The Lord Who is Half Woman

 The deity Ardhanarisvara is depicted as Siva in half female form, otherwise known as “the Lord who is half woman”. In Hinduism, Siva is the personification of the Absolute and goes by many names [see Yadav 18-19]. Siva is regarded by some scholars as the most ancient of the gods, originating in pre-Vedic and non-Aryan times, perhaps even from the age of the Indus Valley Civilization (Yadav 5). Ardhanarisvara is one of the most popular and distinguished forms of Siva (Nataraja being the most popular). Confirmation of this is found in the large number of Ardhanarisvara sculptures available to us from all over India. The earliest images of Ardhanarisvara can be dated back to the late Kusana period or early Gupta era (320-550 CE), first noticed in Mathura (Yadav 33). Another one of the early Ardhanarisvara images appeared in South India between the late Chola period (9th-13th century) and early Vijayanagara period (mid-17th century). The Chola period artists depicted Ardhanarisvara as a slim, willowy figure covered with intricate ornamentation. The Vijayanagara period however, transformed Ardhanarisvara into a large, dense figure that appeared more chivalrous (Seid 2004).

Ardhanarisvara image (Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram, Tamil Nadu)
Ardhanarisvara image in the Chola style
(Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram, Tamil Nadu)

Ardhanarisvara is the manifestation of Siva combined with his spouse: the right half of the deity being Siva and the left half devoted to Parvati or Sakti. Evidence of the duality is shown in the name Ardhanarisvara itself, which is a composition of three words: ardha, nari, and isvara. These are recognized to mean “isvara (i.e., Siva) with the nari (i.e., Parvati) and his ardha (i.e., half)” (Yadav 9). The half male and half female aspects of duality have also been found in Egypt and Greek myths [see Neeta Yadav 10-14]. From a philosophical perspective, Ardhanarisvara is the idea that male and female concepts are entangled and forever bound together in cosmic union. It is believed that this image came into being as a symbol of a “Supreme Being” that is capable of doing all things singly.

Ardhanarisvara is “the name given in Indian Mythology to one of the forms in which Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati appear together as one body — half male and half female” (Kumar 109-110). The Ardhanarisvara form of Siva resembles two essentially contrasting cosmic forces, named prakrti and purusa. They are continually drawn together to envelop and combine with each other, but are detached by an intervening axis. One of the oldest and most common representations that is based on the duality of male and female principles is the concept of Father heaven and Mother earth. The concept of the universe beginning with a union between a female and a male is more thoroughly discussed in Vedic texts, which discuss the union of husband and wife, or Heaven (dyaus) and Earth (prthivi) (Yadav 131). There is a philosophical concept behind this notion of duality, which can be found in the Sankhya philosophical system. That system teaches the existence of eternal spirits called “the self or male on the one side and eternal productive force or prolific germ on the other, and the union of the two was believed to be indispensable before any creation could result” (Yadav 131).  A notable attribute of the image of Ardhanarisvara and its duality connecting male and female is the flawless balance of Siva and Parvati. They each preserve their own identities while being dependent on each other but neither outshining the other. In some works Siva is exemplifies the extreme of austerities and Parvati symbolizes a more extravagant or lavish lifestyle. Their marriage is seen to symbolize stability and unity through merging these two urges of humanity and all other living beings (Kumar 109-110).

In a general sense, analysis of the distinguishable features of Ardhanarisvara imagery testifies that the standard “bipolar” human body of the deity is differentiated along a central vertical axis, dividing it into male and female sides (Goldberg 2002:12). Siva is often found in two forms, a human form and the form of a phallic symbol. Ardhanarisvara however is a saumya and santa (peaceful) aspect of Siva. These depictions evolved from early iconic motifs that existed long before the clarification myths were created (Yadav 6-14). If you look at the images associated with Ardhanarisvara from top to bottom, they are generally depicted as having only one face, but other variations exist.

