In this painting the artist has used a toy icon of the snow-covered Himalayas for representing the Himalayas, and a cow-form, for representing ‘Go-mukha’, an outlet in Himalayas wherefrom Ganga descends on the earth. ‘Go-mukha’ literally means the cow’s mouth, and hence a cow-form used for defining it. Thus, in the painting, an icon represents an entity, and a cow-form, the form of an outlet having an identical name. The contextual shift is also noticeable. Whatever the Shiva’s myth: his skull-garland, snakes adorning his coiffure, neck, ears or arms, tiger-skin comprising his seat, or elephant-hide, his wear, Kailash Raj, the artist from Jaipur, the centre of a culture that a long tradition of courtly splendour shaped, would not see his Shiva without a huge bolster, or seat him on a terrace unless richly carpeted. The theme warrants Shiva’s presence at Himalayas; such Himalayan context a tiny icon represents, sparing Shiva to roam at his will, and Kailash Raj encounters and drags him to a terrace with a parapet made of gold-lined ivory and a column of colourful flowers on its other side. Kailash Raj’s contexts of Shiva are different from the painting’s thematic context.
With intoxication in eyes the blue-bodied Shiva is leaning on his left seeking support from the bolster and his consort Parvati. Of his normal two arms, the left is laid behind Parvati, and with his right hand, he is turning beads. Those on his neck, arms and ears apart, a huge snake with multi-hoods contains his coiffure within its coils. With her right hand Parvati, his consort, bejeweled and costumed most lavishly befitting a court, is caressing him, in her left, she is holding a glass, made of gold, filled with ‘bhang’ – a herbal intoxicant.
With Ganga emerging from his coiffure, falling and disappearing in Himalayan hills and then re-emerging from the Go-mukha and descending on the earth suggests with definitively that Gangavatarana – descent of river Ganga on the earth, is the painting’s central theme. Gangavatarana is one of Indian subcontinent’s most popular myths appearing in various texts, mainly the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana, Devi Bhagavata, Agni Purana among others. The main myth consists of a number of subsidiary myths of which three are more significant. One relates to Vishnu. One of Vishnu’s three wives, the other being Saraswati and Lakshmi, Ganga indulges in a quarrel with the other two, and all three curse each other that they turn and descend on the earth as rivers.
Other myth relates to Bhagiratha, a descendant of Ikshvaku dynasty, who by his long severe penance brought Ganga from Heaven to the earth so that the unredeemed sixty thousand selves of his kin, the sons of Sagara, a king of Ikshvaku dynasty, were redeemed. Pleased by Bhagiratha’s penance Ganga granted his prayer but feared that the earth would not be able to bear the force with which she would descend on the earth. She suggested Bhagiratha to persuade Shiva to hold her upon his head when she descended and then release her gradually. Accordingly Bhagiratha engaged afresh in penance, propitiated Shiva and sought from him the favour of holding Ganga in his coiffure. The form of Shiva holding Ganga in his coiffure is born of this Bhagiratha-related myth. Yet another myth relates to Ashtavasus and consequently to the birth of Bhishma, the Great Grandpa of the epic Mahabharata. Bhishma was Ganga’s son. Of these two myths do not directly relate to Shiva.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.