featured, Long Reads

Shiva- the conqueror of Time and Death

This article is written by Monidipa Bose Dey. You can read her blog here.

Aum Tryambakam yajaamahe sugandhim pushtivardhanam |

Urvaarukamiva bandhanaan-mrityormuksheeya maamritaat ||

Tadipatri, Photo by Jay Shankar

One among the most influential gods in Hinduism, Shiva is a part of the old Hindu triad, and his followers are cumulatively known as Saivites, although there are many sects within it. While Shiva is associated with the act of destruction (Samhara) or dissolution (Pralay) within the Hindu Trinity, for his followers he is the Lord of everything, that is, he is the Master of Creation (Srishti), Preservation of Life (Sthiti), and the Master of Destruction (Pralay). Along with three acts, Shiva is also shown with the acts of anugraha or prasada where he rewards his devotees, and tirobhava (power of concealment).

These five together are known as pancakriyas or the five fold activities that is seen in his various manifestations depicted on temple walls. He is also the Lord of alive and dead- Pashupati and Bhutanatha, the Master of concentration and meditation- Adiyogi, the greatest among all gods (Mahadeva), and the beloved husband of Uma (Umapati).

Head of Shiva, Mathura, 400-420 CE, Ashmolean Museum

The Shiva that we find in the Epics and the Puranas had developed from his older counterparts that had combined both the Vedic and non Vedic aspects. In the Vedas it is Rudra who is the counterpart of the Puranic Shiva, and his traits are well enumerated in the one hundred names attributed to him in the Sukla Yajurveda (Satarudriya). Here it is worth mentioning that the worship of a deity akin to that of the Puranic Shiva is many respects seems to have been popularly worshipped during the Indus Saraswati civilisation too. While we are yet to know the name by which the Harappans worshipped this deity (termed often as proto Shiva by the archaeologists), the Vedic name Rudra continues in the epics and puranas.

The name Shiva, which means auspicious, is used often for describing other gods in that particular sense in the early Vedic literature It became a proper name in the later Vedic strata. In Svestasvara Upanishad the word Shiva is used multiple times as one of the names of Rudra. Besides Shiva, the other names used are Rudra-Siva, Mahesvara, Mahadeva, and Isana (Brahmanas). He is also Giritra (one who resides in the hills), Krttivasa (garment made of animal skin), and Kapardi (wears a crown of snail shell like jata on his head). In Atharvaveda we find Rudra becoming the supreme god where he is described with epithets such as Bhava, Sarva (one who wields arrow), Ugra, Pasupati, Mahadeva (greatest among all gods), and Isana. The Brahmanas (Satapatha and Kaustiki) add Asani which make 8 such epithets (including Rudra). Each of these 8 epithets also signify his two aspects (4 each) – the aghora/ghora or terrific aspect, and the Saumya or his peaceful aspect. Thus, Rudra, Sarva, Ugra, and Asani are his terrific or destructive aspects; while Pasupati, Mahadev, Isana, and Bhava depict his peaceful or beneficent aspect.

Six-armed Shiva with Nandi, Gandharan Art,
Akhun Dheri, 3rd-4th Century, Peshawar Museum
Shiva and Parvati, 3rd c. CE, Gandhara art. source

The worship of Shiva (Shaivism) is one of the oldest and the most popular or widely spread practice within the group of Indic religions. Shaivism has many sub sects and the well known ones among them are the Agamanta or Suddha saiva sect, the Vedanta Saivas, the Pasupatas, the Kapalikas, Kalamukhas, Virasaivas, Nayanars, Pratyabhijnas, etc. With varying practices and rituals these sects form a complex and different topic altogether, and I will perhaps some day take it up in a separate article. Here in this post I will focus solely on the the iconography of Shiva.

Harappan era linga, at the Harappa Gallery-National Museum, Delhi.
Relief Showing Shiva Linga being worshipped by Saka Devotees – Kushan Period, Mathura Museum.

