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January 5th, 1999
Philadelphia Museum of Art Welcomes the Nepalese God Bhairava, Bestower of Beer

The Hindu god Shiva bears many different names and forms across South Asia. In Nepal, the most important of these is Shiva in the form of Bhairava. Bhairava is a feared and ferocious god, needing to be pacified with offerings, but he is also a powerful guardian and the destroyer of evil. The Philadelphia Museum of Art welcomes a newly acquired image of this terrifying-yet beloved-deity. Fierce, powerful, elegant and delightful, the Face of Bhairava glares at visitors from high on a wall in the Gallery of Himalayan Art (232).

A huge, mask-like face, the Museum's image of Bhairava is two and one-half feet high. Three bulging eyes, tangled hair, bared fangs, and ornaments of skulls and snakes indicate the god's fierce nature. The gilded sculpture is constructed of multiple pieces of hand-beaten copper. Its face is topped with an exquisite crown wrought with lusciously realistic flowers and foliage, and inset with large cabochon rock crystals and glass jewels. Four perky serpents intertwine their bodies to form the crown. Their scales are overlaid with helmet-like skulls disgorging pearl chains and a small head of Shiva in his peaceful form. This sculpture most likely dates to the 16th century. Red pigment and ritual powder coat the curling flames that fan out above the crown, evidence that the image was worshipped for many years. Although missing its original round earrings, neck, and two lower hair segments, this fragile image of Bhairava has survived in an astonishingly complete state.

Monumental heads of Bhairava are made in Nepal for various festivals but most notably for Indra-Jatra, an important and complex multi-day event that takes place in early fall in the city of Kathmandu. Named after Indra, king of the gods' heaven, the festival focuses on the reaffirmation of Nepal's more worldly ruler. Along with honoring the dead, activities include the re-consecration of the king by the Kumari (the living goddess), and the commemoration of the conquest of Kathmandu by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who conquered Nepal in the 18th century and founded the present dynasty. Another activity of Indra-Jatra is the honoring of Bhairava, who is not only one of the servants of the Kumari, but also the protective deity of the city of Kathmandu.

On the afternoon of the third day of the festival, an enormous mask-like copper image of Bhairava, much like the Museum's sculpture, is specially garlanded with leaves and flowers and placed on a cart. The actual image in use today in Kathmandu was consecrated in 1795 and during most of the year is sequestered behind a latticework screen near the royal palace. During the festival, it is brought out and a large clay pot of home-brewed beer is placed behind and within the face. A copper pipe is run from the pot through a hole in the mouth of the image (the grinning mouth of the Museum's Bhairava bears a hole the size of a penny between its fangs). After the Kumari has been honored, sanctified beer spouts from the pipe, drawn by gravity but appearing to spurt from Bhairava's open mouth. As music plays, worshippers jostle to catch a mouthful of beer, for it is considered a gift and a blessing from the god. Other smaller images of Bhairava, made of metal, clay or wood--and also rigged to dispense beer--are used during the festival; the Museum's Bhairava was originally intended for this purpose.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art possesses one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the Pillared Hall from a Temple (India, Madurai, 16th century), the only standing example of Indian stone architecture to be found in this country. The Museum opened its first gallery of art from the Himalayan countries of South Asia (Nepal and Tibet) in 1960, which was organized by Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the renowned scholar-collector who served as the Museum's Curator of Indian Art from 1954 to 1972, and Curator Emeritus until her death in 1993. The current Himalayan Gallery was installed in 1997 by Darielle Mason, who that year joined the Museum as Kramrisch Curator of Indian Art, and features a strong collection of Buddhist hanging paintings and small Buddhist and Hindu metal sculptures. Of the latest addition to the Museum's Himalayan holdings, Dr. Mason notes, "Not only is the Face of Bhairava an exquisite work of Nepalese art in its own right, but its large scale and function as a processional piece allow visitors to the Museum to better comprehend the great variety of religious art found within this fascinating region."

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