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Varaha and Vishnu
The third Avatar of Vishnu
Varaha avtar, killing a demon to protect Bhu, c1740.jpg
Varaha, c. 1740 Chamba painting
WeaponSudarshana chakra and Kaumodaki gada

Varaha (Sanskrit: वराह, Varāha, "boar") is the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu who takes the form of a boar to rescue goddess earth.[1] Varaha is listed as third in the Dashavatara, the ten principal avatars of Vishnu.[1][2][3]

In Hindu mythology, when the demon Hiranyaksha tormented the earth (personified as the goddess Bhudevi) and its inhabitants, Bhudevi was sank into the primordial waters. Vishnu took the form of the Varaha, descended into the depths of the oceans to rescue her. Varaha slew the demon and retrieved the Earth from the ocean, lifting Bhudevi on his tusks, thereby restoring her place in the universe.[1][4][5]

Varaha may be depicted completely as a boar or in an anthropomorphic form, with a boar's head and human body. The rescued earth lifted by Varaha is often depicted as a young woman called Bhudevi. The earth may be depicted as a mass of land balanced on his tusk.Varaha is a major deity in Vaikhanasas, Sri Vaishnavism and Madhwa Brahmins traditions


The Sanskrit word Varāha (Devanagari: वराह) means "wild boar" and comes from the Proto-Indo-Iranian term uarāĵʰá, meaning boar. It is thus related to Avestan varāza, Kurdish beraz, Middle Persian warāz, and New Persian gorāz (گراز), all meaning "wild boar".[6]

The word Varaha is found in Rigveda, for example, in its verses such as 1.88.5, 8.77.10 and 10.28.4 where it means "wild boar".[6][7] It also means "rain cloud" and is symbolic in some hymns, such as Vedic deity Vritra being called a Varaha in Rigvedic verses 1.61.7 and 10.99.6, and Soma's epithet being Varaha in 10.97.7.[8][9] Later the rain-relationship led the connotation of the term evolve into vara-aharta, which means "bringer of good things".[9]


Like Vishnu's first two avatars – Matsya (fish) and Kurma (turtle) – the third avatar Varaha is depicted either in zoomorphic form as an animal (a wild boar), or anthropomorphically. The main difference in the anthropomorphic form portrayal is that the first two avatars are depicted with a torso of a man and the bottom half as animal, while Varaha has an animal (boar) head and a human body.[1][2] The portrayal of the anthropomorphic Varaha is similar to the fourth avatar Narasimha (portrayed as a lion-headed man), who is the first avatar of Vishnu that is not completely animal.

Zoomorphic Varaha, Khajuraho. On its body are carved saints, sages, gods, seven mothers and numerous beings which he symbolically protects. The goddess earth is ruined and missing.[10]

In the zoomorphic form, Varaha is often depicted as a free-standing boar colossus, for example, the monolithic sculpture of Varaha in Khajuraho (c. 900-925) made in sandstone, is 2.6 metres (8 ft 6 in) long and 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) high.[11] The sculpture may not resemble a boar realistically, and may have his features altered for stylistic purposes. The earth, personified as the goddess Bhudevi, clings to one of Varaha's tusks. Often the colossus is decorated by miniature figurines of gods and goddesses and other world creatures appearing all over his body, which signify the whole of creation. Such sculptures are found in Eran,[11] Muradpur, Badoh, Gwalior, Jhansi and Apasadh.[12][13]

In the anthropomorphic form, Varaha often has a stylized boar face, like the zoomorphic models. The snout may be shorter. The position and size of the tusks may also be altered. The ears, cheeks and eyes are generally based on human ones. Early sculptors in Udayagiri and Eran faced the issue of how to attach the boar head to the human body and did not show a human neck. However, in Badami, the problem was resolved by including a human neck. While some sculptures show a mane, it is dropped and replaced by a high conical crown – typical of Vishnu iconography – in others. Varaha sculptures generally look up to the right; there are very rare instances of left-facing Varaha depictions.[12]

