India Through the Eyes of Europe

BY: SUN STAFF - 15.12 2017

During the sixteenth century, from the Greeks onward, "India" was a general name in Europe for the most remote lands to the East. Alexander the Great's campaigns (326-324 B.C.) in the Indus valley inaugurated a period of more direct intercourse which markedly broadened the latitudes of fact and fantasy about Asia to the east of Persia. In addition to factual accounts of Alexander's exploits, a host of imaginary stories became associated with the great Macedonian's name. Overland trade with India helped to produce even greater awareness of the people on the Indian subcontinent.

While India and China were better known to the Romans than to the Greeks, very little factual information about the East came to Europe during the Middle Ages. In this millennium (300-1300) the myths of the past were Christianized and new geographical fantasies were added to the European picture of the East.

In the popular European imagination, "India" was a synonym for wealth - gold, precious stones, pearls, and spices. It was also a land of monsters and demons, which existed somewhere to the east of the terrestrial paradise of the Christians. Not only did 16th century travelers to India come back with stories that appeared wild to the Christian imagination, they also returned with books and art that contained stories and representations of the demons and demigods found throughout Vedic literature.

With little knowledge to help them understand such images, the Europeans reinterpreted the information through their own filters. Duplicating many of the traditional art images coming from India, they embellished them or filled in the blank's, taking symbols or motifs that were familiar to them. Thus, in the sphere of Bhumi perched upon Lord Varaha's tusks, from our first piece I this series, we see the appearance of a very European steeple. This was drawn in the place of a more typical temple spire, which may have been dimly represented in another authentic Indian picture.

In today's image, we see Lord Kalki, the tenth Visnu avatar who will come at the end of Kali Yuga. The engraver here has created a very fair representation, showing Lord Kalki in his human form, leading the horse he will ride into his Yuga pastimes.

In a very pastoral scene, we have a beautiful hillside in the background. Positioned high above the scene is a pagoda, quite similar to those seen throughout Bengal.

In the foreground of the picture, we have a somewhat peculiar combination of flora and fauna. Mixed together in the scene is a broad-leafed planet with intriguing stripes, two uprights that look like Hollyhocks from a proper English garden, and a very Zen-like bonsai tree. The artist has covered his bases in striving for plants that might fit the exotic environment.

Lord Kalki is resplendent in beautiful dhoti, shawl and garlands. He holds a chakra and sword, and wears an Anglo looking crown. Perched atop it is a beautiful beautiful peacock feather in reverse colors, black on white.

The Lord's horse is winged and bedecked in fine plumes, saddlery and hock (feet) covers that are somewhat reminiscent of the Lipizzaners.

While the engraving has a definite European feel, it is also a fair representation of the traditional form of Lord Kalki in most regards.

Ed note: Portions of the text above are quoted from an exhibit book written and produced by the curators of the 1990 University of Chicago show of these works, mentioned in our article of January 14th.