Beer In Art #45: The Hindu God Shiva As Bhairava, Bestower Of Beer

Today’s work of art is an unusual one. I chose it because it’s on display at the Denver Art Museum, where a good portion of the beer community has been all last week for the Great American Beer Festival. It’s a sculpture from around the 1600s of Bhairava, one of the forms the Hindu god Shiva can take.


It’s originally from Nepal and is “polychromed wood, 33 1/4 in. high.” The museum described the work as follows:

Here, the Hindu god Shiva is shown in his terrifying form, Bhairava, which he assumes to destroy evil. He stands menacingly astride a prostrate human figure and is framed by an ornate multi-colored archway carved with deities and mythical creatures, including the sun-bird Garuda at the top. The hole at the front of the lotus base was perhaps used with a spout attachment in festivals when from an elevated position Bhairava would dispense beer to devotees below.

Searching around a little more, it seems Bhairava is also commonly known as “The Bestower of Beer.”

Wikipedia has some basic information about Bhairava:

Bhairava (Sanskrit: भैरव, “Terrible” or “Frightful” Tamil: பைரவன், வயிரவன்)), sometimes known as Bhairo or Bhairon or Bhairadya, is the fierce manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation. He is one of the most important deities of Nepal, sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike.

He is depicted ornamented with a range of twisted serpents, which serve as earrings, bracelets, anklets, and sacred thread (yajnopavita). He wears a tiger skin and a ritual apron composed of human bones. Bhairava has a dog as his divine vahana (vehicle).

At the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, there’s a mask of Bhairava on display, also from 16th century Nepal.

Bhirava mask

From the Rubin’s description:

While in his peaceful forms Shiva is depicted in human form, his wrathful form, the terrifying Bhairava, is shown as more monstrous than human, with demonic features that reflect his ultimately destructive purpose. Still this wrathful emanation remains connected to his non-violent alter ego. Not only does Shiva’s serene countenance gaze down from the center of Bhairava’s crown, but the terrible form also shares several important iconographic attributes with his peaceful counterpart, reinforcing Shiva’s dual role as destroyer and regenerator.

The Hindu god Shiva is a many-sided god. In this mask he appears in a wrathful state as Bhairava, while you can also see his peaceful alter-ego at the top of his crown. As the embodiment of Shiva’s destructive power, Bhairava eliminates ignorance and the ego to help practitioners reach spiritual enlightenment.

Bhairava is very popular, particularly in the small Himalayan country of Nepal. He is worshipped in temples and during festivals and by Hindus and Buddhists alike. Large Bhairava masks, such as this one, are unique to Nepal and play an important role in the festival celebration of Indra-jatra (a festival in the Katmandu Valley, celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhist practitioners.) On specific evenings home-brewed beer, stored in a hidden pot, is dispensed through a tube that emerges from the mask’s mouth. Devotees consume this beverage (created as an offering to Bhairava) with the belief that it will bring blessings upon them in the coming year.

Yet another mask can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the description on Knile’s Flickr page (who took the photograph of the mask below), he also mentions the beer aspect of the Bhairava.

Nepalese-made copper head of Bhairava, a form Shiva takes. A vat of beer sat behind the head, and tubes went down to the mouth from the vat. Believers would drink from these tubes.


In 1999, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired a mask of the Nepalese God Bhairava, Bestower of Beer, which they describe with this story:

Lavish public festivals were vital to the politics of the Malla period. Some Malla kings revived fading traditions, while others introduced new practices to public worship in order to reinforce their claims to the throne or sway public opinion. This mask of Bhairava, a wrathful form of Shiva, was created during the Malla period for such a celebration. During a festival like Indra-Jatra, which is celebrated annually over several days in early fall, a mask like this is connected to a large pot filled with home-brewed beer. At an auspicious moment, the mask, garlanded with leaves and flowers, is wheeled out on a wooden platform and the sanctified beer is released suddenly, spurting out of its open mouth. As music plays, crowds of worshipers jostle to catch a mouthful of beer, considered a gift and a blessing from the god. Both Hindus and Buddhists worship this deity who is honored as the protector of the city of Kathmandu.


Known as the Face of Bhairava, it was made in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal during the Malla Period (1200-1769), but is most likely circa 16th century. It’s made of mercury-gilded copper alloy repoussé with rock crystal, paint, foil, and glass and measures 29 x 25 x 18 inches.

