In India Shiva is best known as a dyanmic yogi who dances in cremation grounds, whereas in Southeast Asia it was his quiet asceticism that most highly appealed to the local aesthetic. This juxtaposition was recognized by Mr. Ellsworth, who placed the present figure opposite his Chola bronze figure of Shiva Nataraja Gangadhara (lot 26) in his living room, so that visitors could compare and appreciate the two depictions.
Favoring austere, minimalist forms that exhibit a deep sense of serenity and restraint, Khmer sculpture is imbued with gravitas. The art of the Baphuon period is the most fully realized expression of this particular aesthetic of asceticism. The style is characterized by the arrangement of the sampot, which is pulled up at the waistline to run flush along the slope of the hips, such that the full contour of the body creates a smooth curve. In the present work, the sampot is rendered in a variety of waves and folds falling in tight vertical pleats around the right leg and fanning across the left in broader waving segments. It is drawn between the thighs and arranged on the verso in a bow-shaped fold that rises from beneath the belt. The garment is secured with a sensitively rendered overlapping sash; the left side is pulled under the right side with a fold protruding artfully from the top and the end draped in a fishtail fold. In subsequent periods, this scabbard-like fold is depicted as an independent element rather than a portion of the belt (see lot 36). The upper hem, which curves naturalistically as it encircles the body, is embellished with an extra trim tied in a loose bow below the navel. The smoothly polished torso is well defined, contributing to the sense of prana, or sacred breath, with which the figure seems to be filled.
The serenely rendered face is poised in a state of internal contemplation. The characteristic third eye, which identifies the figure as Shiva, is lightly incised at the center of the forehead, as if the god’s radiant power is awakening. The eyes and other facial features are carefully delineated with incised outlines, and the suggestion of a moustache appears above the bowed lips. The hair is plaited and drawn up into a looped topknot, a restrained arrangement in contrast to the elaborate jatamukutas with which Shiva was represented in India. The chignon is encircled by a necklace of rudraksha beads, the dried seeds traditionally carried by Shaivite ascetics. This important identifying attribute contributes to the particularly Khmer vision of Shiva, emerging more prominently during the Baphuon period and becoming schematized thereafter. Overall, the figure presents a unique and powerful image of austerity and restraint rendered with supreme grace.
For related examples of this magnificent sculpture, see W. Felten and M. Lerner, Thai and Cambodian Sculpture, 1988, pl. 25 and 27. For further discussion of Shiva in the Southeast Asian context, see J. Guy, “Shiva’s Land: Brahmanical Sculpture in the Religious Landscape of Early Southeast Asia,” Orientations 45, no. 3, 2014, p.48-57.