Ardhanarishvara, literally translates into the god (Siva) half female. For its artistic excellence , this image is arguably the second best image, after the three headed Mahesh Murthy (also sometimes referred as Trimurthy ) at Elephanta.
From the Hindu mythology, the Ardhanarishvara represents a composite androgynous form of the Hindu god Shiva on right and his consort Parvathi on left half, split down the middle.
This dexterously done panel is based on a complex mystical theme, the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe and illustrates how Shakti (represented as Parvati), the female principle of God, is inseparable from Shiva, the male principle of God.
There are very many mystical stories and explanations for such a concept in the Hindu pantheon. The one interesting story goes like this.
Once many sages came to their abode , Kailash to pay their respect to Lord Shiva and Parvathi. One of the sages called Bhringi refused to bow and pay respect. The reason, Parvathi was sitting besides Shiva. He was staunch devotee of Shiva, the he would not bow to anyone other than Shiva. This made Parvathi angry and makes him a skeleton of bones. Unable to stand, Bhringi reduces into a pile of bones. Taking pity of his plight Shiva gives him a third leg to balance on. Bhringi precariously stands on his three legs and starts dancing around Shiva in devotion.
This made Parvathi jealous and angry. She does penance and get the boon to be merged with Shiva's body to challenge Bhringi.
Bhringi turns himself into a beetle, pierces a hole through the now androgynous body and performs circumambulation only to portion (right half) belonged to Shiva!
Parvathi now reconciles, admires the dedication of the sage.
Artistically this is a form difficult form to work with. This image not only succeed in achieving that balance but also excelled in the distinctive expressiveness of Shiva and Parvati with out compromising the other.
Both Shiva and Parvati is portrayed with four arms, a very common iconography expression in Hinduism. Shiva's one hand rests at ease on the head of Nandi, the bull.The other hand is lifter up and holds the cobra, that usually sits around his neck.
The rear hand of Parvati holds a mirror, while the other hand rests along the waist and probably holds the turf of garment (the palm is damaged).
The parvathi's head is elaborately decorated with a jeweled crown. Interesting to note Shiva's longer earlobe with the weight of the ear ornament.
The torso and waist is distinctly masculine and feminine of either sides.
The lower portion of the Ardhanarishvara image is destroyed.
Son of Shiva and Parvathi, Kumara, who is considered as the Lord of War stands on the left bottom of the panel. Above Kumara , sitting on the lotus is Lord Brahma, the four headed Lord of Creation.
On Parvati's side close to her arm with mirror is Indra, the King of Gods sitting on the elephant called Airavata.
The are two superbly executed women fly whiskers at the lower portion on of the panel on Parvati's side, though the faces were damaged.
Despite the noisy crowd you may encounter inside main cave in Elephanta , this image of Lord Shiva with his closed eyelids and in a deep contemplating attitude would be the most satisfying piece of art you would ever see in India.Rather this is the highest watermark of medieval Indian art tradition.