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Durga, a Lesser Goddess Grew in Stature during the Gupta Period

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Arindam, our Editor-in-Chief, traces the history of Durga iconography. Historians at Allahabad Museum opine that the stature of the Goddess grew during the Gupta period. He introduces the three-day long special feature on Durga Puja, between Tuesday (Sept 26) and Thursday (Sept 28). Special mention of Anumita Chatterjee Roy, our Managing Editor, must be made for suggesting this feature, for the second time in Different Truths. Without her aesthetics, the selection of photographs and eye-catching layout would not have been possible. We thank all writers and poets, who worked against the clock and helped us bring out the special issue. Happy reading, happy Puja, from all of us, in Different Truths.   

Durga Puja (also, Pujo) means many things to many people. The history of iconography tells us that a non-Aryan Goddess, possibly with tribal antecedents, associated with Tantra and miracle cures (read Ojha or local Voodoo doctors), gradually gained importance and prominence.

If I may digress a bit, Prof. B Mukherjee, of Calcutta University, an expert on Hindu iconography, made a clear distinction between an Aryan and a non-Aryan icon, which was quoted during a seminar, at Allahabad Museum, many moons ago that I had attended. Mukherjee opined that all Aryan Gods have water cosmology – they are on a Lotus – standing, seated or reclining. All non-Aryan Gods, which were later assimilated in the Hindu religion, have hills, mountains, cremation grounds, etc. as their cosmology. Thus, we see Shiva on Kailash. Durga, the daughter of Himalayas, is seen on mountains, while Kali, in some Tantric forms, is worshipped in Shamsan (cremation grounds). But, Lakshmi and Saraswati are seated on Lotus, while Vishnu, in yoganidra, is reclining on a bed of lotus, with Sheshnaag as his umbrella, while Lakshmi, his consort, is seen gently massaging his legs.  

To quote an earlier article of mine, published elsewhere, The Lion of Durga is a Gift from a Greek Goddess, I had written in October 2007 that in the early Kushan period, around first century AD, Durga was a lesser goddess. The terracotta figurines and stone sculptures of this period depict the goddess with two or four hands, wrestling with the demon (Mahisasur), locked in hand to hand combat. Most of these figurines and sculptures were excavated at a site called Sonkh, near Mathura. It forms a rich legacy of the Mathura Art. For 300 odd years, during the Kushan period, the lion is not seen, opined Sriranjan Shukla, former assistant keeper of the Allahabad Museum.

He added, “The Mahisasur-Mardini icon of goddess Durga, as we see it today, evolved in the Gupta period, undergoing changes in iconography. Around this time, we find examples of Devi with eight, 10, 12 and even 16 hands. As her stature grew, her iconography evolved.

“The Gupta period is a time of transition. Referring to a sandstone relief, of the latter part of the fifth century AD, of a Chandrasala (which were placed outside temples to indicate the ruling deity), we see Mahisasur-Mardini combating the asura (demon). It shows the goddess place one of her feet contemptuously on the head of the vanquished demon. She lifts his hindquarters by the tail and pins him down with her Trishul (trident). A short male figure, as her attendant, establishes her glory. He is a gana of Shiva, consort of the goddess. The locks of the gana and the Goddess are elaborately treated, in the style of that period.”

The Kushan artists of the Mathura Art School are credited to conceptualize Mahisasur-Mardini, or the form of Durga defeating the buffalo-demon. From a lesser goddess, depicted in terracotta figurines and sandstone relief, she attained glory in the Gupta period. Most of the Puranas were authored in the Gupta period, which was a golden era of Indian art, literature, trade, commerce, and polity. It was a time of peace and prosperity.

Shukla, an expert of the Mathura Art School, explained, “The Kushan artists of the Mathura Art School are credited to conceptualise Mahisasur-Mardini, or the form of Durga defeating the buffalo-demon. From a lesser goddess, depicted in terracotta figurines and sandstone relief, she attained glory in the Gupta period. Most of the Puranas were authored in the Gupta period, which was a golden era of Indian art, literature, trade, commerce, and polity. It was a time of peace and prosperity.”

