top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

Shiva and Parvati on Mt Kailasa

The gods Śiva and Pārvatī at home on Mt Kailasa in the Himālayas.

National Gallery of Victoria 53620, click image there to view in high resolution: 18th century painting from Mewar in Rajasthan, India. Catalogue item 7c in Yoga: the Art of Transformation, with brief discussion.

Śiva/Shiva, ‘the kindly one’, a euphemism for his wild nature as Destroyer and one who goes beyond the pale.

Pārvatī/Parvati, ‘she of the Mountain’, the daughter of Parvata/Himavān (‘the snowy one’), the Mountain.


This is a cartoon without panels: the characters repeat at different points, sometimes in story sequence. Śiva/Shiva is the young man with a halo, and always nearby his trident and hanging off it, his drum. Pārvatī is the woman in the sari. They recur as a couple ten times around the circuit of walls, in various degrees of interaction: close or apart, upstairs to downstairs, arguing; bowered together; calling to each other from their own tower etc. And one instance each of them totally apart, alone on opposite sides of the picture.

We only get a slice of the fanciful landscape so cannot be sure of the exact form of the unseen whole; but if not an island, a promontory. Anyway it suggests concentric rings: a circuit of walls faces outward toward lotus-filled waters and inward to what might have been an enclosed pleasure garden but is instead wildness, the non-city jungle, vanam in Sanskrit, the place of withdrawal from civilisation.

As the scene is the sacred mountain Kailasa in Tibet, the waters can be the sacred Lake Mano-saro-vara: Mind Lake, because formed first in the mind of Brahmā and then transferred to earth. But the waterside architecture may have been borrowed from Udaipur in Rajasthan.

The walls are not so much fortifications as a kind of linear pavilion for the domestic life of the cosmic supercouple Śiva and Pārvatī.

Śiva and Pārvatī are gods that each occupy contradictory extremes. Pārvatī is alternately benign and savage. Śiva shifts back and forth between ascetic remove and erotic engagement: he rejects sexuality but is worshipped in the form of a phallus. (A book-length analysis and virtually a mythological reader on this opposition is Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s 1973/1981 Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic.)

Often the shift between these modes is a point of calamity. An instance of this appears in this painting:

One version of the story referenced here: Śiva has been off on a mountain top meditating for 20,000 years. Lonely and bored at home, Pārvatī decides to have a bath. Lying in the steaming hot water she idly rubs some scurf off her skin and fashions it into a son, Gaṇeśa/Ganesh (at this point still with a human head) and tells him to guard the door and admit no one to the bathroom. On cue, Śiva breaks off his meditation and wants to visit his wife. At the door to bathroom the unknown boy tries to refuse him entry. Enraged, Śiva decapitates him (he is carrying his trident but also a cakra/chakra, a circular steel frisby-blade). At this Pārvatī rises from the bath water howling in rage and threatens to destroy the universe. But Śiva is going to try and make amends. He sends his bull Nandin (who appears four times across this picture) with instructions to proceed in a straight line and decapitate the first creature he encounters. The bull encounters the elephant that is the ‘vehicle’ of the old Vedic god Indra and (after a poignant comment about submission to the inevitable) cuts off its head. Using this head Śiva repairs and revives his son.

In the detail above Gaṇeśa lies decapitated at the foot of his father (their robes are the same fabric!) and then just above wearing his new red elephant head stands guard at the door, everything now okay, while inside her chamber the naked Pārvatī is being groomed for her next conjugal encounter.

Likewise, earlier: the marriage of Śiva and Pārvatī was urgent and necessary; they had to give birth to the god of war as a demon needed killing. But again Śiva was off meditating, a dire impediment. The gods sent Kāma, the god of desire, who shot Śiva with one of his cupidinous love arrows: Śiva was lovestruck but promptly disintegrated Kāma with a blast of energy from his third eye. At this point Pārvatī herself adopted a bold strategy: against all social norms forbidding female asceticism she became an ascetic and practiced the most extreme austerities. (Another of her myriad names is Uma which can be understood as U! Ma! Hey! No! i.e. Stop! You’re a woman!) At this Śiva, gobsmacked and overwhelmed, could resist no longer and the Cosmic Copulation could proceed.


In the wild garden within the walls things are different. Outside where people are sexual they are properly clothed men and women. Inside it’s men only, naked or in thongs, covered in ash (that’s the blue) joining them to death (like ‘corpse pose’). Armpit, chest and pubic hair is distinctly indicated. They practice tapas, conventionally translated as ‘austerities’, literally burning (related to tepid from Latin where the temperature had dropped a bit).

Some details:


The men on the sides are ūrdhva-bāhus, raised-arm men: the grown fingernails show how long it has been. The younger man to the left is only doing one arm, but with a bend back. Maybe he will graduate to two. For now he may have duties he needs at least one hand for.

