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Saint Sambandar (Dancing Shaivite Saint)

12th century

India, Tamil Nadu

Copper alloy

H. 18 7/8 x W. 11 1/4 x D. 6 1/4 in. (47.9 x 28.6 x 15.9 cm)

Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.24


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Sambandar, who lived in the 7th century, is one of a group of sixty-three Hindu saints who dedicated their lives to the worship of Shiva. He can be identified by his youthful appearance (he lived only eighteen years), by his joyful dancing pose (which refers to his emphasis on song and dance in the worship of Shiva), and by the pointing finger of his right hand. According to legend, the three-year-old Sambandar became hungry while visiting a temple with his father, who left him alone to take a ritual dip in the temple's tank. When the father returned and questioned the child about the source of the milk he was drinking, Sambandar pointed at a sculpture of Shiva and Parvati. After having drunk this divine milk, Sambandar composed more than three hundred hymns, which form the beginning of the Tamil Shaivite canon, the Tirumai (Sacred Way). Sambandar's hymns are still sung in temples throughout southern India. Both this sculpture and another in the Asia Society Collection, Saint Mannikkavachaka, are reputed to have been excavated from the Tiruvan Vanpanalur Temple, built during the Chola period, and their similar sizes and stylistic similarities -- seen, for example, in the shapes of straight noses and the full lips -- suggest that they may have been made at the same atelier.