Romancing the Gods

The art of Nepal is something that collectors, museums, and art-historians all over the world appreciate. Nepalese art is believed to be an irreplaceable source of life and inspiration. Therefore, there is a call for preservation and conservation, mostly of those that we see on roadways and side alleys in the open air, because they contribute to world history and should be preserved for future generations. These art forms can be seen in various mediums, shapes, and sizes. Stone, wood, terracotta, and metal are some of the common materials used since ancient times, and the practice continues till today.

In the medium of stone, one such theme has been continuously produced since the pre-Lichhavi period (2-3rd CE), continuing through the Malla and Shah periods of our political history. This is the beautiful stone image popularly known as Uma-Mahesvara stone reliefs. Although Siva and his consort Parvati are depicted in various iconographic forms, this relief panel depicts Shiva as Mahesvara, the ‘Great God’, and Parvati as Uma, the goddess who performed many meritorious deeds in order to marry Siva. This relief panel represents Lord Siva in one of his calm, or saumya, moods, embracing his consort, representing the ideal married couple.

The interesting point about this theme in Nepalese art is its continuous production, right from the ancient till the modern period of the Shah dynasty, at various places in Pashupati, Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur. The oldest one can still be seen at Sikubahi in Patan, although in a dilapidated condition, having lost much of its artistic detail over time. Looking at the various stone relief panels of this theme of various periods, we see the development of its art form. The earlier relief at Pashupati and Patan depict the central figure of seated Mahes on the left of Uma, who is seated most often on his lap and sometimes resting her right hand on his lap, while the lord lovingly embraces his consort gently with left hand on her breast.

The artist of the earlier period shows graphical representations of mountains, as if the couple is relaxing in their Himalayan abode, Kailash. The images made in the medieval and modern period show a lot more additions to the narrative. Although the central portion with the couple remains the same in style and posture, numerous other characters also find a place in the narrative. A characteristic feature of this relief panel of Nepal is the placement of the anthropomorphic forms of the river goddess Ganga and Jamuna as flying demi-gods in anjali or veneration mudra on the central top of the stele.

The latter reliefs can be comparable to modern-day family photographs, with the couple in the center, and their sons Kumar and Ganesh with their mounts, the peacock and mouse, respectively, not forgetting Siva’s mount Nandi, the bull who always finds a place wherever Siva is. One of the most beautiful depictions of this narrative is seen at the water spot, or dhunge dhara, at Kumbeswara Temple, Patan. Although we can find a large number of these images around the Kathmandu valley, no two images are the same. Each has its own characteristic, demonstrating the artistic creativity and skill of the artist.

Broadly looking at this stele, we can divide it into three bands horizontally. The top represents the sky, with flying Ganga and Yamuna pouring water in anjali mudra. Above them is a chhatra or umbrella, a symbol of power in the ancient days. Sometimes, a sivalinga is also depicted, and to the right and left end are the images of the sun and the moon. The central portion is much larger, with the romantic posture of the couple taking center stage. Siva is seated with Uma in sukhasana or relaxed posture, with the right leg hanging and left leg folded on the seat. He is depicted with four arms holding a rosary or akshayamala and trisula or trident with the above hands and the lower left arm embraces his consort, while the other land is in varada mudra, or the gesture of benediction. Siva is clad in his usual tiger skin lower garment and a snake around his neck and other natural ornaments, while Uma is bejeweled as a queen with an elaborate hairdo. Shiva’s alluring gaze towards his consort brings a picture of the gods in a romantic setting. Kumar, with the peacock, is mostly placed on the left of Siva, while Ganes, their younger son, is mostly depicted on the lower part of the stele, with his attendants, or gana, playing musical instruments.

The stories of Siva and Parvati and their love and sacrifice for each other are often cited as an example of the perfect and ideal couple; however, it is only in his form that we see their intimacy and closeness. In today’s world, there is much to learn from these artistic productions about patience, love, trust, and devotion.

The author is a scholar in Nepalese culture, with special interest in art & iconography. She can be reached at