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This brilliant piece of art – a brass-cast, an introvert Shiva image, represented putting on his feet wooden slippers and with his right foot showing a mild forward thrust, besides his haphazardly worn animal hide, girdle of severed human hands, and a water-pot, bell, small drum hung on it, suggesting that he is moving, illustrates in every likelihood the phase of his life when after the death of Sati, his consort he madly loved, he roamed desperate, broken and annoyed from one place to other. Norms of iconography evolved over centuries mandated that a deity image was conceived with such form that in it manifested one of his or her significant exploits, acts or a life-phase. The legend of Shiva includes two phases of his life when his feet moved uncontrolled and he wandered in desperation and aimlessly from place to place.
One of these occasions occurred when he severed Brahma’s fifth head to punish him for his lie, and the second, when Sati ended her life being insulted by her father Daksha. Condemned by all gods for the sin of Brahma-hatya – murdering Brahma, Shiva ran for redemption from the sin from one place to other. The worst of it was that reminding him of his sin of Brahma-hatya Brahma’s severed head stuck to his hand and every moment tortured him with its presence. Shiva did great penance for thousands of years and moved from one holy site to other but without relief. Finally, as advised by Vishnu, he reached the holy seat of Dashashvamedha at Kashi and was absolved of his sin and with this the Brahma’s severed head dropped and his wandering stopped.
Shiva wandered in the like manner second time when his consort Sati deserted him by ending her life. Sati’s father Daksha, a descendant of Brahma, was opposed to his daughter’s marriage with Shiva. Hence, when he held a great yajna – sacrificial ritual, he did not invite either her or her husband Shiva. Shiva bore the insult with a cool mind but Sati could not. She decided and accordingly went to her father’s yajna uninvited. Instead of receiving her Daksha ignored her. Insulted Sati jumped into the fire she prepared and immolated her. The news of her death overwhelmed Shiva with grief. He beat the ground with his matted hair and out of it emerged two monsters, Virabhadra and Bhadrakali. Manifest forms of Shiva’s wrath they rushed to Daksha’s yajna and not only destroyed it but also killed Daksha. Scriptures unanimously contend that desperate in fury and grief Shiva roamed from one place to other wailing in Sati’s name and searching her until he met Parvati, Himvan’s daughter, and married her.
The most salient feature of the Brahma-related legend is Brahma’s severed head appended to Shiva’s hand, which is absent in this representation. A robust figure, instead of one subdued by remorse apart, a repentant Shiva would hardly carry a trident. However, the figure’s iconography is close to representing him as wandering. In most of his manifestations Shiva is either in a role or in someone’s company, even Nandi’s, his mount, and hardly ever alone. Shiva’s isolated figures, as in his yogi, archer, or hunter manifestations, are in one role or other. Here in this statue, except that he holds one of his hands in the gesture of ‘abhaya’ and carries a trident, his most usual attribute, in the other, his figure does not manifest a role besides aimlessly wandering. Similarly, his figure has been modeled as completely isolated, not even indicating anyone’s presence, manifest or unmanifest, by its posture, as it does by a curved middle and turned hand, as if leaning on his mount, when representing him as ‘Vrashavahana’, a form in which ‘vrasha’ or bull is usually absent. Obviously, not an idle representation of his likeness, the statue represents Shiva as wanderer full of fury and desperation over his consort’s insulting and pathetic end.
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.