Cultures & Traditions

The Cult of Shiva in South India

In India from at least the 5th century onward, the major Hindu gods were Vishnu and Shiva. Shiva is a very complex deity. The god of death and rebirth, Shiva is sometimes imagined in his ter­rible aspect, as Lord of Destruction, who meditates among the ashes of corpses on a cremation ground. He is a supreme yogi, an ascetic of great powers, with wild hair and an ash-smeared body, who transcends ordinary reality. Yet he is also an ancient god of fertility. Sometimes he is shown in sensuous, loving rapport with his wife Parvati and their children.

Shiva was especially predominant in south India. Kings and queens of the Chola dynasty (9th - 13th centu­ries) patronized the construction of great temples, with a special emphasis on Shiva and his circle. During this era, bronze images of major deities were produced for temple worship and ritual procession.

The DMA’s the Shiva Nataraja— Lord of the Dance—is an example of this type of bronze image. Shiva is surrounded by flames, symbolizing his energy and vitality, as well as his destructive force. His upper hands hold the flame that symbolizes the dissolution of creation, and the drum that beats out the rhythm of the universe. His hair is the Ganges, mother of rivers, within which is Shiva’s emblem, the crescent moon. The gestures of his lower hands offer reassurance and blessing. One of his feet is pressed firmly on the demon of ignorance, while the other is raised in a sign offering refuge and grace. While the circular composition represents the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth, Shiva himself offers transcendence.

Sambandar, a Shaivite saint from Tamil Nadu who lived around the 7th century, is recorded in the Tevaram, a collection of devotional poetry dedicated to Shiva, as saying of the god:

If one worships him for as long as the soul shines in the body the troubles of the mind will be gone.

While another Shaivite saint from the same time and place, Appar, said of Shiva:

If you could see the arch of his brow, the budding smile on lips red as the kovvai fruit, cool matted hair, the milk- white ash on coral skin, and the sweet golden foot raised up in dance, then even human birth on this wide earth would become a thing worth having.

Aspects of these great visions of Shiva appear in two other south Indian works in the collection. The bronze Chandrashekhara Shiva (PG.2007.1) shows the god with the crescent moon in his hair, representing time in its waxing and waning, as well as allud­ing to soma, the elixir of immortality. The gestures of his two lower hands refer to the god’s gifts of blessing and release.

The Chola image of the bull Nandi (2010.6) would have appeared before a Shiva temple to protect the temple doorway and welcome worshippers.

Adapted from

"The Cult of Shiva in South India," in Anne R. Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Have: Yale University Press, 2013), 74.