Sandstone stele depicting Matsya
From central India, 9th century AD
The first incarnation of Vishnu
The Hindu god Vishnu fulfils the role of a preserver and maintainer of order in the universe. His followers believe that in times of spiritual and political decline, Vishnu descends on the earth in an avatara, or incarnation. It is generally accepted that he had ten incarnations, known as the dashavatara: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. However, different periods, sects and regions have produced others. Each of the incarnations has a myth associated with it. While some of the incarnations like Rama and Krishna have long epics devoted to their myths; others like Matsya have simpler ones.
Matsya is regarded as the first incarnation of Vishnu. In the great all-consuming flood Vishnu took the form of a fish (Matsya) to save the primeval man and the sacred Vedas. In this carved relief, Matsya carries on his back a shrine which he has saved from the waters. The stele would originally have come from a niche in a Hindu temple in Central India dating to the ninth or tenth century.
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