Monday, February 5, 2018

From Temples to Museums: The many lives of Uma Maheshvara sculptures

Figure 1: Uma Maheshvara, Nandua, Nawadah; 10th to 12th century; now at Patna Museum, accession no. 11065; photo courtesy American Institute of Indian Studies (henceforth AIIS), Gurgaon

I first came across this image of Shiva and Parvati (Figure 1) as Uma Maheshvara in the Patna Museum; I was fascinated by the grace of this image as much as by its unabashed depiction of conjugal love. What incited my curiosity was the large number of these images found in the museum. What was the significance of the icon? Why were so many varieties of this particular image found from sites in Bihar over a long period of time from the 5th to the 13th centuries CE. 

The classic Uma Maheshvara image shows Shiva and his consort Uma seated together on the same pedestal, caught in an intimate embrace. While Shiva may be seated on a stone cushion or lotus throne, Parvati sits on Shiva’s lap or thighs. Parvati is always shown with two arms, while Shiva may have two, four or even more arms. Shiva is depicted as taller and Parvati small and almost child-like. They are both surrounded by a halo, bedecked in jewellery and carry different weapons and ornaments in their arms. Often their vahanas or mounts (Parvati’s tiger and Shiva’s Nandi bull), and other deities like Ganesha and devotees are also portrayed. The image represents cosmic procreation as well as the synthesis of two powerful and independent deities.
Most secondary literature on religious sculptures surveyed these images solely from the point of view of aesthetics or typically studied them merely as an illustration to religious texts and they are examined on the basis of how closely they depict the textual descriptions. They did not look at the ritual and architectural context of the images, their significance and purpose, where they were originally placed or who the artists behind their creation were. My interest in the Uma Maheshvara images are different: to not merely look at their iconography and style but to examine the original architectural placement of the images, their ritual context, the socio-religious milieu behind their creation and most importantly to trace the lives of sacred images and how they survived over the centuries and are perceived today. 

The icon

I wanted to understand the imagery and significance of the icon and I started with a handful of sculptures from museums in Bihar, published records and online photo archives and catalogues. As expected, a large number of these images were found in museums and private collections but a substantial number also lay scattered in various shrines. I then tabulated them across various categories, including find spot, date, material used, stylistic type, and mapped them to examine spatial and temporal similarities and variations (Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2: Uma Maheshvara, Kashtaharini Ghat, Munger represents the icon in its ‘classic’ Eastern Indian pose; 9th to 10th century; now at Patna Museum, accession no. 6837; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon
Figure 3: Inscribed Uma Maheshvara, Kurkihar; 9th to 10th century; bronze; now at Patna Museum, accession no, 9660; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon

In my first round of survey of secondary and online sources I identified about 80 Uma Maheshvara sculptures from Bihar. On closer examination of the image type I realized that there was immense variation in the style of execution of the images - in body posture, placement of hands and legs, facial expression, back slab, subsidiary figures and so on. Uma Maheshvara sculptures from Bihar were created in a variety of materials such as granite, sandstone, slate etc. and even in bronze and ashta dhaatu (a traditional alloy of eight metals). The most popular stone however was black basalt which is typically associated with images from eastern India between the 8th and the 12th centuries.
The largest concentration of Uma Maheshvara images in Bihar are from the southernmost districts of Patna, Jehanabad, Rohtas, Gaya, Aurangabad, Nalanda and Nawadah and a second pocket of concentration lies along the river Ganga in the districts of Bhagalpur and Munger (Figure 4). What struck me is that this region is seen as the heartland of Buddhism, with Bodh Gaya and Nalanda being premier centres and Rajgir and Pawapuri as Jain pilgrimage centres. The city of Gaya meanwhile is associated with the rite of shraddha (the Hindu ritual to honor the ancestors) and is now a preeminent Vaishnava (the Hindu sect that believes in the pre-eminence of the God Vishnu) centre. Having said that, all of these sites show evidence of a strong Shaiva presence (the Hindu sect that emphasizes the predominance of the God Shiva).
Figure 4: Map of South Bihar showing principle religious sites; author’s own
Over the years, I have uncovered more than 150 Uma Maheshvara sculptures from this region alone. The largest number of my images can be dated from the period between the 9th and the 12th centuries and the oldest image in my data is dated between the 5th and 8th centuries (Figure 5).
Figure 5: One of the earliest Uma Maheshvara images, Mahramau, Gaya; 4th to 7th century; the stele has a Vishnu image at the back; now at Patna Museum, accession no. 11260; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon
Later images found from the 12th/13th centuries show how the sculptures became more detailed and heavily ornamented over time (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Uma Maheshvara, Bodh Gaya representing the later mandala style icons; 11th to 13th century; now at Patna Museum; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon

