The eternal dice game of Shiva and Parvati

The Rameshvara Cave sculpture is a single panel divided into two parts.

Published: 26th May 2022 06:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th May 2022 06:33 AM   |  A+A-

Sculpture showing Parvati’s ganas taking away Nandi in the same Chhattisgarh temple

Our epics, puranas and Sanskrit classical literature are replete with lila-stories (spectacles) of various Gods. One such lila is the game of dice between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. In the foreground, the lila appears to be a simple sport between a couple; however, in the background, it hides a deeper metaphysical meaning.

A game of dice between Shiva and Parvati unfolds in the Skanda Purana. One day, Narada visited Kailash, the mountain abode of Shiva. When asked about the reason for his visit, Narada said: “I came here for some sports.” Parvati asked: “What game do you have in mind?” Narada replied: “The game of dice has many forms, and the two of you are likely to find it pleasing.” However, Narada disclaimed any knowledge of the game, leading Parvati to suggest a game of dice between her and the Lord. Soon, Shiva and Parvati got absorbed in the game while Narada watched this to his satisfaction. The Goddess played the game deceitfully; however, the first round was won by Shiva. In the next round, Shiva put his crescent-moon, necklace and earrings at stake; however, the round was won by Parvati. When Parvati claimed her winnings, an argument broke out. Shiva claimed that he could not be defeated as no living being could ever overcome him. Narada, Bhringi and others came in support of Shiva saying that he was the Supreme God and could not be defeated. Parvati did not budge, and the argument ended with Shiva leaving for the Siddhatavi forest after being insulted by Parvati. The Purana later narrates  how Parvati won Shiva back taking the form of a young sabari (tribal) girl.

Sculpture of Shiva and Parvati playing dice in Pataleshvara Temple, Malhar
Sculpture of Shiva and Parvati playing dice in Pataleshvara Temple, Malhar

The narrative is further extended in the classical Sanskrit works by inserting emotions, feelings and visual sequences. In all these tellings, the fact remains that Shiva won a few early rounds; however in the end, he lost the game and all his belongings. In a few specific instances, the visual depiction of Parvati’s ganas (dwarf attendants) taking away the winnings including the serpents, jewels, crescent-moon and especially Nandi is very apparent.

In the Indian sculptural repertoire, many magnificent sculptures exist on this theme. A few most prominent and often-talked-about sculptures are that of the Elephanta Cave and the Rameshvara and Dumar Lena Caves at Ellora. While these are single-panel representations, a few cases exist where the story is depicted in a sequence of multiple panels. Two such examples are known to the author, one in the Mukhalingam temple complex in Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh) and another at the Pataleshvara Temple in Malhar (Chhattisgarh).

The Rameshvara Cave sculpture is a single panel divided into two parts. The scene above shows Shiva and Parvati engaged in the game. The scene below depicts teasing and the taking away of Nandi. The below panel is filled with the presence of ganas—shown pulling various parts of Nandi, some biting his tail, some pulling his legs and some mounted on his back. Nandi is being pulled towards the right where Parvati is seated on a pedestal.

At Malhar, two panels on the dvarashakha (door bands) depict the theme in a very minimalistic fashion as the space available there does not allow a full explosion of features and figures. In the first panel, Shiva and Parvati occupy the prominent place on the left and the right with the game board in the middle and Ganesha in the background. The next panel has only three figures—Nandi, Bhringi and a female gana of Parvati. Bhringi is shown clasping the head of the bull while the female gana is in a posture of driving away Nandi.

While the Skanda Purana is silent on the treatment of Nandi, we find a few references to this story in Sanskrit literature. A very subtle description of the scene where Nandi is being driven away by the ganas of Parvati is narrated by Abhinanda. He writes:

“Let go his horn, Bhrngin, / And Ganesha, drop his tail. / Ah, but you are sad, Nandin! / Poor, Mahakala! Clasp not his neck.” / With such words being led to the feet of Parvati / May the bull with turning neck and dewlap swaying, / Still looking at his three-eyed master who has lost at dice.”

In another instance of this telling, Ratnakara mentions this episode in his Haravijaya as below:

“The Goddess had beat him / And the troops were dragging off / His reluctant, aged bull, / Which dug in its hooves, leaving deep marks, / All over that mountain.”

The eternal dice game of Shiva and Parvati has many hidden messages. On the face of it, it appears to be a clash between Godheads, male and female, where the former stresses that he is invincible and cannot be defeated. It also tells us once the game is started, there is no escaping the consequences and most of the time the result is destruction and downfall. In a metaphysical sense, the game represents time, and the dice throws are the chaturyugas. The game produces time and without the game, there is no time, no space and no world.

Saurabh Saxena

Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites


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