A sensuous goddess caresses the snout of Vishnu avatar Varaha, the boar.
India is known as a land of religions. Four major faiths were born here (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism), though Hinduism remains dominant, adhered to by three-fourths of Indian people. At 5,000 years old, Hinduism is an ancient religion – and a complex one with many sacred texts and deities, three of whom are said to rule the world: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. To protect the world in times of evil or ignorance, Hindus believe that Vishnu descends to earth by incarnating himself in different forms (avatars).
At Rani ki Vav, the Dashavatara – or 10 avatars of Vishnu – parade along a terrace wall at level three. This important frieze underscores the role of stepwells as a place of Hindu ritual – a kind of subterranean temple. The Dashavatara carvings are so exquisite and so significant that the laser scanning team used a sub-millimeter structured light scanner to capture the images (see Panels A and B). Among Vishnu’s avatars is Varaha (the boar), venerated because he killed a mighty demon. Matsya (the fish) is thought to be the first avatar, followed by Kurma (the tortoise). Vamana (the dwarf) can change into a giant, and Narasimha (half man, half lion) cannot be killed by man or beast. Parashurama is a warrior with an axe. Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are heroic figures, while the tenth avatar, Kalki, has yet to appear. He sits on a white horse with his sword drawn, waiting for the end of the present epoch, or kali-yuga, when unrighteousness and evil will be destroyed. Vishnu is attended by apsarās, heavenly female dancers who appear in great numbers at Rani ki Vav. Some apsarās are benign, looking in a mirror or applying lipstick; others, perhaps holding a skull cup or a club made of bone, represent sinister cults, while still others are erotic maidens with serpents crawling over their limbs.