This standing sculpture of the Hindu god Vishnu illustrates the amalgamation of styles that distinguishes Kashmiri sculpture of this period. While the idealized proportions, smooth body, and simple garments and jewelry of the god reflect the style of art that was widespread in north India from the 4th through 6th centuries,the interest in musculature derives from northwest Indian traditions of the 1st and 2nd centuries that were influenced by Hellenistic and Roman art.
One of the most important gods of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu appears on earth in many avatars or forms--some human, some animal, and some hybrid. Two of these forms, a lion and a giant boar, are symbolized by the two additional heads on this sculpture. As the man-lion (Narasimha), Vishnu is believed to have saved his devotee Prahlada from the wrath of her father, who worshipped Shiva. As Varaha the giant boar, Vishnu rescued the earth from drowning during a great flood. Both forms signify Vishnu's function as a preserver of individuals, the world, and the cosmos.
Images such as this one that combine two of Vishnu's manifestations are called Vishnu Vaikuntha. However, the fangs seen in the central face link this representation of Vishnu Vaikuntha with a four-headed form that was very popular in Kashmir owing to the presence of a certain sect devoted to Vishnu. Known as Vishnu Chaturmurti, this four-headed form includes a demonic head at the back as well as the three faces of the Vaikuntha form. The Vishnu Chaturmurti type is interpreted as a representation of Vishnu's powers as well as a referenceto some of his more famous and beloved descents. Images of Vishnu in the form of the four-headed Chaturmurti were also popular in the area around the Indian city of Mathura during the first centuries of the Common Era; the importance of this type of image in later Kashmiri art is one example of the preservation of iconographic types for which Kashmir is noted.
Vishnu holds a lotus and a conch shell. The figures standing to either side of Vishnu are personifications of the club and the wheel; the anthropomorphic depiction of these attributes also continues early Indian practices.