Varaha has four arms, two of which hold the Sudarshana chakra (discus) and shankha (conch), while the other two hold a gada (mace), a sword, or a lotus or one of them makes the varadamudra (gesture of blessing). Varaha may be depicted with all of Vishnu'a attributes in his four hands: the Sudarshana chakra, the shankha, the gada and the lotus. Sometimes, Varaha may carry only two of Vishnu's attributes: a shankha and the gada personified as a female called Gadadevi. Varaha is often shown with a muscular physique and in a heroic pose. He is often depicted triumphantly emerging from the ocean as he rescues the earth.[1][12][14][15][16]

A rare right-facing Varaha holding Bhudevi, 7th century CE, Mahabalipuram.

The earth may be personified as the goddess Bhudevi in Indian sculpture. Bhudevi is often shown as a small figure in the icon. She may be seated on or dangling from one of Varaha's tusks, or is seated on the corner of his folded elbow or his shoulder and supports herself against the tusk or the snout, as being lifted from the waters. In later Indian paintings, the whole earth or a part of it is depicted lifted up by Varaha's tusks. In Mahabalipuram, a rare portrayal shows an affectionate Varaha looking down to Bhudevi, who he carries in his arms. The earth may be portrayed as a globe, a flat stretch of mountainous land or an elaborate forest landscape with buildings, temples, humans, birds and animals. The defeated demon may be depicted trampled under Varaha's feet or being killed in combat by Varaha's gada. Nagas (snake gods) and their consorts Naginis (snake goddesses), residents of the underworld, may be depicted as swimming in the ocean with hands folded as a mark of devotion. Varaha may be also depicted standing on a snake or other minor creatures, denoting the cosmic waters.[1][12][14][15][16]

The Udayagiri Caves Varaha panel is an example of an elaborate depiction of Varaha legend. It presents the goddess earth as the dangling woman, the hero as the colossal giant. His success is cheered by a galaxy of the divine as well as human characters valued and revered in the 4th-century. Their iconography of individual characters is found in Hindu texts.[4][5]

A wide image of Vishnu-Varaha rescuing Goddess Earth.
The Varaha panel in Cave 5 is one of the most studied reliefs from the Gupta Empire era. It narrates the Hindu mythology about a man-boar avatar of Vishnu (Varaha) rescuing goddess earth (Bhudevi, Prithivi) from the depths of cosmic ocean.

The panel shows (the number corresponds to the attached image):[4]

  1. Vishnu as Varaha
  2. Goddess earth as Prithivi
  3. Brahma (sitting on lotus)
  4. Shiva (sitting on Nandi)
  5. Adityas (all have solar halos)
  6. Agni (hair on fire)
  7. Vayu (hair airy, puffed up)
  8. Ashtavasus (with 6&7, Vishnu Purana)
  9. Ekadasa Rudras or eleven Rudras (ithyphalic, third eye)
  10. Ganadevatas
  11. Rishis (Vedic sages, wearing barks of trees, a beard, carrying water pot and rosary for meditation)
  12. Samudra
  13. Gupta Empire minister Virasena
  14. Gupta Empire king Chandragupta II
  15. Nagadeva
  16. Lakshmi
  17. More Hindu sages (incomplete photo; these include the Vedic Saptarishis)
  18. Sage Narada playing guitar
  19. Sage Tumburu playing Vina

Two iconographical forms of Varaha are popular. Yajna Varaha – denoting yajna (sacrifice) – is seated on a lion-throne and flanked by Bhudevi and Lakshmi.[1] As Pralaya Varaha – indicative of lifting the earth from the stage of the pralaya (the dissolution of the universe) – he is depicted only with Bhudevi.[1] Varaha may be depicted with Lakshmi alone too. In such sculptures, he may be depicted identically to Vishnu in terms of iconography with Vishnu's attributes; the boar head identifying the icon as Varaha. Lakshmi may be seated on his thigh in such portrayals.[17]

Varaha often features in the Dashavatara stele – where the ten major avatars of Vishnu are portrayed – sometimes surrounding Vishnu. In the Vaikuntha Vishnu (four-headed Vishnu) images, the boar is shown as the left head. Varaha's shakti (energy or consort) is the Matrika (mother goddess) Varahi, who is depicted with a boar head like the god.[12]


Varaha stands on Nagas, rises from the waters with the earth (Bhudevi) on his elbow, National Museum, New Delhi.

