BRITISH MUSEUM – Gallery Talk by Hilary Lewis Ruttley

Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery (Room 33) 

Saturday 30th June 2018, 1.15-2pm

Beautiful and terrifying: Encounters with gods of the Hindu Pantheon, their travel and residences

The pot is a God. The winnowing fan is a God. The stone in the street is a God. The comb is a God. The bowstring is also a God. The bushel is a God and the spouted cup is a God.

Gods, gods, there are so many there's no place left for a foot.*

So many – expressing the innumerable forms, qualities, energies and immeasurable possibilities of encounter and experience with the Divine. 

Single and omnipresent, the Divine is intrinsic within the visible world of landscape, the organics of nature and of human construct. Temples, village, household and wayside shrines contain divine images, the walls of shops and the sides of buses, taxis and carts are decorated with depictions of the gods.  Holy sites and the natural features of India’s sacred geography  are embedded, charismatically, with associations of their relevant gods and goddesses. They are places of pilgrimage; here the presence of the Divine may be experienced in the sense of place and in darshan, by meeting the eyes of a consecrated image in an auspicious gaze of seeing and being seen by, the deity.

Intrinsic in the divine image too, is the immensity of experience of what it is to be human, our intellects, psyche, bodies, minds, life and death.  Engagement with it leads the mind to sense Plato’s vision of an ‘irresistible harmony with the deepest reality in the world’. The hard reality of life is interwoven with another reality, an intuitive, felt reality that impacts powerfully.  To say there are 330 million and more gods of the Hindu pantheon is to express the vastness of the Divine reality.  It is that same, single divine reality which reveals itself in countless forms.  Through them, spiritual connection is witnessed, sensed and described in the images in which artists and craftsmen have sought to imbue experience of it. Such encounters confer blessings.




The Hindu image is a complex visual vocabulary. As artistic creation, it is part of a sacred process of making, of consecration by invoking the deity, and of caring for it with flowers, precious substances, food, jewels, incense and silks. Attributes of beauty and heroism are matched by the savage and violent. The same deity appears in different persona, powerfully charged with dramatic, contrasting energies and forms. Animals, birds, reptiles and imaginary composite creatures accompany, serve and are vehicles, lending their own nature as extensions of association. 

Art, revelation and religious practice come together in a matrix of meaning sourced in philosophy, literature, mythology, epic and ritual. Simultaneously, these images are surrounded by story-telling while standing alive as art with spiritual energy.  

This talk, focussing on the images of Hindu gods displayed in the Hotung South Asia Gallery, will look at the arc deities of the Hindu pantheon.  It will look at them ‘from the outside’  as part of the history of Indian art as well as ‘from the inside’ as foci of equally varied forms of devotion and worship.  

Basava 12C; poem ‘Lord of the Meeting Rivers’; original language Kannada; trans. A.K.Ramanujan


Look out for the sequel to this Talk in the Hotung Gallery

(Room 33) on July 14: 

Apsaras and Ghandharvas: dance and music celestial and seductive

This Gallery Talk looks at the demi-gods and supernatural beings of Hindu cosmology.  Chimaera-like, many can change form, occupying and moving around various worlds intermediate between earth and heaven.  Visually and icongraphically, they are important counter-points who interact with the arc, cosmic deities.  Their iconographic representation and roles can be seen to have changed over time but the continuity of certain visual forms suggests evidence of religious practices drawn from an ancient sub-stratum of non-Vedic, pre-Buddhist cults.  There is a challenging discussion also to be had in relation to later depictions in historical and contemporary art and religious practice and to the dancers and musicians associated with temple traditions.