Shiva on coins

The presence of Shiva in early coins is easily noticed by the bull appearing in many coins of indigenous nature and also on those made by the foreign rulers. He has also been represented theriomorphically in many cases. Thus, the humped bull on the back side of an unknown Indo-Scythic king (inscribed in Greek and Kharosthi scripts the words Tauras and Usabhe (vrisabha) is quite likely to stand for Shiva.

In his studies of ancient Indian coins J. Allan has mentioned few uninscribed cast coins that show emblems depicting lingam with or without a pedestal. Sometimes these coins ( from Taxila with inscriptions in Brahmi, dated 2nd-3rd c. BCE if not earlier) would show a hill between two trees and a chattri on top, or the linga placed between two trees which were likely referring to a particular Saiva sect. Besides Allan, Coomaraswamy and Banerjea also stated that these phallic representations of Shiva (lingam) are probably among the earliest found Shiva’s representation on local or tribal coins from historical period. Shiva’s connections with trees and mountains are easily accounted for in many of the old texts, and similar depictions continued well into the Gupta period. Some of the other symbols (such as a crescent moon) that depicted Shiva on early historic coins are :

1. trisula placed inside a railing with two pillars on two sides depicting Rudra-Shiva (pancala series of their kings Rudragupta and Agnimitra),

2. a star with double trident with prongs on top and below,

3. tree in center with two figures on either side inside an enshrined trisula, and

4. combined trident and a battle-axe (coins of Audumbara chief Dharaghosha, and Wema Kadphises).

Shiva appears in his anthropomorphic form for the first time in coins from Ujjayini and its surrounding areas as:

a) a single figure holding a staff and a vase

b) accompanied with his Nandi,

c) three headed figure standing alone carrying the staff and vase.

The copper coins of Audumabara kings (1st -2nd c. BCE) would invariably show “2 storied domed stupa like structures” (Coomaraswamy) with the trident and battle axe in front. These coins clearly show the stupa like structures were actually Shiva shrines, which most likely had a linga or an image placed inside. These coins also clearly establish the fact the worship of Shiva and some of its sects were already well in place by the 3rd c. BCE.

Some of the Shiva representations on the early historic coins of India. Ref: Banerjea plate I, “Coin devices“.

NoteHere I have mentioned the ancient most coins of the historic era that were found depicting Shiva, but if one is further interested in reading on the coins that show more representations of Shiva, it would be prudent to take up the coins of Kushana era kings (Wema Kadphises, Kanishka, Huvishka, and Vasudeva) who had minted many unique coins depicting Shiva on them; followed by a study of the coins by the Gupta dynasty.

Oesho or Shiva, Kanishka era
Oesho or Shiva with bull, Kanishka era

Shiva on seals

Shiva has been represented in various forms on ancient seals that have been unearthed from different sites such as Basarh, Bhita, Rajghat, etc., which range from the Kushan era to the Gupta period. examples of these finds include a seal showing a linga between two trees with the word padapesvara (in Gupta characters) inscribed on it (from the collection of Dhir Singh Nahar of Calcutta) ; or the one discovered by T. Bloch at Basarh, where it showed a shivlinga with a trisula and a parasu with the inscription Amratakesvara, meaning the lord of Amrataka (a mountain- there are 8 guhya lingas as given in Matsyapurana– Amratakesvara is one of them).

A look at the Harappan era seals show many figures in yogic postures often sitting on deer throne and wearing deer horns while surrounded by animals such as buffalo, rhinoceros, tiger, and elephant. While the script remains undeciphered, many archaeologists and historians have termed these seals as proto-Shiva; associated with what later developed into the Puranic Shiva.

The famous Pashupati seal discovered during excavation of Mohenjo-Daro and showing a possible representation of a “yogi” or “proto-Shiva” figure as Paśupati (Lord of the Animals) Circa 2350-2000 BCE.