Varaha was originally described as a form of Brahma, but later on evolved into the avatar of Vishnu.[1] The earliest versions of the Varaha legend are found in the Taittiriya Aranyaka and the Shatapatha Brahmana.[3] They narrate that the universe was primordial waters. The earth was the size of a hand and was trapped in it. The god Prajapati (Brahma) in the form of a boar (varaha) plunges into the waters and brings the earth out. He also marries the earth thereafter. The Shatapatha Brahmana calls the boar as Emusha.[3] According to J. L. Brockington, there are two distinct boar mythologies in Vedic literature. In one, he is depicted as a form of Prajapati, in other an asura name Emusha is a boar that fights Indra and Vishnu. In section 14.1.2 of the Shatapatha Brahmana, these two myths are merged, Emusha is conflated into Prajapati.[18]

The epics are the first to associate Varaha with Vishnu.[1][19] The legends in the epics begin with a demon Hiranyaksha stealing goddess earth and throwing her into cosmic ocean. Vishnu fights the injustice, kills the demon and rescues earth.[3] Various Puranas including the Agni Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Devi Bhagavata Purana, the Padma Purana, the Varaha Purana, the Vayu Purana and the Vishnu Purana narrate the legend of Varaha, but these stories vary in their details.[1][20][21]

In some of the Puranas, the story begins with gate-keepers of Vishnu's abode Vaikuntha, Jaya and Vijaya. They once block the four Kumaras, sages who roam the world in the form of children, from visiting Vishnu. The sages curse Jaya and Vijaya that they be born as asuras (demons). The two are born on earth as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu to the sage Kashyapa and his wife Diti and were one of the Daityas, a race of demons originating from Diti. The demon brothers are manifestations of pure evil and create havoc in the universe. The elder brother Hiranyaksha practises tapas (austerities) and is blessed by Brahma with a boon that makes him indestructible by any animal or human. He and his brother torment the inhabitants of earth as well as the gods and engage in war with the latter. Hiranyaksha kidnaps the earth (personified as the goddess Bhudevi) and hides her in the primordial waters. In some versions of the tale, the earth gives a loud cry of distress as she is kidnapped by the demon; in others, she assumes the form of a cow and appeals to Vishnu to rescue her from the clutches of the demon. In some variants, the distressed gods led by Brahma along with the sages go to Vishnu for help.[1][20][21] In some versions, the earth sinks to Rasatala (underworld) due to the weight of mountains or because the demon Hiranyaksha tormenting the earth and its inhabitants.[1] In either case, when Varaha tries to rescue earth, he is attacked by the demon.[1]

Since Hiranyaksha had not included the boar in the list of animals that would not be able to kill him, Vishnu assumes this form with huge tusks and goes down to the primordial ocean. In the Bhagavata Purana, Varaha emerges as a tiny beast (a size of a thumb) from the nostrils of Brahma, but soon starts to grow. Varaha's size increases to that of an elephant and then to that of an enormous mountain. The scriptures emphasize his gigantic size. The Vayu Purana describes Varaha as 10 yojanas (The range of a yojana is disputed and ranges between 6–15 kilometres (3.7–9.3 mi)) in width and a 1000 yojanas in height. He is large as a mountain and blazing like the sun. Dark like a rain cloud in complexion, his tusks are white, sharp and fearsome. His body is the size of the space between the earth and the sky. His thunderous roar is frightening. In one instance, his mane is so fiery and fearsome that Varuna, the god of the waters, requests Varaha to save him from it. Varaha complies and folds his mane.[1][20][21]

Varaha tramples the fallen demon with Bhudevi on his shoulder, Hoysaleswara Temple.