In a 1999 press release, they elaborate:

The Hindu god Shiva bears many different names and forms across South Asia. In Nepal, the most important of these is Shiva in the form of Bhairava. Bhairava is a feared and ferocious god, needing to be pacified with offerings, but he is also a powerful guardian and the destroyer of evil. The Philadelphia Museum of Art welcomes a newly acquired image of this terrifying-yet beloved-deity. Fierce, powerful, elegant and delightful, the Face of Bhairava glares at visitors from high on a wall in the Gallery of Himalayan Art.

A huge, mask-like face, the Museum’s image of Bhairava is two and one-half feet high. Three bulging eyes, tangled hair, bared fangs, and ornaments of skulls and snakes indicate the god’s fierce nature. The gilded sculpture is constructed of multiple pieces of hand-beaten copper. Its face is topped with an exquisite crown wrought with lusciously realistic flowers and foliage, and inset with large cabochon rock crystals and glass jewels. Four perky serpents intertwine their bodies to form the crown. Their scales are overlaid with helmet-like skulls disgorging pearl chains and a small head of Shiva in his peaceful form. This sculpture most likely dates to the 16th century. Red pigment and ritual powder coat the curling flames that fan out above the crown, evidence that the image was worshiped for many years. Although missing its original round earrings, neck, and two lower hair segments, this fragile image of Bhairava has survived in an astonishingly complete state.

Monumental heads of Bhairava are made in Nepal for various festivals but most notably for Indra-Jatra, an important and complex multi-day event that takes place in early fall in the city of Kathmandu. Named after Indra, king of the gods’ heaven, the festival focuses on the reaffirmation of Nepal’s more worldly ruler. Along with honoring the dead, activities include the re-consecration of the king by the Kumari (the living goddess), and the commemoration of the conquest of Kathmandu by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who conquered Nepal in the 18th century and founded the present dynasty. Another activity of Indra-Jatra is the honoring of Bhairava, who is not only one of the servants of the Kumari, but also the protective deity of the city of Kathmandu.

On the afternoon of the third day of the festival, an enormous mask-like copper image of Bhairava, much like the Museum’s sculpture, is specially garlanded with leaves and flowers and placed on a cart. The actual image in use today in Kathmandu was consecrated in 1795 and during most of the year is sequestered behind a latticework screen near the royal palace. During the festival, it is brought out and a large clay pot of home-brewed beer is placed behind and within the face. A copper pipe is run from the pot through a hole in the mouth of the image (the grinning mouth of the Museum’s Bhairava bears a hole the size of a penny between its fangs). After the Kumari has been honored, sanctified beer spouts from the pipe, drawn by gravity but appearing to spurt from Bhairava’s open mouth. As music plays, worshippers jostle to catch a mouthful of beer, for it is considered a gift and a blessing from the god. Other smaller images of Bhairava, made of metal, clay or wood—and also rigged to dispense beer—are used during the festival; the Museum’s Bhairava was originally intended for this purpose.

In the The Roots of Tantra, by Sunthar Visuvalingam and Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam, there’s a fascinating chapter called Between Veda and Tantra: Pachali Bhairava of Kathmandu (Towards an Acculturation Model of Hindu-Buddhist Relations) in which they reveal just how closely beer is associated with the worship of Bhairava:

In the Newar tradition, each god has generally two temples. One is situated outside the town, and the god is venerated there in the open-air temple called a pitha. The other is inside the town, and the god is venerated in a closed temple called a dyahche in Newari. This dyahche is, in fact, a special room inside the house of the family who keeps the Bhairava jar. In the closed temple, Pachali Bhairava is represented by and worshiped as a jar filled with beer.

You can see yet another Bhairava mask at the Dallas Museum of Art and one being auctioned at Christie’s.

On a website about the Himalayan Gods, they reveal in that tradition “the inter-relationship between the worshiper and the worshiped is demonstrated each year on the night of the full moon during the Indra Jatra festival when the great mask of Bhairava, dated 1795, in the palace square in Kathmandu, issues sacred beer from its open mouth through a bamboo pipe to waiting devotees below.”

In Part 6. “Socio-Political Levels in the Sacrificial Schema, “they describe how at “[t]he annual festival of Pachali Bhairava is based on the Hindu sacrificial schema, where there reappears the ancient theme of the theft of the Fire and Soma (ambrosia), represented in the present case by the jar of beer.”

A God known as “The Bestower of Beer” and “worshiped as a jar filled with beer!” How have I never heard of this before?


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