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Strangely, all scriptures, even the Nandi-purana, a full-fledged text devoted to Nandi, perceive Nandi as a sage, or a sage’s son, a human being though born by the divine process, not biological, but in worship tradition and in temple cult – deity-iconography and architecture, Nandi has been conceived as a bull, though with the status of Shiva’s ‘dhwaja’ and as, as essential a temple component as the deity image itself, since early centuries of the Common Era. Every Shiva temple that enshrines a Shiva-linga, or even an anthropomorphic Shiva image, also has a Nandi icon enshrining it either inside the sanctum facing the Linga icon, outside the sanctum door, or on temple’s main entrance. In larger medieval temples, especially the temples in Panchayatana format, independent subordinate shrines, and sometime even the full-fledged temples, were dedicated to Nandi. Except in South, where in some of the Shiva temples Nandi icons are conceived in human form with four hands, with or without a bull’s face, in visual mediums, sculpture or painting, and in entire votive tradition, Nandi, the Shiva’s mount, manifests as bull.
Scriptural position is quite different. Accordingly, Nandi is the son of sage Shilad and the grandson of the known sage Shalankayana. Shilad was childless. For a son he performed great penance which pleased Shiva who appeared in his vision and assured him that he would get a son. Accordingly, one day when Shilad was digging land for installing ‘agni’ – fire, for yajna, from it emerged a boy with three eyes, four hands and ‘jata-mukuta’ – coiffure crowning his head, an exact mini form of Shiva himself. Subsequently the boy became known as Nandi or Nandin. Shilad brought the boy home where it transformed into a normal human being. When about nine-ten years of age, the boy came to know that he had a short lifespan. He hence turned to rigorous penance which pleased Shiva who not only blessed him with immortality but also acclaimed him as his son and elevated him to the position of one of his principal ganas, and his constant companion. Puranas also attribute to Shilad’s son many exploits and illustrious deeds.
It is difficult to say when exactly the transformation from human to animal Nandi, or vice-versa, took place. Noticeably, despite whatever the theological texts asserted, the visual tradition perceived Nandi only as Shiva’s bull, not otherwise. The visual tradition, too, has a long past, unbroken and constant. Scholars have identified the yogi figure on Indus terracotta seals as Shiva, and the Indus bull, sometimes as the animal that Shiva used as his mount. Otherwise too, Nandi’s icons as bull begin pouring in from fourth-fifth centuries, almost when the period of Puranas was just budding. Thus, this possibility may not be completely ruled out that in view of its divine links and association with Shiva the bull was mythicised as a sage’s son.
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.