Moving on to the Basarh seals, one found by Spooner of the early Gupta period, shows a roughly sketched bull running to the right with a moon on top, and which Spooner described as “nothing but Siva with crescent moon (Sasankasekhara) in his theriomorphic form (bull- Nandi)”. Another seal from the same collection shows a recumbent bull in the middle of a field with the inscription Rudradevasya. The humped bull, trisula, and parasu are common motifs seen recurring on many seals depicting Shiv from the Basarh site. Another from Spooner’s collection (of the Kushan era) shows an ardhanarisvera which is considered as the earliest representation of this aspect of Siva. The Bhita site has also yielded many seals that show nandipada, nandi (shown sometimes with a sphere between his horns in Satavahana ones), linga, trisula, and parasu, all of which depict Siva. Some of the seals also depict various aspects of Shiva in human forms such as Kalesvara, Kalanjara-bhattaraka (Kalanjara is the name of a hill in Bundelkhand -Cunningham), Bhadresvara, Mahesvara, etc. Another seal from this site shows Shiva as two armed seated in lalitasana on a padmapitha and flames are seen over his head and shoulders, while the 4th-5th c. CE inscription reads Bhadresvara (of Vamanapurana). Few seals found at Bhita depict Shiva and Durga with the bull and belong to the 2nd -3rd c. CE.

Worshipping the Lingam

It has been an early popular practice among the Saivas to worship Shiva in his emblem form, which is the Sivalinga. It was placed as the main object of worship in the main sanctum of the temple, while the anthropomorphic figures of Shiva were seen sculpted on various parts of temple walls, mainly as accessory figures for the darshan of the devotees as they circumambulated the temple.

Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, 1st century CE , India. Sandstone , Philadelphia Museum of Art
Ekmukha linga, Kushana era, Mathura museum
Devotees worshiping Shiva-linga, 11th-12th c. CE, Chandella, Khajuraho-MPNational Museum, Delhi
Shivalinga, Kikkeri. Photo by Jay Shankar
Photo by Jay Shankar

Two such Shivalingas, considered as among the oldest found ones, were examined by Gopinath Rao using various texts, and described in great details in his book. Rao had also discovered the Gudimallam linga, considered one among the two oldest shiva lingas, where a standing Shiva is carved on the linga.

The Gudimallam lingam (dated between 2nd c. BCE – 1st c. BCE) , an urddhava-retas linga, is carved out of hard reddish brown igneous rock commonly found in the Tirupati hills, and shows light polish. It is one foot thick, stands five foot above floor level, the pindika or pedestal is cut in the ground in the form of a quadrangular ridge, and is set directly to a hole cut in the ground. The front part bears the figure of Shiva in high relief, standing on the shoulders of a grinning apasmarapurusa. The urdhavalinga Siva (characteristic of the Common Era) is not seen here, though the linga is made clearly discernible through the diaphanous clothing. Shiva holds a ram in his right hand by its hind legs, and water vessel in his left, and a battle axe (parasu) rests on his left shoulder. On his head, like a turban are the hair plaits (hair not matted), while is face shows Mongoloid features with a snub nose, high cheek bones, small forehead, and oblique eyes (suits beautifully the name by which Shiva is also referred, Virupaksa – he with oblique eyes).

Gudimallam lingam . Photo from wiki
The grinning apasmarapurusa , Gudimallam lingam. Photo from google
ShivaGudimallam lingam. Photo from google

The other ancient most linga is from Bhita (hence referred to as the Bhita linga), and has been described in details by Rakhal Das Banerji. As per his writings the top of this linga is in the form of a male bust holding a vase in his left hand, while the right one shows abhaya mudra. Below the bust are four heads facing four corners. The top male bust is seen wearing a cloth thrown over the left shoulder. In front, immediately below the two heads, the phallus is marked by deeply drawn lines. The lower part of the linga is shaped as a tenon to be fitted into a mortice. It is very clear from the description that this is a panchamukhalinga, depicting the fives faces of Shiva, which are Isana, Tatpurusha, Aghora, Vamadeva, and Sadyojata. There is an inscription at the base that gives the details of the donor’s name, and from study of which with the help of the used characters RD Banerji placed the linga to be of the 1st c. BCE.

Bhita linga , 1st c. BCE, Lucknow museum

Besides the Bhita and Gudimallam lingas, there is another red sandstone linga from Mathura housed at the Lucknow museum belonging to the Kushan era that shows a decorative band separating the upper segment from middle, and another linga from a slightly later date that is a huge stone sculpture housed in the Mathura museum and it shows three distinctive sections (lower, middle, and top) of the shivlinga.

The Gudimallam and Bhita lingas are unique in the sense they represent the combined mode of depicting Shiva both as human as well as the phallic form, giving rise to the concept of mukhalingas, which were popular in the Kushana era (early Common era period in the Mathura region).

Chaturmukha linga with a decorative band, Kushana era. National Museum, Delhi.

Sivalingas can be of various types, though broadly divided into two classes: chala lingas (movable ones); and achala or sthira lingas (immovable ones, such as the ones in heavy stones which we see in temple sanctums). The chala lingas can be categorised into mrinmaya (made of earth), lohaja (metal made), ratnaja (made of precious stones), daruja (wooden ones), sailaja (stone made ones), and kshanika lingas (made for some occasion and disposed off immediately afterwards). The achala lingas also known as sthira lingas or dhruva lingas, as per the Makutagama can be classified into four types: Daivika, Arsaka, Ganapa, and Manusa. The Kamikagama classifies them into six types: Swambhu, Daivika, Arsaka, Ganapatya, Manusa, and Banalingas. Besides the swambhu or the natural ones that have a special significance of their own, the last two are the most important ones. Banalingas, like salagramas, are natural and found in particular river beds, mainly fished out from the river Reva or Narmada. Manusa are man-made lingas; comprising of three parts namely, Brahmabhaga (square lowest section), Vishnubhaga (octagonal middle part), and Rudrabhaga (topmost part, generally cylindrical); and they form the largest group of sthira lingas.

Parts of a Sthiralinga. image: wikipedia
Ekmukha linga, Gupta era. National Museum Delhi.

Mukhalingas, which are a part of the Manusalingas, show faces on the rudra or puja bhaga, denoting the various aspects of Shiva. The number of faces shown can vary from 5, 4, 3, or 1 (as per Karanagama), and a mukhalinga with four faces should have the faces facing four directions; a mukhalinga with three faces should not have a face at the back; while a mukhalinga with one face should have the face placed a little high up and be front facing. In a four faced mukhalinga the western face should be white, northern should be red, southern face black and angry, while the eastern face should be of the colour of a well lit fire (Rupamandana). The five faces of Shiva termed as panchamukhalinga, stands for the five aspects of Shiva which are the Sadyajota, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha, and Ishana (which is said to be incomprehensible even to the great Yogis; hence best left unrepresented). While Karanagama speaks of five faced Shiva using the term sarananam (sara is arrow, and number of arrows carried by Kamadeva is 5), it does not speak of the exact position of the fifth face. Rupamandana does not mention a five faced Shiva because the fifth aspect is beyond the comprehension of any living being (pancamam ca tathesanam yoginamapyagocaram).

Rare representation of the Panchamukha linga of Shiva, 15th c. CE, Panchavaktra temple in Mandi, HP

Manusha Lingas can also be classified based on on measurements of the three sections, and they can also be classified on the basis of the varying ways in which the Rudrabhaga is carved. The latter classification consists of names such as Sahasralinga, Astottorasatalinga, Dharalinga, etc. Dharalinga has fluted facets with the number of facets varying between 5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 24, and 28 (Suprabhedagama). Astottorsatalinga and Sahasralingas, as the names suggest, have 108 and 1000 little lingas respectively carved on the Rudrabhaga of the main linga.