The Museums

Some of the images are presently found in museums and private collections and have been catalogued and some published. I visited all of these museums but what was more difficult to track were the Uma Maheshvara sculptures from Bihar which are now in museums across Europe and the USA (Table 1). It was both fascinating and astounding for me to see how these sculptures from the remotest of villages and sites of Bihar have travelled to so many different museums and art collections across the globe.
In India, the images are found in a variety of museums, where the context and taxonomies of their display vary greatly. Excavated sculptures often find their first home in site museums that house artefacts from a particular excavation as at Nalanda and Bodh Gaya. A large number of these images are now stored and displayed in the Patna Museum, and are meant to showcase the pride and identity of the state of Bihar. In districts which have their own museums such as at Gaya, Bhagalpur and Nawadah, the images are retained within the districts. Sometimes due to exceptional historical and cultural circumstances many of the sculptures from Bihar have also travelled outside the state to the Indian Museum at Kolkata; National Museum at New Delhi; Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya at Mumbai (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) and Allahabad Museum among others.
United States of America
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Cleveland Museum of Art; Rockefeller Collection etc.
British Museum, London; Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin; Reijksmuseum, Leiden, Netherlands; Pan-Asian Gallery of Art, Zurich, Switzerland etc.
Auction houses
Christie’s and Sotheby’s
Table 1: Uma Maheshvara sculptures abroad

Temples of Bihar

This was just one half of the story; on reading excavation reports and going through photo archives I found that a large number of Uma Maheshvara images were still located at various historical sites and continued to be in worship in temples or in domestic shrines. My tabulation of Uma Maheshvara images in museums also left me wondering that if there are so many surviving images where were the temples in which they were once enshrined? What was the original context of their use? This was a more challenging task and I started reading about the temples of Bihar.
The oldest shrines in Bihar are the rock-cut cave sanctuaries located in the Barabar Hills, in Gaya district. The caves can be dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE and were dedicated to Buddhist and Ajivika monks by King Ashoka and his grandson Dasharatha (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Fa├žade of Lomas Rishi Cave, Barabar Hills, Gaya; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon
From the 5th/6th centuries CE in Bihar, as elsewhere in north India, free standing, single room shrines - both Hindu and Buddhist - began to be constructed. The earliest shrines were made of mud brick and were later embellished with stone sculptures. Even the earlier rock cut shrines came to be reused and ornamented with stone sculptures. It is likely that the early images were housed in structures like these (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Temple at Konch, Gaya; original sun temple which later became a Vishnu temple and is now a Shiva temple; photo courtesy Mr Vikas Vaibhav
By the 8th/9th centuries CE, the original mud-brick shrines would been replaced by more elaborate stone structures (Figure 9). The stone sculptures however survived and these were housed in new structures. Apart from the main shrine, the temple complexes also came to accommodate several smaller structures: subsidiary shrines which housed the avataras (incarnations) of the main deity, tanks, houses for priests, walls, gateways etcetera. With so many structures there was a need for more images and a large number of stone sculptures were hence produced in Bihar at this time.
Figure 9: Mundeshvari temple, one of the earliest stone temples in the region, as it now survives without its shikhara; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon
By the 11th/12th centuries there was still another round of temple renovations and one can see large, multi-religious architectural complexes dotting the religious landscape of Bihar, where shrines from different sects and religions were accommodated within the same religious complex.  One temple complex would house different shrines dedicated to Surya, Vishnu, Shiva and even the Buddha. These would require still more images to be enshrined and to decorate the walls of the temples. We hence have a large number of images which can be dated to this period.
Where were the Uma Maheshvara images placed in the temples? Were they the principle deities which were enshrined or were they on the walls of the temples? If they were placed on the walls then which wall: inside the main shrine or as decorative elements outside? I realized that reading books and looking at images online was not answering my questions and it was time to go on a field trip to see first-hand how shrines were organized, how images were placed in temples, what their cultic and ritual significance was and more so how these ancient images are perceived in the present day.

