INDIA AND SRI LANKA
North India, Himachal Pradesh
17th– 18th century
H. 71.5 W. 65.0 D. 54.0
Collection Nationaal Beiaardmuseum, Asten, The Netherlands, inv. no. 374 E 68
Detail: close up
The Shiva linga is a heavily laden symbolic representation of the phallus or penis of this deity, and we shall deal with only a few aspects of it here. The word ‘linga’ is not a Sanskrit term and predates the Aryan immigrations into India (c. 1800 BCE). In other words, it is an ancient indigenous concept and image. Originally, the term meant a furrow ploughed into the ground. The meaning derived from this is ‘characteristic mark’, more specifically that of Shiva, the phallus. It is an ancient fertility symbol that appears in a number of forms, from ovoid river rocks to very naturalistic lingas where every part of the erect male organ is rendered. But the usual linga is more abstract: a cylinder with a rounded top. This is often placed in an oval bath with a drainage groove. This bath, snanapita, symbolizes the female sex, the yoni. It catches the liquids that are poured over the linga during worship. In principle, the lower part of the cylinder becomes an octagonal column, ending in a square base. The Vedic sacrificial post, to which the sacrificial animal was tied, had the same form. The axis that runs through the Buddhist stupa is also the same shape and the cylinder is crowned with three (or other uneven number of) parasols. A variety of different metaphysical theories exist about the linga in which the five aspects of Shiva play a part, such as the five elements (panchabhuta): earth, wind, fire, air, and water. This linga is in keeping with this cosmic approach and as a cult object is rather rare. In fact there are three prevailing types: the linga with no heads, the linga with a single head or ekamukhalinga, and the four-headed linga or caturmukhalinga. All these images symbolize the five elements, but a fifth head is seldom added.
This bronze linga is panchamukha and represents each of Shiva’s five heads, namely Sadyojata (the ‘newborn’), Aghora (the ‘terrifying’), Vamadeva (the ‘lord of the left side’), Tatpurusha (‘this man’) and, in the centre, Sadashiva (the ‘eternally auspicious’). When these five heads appear on a linga they are usually different in appearance; Vamadeva is generally portrayed as a woman and Aghora as a demonic figure. But here there are five identical heads, an iconography more common after the fifteenth century. Each has a moustache, a third eye, a seven-leaf crown with a crescent moon in the centre, a double string of rudraksha seeds, a necklace of skulls and snakes for earrings. The hands beside the heads present additional iconographic details. Those next to the central head hold the trident and elephant goad. Another pair carries the sword in one hand and shows abhayamudra with the other. Still other pairs of hands hold a snake and vishvavajra, a staff and a noose, a bell and a fruit. Between the heads are large rosettes. The bottom of the linga is banded by three rows of petals and the edge is formed by the scaly body of a snake that slithers between two heads to the top of the linga; the snake’s head is broken off. Beside the central head, two more cobras are depicted. This bronze linga with its five heads and applied sections is likely the cap-shaped cover of a large stone linga. Pratapaditya Pal describes a somewhat similar example, which he identifies as sixteenth century and coming from Himachal Pradesh.1 The present example is also from Himachal Pradesh, judging by the facial features and the many details, but is undoubtedly more recent, possibly seventeenth or eighteenth century.
1 Pal, 1988, vol. 2, p. 88, no. 30
all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp