Nataraia, Gajantaka, Bhairava, and Andhakantaka are popular ugra-rupas (ferocious forms) of Lord Shiva- the god of destruction in the main trinity of the Hindu pantheon. Discussions of these forms in the agama literature and the Shilpa-shastras inspired artists to create such forms in plastic art. Bhairava and Andhakantaka forms of Shiva are less depicted in art compared to his other two
ugra-rupas. The most popular is Nataraja, which has been discussed in detail in the literature and also by contemporary art scholars. Gajantaka or Gajasurasamharmurti, is also popular. Some important multi-armed Gajantaka stone sculptures depicting Shiva in a ferocious mood holding several weapons are found in temples of north India (the National Museum has a 10th-century stone sculpture of the Pratihara period), others in Mysore and Tanjore in the south, and there is a bronze image from Valuvur temple of about the l3th-15th century. An 18th-century miniature painting of the Pahari school has also come to light, but the most exceptional discovery is an embroidered coverlet (rumal) from Chamba region, Himachal Pradesh, which is the subject of this article.
The destruction of the demon Gaja by Lord Shiva is an extremely rare subject for coverlets of chamba. The most common subjects found in both classical (careful composition, high-quality line work, soft subdued colours, and fine stitches) and folk (limited folkish subjects, bright colours, and unequal stitches) coverlets are the rasa dance of Lord Krishna with Radha and the gopis, Rukmini, Rama-Sita, Hanuman, wedding scenes, hunting scenes, and geometric patterns. These vivid subjects were delicately
embroidered with floss silk on square coverlets of white handspun muslin. Such pieces, created all over Himachal Pradesh, were used to cover offerings to the gods and gifts from the bride’s family to the groom or vice versa. Since the best-known coverlets are available from the chamba region of Himachal and this art probably started in this area, these coverlets are known as chamba rumals. Art and architecture flourished in the late 18th century under the Chamba ruler Umedh Singh (r. 1784-1808).
This was also the period when Raja Sansar Chand (r. l775—l 824) ruled Kangra, considered as the most fruitful period of Kangra miniature painting. Some of the Chamba rumals illustrate subjects narrated in miniature or mural paintings, and this coverlet is a good example, based on a
The puranas give the easy or story version of the philosophy of Vedanta. The “Gajantaka destruction episode”, which also has a deeper meaning, is discussed in the Kurma, Varaha, and Shiva Puranas. The Kurma Purana mentions that Lord Shiva emerged from the Krittivaseshvara lingo in Kashi (today’s Varanasi), when an asura (demon), who assumed the shape of an elephant, come near it to disturb the meditation of several brahmans who had gathered around the linga. Lord Shiva killed the elephant and made its skin his upper garment. The Varaha Purana says that once the asura Nila came to kill Shiva in elephant form. Somehow Nandi came to know of it and informed Virabhadra (the terrible manifestation of Shiva’s wrath), who took the shape of the lion (the natural enemy of the elephant) and attacked and killed Nila. Virabhadra presented the skin of this elephant to Shiva, who wore it as his upper garment. The Shiva Purana says that Gajasura, son of Mahishasura, performed penance and prayed to Lord Brahma who granted him a boon which made him so powerful and tyrannical that the whole world, including the gods in heaven, feared him. Finally all the gods including Indra approached Shiva for help against Gajasura. Shiva, pleased with the prayers of the gods, first tried to tame the demon. As the demon continued to be violent, Shiva trapped him with his trident and hanged him by his head. The suffering Gajasura prayed to lord Shiva for mercy before he died. Pleased with Gajasura’s last prayer, Shiva took his skin as a covering for himself and thus came to be called Gajajina, one who wears the skin (ajina) of an elephant (gaja).
Important sequences from the Shiva Purana’s elaborate description of this story have been delicately embroidered in floss silk thread on handwoven cloth made from handspun cotton yarn (figure l). Good composition, fine line work, a soothing colour combination, use of fine silk and badla (silver thread), and good stitch work, although lost at places, make this coverlet a unique specimen of a Chamba rumal of the mid-19th century. It appears to be a specially commissioned piece.
The artist has wisely chosen the three most important sequences, and succeeded in recreating the whole story. The depiction is in narrative style within a rectangular frame with a 64258; oral and scroll border, starting from below and moving upwards. The lower portion depicts seven Shiva ganas holding various weapons (stick, battle-axe, rod) and running after Gajasura who is chasing Nandi (the vehicle of lord Shiva). In the next sequence, Gajasura in his ferocious mood is chasing Nandi, while Shiva, Parvati, and her female attendants run to rescue Nandi. In the third sequence (upper right), Shiva and Parvati are shown seated on a tiger skin under a large tree, while Gaja’s skin is draped on Shiva’s shoulder. Finally, the upper left portion illustrates gods and goddesses in their
vimanas (vehicles), descending from heaven, showering flowers on Shiva and Parvati, and respectfully bowing before them. Banana and other trees are beautifully depicted in the last two panels, conveying that the event took place in a forest, as narrated in the literature. Shiva is embroidered with white, grey, and pink silk threads. He is adorned with a snake and holds a flag and damaru (small drum) in his two hands. Parvati and her attendants wear the orange/yellow/magenta/pink lehenga-choli-odhani (long skirt, blouse, and head covering) and the usual ornaments. Karttikeya is represented by his vahana the peacock. The line work of this coverlet is strong and of high quality, with charcoal lines clearly visible at places. Orange, green, golden yellow, and black are the dominant colours, with blue, magenta, pink, and white also used in this coverlet Double satin stitches have been used for the figurework, and the artist has embroidered a black outline for each figure to give it more prominence, although the outline work is not of very good quality. A magenta cross-stitch design is used to decorate the outermost border, which appears to be a later addition.
It is interesting to compare this rumal with a miniature painting illustrating a similar subject in the collection of the National Museum. This Guler school painting depicts the story of Gajantaka in narrative form, but the artist has used only two sequences. The first, at lower left, illustrates Gajasura chasing Nandi, while lord Shiva is shown helping Nandi and trying to tame the demon. In the second, at top right, Shiva-Parvati sit under a tree on a tiger skin, with the skin of Gaja wrapped around them. Karttikeya and Ganesha are also shown with their vehicles. The entire storyline has been developed around mountains, trees, and clouds, making it very lively and natural like the embroidered coverlet, this painting also narrates the Gajantaka episode. Although only two scenes are depicted in the painting, it succeeds in conveying a philosophical message, a popular trend in 18th-19th century art works. This subject became popular in the late I7th – early I8th century, both in literature and in art. The message was the renewal of fertility and religious aspiration by lord Shiva, the philosophy being to protect dharma and destroy evil and ignorance. Here evil takes the form of the demon, chasing Nandi who represents dharma. Shiva destroys ignorance for the protection of dharma and perpetuates conditions in which dharma can flourish. Lord Shiva is considered the exonerating god who believes in forgiveness even for the
asura, thus he is shown wearing the skin of Gaja. In fact, the virtue of forgiveness and the power of prayer are apparent in the painting as well as in the unique embroidered coverlet.
When describing the classic Chamba rumals, many writers are of the opinion that the drawings for classical rumals were done by court artists who were generally also commissioned to create miniature paintings for the rulers. In this instance it appears that the artist who made the drawing for the coverlet was inspired by the miniature painting, or perhaps may have himself painted the miniature. It is rare to find the subject of a miniature painting embroidered on a rumal, in such similar style.
All photographs courtesy National Museum, New Delhi.
First published in Marg.