The sculpture depicting the wrathful form of the Hindu god Krishna is among the highlights of the extraordinary collection of twenty works of Indonesian art recently gifted by Michael Abbott, AO, QC, and Sue Crafter to the Art Gallery of South Australia. The ogre-like figure, featuring ten heads and multiple arms, originally formed the base of a Balinese architectural column.

The subject of a benign god in a moment of anger transforming into a monster of unimaginable ferocity, known as the pamurtian, dates back to the medieval Javanese epic The fire of love (Smaradhana). Lord Siva is disturbed in his meditation by the god of love and suddenly changes into a multi-headed monster, whose mere glance consumes the hapless deity in a fiery conflagration. To the casual eye, the pamurtian figure included in the Abbott and Crafter gift might be assumed to represent this incident. The spiked wheel held in one of the demon’s hands suggests however that the subject is Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, whose attributes includes a discus weapon.

Krishna assumes this ferocious appearance in an episode of the ancient poem The war of India (Bharata Yuddha), which remained popular in Bali until modern times. Krishna travels to the court of the Kurawa warriors, but his hosts treacherously attack him during the welcoming banquet. The poet describes the terrifying retaliation of their guest, as depicted in the sculpture:

Thereupon King Krishna, raging, stormed from the audience hall
And took the godly shape of Death the destroyer
Then with huge steps he strode, like a lion roaring,
The earth quaked, the mountains trembled,
And the ocean’s waters seethed...

James Bennett is Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in Articulate Issue 34.