🐉 So, Elizabeth, as we were saying.
Mythology is always surrounded by a distinctive aura of mystery. Unlike historical records, which are verifiable and are subject to revision and scrutiny, mythology only grows more labyrinthine and deep with time. Its roots are shrouded in forgotten history; its stem and branches are nourished by a hundred diverse streams. Contemporary politics, cultural customs, food habits, linguistic styles, popular beliefs, unpopular notions – everything goes into the mix as mythology takes shape in the collective mind of an entire race. In could be said that there are individual recorders of mythology, but no individual author. Mythology is a product of the people.
One important thing about mythological stories is that they are not children’s literature. In the modern world, tales of gods and demons and flying horses and talking birds are the stuff of kids’ storybooks. But this is merely a recent phenomenon, a by-product of the industrial and scientific revolution. Originally, the tales of mythology used to be the great repository of ethical and moral values held in the shape of fable, allegory, and symbolism. Just as life was cruel and unforgiving, as indeed life is even now, the tales of mythology were deliberately uncompromising. They did not shy away from complex conundrums, or try to romanticize the bleakness of the human condition. All our strengths and weaknesses, virtues and sins, our frailties, peculiarities, and vanities, – they all found a place in these stories. The recorders of these tales did not aim to console, nor did they care about political correctness. They simply wrote life as they knew it.
So, in the mythology of every culture, we find a dazzling diversity of characters. There are some who are heroic, some who are strong. Some are wise, some foolish, some unfailingly noble, and some the very embodiment of debauchery. While retelling these stories for children, modern writers have to struggle with censoring a number of elements that are objectionable to present-day tastes – while at the same time retaining the subject matter of the tale. And why just children? – In every age, in an effort to popularize the stories, authors have reworked the tales to suit the taste of their readers as a whole.
If you go around India and explore our old monuments, you will be amazed by the boundless liberalism of those timeless artists whose names we do not know, but whose work endures on the walls of temples and shrines thousands of years old. There is no trace of affectation or narrow prudery; on every side, vivacity and candour reigns supreme, touching an artistic zenith. But during later periods in history, this freshness was slowly corrupted and replaced with artificiality. Art changed its form, and stories changed their content. This has been true in every century and every millennium – there’s no culture that is an exception. That is why there is no single, standard version of these tales.
The story of Durga that I told you has been reworked by me. I did not read this in a book, nor did I hear this from a priest. I put this story together based on my own doubts, questionings, and rationalizations. Certain things in the conventional version (that we have today) did not quite add up in my mind. I felt that there were certain holes in the story, certain weaknesses that needed to be addressed. Later, I kept coming across bits and pieces, both from history and from contemporary culture, that helped me piece together this alternative version – which I liked a lot better. Now, I will try to show you a few of these bits and pieces, which are clues – that Durga was not quite the nice-natured Mary Sue people make her out to be now; that she was originally a shockingly exceptional character.
The usual version of the tale prevalent today is easy to come across. It goes that Durga was created by the gods to kill Mahishasura, because they themselves were powerless to overcome him. She embodied their collective energy, but she was also greater than any of them. Beautiful and yet inspiring fear, Durga rode a lion and had many arms, each arm holding the special weapon of one of the gods, who gave them to her to use against Mahishasura. Durga met Mahishasura and his army in battle. She was winning. Angered at this, Mahishasura fought her himself, but could not beat her. He used his powers of magic, and in turn took the shape of a buffalo, an elephant, and a lion – attacking Durga in these forms. When this too failed, he took the shape of a handsome man and tried to charm her into a truce, but Durga simply laughed at his words. All this went on for nine days. On the tenth day, Mahishasura charged Durga again in the form of a buffalo. Durga leapt upon the beast and pushed him to the ground with her left leg, and then cut off its head. The demon tried to emerge in his true form again, but she drove her trident through his chest, killing him. – Because she was the killer of Mahishasura, she was given the name Mahishasura-mardini, and the feat of killing many other demons earned her the name Danava-dalani (Danava = demon.)
The first oddity I sensed in the story was these two names. You see, Mahishasur-mardini does not exactly mean ‘Killer of Mahishasur’; nor does Danava-dalani exactly mean ‘Killer of demons.’ Both suffixes -dalani and -mardini – have a more specific meaning. They come from the words dalan and mardan, which mean ‘trampling underfoot.’
And how could Durga have killed Mahishasura with weapons given to her by the gods? The same weapons had been ineffective on him before. No matter how much stronger she was, – the weapon itself would not hold up against the demon’s body.