Notes from the field

Patna Museum

I began in the Patna Museum where I started locating the sculptures which I had so far seen in books and catalogues. The Patna Museum was established in 1917, as the first museum in the newly made province of Bihar. Before the formation of the new province, all the excavated remains from the sites in Bihar and Orissa were taken to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. After the establishment of the Patna Museum the state of Bihar requested that these artifacts be sent back to their original home state. The museum has a vast collection of over 45,000 objects acquired from various sites in Bihar, from private donors and they also bought and borrowed items from other museums. Of all the Uma Maheshvara images from the museum that I had recorded only a few were displayed in the galleries; the rest were in storage and there were some that I had not previously seen.
One of my most interesting discoveries which came while I was reading the original accession registers of the museum was the existence of a certain “Bihar Museum” from which a number of Uma Maheshvara images were acquired. The curator told me the fascinating story of the Bihar Museum, which no longer exists, but which would have had a significant impact on the fate of religious sculptures of Bihar and on the history of the sites from which these were acquired.
In the late 1860’s, A. M. Broadley was the district magistrate of Biharsharif (about 11 kilometres from Nalanda). Like many of his contemporaries he was on a mission to excavate sites connected with the life of the Buddha as recorded in various historical texts. With the help of prisoners he had at his disposal he went about excavating sites around Nalanda. These excavations were obviously not scientifically planned or executed. From the antiquities he collected he established an open-air museum at his official bungalow and called it the Bihar Museum. After his death his collection was transferred to the Indian Museum where the original find-spots of these sculptures was catalogued as “Bihar”. Later, parts of this collection were shifted to the Patna Museum where it was again said to be from “Bihar”; and the original site of these sculptures was hence lost forever. The sculptures continued to move around, some of these have travelled abroad and many are now housed in the new Bihar Museum at Patna (Figure 10).
Figure 10: Uma Mahesvara from Broadley Collection; now at Patna Museum, accession no. 7881; photo courtesy AIIS, Gurgaon
Thus colonial modes of discovery and amateur excavations have had a significant impact on the way we study the sites of Bihar. The personal collections of colonial officers, many of which are now lost; their partial interpretation and haphazard conservation of sites, and the making of museums must have caused a significant movement of sculptures and the loss of their original context.

Mapping the shrines

The second part of my field trip included mapping shrines. On the basis of my data on sculptures I set out to visit villages. Very often in this pursuit conversations with the villagers proved to be very helpful. They not only guided me to the shrines in the neighbourhood but also provided me with valuable advice on the location of archaeological mounds and other locations which housed sculptures of interest. The field trip changed everything for me as the realities at ground level were very different from anything I could have imagined. 
Figure 11: Modern Mahadev Temple, Akbarpur, Hilsa, Patna; rebuilt on the still visible plinth of an older shrine; photo author’s own
In Figure 11 you see a typical, modern temple from Akbarpur near Patna. This shrine sits atop a possible ancient settlement mound and is dedicated to Shiva. While the garbha griha or the sanctum contains an ancient linga (or a phallic object worshipped as the symbol of the God Shiva), on the enclosing walls are other ancient sculptures of Parvati (his consort), Ganesha (son of Shiva) and Uma Maheshvara. Lined up outside the temple are other ancient images dated between the 9th and 12th centuries which obviously came from older temples, now destroyed. Next to the temple is a tank where the annual festival of chhatth dedicated to the sun god is held each year. There is also a neem tree behind the temple which is another ritual spot in the sacred complex.
On asking the villagers about the presence of the sculptures I was told that these deities were discovered in the adjacent tank. They were originally enshrined in an older temple on the same site. At the time of the so-called Islamic raids of the 12th/13th centuries they were hidden in the tank where they lay forgotten. The same story is repeated at many other shrines in the area, whether dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or the Buddha. Moreover, once the idols were recovered the villagers and pujaris (priests) did not differentiate between the Hindu and the Buddhist sculptures: it is common to see a Buddha statue worshipped as an avatara (incarnation) of Vishnu or a small miniature stupa (a hemispherical Buddhist shrine) being worshipped as a linga. The categorisation of sacred space as being either Hindu, Buddhist or Jain in village shrines is more theoretical than real. 


