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Gallery Text

Numerous attributes identify this crowned figure as the great Hindu god Shiva: the vertical third eye, linked snakes across the chest, tiger skin draped across the thigh, and an erect phallus, symbol of both potency and control. The three heads express different aspects of this manifold deity. A smiling female, a benign male, and a violent male perhaps correspond to Shiva’s powers as creator, protector, and destroyer. The now missing arms would have held additional emblems to communicate the god’s cosmic powers.

Sacred texts describe Shiva’s complex and paradoxical character. Probably developing around 200 BCE, Shaivism, or the worship of Shiva, had become widespread in India by the late sixth century. A multitude of visual forms—abstract and anthropomorphic—arose to represent Shiva’s grace, energy, and mythic exploits. The rounded forms, well-modeled musculature, and controlled exuberance of this figure characterize the sculptural style that developed in late ninth-century Kashmir, during the reign of the Karkota dynasty (625–1003).

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Standing Three-Headed Shiva
Work Type
sculpture, figure
Karakota period, circa 700-900
Creation Place: South Asia, India, Kashmir
Karakota period, c. 7th-9th centuries
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2590, South Asian Art, South Asia in the Medieval and Early Modern Eras
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Physical Descriptions
Dark gray chlorite
66.7 x 25.2 x 11.4 cm (26 1/4 x 9 15/16 x 4 1/2 in.)
[Spink and Son Ltd., London, (by 1989-1990)] sold; to Harvard University Art Museums, 1990.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Acquired with a fund established by Ernest B. and Helen Pratt Dane for the purchase of Asian art
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Label text from exhibition “Re-View,” an overview of objects drawn from the collections of Harvard Art Museums, 26 April 2008 – 1 July 2013; label text written by Kim Masteller, Assistant Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art:

Standing Three-Headed Shiva
India, Kashmir, Karakota period, 8th–9th century
Dark gray chlorite
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Ernest B. and Helen Pratt Dane Fund for the Acquisition of Oriental Art, 1990.1

In the early centuries of the medieval period, Kashmir was a flourishing center of Hindu and Buddhist practices where several cults developed, including localized forms of Shaivism, the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. This work depicts a common icon in the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition, a three-headed form of Shiva known as Maheshvara (great lord). His smooth, rounded form, squat proportions, and flattened features closely resemble the artistic style that developed just before and during the rule of the Kashmiri king Avantivarman (r. c. 855–83). Kashmir was at the cross¬roads between India and the provincial Hellenistic region of Gandhara to the north. The suggestion of musculature in Shiva’s torso reveals the lingering influence of Gandharan styles upon Kashmiri art.
Publication History

James Cuno, ed., A Decade of Collecting: Recent Acquisitions by the Harvard University Art Museums, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, Mass., Spring 2000), p. 7

Exhibition History

Re-View: Arts of India & the Islamic Lands, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/26/2008 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 2590 South and Southeast Asia, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at