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  • Nandivahana

Bronze Wood, pigment
19th century
Karnataka, South-Western India

Each South Indian temple has its annual calendar of auspicious celebrations known as utsavas or events to ‘drive out sorrow’. Chief among these are the temple processions in which ceremonial bronze images of the deity (utsavamurti) are carried beyond the temple compound on poles, on their animal vehicles, or in chariots drawn by devotees. Great care is taken in dressing the portable images of the deity to create an image of regal splendour – the gods are bathed with purified water and by devotees. sandalwood ash, and then dressed in a gold embellished silk sari and bedecked with jewellery. The processional images are secured on their vehicles and sheltered by a canopy or large umbrellas from the harsh heat of the day. Only the officiating priests are permitted to travel with the utsavamurti on the moving platform, receiving offerings and dispensing blessings on behalf of the deity. The processions are designed to allow the deity to visit his ‘territory’ and mark out his authority. The procession proceeds slowly through the town, stopping at regular intervals for rest and to provide further opportunities for devotees of all castes to experience darshan.

The animal mounts or vahanas of the deity are typically considered physical shells inhabited during the procession by the celestial mounts of the gods. Accordingly, they are carved in wood, a material that once contained life and is deemed primed to hold life again. The vahanas’ otherworldliness is highlighted by their enormous size, often dwarfing the deity, his priests, and the devotees who carry the vahana.

This particular vahana represents Nandi, the divine mount of Shiva, the god of destruction and creation, and his consort, the goddess Parvati. The sacred bull is not only the deity’s devoted companion but also the leader of Shiva’s army and the gatekeeper of his celestial abode. As befitting his role, Nandi is depicted striding forward in vigorous motion with his muscled legs spread far apart, his long tail trailing. While the fullness of the carving expresses the vitality of the bull, his wide staring eyes and stiff ears suggest alertness. His tongue licks the end of his snout. This figure is represented as ithyphallic, referencing Nandi’s role as granter of fertility. The animal’s head, neck, and torso are draped in ceremonial finery: sumptuous belled necklaces, headdress, girdles, earrings, and horn covers of decorative beads evoke the prestige of precious metals. The decorative saddle suggests rich brocade patterned with the tiger skin on which Shiva sits. Nandi’s head is turned, as if to gaze at the processional images that would have been displayed on the small platform above him.

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