Dhara linga with Som Skanda on the back wall panel, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram.
Sahasralinga, Someswara temple, Kolanapaka, Telengana.

Coomaraswamy in his essay described an interesting late Kushan era Shiva of Mathura , wherein Shiva is shown standing on one side of a long pillar like emblem. He is four armed, where his front two hands are in katihasta and abhaya mudras, and the two back hands are placed on his jatas. Shiva on columnar altars are mentioned in the Mahabharata in the Kiratarjuniya parva, and Asvatthama parva where Asvatthama tries entering the Pandava camp, and these scenarios remind one of the Lingodbhavamurti of Shiva, so commonly seen on the walls of the south Indian temples.

Lingodbhava murti of Shiva, Brihadeswara temple, Thanjavur

Shiva is represented in two, four, or multi armed human forms on temple walls in various ways, which can be broadly categorised into two: the ugra and saumya forms. The various aspects of Shiva that we see on temple walls are Chandrasekhara, Umasajita, Alingana Candrasekhara, Vrshvahana, Uma Mahesvara, Som Skanda, Dakshinamurti (of various types), Ganga avtarana, Nataraja, Sadashiva, Mahasadashiva, Mahesamurti, Lakulisha, Bhairava, Aghora, Virbhadra, Virupaksa, Kankalamurti, Bhiksatana, Hari-Hara, Ardhnariswara, Gajasurasamharamurti, Andhakasuravadhmurti, Jalandhara, Tripurantaka, Kalanataka, Anugraha murtis, Sarabhesamuti, along with many more.

Given below are some of the images of Shiva in human forms depicting his various aspects:

Shiva, Gandhara, 2nd c. CE. Third eye is horizontal here.
Shiva and Parvati, early Gupta period. Kausambi. Now at the Indian Museum (Kolkata). Here again the third eye of Shiva is horizontal.
Shiva, 3rd century CE,  Ahichchhatra. LACMA
Shiva at the Elephanta Caves, Maharashtra. 6th century CE. Wikipedia
Uma MahesvaraHalebeeduImage by Jay Shankar
Halebeedu , Image by Jay Shankar
Halebeedu , Image by Jay Shankar
Nataraja, Image by Jay Shankar
Tadipatri, Image by Jay Shankar
Bhiksatana murti, 7th c. CE Kailashnathar temple in Kanchi
Dakshinamurti, 7th c. CE Kailashnathar, Kanchi
Tripurantaka, Shore temple, 8th c. CE, Mahabalipuram
Som-Skanda murti, Shore Temple, 8th c. CE, Mahabalipuram.
Kalantaka or Kalarimurti, 11th c. CE Brihadeswara temple, GKC
Jalandhara Shiva, 7th c. CE, Kailashnathar temple in Kanchi
Urdhavatandava, Nrtyamurti Shiva with his Nandi7th c. CE, Kailshnathar temple in Kanchi
Chandeshanugrahamurti, 11th c. CE, Brihadeswara temple, GKC
Aghora murti, 12th c. CE, Cholas, Airavateswara temple,
Ardhanariswara, 10th century, Khajuraho, Chandella DynastyWiki
MahaSadaShiva from Parel, Mumbai. 6th c. CE. At the bottom are the Ganas, while the 3 Shiva murtis in the centre form a column depicting the fiery burning lingam of the Lingodbhava murti, with 4 Shiva murtis emerging from the side of this central column.
Sarabhesamuti, 12th c. CE, Airavatesvara temple- Darasuram.
Shiva Parvati, 13th c. CE, Odisha. British Museum.
Ardhanareeswarar in bronze, Chola era, Chennai Museum. Photo by Jay Shankar.

This article is written by Monidipa Bose Dey. You can read her blog here.


T.A. Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography, vol. 2 part 1.

J. Allan, Catalogue of Coins in Ancient India in the British museum.

Cunningham , Coins of Ancient India.

ASI reports by Cunningham and J. Marshall.