When recently an ethnographer asked a contemporary practitioner why he had opted to elevate only one arm (12 years I think it was: the arm had become liked a wizened club) the ascetic replied it was because these days it is so hard to get good help. To keep both arms in the air for years (roped up at night etc as required) you need someone to attend to your every bodily need. That evidently has become problematic. But across this picture we see a hierarchical service culture: as here (centre-bottom of the detail just above) one of the beardless young men with topknots waves a peacock tail whisk over his bearded master. Elsewhere more peacock whisks, men squatting to prepare food, and gurus on a tiger pelts and an orange carpet.

The arm raising is a correlate of our (briefly held) arms in the air position, ūrdhva-hastāsana/raised hand pose. But the coiled fingernails show the incompatibility of such a practice with a variegated āsana practice: here the arms have been given over to a single deployment that renders them useless for anything else: that is the whole point. But it is only one option available to this group. Across this picture only the held-in-air arms have long fingernails.


Inversion by roped suspension from a tree: short fingernails . A japa-māla/rosary in his hand. Underneath his head is a lit fire, to further heat up the practice: an example of tapas literalism. This figure is the bright centre of the composition.

Hanging like this, known as bat tapas, is a correlate to our inversions, or even closer to the use of wall ropes in a fully kitted-out Iyengar studio. The same or similar practices can be loaded with radically different intentions and understandings: in so far as one can determine what other people intend and understand. The physiology engaged stays the same.

Interestingly, this kind of suspension is no longer practised by contemporary ascetics.


Next to nearly every ascetic is a Kamaṇḍalu, the water pot (the yellow object) which may be brass or clay, or in its literal, original form: a pumpkin gourd which has been gouged out to form a vessel, as the ascetic scrapes the ego out from his person.


There’s a fire here on the left but this is not tapas but cooking: here is the outdoor kitchen and the young man prepares food.


Bolstering: Śiva and Pārvatī converse in a pavilion on the shoreline, gesturing at each other. They like to have philosophical arguments. Śiva leans on a bolster as he talks. Behind the building stands his trident and drum.

In the garden, bolster and trident again. This must be Śiva back in his other mode: he lies back over the bolster not to ‘open his chest’ or as above for comfort but as a prop for performing sky-staring: a protracted or (notionally) permanent refusal to look at the ordinary lived world. This is known only from modern accounts: unlike yoga the pure, hard-core ascetic tradition has no texts or instruction manuals. Fingernails again, but the support crew is to hand.


Another trident and climbing into a sling as a version of protracted standing, or as close as body can get to never actually lying down.


At the same level in the picture with the beheading of baby Gaṇesa, a hanging ascetic saws away at his neck with a sword and on the left with Nandin the bull in attendance has self-decapitated. The object under his head is the liṅga-yoṇi, an almost abstract representation of the union of Śiva and Pārvatī. There is no known tradition of ascetics cutting off their own heads while hanging from trees, but decapitation figures repeatedly in the stories found in Śiva mythology. If you ever start thinking about self-decapitation during headstand, come down immediately.


Toward the bottom right a lone ascetic sits on the shore: he is the only one to have ventured out from the wild garden into the circuit of walls and pavilions. A Śiva-Pārvatī couple above him and in front of him. He sits in a contorted āsana, with his leg mounted on a yoga-daṇḍa, a sitting crutch. (The Śiva round the corner from him also has wrapped limbs but in a more relaxed style: sexual Śiva does not flaunt his genitals.) Near him, along with the yellow kamaṇḍalu jug of emptied selfhood, a trident and a cakra lie on the ground: everywhere else in the picture they are either being carried or the trident is planted upright in the ground as a standard. Maybe this figure is loitering at the very switching point between the two modes...


There are a lot of threads to be drawn together here which I cannot manage today. In particular the historical relations between meditation culture, severe asceticism and premodern haṭha yoga. Those relations are an area of ongoing academic research today. Then the question what all that means, if anything (surely something), for modern practice and thinking.

The execution of this painting is rough (it’s a cartoon!), but it almost amounts to a form of graphic theology-psychology. It reminds me of a diagram of a cell, one with its outer world-facing shell operating on one set of principles (normal life more or less, except it’s gods) and the hidden wild garden interior intent on the suppression of ordinary life (except service and hierarchy, they can’t let go of that). The interior may strike us as extreme and distasteful, but the figure of Śiva, god of yoga, is in constant oscillation between those inner and outer modes.


To end, a sharp shift in graphic style another painting of Śiva and Pārvatī from the National Gallery of Victoria ( 82394), this time fused into the single composite being, where he-she goes by the name Ardhanārīśvara. The Śiva side is blue and the Pārvatī side yellow.

Ardhanārīśvara (ś = sh)

ardha+nārī+īśvara (ī + ī = ī)

half woman lord


bottom of page