Every autumn, Bengalis in Kolkata and around the world immerse themselves in four days of prayers, rituals, and celebration centred around the worship of the Devi Durga in her Mahishamardhini form.
Devotees and visitors to such events see the familiar ensemble of dieties on centrestage: the Devi stands astride her lion vahana and holds a spear to slay Mahisasura, who has just emerged from his buffalo disguise. In her other eight hands she holds the various astras (weapons) that the gods have lent her to fight the asuras. She is surrounded by her children, Ganesa, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Karthik, who have joined her on their own vahanas, in this final moment of triumph over the asuras. They are all watched over by Siva, whose image or photograph is usually placed above this ensemble.
The worship of the Devi in this particular standardized format is a fairly recent (from the mid-18th century) and a somewhat regional Bengali phenomenon. Indeed, all the idols are fashioned and dressed to look like members of an typical Bengali household, for example, Durga’s face, make-up, jewelry, and dress is that of an ideal Bengali housewife’s, while Karthik is the perfect Bengali bridegroom. In the early 20th century, though, lithographic printing presses in Mumbai reproduced this image of Durga in a distinctly Marathi style!
Durga Puja in this form started becoming popular in Bengal in the 17th-18th century when Bengali zamindars, who became wealthy through trade with Europe, sponsored lavish Durga Puja celebrations in their family rajbaris (palaces). The family Durga Puja is rare now, although some zamindar and merchant families continue to sponsor highly-respected pujas in the old palaces of Kolkata and also in many villages. The recent (from the early 20th century) and more successful format has been the Sarbojanin or community celebration of the festival which is sponsored and organized by the para or neighbourhood (and recently also along with local and multinational corporations).
The past several years have seen tremendous experimentation by artisans in Kolkata both in the format of the idols and of the pandal (canopied bamboo structure) in which the idols are housed. The artistic achievements of these craftsmen are staggering as any visitor to Kolkata during the Pujas will appreciate. Pandals have been decorated in the most astonishing ways: with old LP records, biscuits, coke bottles, matchboxes, sea-shells, and terracotta bricks. They have been built to look like ancient temples, forts, ships, igloos and even the White House and Buckingham Palace!
But Durga as Mahisamardhini (slayer of Mahisasura) is an ancient diety. An important 5th century Sanskrit text, the Devimahatmya, contains all the details connected with Durga, her various forms, exploits, and her iconography. Durga was certainly worshipped in this form much earlier but probably came to be widely worshipped throughout India from the Pauranic resurgence of the Gupta age. During my travels in India, I have found the Mahisamardhini image depicted in many temples across the land from those of the Hoysalas in south Karnataka, to the Chalukya and Kakatiya temples in the northern Deccan.
She is depicted in Orissan temples, in ancient Gupta temples, in Ellora and in the central Indian Chandela temples in Khajuraho and of course in innumerable terracotta temples in Bengal. Indian artisans seem to have revelled in the possibility of individual expression allowed by the complexity of this scene, and have depicted the characters in an amazing variety of positions, expressions, postures, and movements.
The art-historical evolution of the Mahisamardhini iconography is also interesting. I have found least five different major styles in which this image has been depicted. With the passage of time, the orientation and movement of the images change slightly, and the asura seems to gradually attain an anthropomorphic or human form. In the earliest images the asura is represented in the form of a buffalo. Such images are found in the temples of the Pratiharas (Rajasthan), Pallavas (Mahabalipuram), and Chalukyas (Alampur). An early Chalukya image from the ASI site museum at Alampur (above) is an excellent example. Durga holds down the buffalo with one leg, bending its head to thrust a spear down its neck, while her simha attacks it from behind. Amidst this ferocious scene, her face is calm, and mahisasura seems to submit without resistance.
In a second variation, the goddess is shown standing triumphantly on the severed head of the buffalo, a form especially favoured by Pallava and Chola artisans. In another depiction Mahishasura is no longer represented as the form of a buffalo but has a human body with a buffalo head. Such images are found in the temples of the early Chalukyas (Aihole), Rashtrakutas (Ellora) and in Orissan temples.
One of the early temples in Bhubaneswar, the Baital Deul, has one of the most skilfull representations of Durga anywhere. The half-human Mahisasura seems to kneel in front of Durga as she pushes him down with her hand and slays him with her trisula. Her outstretched arms holds swords, snakes, and a shield, all in a swirl of motion but her face remains compassionate. Although constrained by a narrow rectangular frame the Orissan artist has produced an image of stunning beauty and vitality, with not a single element disproportionate or out of place.
A fourth type depicted in late Chalukya and Hoysala temples (such as at Somnathpura) shows a human Mahisasura being slayed by Durga. In a late Chalukya example from Alampur (above) an eight-armed Durga is shown thrusting her trisula into a miniature Mahisasura as he emerges from the buffalo. Although perhaps aesthetically less pleasing than the earlier Chalukya example, this sculpture is more active. The lifeless buffalo collapses as Mahisasura emerges ready to strike. Durga gently holds the asura’s head as she kills him, while her other hands brandish weapons, a drawn sword, an arrow being taken out of its quiver, a bell being rung.
A fifth type is found on terracotta temples of Bengal, particularly those in the Hugli and Howrah region. Here the standardized Bengali group of dieties is shown: Durga slaying Mahisasura in the centre and her children surrounding her. The images are positioned either on octagonal porch columns (in Hugli and Howrah) or as in the example shown here, in one of the registers above the entrance arches (in Medinipur).
The Mahisamardhini form of the Devi has been worshipped for fifteen centuries across the subcontinent and beyond (images have been found in Angkor and in Java). Yet she remains an important part of our modern lives, loved, revered and worshipped every year in joyous autumn celebration.
ya devi sarva bhooteshu matru roopena samsthita
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaha
Devi, who is manifest in all existence as mother,
I worship thee, over and over and over again.
(A version of this article was published in the 2011 edition of Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design)