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Illustrations of Hindu Deities (1774-81) by Pierre Sonnerat

Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814), a French naturalist and explorer, between 1769 and 1781 traveled deep into southeast Asia and documented the religious practices, sciences, arts (and birds) of the places he visited.

In 1782 the account of his travels was published in two volumes under the title (french) 'Voyage aux Indes Orientales et a la Chine, fait par ordre du roi, depuis 1774 jusqu'en 1781. Dans lequel on traite des mœurs de la religion, des sciences & des arts des Indiens, des Chinois, des Pégouins & des Madégasses' ( Journey to the East Indies and China, Undertaken at the King's Command, from 1774 until 1781: In Which the Religious Mores, Sciences, and Arts of the Indians, the Chinese, the Pegouins, and the Madegasse are Discussed. )

Volume 1 was completely dedicated to India and Volume 2 covered the far east including China, Burma, Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Indonesia, and the Philippines.Volume 1 has some wonderful illustrations of Hindu deities (probably based on original bronze works)and Volume 2 had lot of illustrations of 'new' birds.

The book is available for free download at Google Books (Vol 1, Vol 2

A finer and more detailed copy of these  books was recently made available at the The World Digital Library - A UN funded project that let's you browse the various cultures of the entire world, region by region, using many such scholarly old books. [You can check out Pierre Sonnerat's work here]

As I browsed through the book, expecting familiar face (10 incarnation dasavatara of Vishnu were in fact the easiest to spot, only the book, unlike the conventional Hindu view,  had Parsuram as the 8th avataar, born after Rama who inturn is mentioned as the 6th) of Hindu deities in it, I was surprised by a couple of illustration, sometimes because of their names, or sometimes because of their portrayal. Here are those illustrations by Pierre Sonnerat and what I later learnt about them:

Manmadin or Kamdev -God of Love, as he is popularly known.This one was probably the easiest.

A wound, a blight, a curse, a doom,
Bowing young hearts to the tomb!

Well may storm be on the sky,

And the waters roll on high,

When MANMADIN passes by.

Earth below and heaven above

Well may bend to thee, oh Love!

- Manmadin of Letitia E. Landon's "Man- madin, the Indian Cupid, riding down the Ganges"

The cations say's it's Vairevert, but here's the interesting thing:

Vairevert, also known as Bhaironath, the third son of Shiva, created from his breath.
according to one tale: Vishnu and Brahma got into an argument over question of superiority, their weapons drawn, each claiming his own greatness; worried devtas called Shiva to mediate. Shiv, the destroyer, erected a firewall between the two and asked them to measure it to the end and whoever reaches the end first - wins. So one God went up into the heaven and the other God went down into nether-world. Soon both realized that the wall was infinite. Both returned to Shiva. Vishnu admitted defeat. Sensing an opportunity, Brahma lied and said he had reached the end. Shiva got angry and out of his angry breath was born Bhaironath, Lord of Terrible, who pulled off the lying fifth head of Brahma with his nail .

According to (an ingeniously named) Southey's Common-place Book (1851)
 by Robert Southey:
Vairevert, the third son of Eswara, was created from his breath, to overthrow the pride of the Deverkels and the Penitents, and to humble Brahma, who had vaunted that he was the greatest of the three gods. Vairevert pulled off one of Brahma's heads, and received the blood of all the Deverkels and Penitents in the skull; but afterwards brought them to life again, and gave them purer hearts. This is the god who by Eswara's command will come to destroy the world at the end of the ages. He is blue, three-eyed, with two tusks like crescents, a collar of heads round his neck, falling on his stomach ; his girdle is made of serpents, his hair of a fire colour, bells are on his feet, he rides a dog."
Notice the word wall. Now look at the below give illustration from  Pierre Sonnerat's book.

Caption reads - Virapatren.

