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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

Shiva as an Ascetic


Detail: Shiva as a sadhu
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E059

Indian court paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became a source for Europeans as they sought to understand Hindu gods in their catalogs, atlases, and ephemera. Paintings of Shiva were particularly popular, such as in his dual nature as both an ash-smeared, intoxicated renunciant and a devoted husband to his wife Parvati.

Europeans interpreted Shiva's character in multiple ways. For example, the East India Company official Edward Moor published an engraving of Mahadeva and Parvati, after "a most beautiful" painting from Jaipur (in the modern state of Rajasthan) in his Hindu Pantheon (1810). He described the image as Shiva leaning toward Parvati in an "impassioned" yet "half-intoxicated" manner, reflecting a European as well as Indian trope of ascetics reaching heightened states through drug use. The print was copied circa 1850 in Johann Georg Heck's Picture Atlas, but reframed in a different, unromantic context. Here, Shiva and Parvati sit in a grid of Indian religion—deities, devotion, and temple architecture—titled Cultural History.

Paintings that represented Shiva as an intoxicated ascetic inspired a chromolithograph, The god Shiva and his family, in which he and Parvati strain a marijuana drink called bhang. In Shiva as a sadhu, he enlivens a wrapper for playing cards in his form as the fierce ascetic god Bhairava. The Bengali inscription at top alludes to Shiva’s liberation, prestige, and perhaps inebriation. This classification also was applied to his ascetic devotees, seen reveling in the upper right of Bernard Picart’s print of Four Illustrations of Ascetics.

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