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The Forms of Shiva in Visual Arts

Article of the Month - January 2006
Viewed 79621 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

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Svachchhanda Bhairava
Svachchhanda Bhairava






Svachchhanda Bhairava - Bhairava's composite form,







Bhairava in Extreme Emaciation (Atiriktanga Bhairava) Ladol, Gujarat Tenth-eleventh century White Marble
Bhairava in Extreme Emaciation (Atiriktanga Bhairava)
Ladol, Gujarat
Tenth-eleventh century
White Marble
Height 48 5/8" (123.5 cm)






Atiriktanga Bhairava are more significant.

Shiva's images of Aghora and Bhairava group carry skull-bowls, wear garlands of skulls or severed heads, besmear ashes of burnt human bodies and are usually 'urdhvakesin'- disorderedly unfurling locks of hair.








Shiva's Composite Forms






Ardhanarishvara, Harihara and Sharbhesha are Shiva's composite forms. In Ardhanarishvara, the right half is Shiva and the left half his consort Parvati - a form defining unity of male and female principles. In Harihara, Shiva is usually the left half and Vishnu the right, though sometimes this position changes vice verse.





The Most Sacred and Auspicious of All Divine Forms
The Most Sacred and Auspicious of All Divine Forms




Ardhanarishvara forms emerged early around the beginning or even before the Common Era. Harihara forms are reported from fourth-fifth century onwards. Both in Ardhanarishvara and Harihara forms, sculptors have resorted to Shiva's usual iconography, though synthesizing it amicably with the other half. For balancing Shiva's half with his consort's feminine half, artists conceived Shiva either with normal two arms, or at the most with four, that is, in Ardhanarishvara form Shiva's half has just a single arm or two, but not more except rarely.

In Harihara form also he is usually four-armed, that is, his half has two arms.





Lord Shiva as Sharbhesha
Lord Shiva as Sharbhesha






In Sharbhesha, his composite form transcends human iconography. As Sharbhesha, he combines the forms of man, bird and lion. Vishnu was too proud of his Narsimha incarnation, which combined man and lion. To subdue Vishnu Shiva incarnated as Sharbhesha.





Forms Discovered in Mudras - Body Gestures

Kalyanasundara. Early Chola. 10th Century A.D. Ht. about 80 cms.
Kalyanasundara. Early Chola. 10th Century A.D. Ht. about 80 cms.





Indian iconometry has minutely classified various body positions and gestures - disposition of hands, look in the eyes, body movement and even sway of hands and legs, each of which revealed a particular emotional bearing. Some of Shiva's forms, though there resonate in them also a definite symbolism and meaning, are born of such 'mudras'. Shiva's Kalyana-Sundara form relates to his marriage with Parvati, which in visual arts just a simple gesture - Shiva extending his hand towards Parvati and Parvati reciprocating to his move, defines. Kalyana-Sundara images are usually well adorned.






Vrishavahana Shiva and Parvati
Vrishavahana Shiva and Parvati






Vrashavahana images - Shiva supporting himself on his vehicle Vrasha - bull, rarely have a bull behind. It is often in the position of arms and leaning figure that a Vrashavahana form is discovered.






Mahayogi Shiva
Mahayogi Shiva







Yogeshvaramurti is a pure sitting posture resorted to when meditating.







Katyavalambitamurti Shiva
Katyavalambitamurti Shiva





Katyavalambitamurti - figure with one of its hands placed on waist, is again a 'mudra'-based form.

Seated in ease with one of his legs suspending below defines Sukhasanamurti - Lord sitting a absolute comfort; interpreting something with the gesture of knotted fingers, Vyakhyanamurti; and, the thoughtful demeanor, Chinamudramurti. Anugrahamurti - imparting grace, and forms imparting 'abhaya'- fearless, and 'varada'- benevolence, reveal in gestures of hands.






