18th century, 19th century
Southern India, Tamil Nadu
Each Tamil temple has its annual calendar of auspicious celebrations known as utsavas or events to 'drive out sorrow'. Chief among these are the temple processions in which ceremonial bronze images of the deity (utsavamurti) are carried beyond the temple compound on poles, on their animal vehicles (vahanas), or in chariots drawn by devotees.
Great care is taken in dressing the portable images of the deity in regal splendour - the gods are bathed with purified water and sandalwood ash, and then dressed in a gold embellished silk sari and bedecked with jewellery. The processional images are secured on their vehicles and sheltered by a canopy or large umbrellas from the harsh heat of the day. Only the officiating priests are permitted to travel with the utsavamurti on the moving platform, receiving offerings and dispensing blessings on behalf of the deity. The processions are designed to allow the deity to visit his 'territory' and mark out his authority. The procession proceeds slowly through the town, stopping at regular intervals for rest and to provide further opportunities for devotees to experience darshan.
During utsavams hosted by temples dedicated to Vishnu or one of his avatars, the idol of the deity - in some instances, accompanied by his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi - is mounted on a large model of his vahana, the mythical bird Garuda. The Garuda vahana is usually carved in neem (vembu) or teak (tekku) wood and either painted in bright colours or clad in metal sheet.
This particular example follows the customary depiction of Garuda as having the wings and beak of an eagle and the face, limbs and body of a man. The figure is represented kneeling on a rectangular pedestal, with the left knee on the ground and the right leg, half-bent, with the foot resting on the ground. In keeping with the descriptions of Garuda in the scriptures, the face is painted white, the wings and body red, and the ornaments and garments gold. Venomous snakes are wound around his body. Garuda's forehead bears the Vaishnavite symbol 'namamu'. His hands are raised upwards, with the palms open ready to bear the feet of his Lord, Vishnu when he rides astride his shoulders.