Museum Treasure: The 8 Shivas

When you enter the sculpture gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) at Mumbai, look to your left. You will see a towering slab of ‘stone’, about 11-12 feet in height. If you stand in front of the slab and position yourself a few feet away from it, this is what you will see.

Mahadeva, Ashta Shiva, Parashiva, Sculpture Gallery, Relief, CSMVS, Museum Treasure, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu SangrahalayaYour eyes will be drawn to the central standing figure and the 6 figures who surround him. Two figures emerge from his shoulders and one rises from behind him. You will notice three more figures emerging from the middle figure — two from his sides and one from behind him. In addition to these 7 figures, you will notice five more figures grouped around the legs of the central standing figure.

Now move closer to see the finer details on the relief.

Mahadeva, Ashta Shiva, Parashiva, Sculpture Gallery, Relief, CSMVS, Museum Treasure, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu SangrahalayaThe matted hair, the different hand gestures, the third eye on the forehead of the central standing figure, the crescent moon on the head of central figure on top, the same facial features on all the figures… come into focus. You will also notice that though the faces of the seated figures are not very clear, one can make out that they are musicians of some sort — there is a lute, a flute and some sort of harp.

Mahadeva, Ashta Shiva, Parashiva, Sculpture Gallery, Relief, CSMVS, Museum Treasure, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu SangrahalayaMahadeva, Ashta Shiva, Parashiva, Sculpture Gallery, Relief, CSMVS, Museum Treasure, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu SangrahalayaWhen you read the information plaque — or rather card — placed at the base of this relief, you will find that it is very brief. It mentions that this is a plaster cast of a relief from the Parel area of Mumbai dating back to the 8th century C.E. The sculpture is called Ashta Shiva (or 8 Shivas) or Mahadeva (another name for Shiva).

I first saw this relief of Mahadeva or Ashta Shiva about three years back on a visit to the CSMVS. I found the Mahadeva relief so compelling that subsequent visits to the museum for other exhibitions would see me take a detour just to see it. Each time, as I gazed at the Mahadeva, I would wonder at the Buddha / Bodhisattva-like postures and expressions and also about the origin and purpose of the relief. Though I wanted to find more information about the relief, I really did not go out of my way to seek it out.

Then last month, something happened. That something was a guided walk through the sculpture gallery of the CSMVS, particularly of the exhibits found in the region around present day Mumbai. Led by Dr. Suraj Pandit from the Department of Ancient Indian Culture of Sathaye College, Mumbai, the Mahadeva relief was — for lack of a better or apt word — the show stopper of the gallery walk, which lasted for approximately an hour.

imageThe original Mahadeva relief is in at the Baradevi temple in Parel, where it forms the backdrop for the main lingam in the shrine. Centuries ago, Parel used to be a workshop for sculptures and rock-cut cave temple art and architecture and also a centre for Pasupata Saivism, the earliest and oldest known Shaivite sect. This sect considers Shiva as the Supreme Being and the Ashta Shiva can be interpreted as the many forms of Shiva.

The Mahadeva relief was made in Parel at a time when creativity in art and craft was at its peak. While some historians call the relief Ashta Shiva, some Mahadeva, and some others as Maheshmurti, Dr. Pandit preferred to call the central figure on top of the relief as Parashiva, or the Absolute aspect of Shiva, in line with the beliefs of the Pasupata sect. The remarkable thing about this relief is that no such reliefs or sculptures have been found anywhere in the region or in India or elsewhere. This Ashta Shiva / Mahadeva / Parashiva relief remains the only one ever found/made.

Since Pashupata Saivism existed alongside Buddhism, there was considerable exchange of artistic ideas between the two. That may be the reason, why Shiva’s facial expression can be taken for that of the Buddha.

“But there are only 7 figures of Shiva on the relief !” exclaimed a participant at the gallery walk. “Why is called Ashta Shiva then?”

“Look carefully at the relief, said Dr.Pandit. “The outline of the relief is shaped like a lingam and that, according to some historians, is the 8th Shiva. Therefore, the whole becomes the Ashta Shiva.” [At this point I urge the reader to go look at the first picture in the post once again]

Dear reader, tell me what did you think of this Ashta Shiva?

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

14 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The 8 Shivas

  1. Ashtashiva..the sculpture itself looks very magnificent..and the idea of ashta (8) ..loved that..7 plus the outline being that of the lingam shape the eighth one.

    Our ancient heritage is very vast and more and more study gives us various deeper meanings and ideals..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Superb, Sudha! loved the details, all of which we missed when we went to see the original, which has been placed in a small enclosure, almost like a cage.
    It is interesting to see how it has been variously identified as Baradevi, Saptamurthi and Ashta Shiva, all thanks to this unique and ancient depiction which we seem to know little about…
    Also, I remember seeing Sada Shiva in a tanjore temple which had around 7 heads too, arranged, sort of like how we used to draw grapes in school, remember?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think what this sculpture shows is how perspectives differ. For me, the most intriguing thing is why is called bara devi when the figures are so obviously male. Why not Bara Dev?

      And no, I haven’t seen Sada Shiva in Thanjavur. Which temple was this in?

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  3. Our ancient sculptures carry more than the obvious meaning. These are best understood when explained by an expert as you were lucky to experience! Its for this very reason that I always opt for guided walks be it to see trees, birds, inside a museum …. Great post. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like guided walks too. But it has been my experience, especially in large spaces like palaces and forts, they skip the museum galleries as many people find it boring. One of the reasons why, in such places, I prefer audio guides as they really show you the best of everything.

      I haven’t tried the audio guide at the CSMVS yet, but I’m going to one of these days, just to see how good it is.

      Glad you liked the post, Archana. 🙂

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  4. Ah,I have missed you museum treasure series! I have not heard of Ashta Shiva, but have heard of Sahasra lingam and others.

    I kept wondering why it is called Ashta Shiva when the figures resemble Buddha more than Shiva despite the third eye, crescent moon and all, till I read the explanation given by Dr.Suraj Pandit. I agree with Archana that we need an expert to explain our sculptures and other art forms. Yes, the entire sculpture looks as if encased in a lingam.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have missed writing the Museum Treasure series as well. Hopefully with the visits I have made to some museums recently, I will be able to add more to the series.

      The sculpture Gallery at the CSMVS, though small, is one of the best that I have seen in India. Some of the exhibits are real treasures with very interesting stories behind them. I’m looking sharing them soon. But first, I have to find a good book on Pashupata Shaivism. Do let me know if you come across any.

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  5. The real one at Parel is in a small enclosure with a rusty iron gate and should have been in the museum and the copy kept in the temple which is so badly kept. Sad to see the way our heritage is kept without any respect for it’s real value.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome here, Aaadil and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I have, unfortunately, not seen the original yet, but I remember reading somewhere that the locals refused to hand it over to the Museum authorities and that’s why a plaster cast was made. Apparently, the plaster cast has more details visible than the original Ashta Shiva.

      As for heritage and the average Indian’s attitude towards it, the less said the better. My blood pressure spikes just thinking about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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