Head of Shiva
Gallery 20, Indian Gallery
Ground Floor


Focus on the Object
This powerfully executed head of the god Shiva has been chosen as Object of the Month to coincide with Mahashivratri, a Hindu festival in honour of the god. This representation, carved in sandstone, is thought to be one of the most impressive of all known images of Shiva.

This head of Shiva is made from the mottled red sandstone local to Mathura in northern India. It was produced during the Gupta period (c.350-550 AD). During this period of great cultural wealth, art and literature reached extraordinary heights and had an influence far beyond India itself. It was also the time when some of the major Puranas (texts expounding the basis of Hinduism) were compiled.
The head is obviously part of a larger sculpture, but we do not know whether it was originally full-length or whether it projected from a mukhalingam (the primordial phallic symbol of Shiva). It is also not known whether the moustache is part of the original conception or whether it was added later. Here the god is shown in human form and in contemplative mode. Note the rich colour of the sandstone, and the face which conveys both “serene and severe meditation”. Powerfully executed, the head conjures up a feeling of the inner strength and power of the god. Notice the sculpted curls of the hair (the long matted locks of the ascetic) and the third eye in his forehead which is symbolically the seat of the fire of destruction (see Shiva Nataraja over).


Mahashivratri is a 24-hour fast kept on the day and night preceding the new moon at the end of the Hindu month of Magha (January-February). During this time followers of Shiva go without food and worship the image of the god. Devotees who go through special prayers on this night are considered to be working towards oneness with Shiva after their death.