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The Shiva-ling is in Shaiva mystic line the aggregate of all forms – manifest or unmanifest, for the Shaiva mysticism perceives all forms as being without a form, and formlessness being the progenitor or the mother of all forms. The artist of this ‘ling’ icon has chosen to have a form that seems to melt into a kind of formlessness. This assimilation of formlessness into the form is the crux of the Shaivite thought and one of the significant aspects of this brass Shiva-ling icon. The Shaivism perceives all forms as dissolving and disappearing in Shiva who is the ultimate ‘ling’ and it is in him as ‘ling’ that all forms become manifest. In Shaivite thought, both the ‘form’ and the ‘non-form’ are the aspects of Shiva who manifests as ‘ling’. A large body of Shaivite literature, mainly the Shiva Mahapurana, perceives Shiva as both ‘sakara’ – one with a form, and ‘nirakara’, one without a form. As all forms emerge out of the formless void ‘nirakara’, which in iconographic tradition ‘ling’ represents, is the ultimate under Shaivite thought.
The ‘ling’ icon seems to have been installed on ‘yoni-pitha’, though not contained there it penetrates deeper and enters into the earth which the five-hooded Great Serpent Shesh upholds on its figure. The Great Serpent holds the earth on its body while with the head it is upholding the ‘yoni-pitha’ and thereby the Shiva-ling which is symbolic of the entire cosmos, time and space. As suggests the presence of so many Nagas with the image, their association with Shiva has been wider and in their all forms. The mythical races of Nagas apart, even various historical Naga dynasties that ruled the subcontinent’s various parts have been Shiva’s ardent devotees. The fourth-fifth century Naga dynasty of Padmavati, the contemporary Pawaya in Gwalior district of Madhya Pradesh, designated itself as Bharashiva and not only built a huge Shiva-temple at their capital but also adopted Shiva-ling as the royal insignia.
Mythically, besides the Great Serpent Shesh, Vasuki, the second in the hierarchy of Nagas, was also deeply associated with Shiva. Vasuki had its seat close to Kailash, the holy abode of Shiva, and was in his constant service to symbolise which the artist has cast the five-hooded figure of the serpent Vasuki around the ‘ling’ icon, which is symbolic of Shiva. It has unfolded its hood over the ‘ling’ like a royal umbrella. Two snake couples, one on each side-edge of the ‘yoni-pitha’, represent the burst of energy and insatiable passion which the union of Shiva and Shakti as ‘ling’ and ‘yoni’ generates. Subordinate Nagas are essential elements and attributes of Shiva’s iconography but such forms are not gender-wise distinguished. These male and female figures reveal a different symbolism which is in tune with the union of Shiva and Shakti.
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.