In the ocean, Varaha encounters Hiranyaksha, who obstructs his path and challenges him to a duel. In some versions, the demon also mocks Varaha as the beast and warns him not to touch earth. Ignoring the demon's threats, Varaha lifts the earth on his tusks. Hiranyaksha charges towards the boar in rage with a mace. The two fiercely fight with maces. Finally, Varaha slays the demon. Varaha rises from the ocean with the earth in his tusks and places her gently above it in her original position, as the gods and the sages applaud Varaha's rescue.[1][20][21]

In one version, the earth goddess is called Bhumi Devi. She falls in love and marries her rescuer Varaha true form, the Maha Vishnu.[20] Bhudevi gives birth to Varaha's son, an asura called Narakasura.[22]

Varaha Purana states that it was narrated by Vishnu to Bhudevi, as Varaha.[1] Some Saiva Puranas narrate a tale in which the god Shiva takes the form of a winged lion and defeats Varaha. In the minor Purana named Kalika Purana, for example, Varaha and Bhudevi have three boar sons named Suvrtta, Kanaka and Ghora. They create mayhem in the world, which Varaha ignores out of affection for his sons. The gods go to Varaha and remind him of the dharma. Vishnu's soul then returns to Vaikuntha, requests Shiva to take the form of Sharabha (also called Varaha Shiva), to kill the body of Varaha and the three sources of havoc.[1][23]


In the Vishnu Purana, Varaha represents yajna (sacrifice), as the eternal upholder of the earth. Roshen Dalal describes the symbolism of his iconography, in this text as follows:[1] "His feet represent the Vedas (scriptures). His tusks represent sacrificial stakes. His teeth are offerings. His mouth is the altar, tongue is the sacrificial fire. The hair on his head denotes the sacrificial grass. The eyes represent the day and the night. The head represents the seat of all. The mane represents the hymns of the Vedas. His nostrils are the oblation. His joints represent the various ceremonies. The ears are said to indicate rites (voluntary and obligatory)." Thus, states Vishnu Purana, the Varaha is the embodiment of the Supreme Being who brings order amidst chaos in the world by his sacrifice.[1] Varaha symbolizes the resurrection of the earth.[1]

A different interpretation of the Varaha iconography is one that describes the role of warrior king, rescuing goddess earth (kingdom) from a demon who kidnaps her, torments her and the inhabitants. It is a symbolism for the battle between right versus wrong, good versus evil, and of someone willing to go to the depths and do what is necessary to rescue the good, the right, the dharma.[10][4][24][25][5] He is the protector of the innocent goddess and the weak who have been imprisoned by the demonic forces.[4][24][16] The sculpture typically show the symbolic scene of the return of Varaha after he had successfully killed the oppressive demon Hiranyaksha, found and rescued goddess earth (Prithivi, Bhudevi), and the goddess is back safely.[24] Whether in the zoomorphic form or the anthropomorphic form, the victorious hero Varaha is accompanied by sages and saints of Hinduism, all gods including Shiva and Brahma. This symbolizes that just warriors must protect the weak and the bearers of all forms of knowledge and that the gods approve of and cheer on the rescue.[24][25][4]

Sculpture and temples

Coin with Varaha (Vishnu Avatar) on a Gurjara-Pratihara coin 850–900 CE, British Museum.

The earliest Varaha images are found in Mathura, dating to the 1st and 2nd century CE.[1] The Gupta era (4th–6th century) in Central India temples and archaeological sites have yielded a large number of Varaha sculptures and inscriptions.[16][26] These include the anthropomorphic version in Udayagiri Caves and the zoomorphic version in Eran.[1][25][24] Other early sculptures exist in the cave temples in Badami in Karnataka (6th century) and Varaha Cave Temple in Mahabalipuram (7th century); both in South India and Ellora Caves (7th century) in Western India.[1][12] By the 7th century, images of Varaha were found in all regions of India.[1][16] By the 10th century, temples dedicated to Varaha were established in Khajuraho (existent, but worship has ceased), Udaipur, Jhansi (now in ruins) etc.[1][26]

