Christie’s New York to Sell a 15th-Century Bronze Figure of Shaiva Saint Sambandar

In most cases, sales of ‘Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art’ are led by Buddhist sculptures. Christie’s New York presents a unique piece of art that is seldom seen for its upcoming fall sale – a bronze figure of a young Saiva poet-saint called Sambandar from the 15th century - carrying an estimate of US$600,000-800,000. Interestingly, if you take a close look at the bronze figure, you will notice a topknot resembling a male reproductive organ. What connotation does it have? 

Temple Tank in a Hindu temple

Sambandar is said to have lived in the seventh century and his story of becoming a Shaiva saint was recorded in Tamil poetry. Sambandar was born of Brahmin (top of the caste hierarchy) parents and frequently accompanied his father to the temple. One day, at the age of three, he was left on the steps of the sacred tank (mostly built near temples and said to cure various diseases) when his father entered to take his ritual bath.

Suddenly, Sambandar began to cry and was found playing with a golden cup while trickles of milk ran down his chin when his father returned. Sambandar was asked about the source of the milk and he responded by bursting into song and dance praising Shiva and Parvati while raising his hand and pointed toward their image. That’s how he earned his saintly status.  

Featuring most of the iconic elements from the above myth, the 75-cm-tall figure shows a nude Sambandar with two bracelets and a sacred thread around his hips, symbolizing his identity as a Brahmin child. Standing on a lotus with one hand holding a cup and the other with his forefinger slightly extended, the figure echoes the story of worshipping Shiva and Parvati.

The headdress, in the shape of a male sexual organ, is called “Lingam”. It is a reference to the sexual organ of Shiva, who is said to the power to destroy and transform the universe. The Lingam on the top of the figure signifies Sambandar’s supremacy within Shaivism.

A statue of Nataraja at CERN in Geneva

Flaming aureole issuing from the mouths of Makaras 

The flaming aureole is also associated with Shiva. Legend has it that, Nataraja, a depiction of Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dance, performs the Tandava dance to destroy the universe and rebuild it. Nataraja dances within a cyclically closed arch of flames that emerged from two Makaras on each end.  Makara is a sea-creature in Hindu culture, commonly seen as a decorative element of Hindu temple architecture. It is generally depicted as half terrestrial animal in the frontal part (deer, elephant or crocodile) and half aquatic animal (fish or seal) in the hind part.

This figure was once sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1993. It now belongs to the collection of a baroness and famous collector called Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza (image above). She was Miss Spain in 1961.


A Rare and Important Bronze Figures of Sambandar. South India, Vijayanagara Period, Late 15th/early 16th Century.

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art
Sale no.: 14484
2017/9/8 - 9|10am - 5pm
2017/9/10|1pm - 5pm
2017/9/11 - 12|10am - 5pm
Auction time: 2017/9/13|2pm

Lot no.: 622
Height: 75 cm
Provenance (consolidated by The Value):  

  • Sotheby New York. 1 December 1993. Lot 104.
  • The current owner is Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000