Mukhalinga main exhibition

The hand and the idea | The mukhalingas | Containing the impossible

Dr. Subhashini Aryan and Baij Nath Aryan*
The mukhalingas

Italian version  

The lingam, a bivalent aniconic symbol in shape and meaning, marks the presence of the invisible transcendental reality of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, but actually combining all the three functions of creation, preservation and destruction. This is the reason why he is addressed as Mahadeva, the Great God.

The term lingam signifies an emblem, an aniconic symbol of Shiva, the male sign of sex, the phallus. Originally, it was shaped like a pillar with a round top and was made of stone, wood or metal. Eventually, during the Kushan period (1st century to 3rd century CE) in north India, human faces came to be added to the lingams, hence the name mukhalinga. The number of faces could be one, three, four or five, known as ekamukhalinga, trimukhalinga, chaturmukhalinga and panchamukhalinga. When three or four faces are depicted, each is shown facing the cardinal directions of space. In the former case, the fourth face is implied. When the mukhalingas have five faces, only four heads are carved in the manner described above, and the fifth being on top is implied, for this form of Shiva is believed to be beyond the ken of the most highly spiritually evolved yogis. Such mukhalingas are available from the 1st century CE onward - so far, not a single example from the pre-Christian era has been unearthed - and their popularity grew during the Gupta period (early 4th century to 700 CE), as well as subsequently, all through the mediaeval and post mediaeval periods, down to the present era. Such mukhalingas were cast in metal or carved in stone all over northern India.

A baffling variety of mukhalingas are available from south Maharashtra and north Karnataka in South India, as exemplified by innumerable examples available from the late 18th century CE to the present times, used to cover a stone lingam. They are invariably cast in metal - mostly in brass and rarely in copper or bronze. Few are seen made of repoussé techniques, which are relatively later ones. But the style of their depiction varies a great deal from the north Indian ones. The combination of aniconic and iconic forms, i.e. the pillar with Shiva's face carved in high relief and projecting from it is retained in basic shape but subordinated to the god's face, which is cast far more prominently from neck upwards. The size of the head is generally much larger than life-sized. A twirled prominent moustaches - at times, the beard is also added - and Shiva's third eye engraved vertically in the middle of the forehead are their most salient features. The physiognomical features are characteristically influenced by those of the local populations. Shiva's head is usually crowned, but his jatabhara coiffure is not shaped like that of north Indian mukhalingas. On the contrary, the hair strands are neatly combed back and held in place by fillets. The head rests on the neck, serving as the pedestal. For creating these Shiva heads, the local metal smiths resorted to the hollow casting technique of the lost wax (cire perdue) process. They are generally in the round, but plaque-like Shiva heads are also made. The expression of Shiva's face is that of serenity, calm majesty. At times, ferocious looking mukhalingas, representing Bhairava, the fierce aspect of Shiva, are also available.

They are characterised by large goggle eyes with a ferocious, penetrating expression, beaked nose and moustaches. A large number of mukhalingas rest on the coiled body of the Serpent, Vasuki, the hoods of which canopy his head.

The mukhalingas are the visible form of the mantra namah Shivaya, through which the devotees invoke the blessings of Shiva. The five syllables of this mantra symbolically embody the five elements - ether, air, fire, water and earth - the panchabhuta constituents of the microcosm and macrocosm, the five senses of smell, sound, touch, form and taste, the five sense faculties of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling. They also presuppose the yoga practice and realisation. They are a symbol of transcendental reality of Shiva, that is, Shiva manifesting himself cosmogonically from the lingam, the basis of the entire structure of cosmos. This form also asserts the supremacy of Shiva over Brahma and Vishnu, as exemplified by his lingodbhava images, found all over India, especially South India.

Last but not the least, mukhalingas were first of all appreciated and collected by K.C. Aryan and brought into limelight through his magnum opus, Folk Bronzes of North-Western India, in 1973, prior to that they were absolutely unknown.

* Chairperson and Director of K.C. Aryan's Home of Folk Art, Museum of Folk,. Tribal & Neglected Art, Gurgaon, India.
** K.C. Aryan, Folk Bronzes of North-Western India, Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, s.d. (1973).

K.C. Aryan, Indian Folk Bronzes, Rekha Prakshan Publishing, 1991, New Delhi
S. Aryan, Unknown Masterpieces of India Folk & Tribal Art, Home of Folk Art, Rekha Prakshan Publishing, 2005, New Delhi
Pratapaditya Pal, Indian Sculpture Vol. 2, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988
Leo S. Figiel, Ritual Bronzes of Maharashtra and Karnataka, Leo S. Figiel M.D., 2007