The Chalukya dynasty (543–753) was the first dynasty to adopt Varaha in their crest and minted coins with Varaha on it.[27] The Gurjara-Pratihara king Mihira Bhoja (836–885 CE) assumed the title of Adi-varaha and also minted coins depicting the Varaha image.[1] Varaha was also adopted as a part of royal insignia by the Chola (4th century BCE–1279 CE) and Vijayanagara Empires (1336–1646 CE) of South India.[16] In Karnataka, a zoomorphic image of Varaha is found in a carving on a pillar in Aihole, which is interpreted as the Vijayanagara emblem, as it is seen along with signs of a cross marked Sun, a disc and a conch.[12]

Since the 12th century, due to Muslim influence and the Islamic view about the polluting pig, the boar has become associated with something dirty. This has led to some change in the attitude towards Varaha, though historically it was a symbol of potency and a royal icon depicting the admired protection of kingdom and dharma during the Chola and Vijayanagara rule.[16]


The most prominent temple of Varaha is the Sri Varahaswami Temple in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh. It is located on the shores of a temple pond, called the Swami Pushkarini, in Tirumala, near Tirupati; to the north of the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple (another temple of Vishnu in the form of Venkateswara). The region is called Adi-Varaha Kshestra, the abode of Varaha. The legend of the place is as follows: at the end of Satya Yuga (the first in the cycle of four aeons; the present one is the fourth aeon), devotees of Varaha requested him to stay on earth, so Varaha ordered his mount Garuda to bring his divine garden Kridachala from his abode Vaikuntha to Venkata hills, Tirumala. Venkateswara is described as having taken the permission of Varaha to reside in these hills, where his chief temple, Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, stands. Hence, pilgrims are prescribed to worship Varaha first and then Venkateswara. In the Atri Samhita (Samurtarchanadhikara), Varaha is described to be worshipped in three forms here: Adi Varaha, Pralaya Varaha and Yajna Varaha. The image in the sanctum is of Adi Varaha.[28][29]

Another important temple is the Bhuvarahaswami Temple in Srimushnam town, to the northeast of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. It was built in the late 16th century by Krishnappa II, a Thanjavur Nayak ruler.[30] The image of Varaha is considered a swayambhu (self manifested) image, one of the eight self-manifested Swayamvyakta Vaishnava kshetras. An inscription in the prakaram (circumambulating passage around the main shrine) quoting from the legend of the Srimushna Mahatmaya (a local legend) mentions the piety one derives in observing festivals during the 12 months of the year when the sun enters a particular zodiacal sign.[31] This temple is venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Both communities take the utsava murti (festival image) in procession in the annual temple festival in the Tamil month of Masi (February–March). The deity is credited with many miracles and called Varaha saheb by Muslims.[2]

Varaha shrines are also included in Divya Desams (a list of 108 abodes of Vishnu). They include Adi Varaha Perumal shrine Tirukkalvanoor, located in the Kamakshi Amman Temple complex, Kanchipuram and Thiruvidandai, 15 km from Mahabalipuram.[32][33]

