Recently installed at the entrance to the Indian gallery, a newly acquired sculpture of Nandi, the sacred bull, is already proving very popular with audiences of all ages. The charming 11th–12th century image has been carefully located near the striking bronze dancing figure of Shiva Nataraja, purchased only last year (artonview no 54 winter 2008). Both are superb examples of the creativity of artists of India’s Chola dynasty (9th–13th centuries), arguably the pinnacle of sculpture in Asia.
The affinity between the two sculptures, however, is far closer than their shared origin in south India. Nandi, the bull, is the mount of Shiva, the god of destruction and creation. The major Hindu deities each have their own specific vehicles (vahana) on which to ride: Vishnu on the great Garuda bird, Brahma on his sacred goose, Ganesha on a large rat, Skanda on his peacock and Durga on her lion. Frequently, the gods are shown seated or standing on their vehicles. Along with the attributes the gods hold in their often numerous hands, the animal or bird mount is an important means of confirming the identify of particular deities.
Nandi is one of the most adored of the vehicles. The sacred bull is not only the devoted companion and guardian of the great Shiva but an object of worship in his own right, especially in communities where dairy farming and herding are important. In the form of a humped Brahman bull (a breed of zebu cattle), a granite sculpture of this type graces the courtyard of a Shaivite temple or serves as the gatekeeper at the entrance to a temple’s inner sanctum, where Shiva is depicted symbolically in the form of the phallic lingam. In southern India, where Nandi is still popularly worshipped, such images of the bull can stand many metres high.
The large sculpture is very appealing. With legs tucked under and tail wrapped around its smooth round body, Nandi gazes serenely back at the viewer with soft melancholy eyes. As in nature, its tongue licks the end of its snout. The animal’s head, neck and torso are draped in ceremonial finery: the sumptuous necklaces, headdress, girdles, earrings and horn covers of decorative bells and beads evoke the prestige of precious metals while his ornamental harness suggests rich brocade. Nandi’s alluring presence reaches out to the visitor. As his name—giver of delight and joy—suggests, the adoration of the sacred mount of Shiva is an important ritual in its own right.
The acquisition of this early south Indian Nandi has been made possible through the generous support of one of the longest standing members of the National Gallery of Australia’s Council, Roslyn Packer AO. Ros Packer has assisted in the purchase of a number of key works of art in the national collection, including the magnificent 3rd-century sandstone Mathura Buddha from northern India. We are very grateful for her continued support in building Australia’s finest collection of Asian art.
Senior Curator, Asian Art
, issue 59, Spring
in artonview, issue 59, spring 2009