When you consider these two glitches and try to figure out a solution, it makes a lot of sense to imagine that Durga had not, in fact, defeated Mahishasur in armed combat. It seems that it was a bout of physical wrestling, not a swordfight, that led to Mahishasura’s end. Durga did not kill him with weapons, but with her bare hands – or rather – bare feet.
In Indian classical dance, Durga is regarded as the patron goddess of Lasya, which is the female form of dancing (the male form of dancing is termed Tandava, and its patron is Shiva.) Durga has been shown, in countless representations, as a dancer in action as she puts Mahishasura to death. There is an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts known as Capoeira that combines dance and fighting. That dates back only to the 16th century, but could Durga have used a similar style of wrestling that was unique to her, one that significantly involved dance in it? – It certainly would have been more dramatic to do so.
If we consider that the characters of mythology are based on real-life communities and legendary local figures, it is possible to relate certain plot elements in the stories to actual history. We have already talked about how the evolution of the Aryan lifestyle resulted in the shift of focus from the Sun-god to the Rain-god. The identity of Mahishasura and Durga can be theorized upon as well.
When the Aryans entered India, it was a period of southward expansion for them. By and large, they were winning. Imagine, at this point, that their progress is challenged by a native ruler. A ruler so powerful and ruthless that the Aryans soon found themselves on the retreat, unable to match up to this opponent in any way. This ruler, the chief of a powerful forest tribe, was notorious for his warlike temperament and frightful strength. In Africa, the Masai had a tradition of single-handedly killing a wild lion to prove one’s manliness. This tribal king, it would seem, was known for his ability to wrestle and kill wild buffaloes with his bare hands, – which earned him the title – ‘Buffalo-King.’
The native king (let’s just call him Mahishasura from now on,) after proving his strength against the Aryan hordes, went on to expand his borders. He took over his neighbouring kingdoms and brought them under his own rule. Furthermore, he proceeded to interfere in the native tribes of the northern mountains, too. But the northerners were proud and independent. They resisted the southerner king’s advances. Mahishasura, in order to make short work of the matter, challenged the chief of the mountain tribes to one-on-one combat. In the match, Mahishasura not only beat his opponent, but he broke his body in a brutal manner, simply to prove a point. From now on, no one should even think of standing up to him. – He won the allegiance of the mountain tribes by this, but he also earned their undying hate.
Consider, now, the situation we have at hand. The Aryans have been stopped in their tracks. Mahishasura has established himself as the undisputed master of the land. The mountain tribes are living in shame and anger, looking for a way to avenge their honour.
In situations like this, weaker parties will often come together in a truce and sign a pact of unity, agreeing to fight the common enemy together. So imagine that the tribes of the north mountains met with the Aryans, the political union being sealed with a marriage, as was the custom in the old days. A princess of the Aryans was given in marriage to the high chieftain of the hill people. And imagine that in time this royal couple had a daughter, who was a daughter of the mountains, a daughter of the parvata, – and she was called Parvati.
She must have been a unique physical specimen among her people, because in her, the traits of the Aryans and the hill people combined. On the one hand, she inherited the tall, statuesque build of the Aryans; and on the other, she inherited the stamina and the tenacious musculature of the mountain folks. As she grew up, she took to being an athlete and a fighter, alongside other things. Her tribe helped her train, moulding her into a secret weapon no one could expect – the final and ultimate answer to Mahishasura.
Remember Kung Fu Panda? In the film, you had Monkey, Viper, Tigress, Mantis and Crane – elite warriors who made up the Furious Five. Actually, each of these characters represents a particular style of kung fu, – monkey style, snake style, tiger style, mantis style and crane style. The styles themselves draw inspiration from the physical movements of these animals, as observed by ancient masters; the film builds upon the concept by designing these characters as the animals themselves. Now, likewise, doesn’t it make sense to propose that Mahishasur’s ‘shapeshifting’ into different animals is actually a reference to the various styles of fighting he was using against Durga? He was a master of hand-to-hand combat himself; he would surely have employed all his skills to beat a formidable opponent. And Durga must have countered them all with her own unique style of dance-fighting, one she had developed over years under the tutelage of her tribe.
If we theorize about the timeline and their comparative age, it tends to fit the story as well. Mahishasura could have been as young as twenty when he took over as a king; Alexander had set out on his campaign at about the same age. With that in mind, Durga could be a woman in her early twenties when she meets a Mahishasur in his forties in physical combat.
