Krishna Killing the Horse Demon Keshi, Gupta period (ca. 321–500), 5th century
India (Uttar Pradesh)
Terracotta; H. 21 in. (53.3 cm)
Purchase, Florence and Herbert Irving Gift, 1991 (1991.300)
Vishnu appears in innumerable guises (avatars) on earth but none is more popular than that of Krishna, the warrior-king who freed his people from demonic threats. On one occasion, the youthful Krishna slayed the demon Keshi, who appeared in the guise of a horse. This subject probably has its origins in Hellenistic legends, most notably the labors of Hercules in which the Greek hero slays the horses of Diomedes. In this terracotta relief, Krishna restrains the ferocious Keshi with his foot while thrusting his elbow down the beast's throat. Below the combatants are the dead horse and balls of dung emitted at the moment of death. The graphically observed rendering of the subject is a reminder of the importance of horse sacrifices in early Indian Vedic cult practices, of which this Krishna myth undoubtedly preserves a memory. Temple building began in earnest in India only in the Gupta period, and these brick and stone structures typically were decorated with terracotta plaques of this type for which Krishna was a popular subject.