A valiant warrior goddess

A valiant warrior goddess

divine beauty

A valiant warrior goddess

Amongst all the female deities enumerated in Hindu texts, perhaps no other goddess occupies a position as impressive and formidable as that of Durga. Texts like Durga Mahatmya, Durga Saptasati, Kalika Purana and several others extol her innumerable virtues through a well articulated theology as a role model for other female principles.

The name Durga was conferred upon the goddess when she killed a demon called Durga or Durgama for the welfare of the world. Durga Rahasya Tantra says that the goddess has the power to navigate a man across the ocean of transmigration. The Devi Mahatmya remarks that she is a vessel in the ocean of life that is difficult to cross. This epithet infers that the seafaring people belonging to the beginning of the Christian era could find succour in perceiving Durga as their saviour.

Durga’s historical origins establish her as Vindhyavasini, an area of the Vindhya Mountains considered inaccessible except through heroic efforts. Due to her close association with tribals and non-Aryans, she acquired a ferocious and barbaric element with a proclivity for battle and blood. This led to her identification as Karala (frightful), Kali, Chandi, Chamundi and many others. Her fondness for liquor and meat facilitated her acceptance into non-Vedic groups permitting sacrifices to seek her blessings.

A warrior goddess
The bloodthirsty nature of Durga together with her superior martial ability created many occasions to portray a warrior goddess with extraordinary powers that surpassed all the characteristics of male deities. In her most famous role as the slayer of Mahisa, she was incarnated as a weapon-wielding goddess in a situation where the demon was the cause of a cosmic crisis. The demon here represented the elemental powers of brutish ignorance.

The male deities were unable to control the demon and this predicament made them intensely angry. As an embodiment of the intense anger and energy emitted by Shiva, Vishnu and others, a resplendent female appeared before the gods and took the shape of Chandika. Her face was formed out of Shiva’s energy. Vishnu gave her his strong arms, Yama’s strength lay in her hair, Brahma provided her the feet and Indra, Surya and Chandra bestowed her with their own attributes.

Each of the gods gave his respective  weapon to her and then she roared forth to slay the demon. This power of annihilating a mighty demon demonstrates that a male deity is immobilised and is ineffective compared to the strength and valour of the female deity and that he can only be a contributing factor in upholding world order.

Such a befitting representation of shakthi as the slayer of Mahisa has captured the vivid imagination of the sculptors and thus, Mahisamardini has been the favourite iconographic representation of the Devi all over the country, especially in Karnataka.

Depicting the strength
Sculptural depictions of Mahisamardini can be found all over Karnataka as individual brackets or in niches or on pillars in the temples. Notable among them are the famous Durga Temple of Aihole, Ravanaphadi Cave at Aihole, Badami Cave Temple, Talkad, Tumkur, Kolar, Narasamangala, Varuna, Belur and Halebid to cite a few. At each place, she is the embodiment of a dynamic movement and portrays her overwhelming power in a dramatic style.

Mahisamardini is either four-armed or eight-armed and as she is associated with both Vishnu and Shiva, in some depictions she sports shankha and chakra. The trishula associated with Shiva pierces the demon. Her other attributes are gada, shula, khadga, bow and arrow. A severed human head with his eyes closed personifies bliss that comes with complete surrender to the goddess.

In Hoysala sculptures, her crown is placed high and she is heavily adorned with pearl and bead necklaces, breast band, anklets, bangles and toe rings.

Coastal Karnataka boasts of several unique and ancient sculptures of Mahisamardini. One of them is the Kadiyali Mahisamardini, said to belong to the twilight era of Kadamba-Chalukyas. This 55 cm-tall figure is very robust and while the upper hands sport the shankha and the chakra, the lower left hand pulls Mahisa’s tail upwards. The trident in the right hand pierces the throat of the demon who appears to be completely drained of his beastly power.

The Mahisa episode constructs the thought that the female deity possesses the ultimate power in the divine realm and also, that she can protect and sustain the cosmos devoid of any male intervention. Thereby, she challenges the very codes of Hindu orthodoxy where women were and are still restricted by the male hierarchy.

The fact that she is stunningly beautiful and bewitching does not diminish her other qualities, while at the same time her valour and fearlessness are mighty weapons in her arsenal.