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The Marriage of Shiva & Parvati

The Marriage of Shiva & Parvati
India; Northern India, Western Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh
Second half of the 10th century
Pink Sandstone

The iconography of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati is perfectly illustrated by this magnificent sculpture, symbolising the potential of conjugal bliss.

After the death of his first wife, Sati, Shiva was left bereft. He withdrew from the world and roamed the wilderness living a life of austerity. This worried the gods, who realised that Shiva's continued refusal to attend to the needs of the world would create universal disharmony. They decided to reincarnate Sati as Parvati, who grew into a supremely beautiful young woman. Although she loved Shiva instinctively, her attempts to woo him were spurned. Brahma intervened and sent Kamadeva, the god of desire, and Vasanta, the Spring, down to Shiva. Kamadeva fired an arrow and as soon as Shiva saw Parvati he fell in love once more. They were married in a ceremony performed by Brahma.

In this stele, Brahma is seated on a lotus above the happy pair. On either side of him an attendant holds a garland and at the corners of the composition are two seated gods. They are four armed and each carries a lotus. Conventionally, these figures should be Indra, king of the gods, and Vasudeva, lord of the winds, but in this example the figure above Parvati is female. Likewise, the chowri bearer at her feet is female and the one who is attendant on Shiva is male; there is a conscious intention to make one half of the composition male and one female. It is Shiva's arm around Parvati's body and her arm around his shoulder that joins them and emphasizes their union. Each holds the lilakamala, the lotus of sexual appeal. The image is charged with hope and the viewer is in much the same situation as he would be at any marriage, witnessing a vow and praying for the future wellbeing of the couple.

Being gods, the happiness of Shiva and Parvati reverberates throughout the universe, ushering in an age of peace and prosperity. The god who is capable of violence and destruction is now engendered to use his powers to promote harmony. It will be realised that Parvati is not merely a consort, but a powerful force in her own right; she is regarded as a manifestation of the great goddess who is the basis of all life. It is only through her positive intervention that this benign side of Shiva's character is revealed.

The sculpture appears to date from the second half of the 10th century, when Tantric practices were pervading Hindu ideas. Essentially, Tantric beliefs recognise the fact that male and female forces are interdependent and therefore, the combination of the two is required to bring a ritual to fruition and manifest a state of ultimate spirituality. The male element, purusha, is intellectual and the female, prakriti, is physical. It is only through the application of prakriti that purusha can be activated and released into the world. Therefore, in this image, Shiva is dependent on Parvati. The 11th century temples at Khajuraho include sculptures which explicitly depict sexual rituals but here the implied message is even more powerful. Parvati is clearly taking the initiative; whilst Shiva stands in a dignified, godlike pose, she moves towards him and, with her arm around his shoulder, appears to be about to pull him towards her

The potency of the situation is emphasised by the strong vertical lines of the composition. The architectural elements of the lion and elephant are tucked in behind the two principal figures to maintain a narrow effect. Parvati's contained energy is suggested by the tight angles of her body, giving her a tension which contrasts with the rather lanquid appearance of Shiva. Nandi, resting at Shiva's feet, raises his head upwards. Even the lozenge shaped lotus decorations on either side of them are elongated. An invisible diagonal line running between Shiva and Parvati's eyes is paralleled by another running between their hands. These are intercepted by another diagonal line running from Shiva's head, through his hand to Parvati's left knee, paralleled with one running from the hood of the cobra through Parvati's head to her hand. The whole effect is one of aesthetic harmony.

Behind Parvati, another vertical form, that of the rearing cobra, gives a further indication of the sexual magnetism of the situation. Although the cobra is held by Shiva, here it is placed behind Parvati, symbolising the kundalini, the serpent power which remains dormant in the lower part of one's body but which, when awakened rises up through the body.

Comparison with other north Indian mediaeval sculptures indicates that this stele dates from the second half of the 10th century and comes from eastern Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh, a region which saw an enormous amount of temple building in the 9th-11th centuries, of which little remains, due to the destruction by Moslem invaders in the 11th-13th century period.

The elephant and lion ornament at the extreme edges of the stele is a Rajasthani device which, in early 10th century architecture, is a functioning bracket, but which, towards the end of the century has become an auspicious decoration. The elephant is the symbol of ignorance, trampled by the lion who represents spiritual knowledge. Rearing outwards, he also physically protects the god and goddess. Behind Shiva and Parvati there is a lotus, a Gupta period ornament which had died out except in Rajasthan by the mid-10th century. In this case the central seed pod is well defined, as if to describe the potential fertility of the union of the couple.

Shiva and Parvati both wear striped garments of a type often seen in sculptures of this period. The form of Shiva's jatamukuta (chignon) is in keeping with the late 10th century, as is Parvati's hairstyle which includes a multi-headed flower held under a stiff crescent-shaped band, which appears to symbolise the fruitful potential of a marriage. Both Shiva and Parvati have a double row of curls on either side of their brow. These are almost identical to the garments and hairstyles seen in an Uma Maheshvara stele in the Los Angeles County Museum, dated to the mid-10th century (Desai/Mason, 1993:25).

The jewellery also bears comparison with this piece, as well as with an image of Shiva Vinadhara in the Gwalior Museum, dated by Kramrisch (1981:23) and Harle (1986:cover) to the 11th century. Both wear necklaces of flat geometric beads which may be intended to look like stylised lotus petals, and would probably have been painted to resemble enamelling. Both have unnaturally large ears, made larger by earrings, which draw the viewer's attention to the rapt expression on their faces.

As this is a wedding scene, it is interesting to note that certain jewels worn by the couple match, whilst others do not. In mediaeval India as now, jewellery would have been made especially for weddings, to be worn by the couple. They wear the same necklaces and waistbands. Shiva wears a basuband with the same ornament as that which appears in his hair. Parvati wears this ornament at the side of her head, but her basuband is quite different and may represent an heirloom reserved for brides as it includes a sun and moon ornament above the band, which is often worn by brides at the back of the head. The ribbons festooning and falling from their waistbands are edged with lotus petals and are draped realistically.

It is said that at the moment Shiva and Parvati married, the earth turned green and the growing season began. As is so often the case with Hindu gods, Shiva and Parvati are essentially natural elements, ever present. Shiva is the unpredictability of bad weather or some agricultural disaster but Parvati is the promise of benevolence. Here, she is clearly winning over Shiva's dark side, and their conjugal happiness will reflect upon the world at large. This image intends to fill the viewer with confidence and the assurance that all will be well. It is difficult to
recall an example which fulfills this more beautifully.


Desai, Vishakha and Mason, Darielle (eds): Gods, Guardians and Lovers, Temple Sculpture from North India, A.D. 700 - 1200, New York,

Gupta, Shakti M.: Legends Around Shiva, Bombay, 1979

Harle, J. C.: The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, London, 1986

Kramrisch, Stella: Manifestations of Shiva, Philadelphia, 1981

Michell, George and Leach, Linda Y.: In the Image of Man, London, 1987

all text and images © John Eskenazi Ltd.

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