Shiva as Mahesha

Period: Chola period (880–1279)

Date: 10th century

Culture: India (Tamil Nadu)

Medium: Granite

Dimensions: H. 58 in. (147.3 cm); W. 32 in. (81.3 cm); D. 16 in. (40.6 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Egleston Fund, 1927

Accession Number: 27.79


Images such as this one have long been identified as Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, because four heads are considered his primary iconographic feature. The heads refer to his cosmic role as creator and symbolize the four great ages of Hindu mythology. More recently, noting the third eye and the different earrings of the central face, standard attributes of Shiva, scholars have proposed that the sculpture may represent one of his manifestations. In some Hindu scripture, Shiva, traditionally god of destruction, is also associated with the energy of life, and can be understood, like Brahma, to represent creation.

Two forms of Shiva are possible: Sadashiva, one of his more philosophical aspects, and Mahesha, at times described as the penultimate materialization of the transcendent god. There is literary evidence that worship of Sadashiva was prevalent during the rule of the Chola kings in South India. Other scholars suggest that images showing the god in bust form with four or five heads are representations of Sadashiva, whereas figures in which he is fully formed represent Mahesha. According to this theory, Mahesha is the ultimate material form of the god who manifests himself partially in the form of Sadashiva, as well as in more transcendental forms such as the linga.