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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Monuments—Shiva in Stone


The caves of Elephanta and Ellora contain sculpted stone panels that along with the linga (the phallus of Shiva) depict several intertwined myths that constitute Shiva’s lila. Handelman and Shulman (1997) say that we can read these panels as a visual essay in Saiva cosmology and psychology. Looking at the panels at Elephanta “we can observe the god in process—that is, fragmenting and recomposing himself, and thus in powerful contrast to the aniconic totality/unity seemingly represented by the linga” (p. 27). Doniger (1983a), a la Lévi-Strauss, points out that these panels, like myth are “good to think with” (p. xx). Similarly themed sculpted panels can also be found in the caves of Ellora. Handelman and Shulman note that these sculptors: “elaborate on these relations, combining and recombining the same building blocks of myth and metaphysical psychology. We stress again that we are dealing with a nonlinear sequence, with stable thematic elements capable of varying arrangements and integration” (p. 17).


At Elephanta, as Handelman and Shulman (1997) note, the placement of the panels reflects interesting oppositions of centrifugal and centripetal movements and reflects the paradoxes of life and energy. To get an overview for where we are going in view of where we have been, we begin with the androgyne panel, Shiva and Parvati united in a single body, then comes the dice game and slaying of the demon Andhaka which are centrifugal, separating and fragmenting, while panels showing the marriage of Shiva and Parvati and Ravana shaking Kailas are centripetal representing the movement of evolution, or moments of reunion, as are the yogi and Nataraj panels. The linga (phallus) in the interior of the cave represents the totality, the unformed aspect of Shiva, total unity, or total innerness.

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