The pious month of Sravana is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Devotees visit Shiva temples to get darshan of the God, offer milk, water and bilva leaves, and observe a fast on the four Mondays of the month. Acquiring the knowledge of the Supreme is the goal of a devotee. The Supreme is manifested as God through a threefold manifestation. The first stage is nishkala (formless) where the Supreme is conceived in space. The second stage is when nishkala evolves into a partial form or a symbol. The third and the final stage is the complete transformation into a full iconic form. In Shaiva iconography, the first manifestation is known as Para-Shiva, the second as Sadashiva and the third as Mahesha.
While a Shivalinga represents the Para-Shiva, a Mukhalinga (with one or multiple faces) represents the Sadashiva. In a Mukhalinga, the God reveals himself partially with his head projecting out. The agamas mention five heads of Sadashiva as Vamadeva, Sadyojata, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Ishana. They represent five elements, directions and colours. Vamadeva faces north, represents jal (water) and is of red colour. This is carved with a feminine aspect reflecting Uma, thus also called Umavaktra. Sadyojata faces west, represents prithvi (earth) and is of the pearl-like colour of the full moon. This is also known as Nandivaktra as it represents Nandi. Aghora faces south, represents agni (fire) and is of dark blue colour. This shows the ferocious character of the deity. Tatpurusha faces east, represents vayu (wind) and is of golden yellow colour. It reflects the Mahadeva form of Shiva. Ishana faces the sky, representing akasha (sky) and is of crystal-white colour. This head is told to be beyond the ken even to yogis.
The earliest Mukhalinga is an inscribed panchamukha linga from Bhita (Prayagraj), now in the State Museum, Lucknow (2nd century BCE). Another unique linga from the same period is in the Parasurameswara Temple at Gudimallam (Andhra). The Gudimallam linga, in worship even now, has an image of a male figure carved over its shaft. This male figure, in the appearance of a hunter, represents Shiva, shown holding an axe and a ram and standing over a dwarf demon.
The iconography of Mukhalingas started taking shape during the Kushan period in northwest India and was soon crystalised during the Gupta period as we find many Mukhalingas installed in temples and shrines. While many Gupta-period Shivalingas are now adorning various museums and collections, two magnificent Shivalingas are still in their original shrines, one at the Udayagiri Cave and another in the Shiva Temple at Bhumara, both in Madhya Pradesh.
The Udayagiri caves near Vidisha (MP) are famous for some of the earliest Hindu iconographic representations. These caves were excavated during the reign of the Gupta king Chandragupta II (380-415 CE). Cave number 4 has an ekamukha linga enshrined inside. The face is round with the hair tied above in a knot and falling on the sides, making a frame around the face. Shiva’s third eye is placed vertically between his eyebrows. He is shown sporting a smile with his eyes half-closed. As the Mukhalinga faces east, it may represent the Tatpurusha aspect of Sadashiva.
The iconography advanced with time, resulting in new dimensions and transformations. The Chaumukhnath Temple, Nachna in Panna district (MP) is famous for its Chaturmukha linga (8th century CE). Inside the temple is a 5-ft-high linga with four faces carved on its shaft, which represent the Tatpurusha, Aghora, Vamadeva and Sadyojata aspects of Sadashiva. The aspect of Ishana is conceived as a notional fifth head assumed over the top of the Shivalinga. The face of Aghora is very elaborately carved, reflecting this terrific aspect with an open mouth, contracted brows and protruding teeth. Placing flowers, incense, and other offerings in the open mount of the Aghora face is a general practice of the devotees in the temple.
Lord Shiva manifests in his various forms to his devotees and each devotee approaches Him with what is convenient. Let the Lord have his grace on each devotee with all his blessings in this auspicious month and always.
Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites