Collar necklace with figure of Shiva-Bhairava

CULTURE:
Nepalese
DATE:
1676
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General Description

In the Tantric Buddhism of Nepal, Shiva appears as Bhairava, a violent and demonic guise of the god, full of passionate energy and bearing symbols of death. This form of Shiva indicates his relationship with the older god Rudra, the Aryan storm deity, as well as the intermixing of Hindu and Buddhist influences in the Himalayas. In this ceremonial collar necklace, Newari artists portray Bhairava in silver. (The Newar are a distinct ethno-linguistic group who have historically inhabited the Kathmandu Valley).

As seen here, Bhairava has six arms and bares his fangs. The lower set of arms hold a skull bowl in the right hand and a curved chopping knife in the left. The middle set of arms holds a trident (left) and the severed head of Brahma (right). The uppermost arms wield a sword and a shield. Bhairava sits in a cross-legged yogic posture on the body of a demon. Small severed heads, poison snakes, and a crown of skulls add to his fearsome appearance.

The skull bowl and curved chopping knife are common figures in the Buddhist Tantric tradition and symbolize the destruction of cognitive errors that are understood to be the ultimate cause of all miseries. The sword and shield symbolize Bhairava's role as the warrior king of the gods, who defeats the armies of the demons (asuras) threatening the order and stability of the world. The trident is an attribute of Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe. The severed head of Brahma refers to the episode when Brahma, the first god to reside in this universe, claimed to be its creator. Bhairava objected, saying that he was the creator and Brahma merely the first tenant. The debate became violent, and Bhairava cut off one of Brahma's heads.

Such an image of Bhairava functions as an amulet of protection and transcendence. Followers of Bhairava/Shiva understand him to be the master and creator of the universe, king of the Hindu pantheon, who protects from all dangers in this and future lives. In honor of this protection, Bhairava's image is crafted in silver and placed on a lotus throne in a field of divine flowers. The lotus throne is a Buddhist symbol indicating that the deity has attained a transcendent state. For many Newaris, this deity seems to transcend distinctions between Buddhist and Hindu religious cultures.

Adapted from

  • R. W. Clark, "Bhairava collar necklace," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 195.

  • DMA unpublished material.

Fun Facts

  • The Indian and Himalayan inscriptions on the back of the necklace reveal a date that translates to 1676 and mention several donors of the necklace who lived in the vicinity of Kathmandu.