Virapatren or Virbhadra was born of Shiva's anger to punish Daksha, father of Sati.
The one tale:  Daksha, father of Shiva's wife Sati, threw a party for gods, organised a great yagna, but forgot to invite Shiva. Sati being the daughter, still went to attend this fare. Daksha proceeded to insult Shiva with his words. Unable to bear the gross insult being heaped on her husband by her very own father, Sati jumped into the fire pyre meant for yagna and thus she went Sati. Shiva flew into rage when he heard about his wife's death. Out of this rage was born Virbhadra who unleashed havoc on the party. Dakha had his head cut off and thrown into the pyre at his hands. After Shiva calmed down, he brought back Daskha to life giving his head of a goat.

In the image notice the figure with folded hands on the left and the pillar on the right. The attendant is certainly Daksha, Prajapati with his newly acquired goat head. But the pillar in the image reminds one of Vairevert.

According to some traditional tellings, both these forms - Virbhadra and Bhaironath - are that of angry Shiva. So, probably the pillar is an indicator to his previous form.

If according to Shiva Stories - Vairevert will end Kalyug then Vishnu tales, more famously talk about Kalki. Famously as there is even a quirky novel from late 1970s written by quirky American writer, Gore Vidal, in which an American with  "a single blond tuft of hair, a sure sign of divinity." claims to be Kalki and manages to end the world - but the things still don't work out.

Image: Horse headed 10th incarnation of Vishnu


Prostrations to Shri Ravinandana(Saturn, Shani), by whose unfavorable position
Gods, demons, celestial beings, celestial musicians, wisdom-teachings masters
And even celestial snakes succumb to sufferings.

-  lines from Shani Dasharatha Stotra

Found this image very interesting because of snakes.
Shani, lord of Saturday, rides Crow or Vulture or, like in this image - a Cuckoo bird. Interestingly, Shani Dev temple ( popular as known as Kokilavan Dham), at Kosi Kalan near Mathura (U.P.) links Shani, Krishna and Cuckoo.


Dharam dev as Bull.

I had read about it: According to the 'Bull  Metaphor' of  'Law Giver' Manu and in the stories from Puranas - Dharma Bull loses a limb at the start of each  - increasingly unrighteous - yuga.


Took me sometime to recognize this one. The toe sucking pose didn't help.

Vatapatrachai, in french.
Toe sucking...then I remembered.

Vatapatra-Sayin - Vishnu in form of a toddler joyfully sucking his right toe, floating on a Banyan tree leaf, while the universe drowns - the world safe in baby's belly - even as Brahma dies in the great deluge. The the world start's a fresh from his navel.

This was the most difficult and certainly the most interesting illustration.

Mou Devi. I was thinking, maybe, goddess of measles or smallpox. But that's Sheetala.

The french caption 'déesse de la Discorde et de la Misere' translates (thanks to google) as 'goddess of discord and misery'
Has to be Sheetala of North, Harita/Hariti - 'the green one' - the goddess of smallpox from Gandhara art Kushan dynasty, the demon goddess of 500 children who was reformed by Buddha.

In the end, the trail led me to an ancient goddess temple in Kashmir.

Mou Devi, who is this goddess - the one riding a donkey, and carrying a crow banner, the one not particularly 'beautiful' ?

Pierre Sonnerat, in his book, (again) mentions Moudevi and 'Churing of Sea' and (in this version) how it produced three goddesses - Saraswati (claimed by Brahma), Laxmi (claimed by Vishnu) and Moudevi (unclaimed).

Southey's Common-place book added that Moudevi is often represented green.

 A book called 'Roles and Rituals for Hindu women' by Julia Leslie (1992), that in details mentions a goddess named Jyestha, offered final clues.

 Jyestha is often in Tamil called Kakkaikkodiyal (crow-bannered) the one who ride a donkey (Khararudha). Crow is the bringer of bad luck and femine. And the goddess often carries a broom.

In some parts of India, particularly North(in south as Mariamman?), she is identified as Sitla or Sheetala (Aha!) who also carries a broom and rides a donkey.

(Julia Leslie wrote her book, ''In none of the images at my disposal is Jyestha shown with a 'vehicle' or mount". 1992, internet was in infancy. )

So who is Jyestha ' Elder' - 'Misfortune'?

