A svayambhu linga is a non-figurative representation of the Hindu god Shiva, one of the three great gods of Hinduism along with Vishnu and Brahma. He represents both destruction and creation, hence the cyclical nature of the Hindu conception of the cosmos. He is a complex deity who has many seemingly contradictory aspects to his character; appearing as an ascetic, a god of the wilderness, a devoted father and a dissolute, dreadlocked consort draped with snakes. He inspires both terror, intense love and devotion. The earliest sculptures of the god appear in the first century CE, and may have developed from the wild Vedic god Rudra. However, Shiva’s multifaceted personality probably indicates that a number of cults were absorbed into Shiva worship prior to the appearance of these early images. The most common form of representation of Shiva is known as a linga, a standing pillar or ovoid stone. Lingas may either be natural stone forms (svayambhu) or man-made (manusha). The latter type includes permanent lingas carved from stone, and temporary lingas formed from clay (mrt), cow-dung (go-maya), flowers (pushpa) or grain-flowers (pishta). These temporary lingas
are dispensed with when the ritual of worship is completed. The recently acquired svayambhu linga is a large, ovoid, grey basalt stone with red-coloured mineral inclusions. It has been naturally formed by the action of water and polished by hand, but otherwise is unshaped by humans. The place of origin of this form of natural linga is usually given as the sacred Narmada River in central India. The red mineral inclusion in the rock embodies the concept of shakti or female energy which is required in order to activate Shiva’s creative energy. The Asian collection has a similar smaller linga. It complements similar-sized sculptures of Hindu deities, particularly the bronze sculpture of Mahakali, one of the shaktis of Shiva. The larger, recently acquired linga will function in a different level within the Asian galleries, providing a visual and conceptual focus for the NGV’s collection of Hindu art, including Khmer and Indian sculptures and of Shiva, Parvati, Indra, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesh and Uma. The linga also relates to several Indian paintings in the collection that depict worship at a Shiva shrine, and paintings of Kali and of Shiva with his consort Parvati. The worship of Shiva using naturally formed linga (svayambhu linga) is widespread throughout India. This particular representation of the god is usually found in the central chamber (garbagrha) of Hindu temples devoted to Shiva. However, the linga in the central chamber may also be carved in stone. Other types of naturally formed linga, such as white quartz linga
(bana-linga), also from the River Narmada, are used in household worship. This type of linga is one of a group of natural objects worshipped by Hindu devotees that includes salagrama (black stones in which fossil ammonites are embedded) associated with the god Vishnu. These naturally occurring representations are considered more potent than man-made forms and do not require preliminary rituals of purification and consecration. Carol Cains, Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).