Shiva or Shankar, is the third god in the famous Hindu triumvirate along with Brahma, the creator and Vishnu, the preserver. Shiva plays a very significant role as the destroyer and is attributed with bringing change in the world so that the cycle of life can continue and re-creation can take place.
Hindus believe his powers of destruction and re-creation help destroy the illusions and imperfections of this world, paving the way for beneficial change. This destruction, it is said, is not arbitrary, but constructive. Shiva is therefore seen as the source of both good and evil and is regarded as the one who combines many contradictory elements.
Even though Shiva is the destroyer, he is usually represented as peaceful and tranquil with a with a serene smile.
Hindus who worship Shiva as their primary god are members of the Shaivism sect.
Shiva's consort is Devi, the Mother-goddess, who has many forms, including Kali, the goddess of death, and Sati, the goddess of marital felicity. But her best known incarnation is Parvati, Shiva's eternal wife. It is Shiva's relationship with his wife, Parvati which brings him balance. Their union allows him to be an ascetic and a lover, but within the bounds of marriage.
Shiva and Parvati are held up as the perfect example of marital bliss by many Hindus, and one is rarely depicted without the other.
Hindus believe Shiva and Parvati live in the Kailash mountains in the Himalayas and have two children, Ganesha, the famous Hindu elephant-head God and Karthikeya.
The following are some of the many salient features that are symbolic of his representation in Hindu iconography:
Blue face and throat. Sometimes his entire body is also shown blue.
A third eye - Place in the center of his forehead represents his wisdom and insight. It is also believed to be the source of his untamed energy.
A crescent moon on his head.
The river Ganga flows out of his hair.
Serpents coiled around his body, which not only signifies Shiva's power over the most dangerous creatures in the world but also is symbolic of his power of destruction and recreation.
The vibhuti are three lines drawn horizontally across the forehead in white ash. They represent Shiva's all-pervading nature, his superhuman power and wealth. Also, they cover up his powerful third eye. Members of Shaivism often draw vibhuti lines across their forehead.
The trident - The three-pronged trident represents the three functions of the Hindu triumvirate. While other gods are depicted in lavish surroundings, Shiva is dressed in simple animal skin and in austere settings, usually in a yogic position. Parvati, whenever she is present, is always at the side of Shiva. Their relationship is one of equality.
Tiger skin - He is shown seated upon on a tiger skin
Another popular iconography of Shiva is the Natraj or dancing form. Dance is a very important art form in India, and Shiva is believed to be the master of it. The rhythm of dance is a metaphor for the balance in the universe which Shiva is believed to hold so masterfully.His most important dance is the Tandav. This is the cosmic dance of death, which he performs at the end of an age, to destroy the universe.