A site of particular interest to me was Nalanda as my data showed that several Uma Maheshvara sculptures (Figure 12) were found in the monastic complex itself and I found this rather intriguing. What was this Hindu sculpture doing at a Buddhist monastery that dates to as early as the 3rd century BCE. My visit to the Nalanda site museum confirmed the presence of many Uma Maheshvara icons from the monastery area as well as numerous villages in the immediate vicinity.
Figure 12: Uma Mahesvara, Bargaon, Nalanda, photo author’s own
The monastic complex at Nalanda has received a lot of scholarly attention and is an important tourist destination; the area in the immediate vicinity however stands neglected. I wanted to informally survey and map this neighborhood to see the kinds of shrines and sculptural remains which survived. The village of Bargaon immediately outside the monastery area is of particular interest. Similar to what I had seen elsewhere, Bargaon is located on the banks of a very large tank called Suraj Pokhar around which a series of modern temples are built, the most important being the Suraj temple in the heart of the village (Figure 13).
Figure 13: Suraj Mandir, Bargaon, Nalanda; photo author’s own
All of these modern temples house a rich collection of black basalt images and architectural fragments which are worshipped and duly anointed. Most images are of Hindu deities and there is a very distinct Shaiva presence. There are many surviving Uma Maheshvara images in the Suraj Temple and other temples on the bank. It is interesting to note how such a large Hindu establishment thrived in close proximity of this famous Buddhist monastery. On the basis of sculptural and architectural remains, the temples can be dated to between the 9th and 12th centuries CE which was also the period when the Nalanda monastery had a new spate of life under the Pala rulers and the close connections between the Buddhist monasteries of Bihar and Tibet and other Himalayan Kingdoms. Excavations at a number of sites and structures in the monastic complex at Nalanda can also be dated to this period. 
A second significant site near the Nalanda monastery is in the village of Jagdishpur, where the temple called the Rukministhan is dedicated to Krishna’s paramour Rukmini. The ASI protected temple consists of a single-celled shrine with a towering shikhara, inside which is a 12 foot high seated Buddha image, half buried in ground. The shrine is now associated with Vaishnava legends and the Buddha is worshipped as Krishna and the accompanying Boddhisatvas as Rukmini. Legends state that the monastic complex, located about 2 kilometres away was the palace of Rukmini’s father where she lived and from where she came every day to worship at this shrine and where Krishna abducted her. Religion and folklore have invested new meanings to this ancient Buddha image, identifying it with people and events from the Hindu mythology.
Figure 14: Colossal Buddha at Rukministhan, Jagdishpur, Nalanda; photo author’s own
A third interesting temple in Nalanda is that of Telia Baba - where a Buddha in Dharmachakrapravartana mudra (this depiction of the Buddha is also called the Wheel of law depicting Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment) is worshipped as Bhairava by villagers for his power of healing diseases. Thai pilgrims to the region meanwhile worship him as the Black Buddha (Figure 15).
Figure 15: Buddha worshipped as Bhairav or Teliya Baba or Black Buddha, Nalanda; photo courtesy Sonali Dhingra
The point I am trying to make is that legends and oral traditions have been used to weave the different shrines together and relate it to the monastic complex. In 2016, Nalanda was nominated as a World Heritage Site as an ancient seat of learning. It is however important that we see this significant site in close association with settlements and shrines in the immediate vicinity to understand different layers of habitation through the centuries.
Bodh Gaya
The second UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bihar is Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. UNESCO has listed the Mahabodhi Temple complex for its unique cultural and religious value and takes into its purview the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi tree. 
There are two sites in Bodh Gaya which are of particular interest to me, with evidence of Uma Maheshvara images. The first is the Mahant’s Compound (Figure 16), the residence of the Shaiva Mahants (priests) located near the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Inside this 17th century residence is a shrine restricted to the public. It includes a collection of Buddhist and Hindu images, all in worship as Hindu deities. These images must have been collected over the centuries from other historical Hindu and Buddhist shrines around the Mahabodhi Complex, and of which we have no knowledge today. It is also possible that some of the images came from the Mahabodhi Temple itself before its conservation in the 18th century. The remains which now survive are solely these sculptural and architectural fragments.
Figure 16: Sculptures at Bodh Gaya Mahant’s Compound; photo courtesy Mr Vikas Vaibhav
A second shrine is a tree shrine under a pipal tree, located to the immediate north of the Mahabodhi temple (Figure 17). This has a collection of Hindu images which have been worshipped for centuries, including an Uma Maheshvara sculpture dated to between the 9th and the 12th centuries CE. Surviving sculptural remains here reflect how the site has changed over centuries. Over the years, the site has been subject to contestations and debates and issues over its ownership between Buddhists and followers of Shiva. Images are scattered all over the landscape and the present-day conservation of the Mahabodhi Complex only tells a part of the story.  Religion at Bodh Gaya is deeply intertwined with daily life; and what is important to understand is how the site and the sacred space has a history of continuous habitation and ritual practice. It is important to highlight this continuity rather than identify periods of rise and decline of various religions.
Figure 17: Tree shrine from Mahabodhi Complex, Bodh Gaya; photo author’s own

Tying the threads together

By tracing the afterlife of Uma Maheshvara sculptures I show that the life of a religious sculpture is not fixed at the moment of its fabrication but is constantly redefined by its ritual and architectural placement and by the community of worshippers it interacts with over time. I use religious sculptures as the main source of historical investigation and study them without comparison to texts as is the general norm. By highlighting the architectural context and ritual use of the images I thus create a historical narrative of sites from South Bihar and a striking aspect of the sites which emerges is their apparent polytheism in motifs, images and cults. It is common to find Buddhist, Jain and Hindu images within the same sacred space and still under worship. This brief description of my analysis of Uma Maheshvara images and of fieldwork in Bihar is taken from my book (Figure 18) where I trace in some detail the long-term usage of sites and motifs.
Figure 18: Book cover
At what moment do the sites of South Bihar begin to acquire a monotheistic Buddhist or Hindu identity? Ancient history is not a given but is selectively represented by various actors over time and there were two significant periods when the history of Bihar was being rewritten. The 19th to 20th century saw the beginning of archaeological explorations in Bihar when colonial officers undertook travels, made collections and established personal and private museums. The temple sites were consequently reorganised (as per the colonial perception and textual deduction of the plans of temples), in the name of conservation and religious sculptures were dislocated from their original contexts. In this process of rediscovery while some images continued to be worshipped, a large number of these were moved into museums and lost their sacred identity, being viewed instead as art objects. The colonial discourse on the sacred sites, shrines and icons from South Bihar created certain nomenclatures and identities and more importantly fixed permanent religious categories within which to view them. For example, in their quest for a pristine Buddhist past when, archaeological sites were explored and artefacts listed and documented, any relic which did not suit this vision was discarded and treated as merely incidental. Icons such as the Uma Maheshvara which were associated with Shaivism (worship of Shiva) were side lined as being inconsequential to the history of Bihar. The Uma Maheshvara icon in particular incited contempt for its blatant portrayal of conjugal love and was even branded as “indecent.” 
A second spate of history writing came in the 1920s and 30s when the state of Bihar was newly constituted and efforts were made to establish its regional and cultural identity. Museums became significant tools to spread ideas of regionalism and nationalism. The newly established museums, through their narratives of display, cataloguing and nomenclature presented a visual archive which codified the parameters within which religious images were to be viewed, thus shaping the study of iconography. For instance, the galleries were utilised to popularise the Buddhist history of South Bihar with sculptures and relics gathered from the different sites associated with the life of the Buddha. The Museum through its taxonomies also reaffirmed the colonial version of a linear history of Bihar as sequentially Buddhist, Jain, Mauryan, Gupta, Pala, Sena and so on. 
The identities established through colonial archaeology and centuries of knowledge production continue to define the paradigms within which we view the region and its history. The mobility of artifacts as they navigate multiple religious identities is largely ignored. Any discussion of the history of Bihar is focussed around the themes of its Buddhist past and the glories of Asoka and the Mauryan Empire.


  1. Very descriptive and informative. A nice read.

  2. Well researched....
    I think, it will be complete if you add the different aspects of the Uma Mahesh images....
    Moreover the earliest Uma Mahesh image which I've seen so far is in buxar museum....
    It's upper fragment of the image, belonging to 6th cen ce....

  3. Nicely presented. Needs a word of appreciation.
    We have a rare hero stone of C.,12th century A.D. hailing from Kyatanahalli, H.D.Kote Tk, Mysuru District, Karnataka.
    It has the carving of VrashsbhArUDha Uma Maheshwara on it'd upper top most panel,a rare example of its kind in the country.

  4. we are tracking quite a few stolen idols. If your field notes have any ref to missing idols please reach out to me. rgds vj