Traditional Devotional Objects from India

In conjunction with Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art Elisabetta Marabotto shares explores the significance and use of some devotional objects featured in the catalogue

London: I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the lots that I found most interesting in the catalogue of our upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art. These are a selection of devotional objects crafted from metal and related to the God Shiva, which can be divided into two major categories: mukha lingas and Khandoba masks. These objects, made and used in rural folk communities, are largely associated with daily or ritual worship.

According to the tradition, every morning these objects are awakened, bathed, clothed, adorned with flowers and fine garments and are worshiped in the same way as the temples’ main icons.  In fact, no matter their size or material, these devotional objects are essential in religious rituals since they represent the link between devotees and gods. They embody the presence of the gods on earth as well as receive the prayers of the believers on behalf of the gods.

During excavations, statuettes of female dancers and animals were found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, confirming that the tradition of metal casting in India dates back to the second half of the third millennium BC. Over time, this practice spread to Western and Southern India, and was consolidated there after a pantheon of deities was established and more temples started to appear in these regions. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the practice of casting metal sculptures spread in the northern regions too, and the late part of the eighteenth century in particular saw the prolific production of metal Mukha lingas, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8099

The term linga refers to a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, a powerful symbol of Shiva, and a mukha linga refers to its covering, usually bearing human features.  Mukha lingas are one of the many emblems of Shiva and they are found in a devotional context underlining the god’s aniconic, non-human essence, beyond all forms and qualities.

Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 1, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8025

Mukha lingas, like Lot 1 in our catalogue, are generally portrayed with prominent mustaches and bear Shiva’s third eye in the middle of their forehead. They are usually crowned or the hair is neatly combed back. Most of the time, mukha lingas depict Shiva in a calm and serene state, but there are examples of Shiva depicted as Bhairava, one of his fiercer aspects. Often, mukha lingas are portrayed atop the serpent Vasuki, whose hoods cover their head.

Mukha Lingas are thought to be the visual representation of the namah Shivaya mantra repeated to invoke Shiva’s blessings. The five syllables composing the mantra embody the five elements of the microcosm and macrocosm and the five senses.

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8042

Khandoba masks, like Lot 18, are also devotional images used in temples, processions and pilgrimages. They are personifications of Shiva depicted in the attire of the folk hero-king, Khandoba. These sculptures are especially popular in Western and Southern India, and are believed to protect and patronize farmers, herders and warriors. Like mukha lingas, these masks are used to front and give a face or iconic form to the abstract Shiva lingam and are usually placed next to them in temples.

Khandoba is also often represented as a full figure, as in Lot 61, where he is depicted riding an elephant with his consort Mhalsa. In this lot, a richly decorated elephant carries a mahout along with Khandoba and his consort Mhalsa ensconced in a domed howdah on its back.

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8085

The Folk and Tribal Art Auction is a rare occasion to acquire some very meaningful items embodying some of the unique traditions and spirituality of India’s diverse communities.

Similar objects can be found in the permanent collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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Art, Collectibles

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