Unlike most sculptures of Shiva, conceived with a stream of water releasing from his coiffure, symbolic of river Ganga, a formal iconographic motif of his image, this brass head represents him with a tiny but fully accomplished anthropomorphic female figure, anatomically complete as also revealing a definite frame of mind. A form of Shiva with a prominent manifestation of Ganga, a stream or an anthropomorphic form, is known in the Shaivite tradition as Gangadhara. No other aspect of the image has been so much emphasized as the Ganga icon determining the image’s identity as Gangadhara Shiva. The myth as to how Ganga reached Shiva’s coiffure is quite elaborate narrated in many texts with rare uniformity. As appears from her icon in the brass-piece, and almost all texts uniformly contend, the arrogant and flirtatious Ganga always agitated Shiva’s mind by her conceit and vanity, though bound by his grant to Bhagiratha he carried her on his head.
As various versions of the myth have it, Ganga was one of the three consorts of Mahavishnu, other being Saraswati and Lakshmi. One day Saraswati noticed Ganga flirting with Mahavishnu and in the quarrel that followed cursed each other to transform into rivers and descend on the earth. On the earth the Ikshvaku king Sagar, blessed with sixty thousand mighty sons, on their strength decided to hold Ashvamedha yajna. The horse of the yajna was let under the protection of his sons. Suddenly around the vicinity of the hermitage of sage Kapila the horse disappeared. Mighty but as much arrogant and impertinent sons of Sagar charged sage Kapila of stealing the horse. This annoyed the sage and except five for sustaining the line he burnt all by his spiritual powers. When entreated the sage modified the curse to the effect that they shall be absolved when the waters of Ganga after she emerged on the earth as river was sprinkled over their ashes.
Sagar’s successors, to include the illustrious king Dilip, performed rigorous penance for Ganga’s emergence on the earth but with no result. Finally, king Bhagiratha succeeded in pleasing and persuading her for her descent. Ganga, who had a secret passion for Shiva, thought of exploiting the occasion for reaching close to Shiva. She frightened Bhagiratha that the earth was not as strong as could hold her mighty current and would be washed away by it. She revealed that it was Shiva alone who could hold her current in his coiffure. She advised Bhagiratha for pleasing Shiva to agree for it. After Bhagiratha’s rigorous penance Shiva granted his prayer and when Ganga ascended he held her in his coiffure. The drama did not end here. Ganga had designs to abduct Shiva sweeping him with her. Shiva read her mind and to punish her arrested her in his coiffure and it was only after Bhagiratha performed another round of penance that on his prayer he released her. Parvati, Shiva’s consort, always knew Ganga’s intension and checked her from coming close to Shiva. Her success and Parvati’s defeat bred in Ganga vanity, and mounting Shiva’s head even against his will, arrogance. This powerfully reveals in her tiny icon. On the other hand, Shiva’s tense upwards raised face with straightened neck revealing neck-bones and wide open thoughtful eyes portray his disapproval of her designs. The artifact has been cast with utmost care, great perfection and with sensitive hands.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.