The male right half of Ardhanarisvara can include the following variations: a head-dress formed from matted hair (jatamukuta) decorated with a crescent and ornamented with snakes; be in company of the goddess Ganga; may or may not be decorated in jewels; have a smaller right eye; and include all or multiple combinations of the following: male figure, flat chest, half moustache, broad shoulder, wide waist with less curvature, and a large thigh (Goldberg 2002:12). In the right ear is an earring in the shape of either a shark or a crocodile (makara-kundala, sarpakundala or any other kundala) often symbolizing the Supreme. The female side earring is called valika and is worn on the left side (Goldberg 2002:12). Earrings are one of the most obvious and primary identification symbols that separate the male and female duality. The entirety of the right side should be embellished in ornaments specific to Siva, as well as garments that cover the body from the waist and down to the knee, usually made of either silk or tiger’s skin (Yadav 20). Unusually, the right side should also be covered in ashes that are red in color. The right side of the image of Ardhanarisvara may have 2-4 arms, each in different poses [see Yadav 19], usually holding a weapon, most commonly a trident. Siva’s right leg should be bent and resting on a lotus (Yadav 19).

The female left side of Ardhanarisvara includes the head as having a karanda makuta or dhamilla, which is a braided hairstyle or bun, sometimes embellished with jewels or other ornaments (Goldberg 2002:14). On the female forehead is half a tilaka mark or dot (bindu) that adjoins with the half eye on the forehead of Siva (right Ardhanarisvara). There are different variations of the bindu on the forehead of Parvati such as either being placed in the center of the forehead or no bindu at all but instead a shared third eye between the two halves in the middle of the forehead (Goldberg 2002:14). The left eye should be painted with collyrium and should be slightly larger and more elongated than the right eye. When a color is stated for the left side, it is commonly the whole body painted in either saffron or parrot-green, but is very rarely seen in practice. Nose ornamentation is also very rare in the earlier depictions of Ardhanarisvara but it appears to be progressively gaining popularity in current depictions (Goldberg 2012:14). The images of the female side usually vary in the number of arms shown, and for each variation there are different poses for the hands and often an assortment of objects being held [see Yadav 20]. A fundamental characteristic of the left half is a woman’s breast that is particularly large and round. The waist appears smaller and the hip appears more voluptuous than that of the male half. Embellishment of the female half includes jewels, earrings, draped silk cloth to the ankles, saffron body powder, various jewellery, and red henna coloring on the left foot or hand (Goldberg 2002:14).

There are a number of overlapping shared characteristics between the male and female sides. They include ornaments on the chest, upper arms, wrists, ankles, neck, fingers and waist. They share an ellipsoidal shaped halo, which frequently lights up the entire deity figure from behind its head. A “sacred thread” (yajnopavita) worn by the twice-born class appears on this deity from the Gupta period forward and is sometimes seen on Ardhanarisvara in the appearance of a serpent (naga yajnopavita) across the upper torso of both the male and female halves. The body of the Ardhanarisvara image is seen in various poses, most prominently, the tribhanga pose where the body is seen in three bends, the head (leaning to the left), torso (it leans to the right), and in the right leg (displaying the voluptuous left hip) (Goldberg 2002:13).

As mentioned above, the earliest verified image of Ardhanarisvara was found in Mathura, displayed in the form of a stone sculpture of a torso. It was dated to the late Kusana period or the early Gupta era and can be found in the Mathura Museum. [See Yadav 33 for other evidence of early sightings of Ardhanarisvara and its locations]. The roughness of the stone sculpture gives evidence that it could have been located underwater for a great deal of time. The body of the sculpture found in Mathura has the appearance of being half male and half female. Ardhanarisvara has been featured on many coins directly dating back to the Kusana period; one of the very first mentioned is the Coin of Kaniska III. It has the king facing right on one side and Ardhanarisvara on the reverse; the coin was made of gold and round in shape. Ardhanarisvara has been documented as being shown on coins, seals and other iconographic motifs (Yadav 35-36). [See Yadav 37-112 for specific dated pieces, illustrations and locations where the art was prominently found and its variations].

