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Fantastic and Functional Animals in Indian Art

Animal Symbols of the Kings of the Twelve Heavens of the Vaimanika Gods, 1663–64, Indian

Fantastic and Functional Animals explores the many meanings of the subcontinent’s scaly, feathered, and furry inhabitants, both natural and supernatural. From ants to owls, cranes to crocodiles, animals populate the art of India. Rather than merely being part of the landscape, these creatures almost always play specific roles as characters in a story, symbols, or poetic metaphors. Each Hindu god and goddess has an animal vahana (vehicle) that underscores some important aspects of the deity: the martial goddess Durga rides a powerful lion; a virile bull acts as the mount of the ardent ascetic god Shiva; and Indra, Lord of the Skies, sits astride a cloud-white elephant. At times the gods themselves take on animal form, as when Vishnu incarnated as a tortoise to help create the earth.

Animal characters are central to the grand religious epics of India. Some, like the monkey-general Hanuman, are heroes in their own right while others, like the wish-granting cow, Kamadhenu, are magical creatures. Animals also play a variety of roles in folktales, especially in the ancient series of moral fables known as the Panchatantra. Some animals, such as birds and deer, regularly appear as poetic metaphors for love or longing. Animals may also be associated with the seasons and animal imagery pervades manuals for interpreting dreams.

Equally important, animals fill a host of functions in everyday life. Cattle have long been vital to India’s agrarian economy. Horses, elephants, and camels were major forms of transportation and were crucial in battle. Hunting with hawks and dogs constituted a primary pastime for kings and courtiers, and elephant combats were also popular in the palace.