mahabali legend has been represented in Indian art and iconography. As stated above, the veneration of Vamana as a god-head could have its origins right from the Vedic period. By the time of Gupta Empire, Vamana worship, art and iconography had already assumed its distinctive form and structure, many of which have survived into our own times. Sanskrit literatures discussing about art provides very detailed characteristics of Vamana iconography. Vamana is represented as a young Vedic student of short stature adorning deer skin, kundalas and the sacred thread, with a Kamandalu (Water-jar) in one hand and an umbrella in the other. On the crown of the head there should be a tuft of hair tied up in a knot. In other sources, Vamana is not regarded as a young boy but an ill shaped man with protruding joints of bones and a big belly. In actual representations, we find both these sets of features displayed prominently. The iconographic representation of Trivikrama, the transformed state of Vamana is shown in three different poses; his left leg raised upto the right knees, or upto the navel or upto the forehead. The sculptures with left leg raised upto the right leg represents the deity striding over the earth, wheras a raised leg upto the navel and forehead is for mid-world and the heaven respectively. In some sculptures, Trivikrama has four hands, holding conch shell, Chakra in two hands, wheras the right palm is raised upwards and the left hand hung parallel to the raised feet. Sculptures with eight hands are also known, in case of which the deity bears the conch shell, Sudarshana Chakra, Mace, bow and plough, the other two hands sculpted as in the former case. The remaining hand is raised in the Abhaya-Mudra. Along with Trivikrama, Shiva, Brahma, the Sun, Moon and the Devas are depicted on the top of the sculpture and Asuras and Nagas in the bottom.

Trivikrama at Rajim

The earliest known Vamana sculpture is available to us in the Rajivalochan Mandir, in Rajim, Chhattisgarh. The sculpture is weathered and its facial features partially worn out. The limbs are in a fragmented state. However the Kundalas in both ears and the scant clothing are intact. The left hand bears an umbrella. Another, more intact sculpture of Vishnu in Trivikrama form is found in the same temple, which has the deity, raised his legs upto the navel. The four hands bear conch shell and Chakra. What makes the sculpture distinct is that Adi Shesha, the serpent king is depicted below the feets of the deity with his hands in a bowing posture. It is to be noted that Mahabali is not depicted in the sculpture, which might suggest that Mahabali was not yet associated with Trivikrama concept during this period. Trivikrama is a deity associated exclusively with motion, and as such has an independent identity of its own different from the Vamana-Bali episode.

Trivikrama at Badami

The 6th Century Trivikrama sculpture at cave 3 of Badami bears a close resemblance to the art of Mahabalipuram, except that the deities Brahma and Shiva are not portrayed in this panel. Trivikrama raises his leg upto his chest. Quite interestingly, Vamana too is also depicted in the sculpture, which is shown as receiving the jar of holy water from Mahabali, his queen and retinue being depicted as well. Mahabali is shown without a crown, implying that he is attending a yajna ceremony.

Trivikrama at Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, the capital of the Pallava dynasty is known for its fine temple Architecture, especially the unique stone ratha structures and delicate wall carvings. Among the numerous deities represented in the Pallava wall art are a 7th century artwork that represents Trivikrama and the Mahabali episode, which is intricately carved in a panel south to the Ganesha Ratha. This Trivikrama form has eight hands wielding the usual symbols of Vishnu iconography. The left leg is lifted upto the forehead. The panel also depicts other deities namely Brahma, Shiva, Surya and Chandra. What makes the art unique is that Jambavan can also be seen playing a drum. Next to the right leg of Trivikrama are Mahabali and other Asuras, worshipping him.

Trivikrama at Ellora

The 8th Century sculpture at cave no. 15 in the Dasavatara cave complex is yet another notable representation of Trivikrama.  The typical features of Eight hands, leg raised upto the navel are depicted wheras the sword held sideways along the hip stands out as a unique feature. Similar to the art of Badami, Mahabali and his queen gifting Vamana finds its depiction here too, showing continuity.

Another notable representation of Trivikrama is the Chalukya-Hoysala sculpture displayed at the art Museum, Kolkata. Relatively simple in its form and technique, the Deity has four legs. Vamana, Mahabali and his queen are depicted. Similar sculptures are also found at Belur and Nagalapura.

The concept is also described in the major Puranas namely Vamana Purana and Harivamsha Purana. Apart from Hindu literature, Buddhist and Jain texts also provide their own version of the Vamana concept. Even though the Vamana avatar remains as one  among  the most popular forms of Lord Vishnu worshipped all over India, the Trivikrama concept was a much more older one, going all the way back to the Vedic period.  The Trivikrama and Vamana concepts might have been merged together at a later point of time. Even so, the Trivikrama form possesses an independent identity and existence of its own, free from both the concepts of Vamana avatar and Mahabali. This can be a reason why both Trivikrama and Vamana were portrayed separately in the earliest sculptures which depicted these forms. Mahabali, on the other hand, is one of the Ashta chiranjeevi or the famed eight immortals of Hindu belief, along with Parashurama, Vibhishana and Hanuman, and so, a venerated figure among devote Hindus.

A prominent rendering among the academic circles is that Vamana, after “conquering” the entire world with his strides, placed his leg on Mahabali’s head and pushed him to Patala or the underworld beneath the earth, an interpretation of which is that the entire story was the commemoration of a supposed class or race struggle in the past. However, even when Bali was introduced into the already existing legend of Trivikrama, he was never shown as being stomped down by the deity in the earliest iconographies, as we have discussed in detail above. A painting from Mankot in Kashmir painted in the early part of 18th century depicts both Mahabali and Sukracharya as fair-skinned, while the dwarf Vamana is shown as dark-skinned.

In the light of all such overwhelming evidences, can’t it be said that portraying the story of Mahabali and Vamana through the prism of casteism and racism is unhistorical? Also, since most of the iconographic depictions of this legend was found outside of the modern state of Kerala, can this legend and its characters be in anyway be restricted within the narrow borders of regionalism?