In addition to all this, there was another stray observation that seemed to justify my story. It was a matter of anatomy and physiology. – If you study the peoples of the Himalayan region, you would notice that due to adaptative trends, they tend to have rather muscular calves. It’s a genetic thing with them, man and woman alike. Probably it is a dominant trait that endured because of the mountainous region they inhabit, which causes them to climb altitudes a lot more than people from the plains, – and climbing (any walking or running up a slope, actually) requires strong calves. But calves may be used for things other than walking. It’s the calf muscles that you use when you trample something.
And of course, it is well known that women, compared to men, can muster more strength in their lower bodies because of the structure of their pelvis. For men, it is the upper body that is relatively stronger, the arms and the chest; for women, it is their legs. The pattern plays out all the time around us – too many men strut around with massive torsos and toothpick legs, and a number of women sport powerful legs while having an unimpressive upper physique.
I was pretty satisfied at this version of the tale, when something else struck my mind. Scholars are well in agreement about the dressing norms that were prevalent in those times. In pre-Vedic times, for example, the normal attire of the women was a very scanty skirt, up to knee-length or so, leaving the waist bare. In the Vedic period, both men and women wore single-cloth garments, one lower and one upper, which were wrapped and draped around the body in different ways. Stitched clothing does not come into the picture until the Mauryan period (c. 300-100 BCE.) – This means that the modern-day image of goddesses clad in elaborate blouse-and-saree clothes is but a very recent fabrication by modern-day artists. And these artists, almost as a rule, were all heavily influenced by Victorian standards of morality. Added to the Victorian mindset was a decidedly Semitic outlook about sexuality, one that regards anything sexual as sinful and taboo. – As a result, the original features of the goddess called Durga were disregarded and lost, at least from popular sight.
The present-day Durga – as you find her on television screens and dance reality shows, as she appears in calendar-paintings and public pandals during festivals, as she is described in children’s storybooks and sermons by old religious men – is not the Durga we have been exploring here in our discussion. The present-day Durga dresses in expensive sarees and designer vests – like a posh society-lady at a mall or a wedding. She speaks and acts conservatively, always plays by the rulebook, and at the beginning and the end of the day – affirms her identity as a wife and a mother, above anything else. This is a far cry from the spirited girl who took on a fight with the fiercest warrior of the day and won. Durga used to be the ultimate example of female power and independence; today she is a symbol of female orthodoxy and traditionality. Patriarchal society has taken the wild mountain stream, dammed it, and turned it into a city canal.
Why would a goddess who embodies beauty, strength and sexuality approach her would-be victim in a modest-looking attire?
Take a look at these works of sculpture from ancient India. Do you see how outrageously bold they are?
Durga is not a traditionalist, conservative woman, dressed like a bride, riding on a lion and going off to kill the demon! She is not someone who seems to depend on a multitude of weapons to overwhelm an unbeatable adversary! She doesn’t look at all like the typical ‘good woman’ of our cliched educational stories. She looks very, very different. One is shocked at how different she looks in these antique works of art.
In the very oldest statue that is available to us (c. 100-200 CE, Mathura,) Durga is not using any weapons at all. She is bodily holding the buffalo and breaking its spine with the strength of her arms. In the statue at the Udaygiri Caves, she bears arms, but the sheer physicality of how she is killing the demon is chilling: she is pulling the buffalo up by its hindleg, and stepping on its head with her foot, almost breaking its neck, or skull. The trident has pierced the beast, but it takes only a glance to tell us the dominant cause of its agonizing death.
In the famous idol at Aihole, Durga can be seen as a jubilant lady standing over a pleading buffalo, one of her legs raised and the foot placed on the animal’s back. In the way of garments, she wears almost nothing, her breasts rising proudly proclaiming her unquestionable femininity. A trident pierces the buffalo in the chest. The lion looks like a bystander with no real work to do.
A most remarkable work can be seen at the Mahishasuramardini Cave temple in Mahabalipuram. The battle scene is not very exceptional in itself – the surprise lies elsewhere. At the centre of this piece, right in front of Durga’s lion, there can be seen a scantily-clothed warrior-girl, kneeling and raising her sword overhead to attack her prey. If you go closer and take a good look at this girl’s midsection, you will notice a set of rippling six-pack abs. – This is not the only instance of explicit athleticism shown on these women. There are Durga statues from both Rajasthan (c. 900 CE, Ambika Mata Mandir) and Bengal (c. 800-900 CE, Pala art; c. 1100-1200 CE, Bangladesh) that let on a toned midriff, one that you’d expect on the goddess of dance. Once again in these, Durga seems to exert tremendous physical force on the dying demon, wrestling and twisting it into submission with her raw strength.
