Image of the fish incarnation of Vishnu from T. Maurice’s Indian Antiquities, or, Dissertations relative to the ancient geographical divisions; the pure system of primeval theology, the grand code of civil laws, the original form of government, the widely-extended commerce, and the various and profound literature of Hindostan; compared throughout with the religion, laws, government and literature of Persia, Egpyt and Greece, the whole intended as introductory to the history of Hindostan, upon a comprehensive scale (London: C&W. Galabin, 1800-12). According to Bruce Sullivan and Patricia Hall, Melville possessed a copy of Reverend Maurice’s seven volume work (see their article “The Whale Avatar of the Hindoos in Melville’s Moby Dick”, in Literature and Theology, vol 15, #4, December 2001).
Now, by all odds, the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale’s, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta, in India. The Brahmins maintain that in the almost endless sculptures of that immemorial pagoda, all the trades and pursuits, every conceivable avocation of man, were prefigured ages before any of them actually came into being. No wonder then, that in some sort our noble profession of whaling should have been there shadowed forth. The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of Leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palms of the true whale’s majestic flukes (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, this extract from chapter 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales”; full text available at http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/moby/).