In Muradpur in West Bengal, worship is offered to an in-situ 2.5-metre (8 ft 2 in) zoomorphic image of Varaha (8th century), one of the earliest known images of Varaha.[12] A 7th century anthropomorphic Varaha image of Apasadh is still worshipped in a relatively modern temple.[1] Other temples dedicated to Varaha are located across India in the states of Andhra Pradesh, in Haryana Pradesh at Baraha Kalan,[34] and Lakhmi Varaha Temple, in Karnataka at Maravanthe and Kallahalli, in Kerala, in Madhya Pradesh, in Odisha at Yajna Varaha Temple[34] and Lakhmi Varaha Temple, Aul, in Rajasthan at Pushkar, in Tamil Nadu and in Uttar Pradesh. Varaha temple is also located in Mysore Palace premises at Mysore, Karnataka.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Roshen Dalal (5 October 2011). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books India. pp. 444–5. ISBN 978-0-14-341421-6. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Krishna 2009, p. 47
  3. ^ a b c d Nanditha Krishna 2010, pp. 54–55.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Debala Mitra, ’Varāha Cave at Udayagiri – An Iconographic Study’, Journal of the Asiatic Society 5 (1963): 99–103; J. C. Harle, Gupta Sculpture (Oxford, 1974): figures 8–17.
  5. ^ a b c Joanna Gottfried Williams (1982). The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province. Princeton University Press. pp. 42–46. ISBN 978-0-691-10126-2.
  6. ^ a b Alexander Lubotsky, The Indo-Aryan inherited lexicon, pages 556–557
  7. ^ ऋग्वेदः – मण्डल १, सूक्तं १.८८, Wikisource;
    Mandala 1, Hymn 88, Ralph T.H. Griffith (translator), Wikisource
  8. ^ Friedrich Max Müller. Rig-Veda-sanhita: The Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans. Trübner. pp. 160–.
  9. ^ a b Aiyangar Narayan (1987). Essays On Indo-Aryan Mythology. Asian Educational Services. pp. 187–194. ISBN 978-81-206-0140-6.
  10. ^ a b Devangana Desai (2000). Khajuraho. Oxford University Press. pp. 49–52. ISBN 978-0-19-565391-5.
  11. ^ a b "Varaha Temple". Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h Alexandra Anna Enrica van der Geer (2008). Animals in Stone: Indian Mammals Sculptured Through Time. BRILL. pp. 401–6. ISBN 978-90-04-16819-0. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  13. ^ Stella Snead (7 September 1989). Animals in Four Worlds: Sculptures from India. University of Chicago Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-226-76726-0. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  14. ^ a b "Relief sculpture of Varaha with Bhu and Gadadevi". British Archived from the original on 8 August 2012. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  15. ^ a b "Varaha with Bhu, gouache on paper". British Archived from the original on 6 December 2012. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g T. Richard Blurton (1993). Hindu Art. Harvard University Press. pp. 122–3. ISBN 978-0-674-39189-5.
  17. ^ Los Angeles County Museum Of Art; MR Pratapaditya Pal (1 February 1989). Indian Sculpture (700–1800): A Catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection. University of California Press. pp. 295–. ISBN 978-0-520-06477-5. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  18. ^ J. L. Brockington 1998, pp. 281–282.
  19. ^ Krishna 2009, p. 45
  20. ^ a b c d e Mani, Vettam (1975). Puranic Encyclopaedia: a Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. pp. 826–827. ISBN 978-0-8426-0822-0.
  21. ^ a b c d Krishna 2009, pp. 45-6
  22. ^ Krishna 2009, p. 48
  23. ^ Usha Dev (1987). The Concept of Śakti in the Purāṇas. Nag Publishers. pp. 152–154. ISBN 978-81-7081-151-0.
  24. ^ a b c d e Catherine Becker (2010), Not Your Average Boar: The Colossal Varaha at Eran, An Iconographic Innovation, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 70, No. 1, "To My Mind": Studies in South Asian Art History in Honor of Joanna Gottfried Williams. Part II (2010), pp. 123–149
  25. ^ a b c H. von Stietencron (1986). Th. P. van Baaren; A Schimmel; et al. (eds.). Approaches to Iconology. Brill Academic. pp. 16–22 with footnotes. ISBN 90-04-07772-3.
  26. ^ a b Krishna 2009, p. 46
  27. ^ Durga Prasad Dikshit (1980). Political History of the Chālukyas of Badami. Abhinav Publications. pp. 11–2. GGKEY:PW8B49QWQ4H. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  28. ^ "Sri Varahaswami Temple". Tirumala.Org. Archived from the original on 3 January 2012. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
  29. ^ Krishna 2009, pp. 46–7
  30. ^ K. V. Raman (1 January 2006). Temple art, icons and culture of India and South-East Asia. Sharada Pub. House. ISBN 978-81-88934-31-7. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  31. ^ P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar (1982). South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. Asian Educational Services. pp. 23, 423. ISBN 978-81-206-0151-2. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  32. ^ "Tirukkalvanoor". Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  33. ^ "Tiruvidandai". Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  34. ^ a b "Varahanatha Temple, Jajpur Town, Dist. – Jajpur" (PDF). Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Retrieved 4 January 2013.


External links