Shiva, The Ugra or Destroyer

Bhiksatana with Female Figures Early Western Chalukya Dynasty Aihole, Karnataka Eighth Century Sandstone
Bhiksatana with Female Figures
Early Western Chalukya Dynasty
Aihole, Karnataka
Eighth Century
Height 53 1/2" (136 cm)


Shaivite tradition, right since Indus days, realized in Shiva both, the destroyer and the sustainer, that is, his 'raudra-rupa' and 'saumya-rupa'. Angered by the unethical conduct of Brahma, who according to some legends was his own father, Shiva cut off one of Brahma's five heads. For chastising him of his sin of 'Brahmahatya', the severed head converted into a begging bowl, rose from the ground, stuck to Shiva's palm and forced him to go begging for expiating his sin. Naked he moved. In Deodara-vana, wives of sages doing penance there were infatuated by his youth and vigor but he declined their move. The form of this Bhikshatana Shiva - the Great Beggar, is a transformation of his 'aghora' form. Naked and with a skull bowl stuck to his palm he walks with wives of sages - represented as female figures, pursuing him.

Shiva slew the elephant demon Gaya for spreading darkness. This Gajasura Sanharamurti is like eight-armed Bhairava in a boisterous dance. Behind and above his head, he holds elephant hide and its trunk trails along the ground near his feet. The eight-armed Tripurantaka, annihilator of three cities of demons, is a powerfully charged figure represented as shooting a mighty arrow towards three cities floating into the sky. He rides a cart but the energy that charges his entire being curves his figure into a mode of 'tandava' - the dance of dissolution. In Trailokyavijaya form, Shiva is a multi-armed figure dancing in great ecstasy.


Shiva Spearing the Demon Andhaka (Andhakasuravadhamurti) Madhya Pradesh Eighth century Sandstone
Shiva Spearing the Demon Andhaka (Andhakasuravadhamurti)
Madhya Pradesh
Eighth century
Height 16" (40.6 cm)



Once sportive Parvati covered with her palms Shiva's eyes from behind. Irritated Shiva sweated, and out of it was born a blind boy - Andhaka. Shiva gave the boy to the childless demon chief who adopted him. Andhaka grew into a mighty demon and wished to obtain the most beautiful woman of the universe who was none else but his own mother Parvati. Finally, Shiva eliminated Andhaka. Shiva as Andhakasura Sanharaka has a form identical to Tripurantaka but instead of arrow he charges at Andhaka his trident, or spear. Under a boon, as soon as a drop of his blood fell on the earth, there grew out of it another Andhaka. Shiva hence created Yogeshvari who licked every drop of Andhaka's blood before it reached the earth. Andhakasura Sanharamurti images hence have representations of Yogeshvari also. Under some legends, Shiva created Saptamatrikas instead of Yogeshvari. Accordingly, Andhakasura Sanharamurti images are carved with Saptamatrikas also.


Maheshvara, Uma-Maheshvara and the Holy Family

Vrashbharudha Shiva, or Uma Maheshwar
Vrashbharudha Shiva, or Uma Maheshwar




In all gods Shiva alone is Maheshvara - the Great God. But, even Maheshvara seeks his accomplishment in Shakti, his consort. Hence, he is Maheshvara only with Uma. This Uma-Maheshvara is one of Shiva's earliest anthropomorphic forms.




Ravana Disturbs Kailasha
Ravana Disturbs Kailasha




Uma-Maheshvara images are both, seated and standing. Sometimes Shiva and Uma are just proximate but sometimes he is represented as embracing her, and sometimes quite ecstatically. In some of such Uma-Maheshvara images Shiva is represented as playing on his 'vina'. The known Ravana Anugrahamurti is only a form of Uma-Maheshvara Murti. When on Mount Kailasha with Uma in his embrace, Shiva finds arrogant Ravana shaking the Mount, he chastises Ravana and redeems him of his false ego.





Shiva as Somaskanda
Shiva as Somaskanda




In some images in between Shiva and Uma there is Skanda, their eldest son, or a vacant space suggestive of his presence. Such forms are identified as Somaskandamurti.






Shiva Family Engaged in Household Business
Shiva Family Engaged in Household Business






In representations of Shiva's family - the Holy family, as it is known, which includes their sons and pets, Shiva is usually two-armed simple father journeying to and fro or doing household things.