Dr. Sunil Gupta, an art-historian, said, “It was probably in Gupta period, between fourth century AD and sixth century AD that Durga icon was introduced in Bengal. The worship of the female principle is reflected in popular terracotta art, since ancient times, in Bengal. I have seen the famous mother goddess figurines, in terracotta, from the ancient port of Tamralipti (presently, Tamlute, in Midnapore district, West Bengal) in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This is from the first century AD, and the icon is not that of Durga. It was only natural for the people of the eastern state to accept Durga and assimilate it in their lifestyle.”

Swami Harshananda, of Ramakrishna Math, in his book, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, says, “Lion, the royal beast, her mount, represents the best in animal creation. It can also represent the greed for food, and hence the greed for other objects of enjoyment which inevitably leads to lust. To become divine (Devatva) one should keep one’s animal instinct under complete control. This seems to be the lesson we can draw from the picture of the Simhavahini (the rider of the lion).”


Photo Caption: A rare image of Mahisasur-Mardini Durga from the 5th AC found at Chadrashala, M.P. Preserved at Allahabad Museum.

Photo Credit: Bhaswati Bhattacharya.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of the three-day long special feature on Durga Puja. During this time, our regular columns are being put on hold. Furthermore, there will be a three-day long Puja Holidays at Different Truths – a longish weekend from Friday (Sept 29) to Sunday (Oct 1). We resume rejuvenated from Monday (Oct 2) to bring to you all our regular issues from Tuesday (Oct 3).

On Day One (Sept 26), we bring to you Chennai-based Sumita Dutta’s, Durga Puja: A Five-day Extravaganza of Food, Feast, Fun, and Frolic. The author gives us an overview of the Durga Puja and its nitty-gritty. 

Dubai-based Susmita Bhattacharya walks down the memory lane, when she was just six or seven-year-old and had returned to Kolkata from South America, in her article, Durga Puja Nostalgia: Opening an Old Album and the Paroxysms of Emotions.

Sutapa Basu, a Delhi-based prominent editor, writer and poet, pens a soulful verse about two Durgas, a mortal and the Divine Goddess, in her poem, Ode to Devi Durga.

We close Day One, with an invocation from Shail Raghuvanshi, in her poem, The Mother.

On Day Two (Sept 27) our lead story is, Taaru-da, Kaalu-da and the Banquet Scene, by Allahabad-based Neelum Saran Gour, a celebrated writer and a professor of English, in Allahabad University. She recapitulates a play directed by her grandfather, during Durga Puja, replete with humour.

Ohio, Columbus-based Anumita Chatterjee Roy, our Managing Editor, travels back to her childhood days, in her nostalgic piece, The Bengali Fever Called Durga Pujo.

Hyderabad-based Sarika Sarkar Das, also looks back to the days past, in her childhood and growing up years and shares with us her impression of Kumortuli, in her write-up, Man Creates God in Kumortuli.

We close the day with two poems, Durga: The Fort, by Chandigarh-based Lily Swarn, and The Supernova, by Lopamudra Banerjee, a feminist poet, who presently lives in Dallas, Texas.

We open Day Three (Sept 28), with Hyderabad-based Tapati Sinha’s witty piece, Live from Kailash, wherein she describes the family man Shiva and Durga’s interactions with him.

In, Looking Forward, Looking Back: Durga Puja in my Eyes, Kolkata-based lawyer, Vedatrayee Dutta, reminisces of Durga Pujo and tells us what it means to her, now.

Delhi-based Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh Ruchira remembers Durga Pujo of her childhood days. She tells us about the slow and sure changes that are taking place, for various reasons, in the celebrations, in her article, Durga Pujo in Delhi: Then and Now.

We close the special feature with three poems. Kolkata-based Deeya Dey Bhattacharya, pens, Durga, the Matri Shakti, invoking the Goddess with sensibilities of a feminist poet. A socially responsive Kolkata poet, Kabir Deb’s verse, Spiritual, not Religious…, makes us pause and think. Last but not the least, Rita Bhattacharjee’s poem, Annual Nirvana, cuts through our complacent, taken-for-granted-everyday-life. We find the compassionate soul of the social activist from Kolkata in her verse.

Durga, by turn, is our daughter and mother. Her vulnerability and strength mishmash in the collective consciousness. Here’s wishing you all fun, frolic, and joy for the ongoing Autumnal festivities from the ever-growing Different Truths family.

©Arindam Roy

Photos from the internet.

#DurgaPuja #DurgaPujaSpecial #AncientStories #KnowingDurga #MahisasurMardiniDurga #HistoryOfDurga #DifferentTruths

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