“Beer came out of this giant mask – really?” giggled a young visitor at the museum.
I was standing behind some visitors in front of the massive exhibit. It was called “Hatha Dya as Bhairava”. Broad face. Bulging eyes. Gaping mouth. Fiery facial hair. Five-pointed crown.
Peaceful elements depicted as jewels. Wrathful ones as skulls and snakes…
We were at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The cynosure of all eyes was indeed this monumental mask that was used during festivals in Nepal. Dates back to the 16th century. To the Newar people of the Kathmandu valley – the face of Bhairava represents the sky.
And yes, it did dispense alcohol at its original location! One could see the tube that connected the mouth evidently to a hidden barrel of beer. The drink was poured straight into the mouths of devotees, during the festivals - to confer divine blessings from their God!
The Rubin Museum is relatively small - like a boutique museum. It attracts close to 200,000 visitors a year. Much smaller audience compared to the 9 million per year at the Louvre or 6.5 million per year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But it explores the uniqueness of Himalayan art and culture like no other. For me the most remarkable aspect is the space it provides for reflection and personal transformation. The museum claims to “open windows to inner worlds so that we can better navigate the outer ones”.
The myth of Bhairava is quite intriguing. Bhairava represents a form of the Hindu God Shiva. There are many versions of the mythological story how Bhairava came into being. One version states that once when Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu were arguing over supremacy, Lord Shiva appeared in the form of Rudra a three-eyed man adorned with snakes. Brahma’s fifth head called Rudra his son. This upset Shiva and he created Bhairava (the Terrifying One) and commanded him to punish Brahma. Bhairava beheaded Brahma. Then Shiva asked Bhairava to carry Brahma’s skull to the holy city of Varanasi. That led to the shrine of the Release of the Skull (Kapala-Mochana). There are many other stories around Bhairava. The essence I got was that Shiva created Bhairava to do the dirty work. Lots of skullduggery involved there.
Even a cursory reading of some of the scriptures reveals that the Gods do test humans at times for the strength of their faith. There are examples of this in all cultures. Sometimes these little tests can be quite gruesome. One such grisly story that involves Bhairava is about Ciruttontar (a tale told uniquely in Telegu, Tamil and Kannada), much like the testing of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. In these stories of faith – in order to attain oneness with God, one had to completely surrender and give up everything.
Even art institutions have to undergo existential “tests” at times to prove their legitimacy and resilience. One of these tests is to prove that a work of art has been lawfully attained. If not, then the object needs to be returned to its legitimate owners.
It appears that the Bhairava mask is a similar hard test for the Rubin Museum…
The Museum publicly states that they have received claims regarding the “provenance” of the Bhairava mask. They are conducting research in consultation with the Consulate General of Nepal in New York, to determine how to proceed.
Separately, the Smithsonian magazine recently reported that the Rubin Museum has agreed to return stolen religious artifacts to Nepal, this includes an wooden carving from the 14th century of a garland bearing apsara (a beautiful female spirit). This apsara carving was used as a window decoration at the Itum Bahal monastery in Kathmandu. It was stolen in 1999 and smuggled afterwards. The Museum purchased it in a private sale in 2003. An investigation concluded that these carvings were “unlawfully obtained”. These priceless archaeological artifacts have now been returned to Nepal.
Over the past year, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC) has assisted in the return of at least seven objects, including a tenth-century sculpture held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a stone stele of the Hindu deity Lakshmi-Narayana that was on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art from a private collection, per the New York Times.
Whether the Bhairava mask shall be returned or not – still remains to be seen. Meanwhile the terrifying face on the Bhairava mask stares at the visitor unflinchingly. Perhaps it wants to know if you are strong willed enough or in need of some divine liquid blessings.