Ardhanarisvara worship, often associated with Siva in literature, frequently occurs in the Puranas. It develops out of the conception found in Rgvedic mythology, of creation beginning with the merging of male and female principles. The creative process of one dividing into two is found in the Rgveda and Puranic cosmology, and expressed in a variety of ways, including as father and mother, husband and wife, man and woman. In Rgvedic texts, Dyaus and Prthivi are the universal parents. They mostly appear as a pair of deities in the Rgveda and are rarely mentioned individually (Yadav 113). [Yadav 114-130 explains this concept in greater detail].

The Ardhanarisvara form developed over time, changing from a benign to a fierce aspect and in the interim the conjugal and erotic aspects also evolved. The erotic symbolism, often only seen in temples of an erotic nature, gradually merged with forms of Tantricism. Tantricism is the belief in a transcendental duality of Siva and Sakti. Conjugal love is often found throughout poetic representations of Ardhanarisvara in Hinduism. There are cases where the literature views Siva as “a lifeless corpse” without wisdom and physically immobile without the strength of Siva’s power (Sakti). Males must worship both the wisdom and the power principles (male and female), making the two deities “inseparable” (Yadav 127).

A new line of interpretation promoted by some scholars suggests that the images and texts associated with the concept of duality (male and female) offer evidence of inequality surrounding Ardhanarisvara imagery. Ellen Goldberg (1999) addressed this issue noting that even the name “Ardhanarisvara” devalues the female aspect of this duality. It does not translate as “half male half female” but “the Lord who is half woman”; this is seen as an inequality despite their conjoined figures. Another point Goldberg (1999) addresses is the deliberate placement of the female on the left side and the male on the right side, diminishing the female status when compared next to Siva. In Hindu culture, deities are known for their extravagant number of arms in association with the power or strength that they possess. In the Ardhanarisvara image it is very common that the male half is shown with more arms than the female half, supporting Goldberg’s (1999) notion of inequality. The male half of Ardhanarisvara is usually depicted as holding weapons in its multiple arms whereas the female half is usually holding (if anything) a flower or other devalued motif. As mentioned above, Ardhanarisvara is typically depicted as having a divided symbol on the forehead, which can be seen as a sign of privilege. The female side typically has a bindu or dot on the forehead, which is a clear indicator of marital status in Indian culture. Males, however, have a third eye which attests to Siva’s divinity or transcendence, creating another controversial imbalance of power in the Ardhanarisvara image. Unless identifying marks, as mentioned above, are present it is rather difficult to distinguish the male side from the female side. If female vertical indicators are not present in the deity (left breast, full hip, earring, etc.), other secondary supporting features are not enough to establish the identity of Ardhanarisvara. Hence, the female side of Siva or Parvati may be implicit and not obvious but when paired with the Lord Siva the female features then become explicit. This creates an androcentric ideal of Ardhanarisvara, based on the assumption that male is viewed as the norm and female is viewed as an exception (Goldberg 1999).



Courtright, Paul B. (2005) “Review: The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective by Ellen Goldberg.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 73, No. 4: 1215-1217.

Goldberg, Ellen (1999) “Ardhanarisvara in Indian Iconography: A New Interpretation.” East and West (Vol. 49, No. 1/4: 175-187.)

Goldberg, Ellen (2002) The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Harsh, Kumar (1983) “Review: Mantra, Ardhanarisvara, Parinior by George Anca.” Indian Literature (Vol. 26, No. 3: 109-111.)

Seid, Betty (2004) “The Lord Who is Half Woman (Ardhanarishvara).” Notable Acquisitions at The Art Institute of Chicago, p. 48,49+95.

Yadav, Neeta (2001) Ardhanarisvara in Art and Literature. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd

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Article written by: Miranda Payne (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.