The story , most of them lead to Sagar Manthan or Churning of the  Sea. Apparently, she was the second thing that came out of the sea, just after poison, and finds herself unwanted as she is inauspicious. According to another story, she is in fact Mohini, the female seductress form of Vishnu who saves the Amrit (elixir) from Asuras (demons).

Religions de l'antiquité, tr. refondu completé et dévelopé par J.D. Guigniaut [and others] by Georg Friedrich Creuzer, published 1825, (french had a lot to say about Moudevi) also talked about 'Moudevi' and gave her alternate name as "Mahadevi and "Bhoudevi", born of churning of sea, second wife of Vishnu.

But, Julia Leslie, in her book, did not link Moudevi with Jyestha. In fact, the name 'Moudevi' is not mentioned. Julia Leslie also mentions Lingapurana according to which Jyestha, the first one born from Sagar Manthan and married off to a hermit who couldn't control her unreligious beliefs that make her, feel at ease among "the false mendicant (bhksubimba), the naked Jain monk (ksapanka), and the Buddhist (bauddha)."

According to some other traditions, Jyestha was taken in by Eshwara (Shiva).

As I read about Jyestha and Eshwara, I remembered the Zeethyar temple of Srinagar that I visited in the summer of year 2008. The place has a spring dedicated to Zeestha Devi and it's origin also mentions churning of the sea. The temple, where meat (particularly goat liver) offerings are still the norm, is situated at  the foothills of Zabarwan in the vicinity (a mile) of famous Shankaracharya Hill spot of Shiv temple dedicated to Jyesthesvara.


Here are the rest of the illustrations of Hindu gods from the book by Pierre Sonnerat. In all there are 29 works on Hindu deities, plus an image of a Shiv Ling and a scene depicting Rath Yatra. Enjoy!


  1. Okay I am confused---

    How come balarama is given as a avataar of vishnu??? As far as i remember he was a avataar of the serpent on which vishnu lies...

    And definately Pashuram has to be the 6th avataar. Only then Ram breaking his bow makes any sense...

    Regarding Mou Devi, I am not sure she will be Sheetla...Once every year I do have to worship her. I have never notice any flag with a crow on it... Though she do rides a donkey but she doesnt have a broom but seems more of a club or a mace. Not sure if down the years broom got mixed with club. Plus Sheetla never looked noticeably not beautiful. Though her association with misery would be totally correct... Justgoing to her shrine and worshipping her is a misery for me..

    And Vatapatrachai or that baby is first time i have heard of. If world starts fresh from his navel then how come Brahma is credited with creation of the world? Iam confused


  2. Smit,
    it is always confusing. May be, it is meant to be!
    Even I have heard of Baklram as an avataar of Ananta-Sesha. But (Vaishnavite) Bhagavata Purana lists (among 25 other avataars) Balram as an avatar of Vishnu.
    There are lot of other (around 18) Puranas - really purana stories, that tell different versions depending upon which sect wrote them. Some also mention Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Even the Kalki in Sonnerat's illustration looks a lot like Hayagriva - the horse avataar of Vishnu that is also found in Buddhism. There are also different version about the origin of the Hindu universe - hence the surprise at Vatapatrachai.

    Regarding Mou devi or Sheetala,
    i think what you thought a mace all your life, if you look closely and think about it, will turn out to be a broom.
    At one time she was supposed to be the most powerful goddess because of the death and destruction that she could bring. But as almost no one dies of pox diseases these days, her hold has all but waned. I read that these days her name is often invoked if one is suffering from a bad case of summer rashes.

  3. Your blog is so wonderfully distracting! I'm supposed to be writing a paper on early nationalism and instead I'm lost in the Sonnerat books and those pictures of Madhubala.

  4. My apologies :) I have been asked a couple of time to put a disclaimer warning innocent readers that this blog might suck you into a vicious time-warp. But waylaying is just too much fun.


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