There are instances that are shocking due to other reasons. Take the statue from Sirpur, Chattisgarh (c. 700-800 CE.) In this one, Durga is pulling at the left leg of the demon with one arm, and with another, she is pushing the right leg to a horribly wrong angle. With her own left foot, she is pressing down on Mahishasura’s right leg – the posture is almost painful to look at. Her right foot is squashing his left arm to the ground. Mahishasura seems to have the lion in a chokehold with his right arm – but to no avail, since Durga has pinned that arm of his with the pressure of her left foot. It’s an unbelievable portrayal of visceral violence and pure muscular power. Finally, she has plunged her trident into the demon’s groin, and the artist has put a satisfied smile on her face.
Honestly, it is beyond the scope of this letter to break down the portrayals in each one of these statues and deduce what they mean. It would be too long, too complex, and in some cases simply pointless, since you cannot understand it unless you actually look at the sculpture and think about what you’re seeing.
Before I close, let me throw in a small number of contemporary idols of Durga too, for good measure. I picked these, because while they don’t match the ancient works in sheer visceral force, they show enough artistic courage to portray Durga not as a gracious court-lady, but as a woman who carries herself with pride and sexual assertion. In the end, you’ll find a handful of contemporary art pieces, each one expressing Durga in a different way. There’s one that is quite akin to the ancient sculptures – although (unsurprisingly) that’s the one with the narrowest audience.
So, shall we close here, then?
I guess we might as well. There’s a lot more to be said, a lot more to be discussed and explored, of course. But this much will serve as an adequate launchpad.
Hope to see you again soon. Until then – auf Wiedersehen! 🦕
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List of sculptures and art featured in this post:
Dancer c. 1200-1300 CE, Chennakesava temple, Hoysala art, Karnataka
Dancer c. 1200-1300 CE, Chennakesava temple, Hoysala art, Karnataka
Durga, painting by Shilpi Sri Siddalingaswamy, Mysore
Durga c. 100-200 CE, Mathura
Durga c. 401 CE, cave 6, Udayagiri Caves, Gupta art, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh
Durga c. 500-600 CE, India – Matrika Murti
Durga c. 600-700 CE, Aihole Durga Mandir, Badami Chalukya art, Karnataka
Durga c. 600-700 CE, Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple, Pallava art, Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu
Durga c. 650-900 CE, entrance of Ellora Cave No. 29, Maharashtra
Durga c. 685-705 CE, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram, Tamilnadu
Durga c. 700-800 CE, Odisha, India [Philadelphia Museum of Art]
Durga c. 700-800 CE, Sirpur Chhattisgarh temple ruins
Durga c. 700-900 CE, Papanatha temple, Karnataka
Durga c. 750 CE, Vaital Deul temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha
Durga c. 750-850 CE, Gujarapratihara (Madhya Pradesh)
Durga c. 800-1000 CE, Kashmir or Himachal Pradesh
Durga c. 800-900 CE, Bhola Nandeeshwara temple, Chola art, Karnataka
Durga c. 800-900 CE, Kashmir
Durga c. 800-900 CE, Madhya Pradesh, Saptamatrika
Durga c. 800-900 CE, Pala art, Bengal
Durga c. 800-900 CE, Siyali Bhairavi, Tanjore
Durga c. 850-900 CE
Durga c. 850-900 CE, Rajasthan [Los Angeles]
Durga c. 900 CE, Ambika Mata mandir, Māru-Gurjara art, Rajasthan
Durga c. 900-1000 CE, granite, India
Durga c. 1000-1100 CE, Ambarnath Shiva temple, Maharashtra
Durga c. 1000-1100 CE, Kalinga art, Chengamedu, Tamilnadu
Durga c. 1000-1100 CE, Rani-ki-Vav, Gujarat
Durga c. 1100-1200 CE, Bangladesh
Durga c. 1100-1200 CE, Western Chalukya art
Durga c. 1100-1300 CE, Kadamba dynasty, Archaeological Museum, Old Goa
Durga c. 1200-1300 CE, Chennakesava temple, Hoysala art, Karnataka
Durga c. 1200-1300 CE, East Java
Durga c. 1200-1300 CE, Karnataka
Durga c. 1200-1300 CE, Odisha
Durga c. 1240-60 CE, Hoysala art
Durga c. 1300-1400 CE, bronze
Durga c. 1600-1700 CE, Kerala
Durga, Dulmi, Manbhum [taken by Joseph David Beglar in 1872-73]
Durga, temple, Rajasthan
Contemporary Durga sculpture and artwork has been collected from around the internet.
* All images have been edited into grayscale to match the aesthetic of this blog. I do not own the copyright to these images.