Natesh, Dakshinamurti and other Forms

The Inseparable Couple
The Inseparable Couple





Shiva's earliest manifestation is as dancer. He danced to destroy - Tripura, elephant demon, Andhaka, or cosmos, and to sustain and delight - his consort, devotees and own self. In both forms, he is the 'Adiguru' - the first teacher of dance. Thus, arts visualize him as both, dancing to dissolve - 'tandava', and dancing to delight - 'lasya'. In 'lasya', energies are well composed and convert into intrinsic ecstasy, which glows the entire being and the body sprouts like lotus petals, slowly and beautifully. It composes the figure and does not render it boisterous.








It is different in 'tandava'. In 'tandava', energies burst from the entire figure throwing it into boisterous moves with flames emitting from the entire body. Now all that is inert is crushed under his feet and the entire ambience is charged with energy and fresh vigor. The South Indian sculptor has personified this inertness as Apasmarapurusha lying under Shiva's dancing figure. Here he is represented as raising his left leg. The North Indian artist has not been so particular about these features, though the depicted action is not any less powerful or boisterous. Flames of fire are represented as emitting from his palms, hair as floating into air and serpent as unfurling on either side.




Lord Dakshinamurti
Lord Dakshinamurti





Broadly, Shiva's south facing figures are named as Dakshinamurti. Such nomenclature does not assign any particular iconography. But, some scholars treat the term differently, interpreting the term 'daksha' to mean expert and 'dakshinamurti' to mean one who is expert of some discipline. They associate Shiva mainly with four disciplines - 'yoga', music, 'jnana' or knowledge, and arts to include all things accomplished artistically. Accordingly, Shiva's images, depicting him as absorbed in 'yoga' or meditation, are defined as Yoga-dakshinamurti; carrying a 'vina', as Vinadhara-dakshinamurti; interpreting something by his knotted fingers, as Vyakhyana or Jnana-dakshinamurti; and, engaged in any act other than 'samhara' - destruction, as Kala-dakshinamurti.




Shiva, the Lord Who Swallowed the World Poison (Visapaharanamurti) Eastern Chalukya Dynasty Andhra Pradesh Tenth  Century Bronze
Shiva, the Lord Who Swallowed the World Poison
Eastern Chalukya Dynasty
Andhra Pradesh
Tenth century
Height 18 1/2" (47 cm)






Nilakantha or Vishapaharanamurti defines the form of Shiva after he consumed deadly poison emerged from ocean churning. The latter carries an antelope and axe in upper hands, bowl of poison in lower right and rosary in left. Rosary suggests that the Timeless One makes time count itself on His fingers.








Siva Chasing Mohini Garhwal school Western Panjab Hills c. 1790 Opaque watercolor on paper
Siva Chasing Mohini
Garhwal school
Western Panjab Hills
c. 1790
Opaque watercolor on paper
6 3/4 X 9 7/8" (17 X 25 cm)




Shiva, as Chandrashekhara, has a prominent crescent in his coiffure and as Gangadhara, the river Ganga emerging from it. Chandrashekhara images usually represent Shiva in majestic standing posture. Descent of Ganga is the theme of a number of sculptures and paintings. The other Shiva-related legend that figured in visual arts is his infatuation for Mohini that depicts him as chasing the beautiful nymph.



Siva Chasing Mohini Garhwal school Western Panjab Hills c. 1790 Opaque watercolor on paper
Siva Chasing Mohini
Garhwal school
Western Panjab Hills
c. 1790
Opaque watercolor on paper
6 3/4 X 9 7/8" (17 X 25 cm)







The ithyphallic figure of Lakulisha, the lord of staff, and Grahapati are considered as Shiva's incarnations. Lakulisha has an iconography exactly corresponding to that of ithyphallic form of Shiva.







References and Further Reading:

  • Rig-Veda.
  • Atharva-Veda.
  • Shvetashvara Upanishada.
  • Rupamandana.
  • Linga Purana.
  • Shiva Purana.
  • Anshumadabhedagama.
  • V. S. Wakankar Pragaitihasika Shiva Puja : Puratana, No. 6, 1989.
  • J. N. Banerjea Development of Hindu Iconography, New Delhi.
  • V. S. Agrawal Shiva Mahadeva : The Great God, Varanasi.
  • Stella Kramrisch Manifestations of Shiva, Philadelphia Museum.
  • Stella Kramrisch The Presence of Shiva, Princeton.

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