May 26, 2019  |  Home  |  Contact  |   | 
Nancy Wiener Gallery: A Priest's Necklace
March 14, 2013  | 
The Nattukottai Chettiar community in Tamil Nadu has long been noted for its devotion to Shiva and its connection to the Chidambaram Temple, worshipped by Hindus as the birthplace of the Cosmic form of Shiva, Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.

The Chettiar’s in southern India are a diasporic mercantile community that is known for its business acumen and extensive international commercial ties, specifically within the banking sector. Known for their resplendent mansions, the Nattukottai Chettiars are catered to by numerous jewelers, goldsmiths and silversmiths and are renowned throughout India and indeed the world for their craftsmanship.

The term gaurishankara derives from a second name of the goddess Parvati (Gauri), consort of Shiva, whose appearance with Shiva here is central to the religious motifs that define the entire piece.

This magnificent necklace is traditionally worn by Dikshitars, the Brahman priests mainly associated with Chidambaram, and by men in the Chettiar congregation who are celebrating their 60th birthdays (shashtipurti).

The clasp at the top of the Gaurishankara necklace depicts Shiva’s son, Kartikeya, who appears armed with a golden spear and seated on his peacock mount. The peacock, in turn, holds a snake in his claw, representing the conquest of passions and desires, as well as signifying his connection to Shiva. Minutely detailed peacock feathers fan upward behind him to form the central Gopura. Kartikeya is attended by two female figures, who, in turn, are flanked by stylized bird headed fantastic creatures, The ornate gopura (towers) are punctuated by seven cabochon rubies. Pink foil adds dimension and soft color to the tableau. There is a long inscription in 19th century Tamil on the reverse of the clasp and pectoral.

Descending from the clasp are twenty Rudraksha seeds alternated with gold rings along a finely woven silver chain. The earthy red seeds themselves have an equally important symbolic meaning. The seeds are derived from the evergreen tree of the same name, and they are typically used as prayer and meditation beads throughout India. The type seen here are the extremely rare and highly prized panchamuhki, five-faced, seeds, symbolizing the five faces of Shiva1. The derivation of the name of the tree is from the Sanskrit terms Rudra (Shiva) and aksha (eyes). It is recounted in Hindu legend that after a long period of meditation, the Lord Shiva shed a single tear of yogic fulfillment resulting in the appearance on the Earth of the Raksha tree. Hindus also believe that the seeds themselves radiate beneficial energy bearing positive effects on the central nervous system of the wearer while conferring other medicinal and amuletic powers as well.

The focal point of this spectacular necklace is the impressive upper amulet, which depicts Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, performing the Tandava (the chaotic dance of exuberant creation and destruction) upon the back of a dwarfed demon that symbolizes ignorance. He is joined on his proper right by his wife, Parvati, and to the left, an attendant holding a chouri, fly whisk. Celestial dancers, apsaras, serenade him with musical instruments also articulated in fine gold detail to the left and right of the temple tableau. Just as within the scene rendered on the clasp, pink foil is used to great effect, adding depth to the finely detailed figures. Shiva holds a small drum (damaru) in his right hand and fire in his left, two distinctive characteristics associated with Nataraja imagery. Shiva dances in front of the elaborately decorated central Gopuram. The scene is surrounded by ten ruby cabochons set within the finely detailed filigree that frames the amulet. It is crowned by a single egg-shaped emerald bead and two similarly-shaped pearls to its left and right.

The second devoted to holding the sacral image of Shiva in the form of the lingam and/or sacred ashes. Accentuated by two rubies flanking a single square-cut diamond, the container is girded with a row of ruby cabochons that ring the center of the amulet, below which is a row of sixteen lingams. Closer examination reveals three horizontal vibhuti lines of Lord Shiva on each. Rubies also fringe the outer filigree and adorn the three gold pendants that hang from the base. Like the upper amulet, the reliquary case is surrounded by a delicately scrolling flange in an ornate pattern that evokes fire or energy in motion.

This is an exceptionally fine and opulent piece from the early nineteenth century that harmonizes the devotional energies of Shiva worship with the exquisite craftsmanship of the Nattukottai Chettiar goldsmiths and jewelers. It is an unparalleled example of finely rendered ceremonial jewelry that captures the essence of Hindu art in the microcosm of its many symbolic details.

Similar Examples Krishnan, Usha R Bala and Meera Sushil Kumar. Dance of the Peacock: Jewellry Traditions of India. India Book House Limited, 2001. p. 224-225. Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva (Illustrated in Krishnan and Kumar 2001), p. 224-225. Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar: Jeweled Treasures from the Mughal Courts. Doha, Qatar. 2002, pages 46-48. Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1997. p. 39 plates 46 and 47; and page 158 (Illustration of male celebrating).

For more information: