Devi in Art: How Indian Art Traditions Honor Goddesses

Article of the Month - Apr 2024

This article by Prakriti Anand (Prakriti is currently pursuing her PhD in Ancient Indian History from the University of Delhi. She has worked with organizations in the spheres of heritage, art, and history and wants to continue contributing to the field of culture.

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Hindu-Shakta traditions tell us that the entire universe, time, life, and death emerged from the primordial mother, the Adi Shakti. She becomes Jagadammba or mother of the world to birth creation, she becomes Saraswati to inspire creativity, and Lakshmi to nurture life. It is to pay respects to Her, that Hindu society celebrates Navaratri, the festival of goddess.

As Navaratri arrives, every devotee observing the nine nights of the goddess begins preparing to welcome and worship Durga and her various forms. From brass, copper, bronze, stone, and wood statues to paintings of the great goddess in her different aspects, Navaratri highlights the ways in which Hindu culture remembers and celebrates Devi.

Going back to the ancient period, when the divinity of the goddess was represented through powerful symbols and simple iconography, Indian art has a plethora of ways in which Devi is commemorated. Looking at a few gems from Indian paintings, this article memorializes how Indian art traditions honor Hindu goddesses.

Rajput Paintings: A Vision of Shakti


With splendid colors, soft yet clear lines, and rich details, Rajput paintings shine differently in the treasure of Indian art. Some of the best examples of Devi’s presence in this school of Indian painting come from Basohli in the hilly terrains of Punjab.

Termed as “Tantric goddess series”, the paintings from Basohli are dedicated to the different warring aspects of Devi such as Varahi, Bhadrakali, Kalaratri, and Siddha Lakshmi.

Another tradition within Rajput paintings, the Kangra school also boasts a number of paintings from themes of Devi Bhagavatam, especially on the subject of Durga’s battle with Mahishasura, where the goddess with ten arms, riding her lion can be seen annihilating the demon.

Madhubani Paintings: From One Goddess to Another


From the home of goddess Sita and painted with the evocation of the great goddess by women who are considered auspicious, and a living form of goddess, Madhubani has a deep connection with Shakti.

The Tantric category of Madhubani painting practiced around Durga and her different forms draws from the Hindu-Tantric Shakta traditions, where Devi reigns supreme. In the simple vocabulary of Madhubani, the presence of the mother goddess is felt through the sacred colors of feminine- red, black, green, and yellow.

Mata Ni Pachedi: Goddesses as Protector


“That which hangs behind or peeche, the goddess or Mata”. As the name of this folk art from Gujarat suggests, this tradition bloomed and revolves around the great goddess, who is endearingly called “Mata” or mother in different parts of India.

These scroll paintings made of cotton with natural colors are unique artwork, carrying stories of local mother goddesses such as Bahuchara Ji (protectress of transgender people), Visat Mata (mother with bees or twenty hands), Vahanvati Mata (she who guards ships and travelers), alongside Hindu goddesses such as Durga, Lakshmi and Kali.

Made by the Vagharis as a substitute for the temple where they were not allowed to set foot, Mata Ni Pachedi shows the love and devotion of followers of Shakti, whose affection for their Mata cannot be hindered by any worldly rules.

Tantra Paintings: The Aniconic Devi

Tantra paintings historically are some of the oldest occult sacred art forms, which use symbols and syllables to create diagrams on the ground or other material, representing the powers and presence of Shakti.

In Hindu-Tantra, Devi or goddess is at the center of all rituals, the sovereign of Sri Yantra which is the most powerful Yantra or device and the source of energies for all gods and goddesses.

Tantric paintings are created by individuals initiated in the tradition by masters, with appropriate colors, materials,s and mediation to formulate effective devices.

Tantric paintings are usually dedicated to Matrikas (mother goddesses), Mahavidyas (the great wisdom goddesses), and other popular forms of the goddesses such as Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasaraswati, and are worshipped with special goals in mind.

Pattachitra Paintings: Ode of East to its Goddesses


A collective of Hindu, folk, local, and Tantric aspects of the great goddess appears in the timeless language of Pattachitra paintings, a symbol of the richness of goddess tradition in Odisha and the eastern part of India.

Being the tutelary deity of kings in the early medieval period, goddesses are an eternal presence on the canvas of Pattachitra, mostly represented as Mahishasuramardini, Kali, Lakshmi, and Saraswati for popular worship, but also as Matrikas, Mahavidyas and in a comparatively rare but mesmerizing form as “Krishna-Kali”, the half Krishna, half goddess form which originated in the oral-folk tradition of Orissa and Bengal.

Mysore Paintings: Splendor of Mahishasuramardini


Glimmering details, perfected lines, and mind-blowing details, Mysore paintings are one of the most regal and aesthetically rich depictions of the great goddess in Hindu art. Patronized by rulers of Mysore, the art form celebrates the local legends according to which Mysore was controlled by Mahishasura in the early times.

To put an end to his reign, Devi Parvati became the goddess Chamunda-Durga and descended to the earth. Paying obeisance to the great goddess Mahishasuramardini, Mysore paintings remember her as Durga and also as Parvati, the supreme mother whose compassion and powers protected the city and its people from the buffalo demon.

Tanjore Paintings: Golden Tales of Goddess


In the golden iconography of Tanjore or Thanjavur art, the great goddess and all her aspects find an awe-inspiring visualization.

Placed in homes as miniature temples, Tanjore paintings depict the Tirtha or pilgrimage spots associated with Devi with the archa or worshipped image at the center or present beautiful forms of Devi as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati inspired from the stories of Puranas and hymns of sacred Hindu texts.

Traditional colors, pure teakwood frames, and 24-karat gold used in these paintings add to the luster of Devi, amplifying the experience of darshana (seeing) of her roopa in the idiom of Tanjore.

Sikh Paintings: Warriors Worshipping the Goddess


The rulers of the Sikh kingdom were warriors throughout their lives, battling with the forces of the enemy from a young age. For success in battles, they sought the blessings of goddess Durga, who is a cosmic warrior and the most ferocious one at that.

Several masterpiece paintings from the Sikh period, with beautiful details of Hindu tradition and devotion of the rulers depict kings such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh, prepared for battle and standing in front of Devi, who is seated on the throne, armed, as the symbol of supreme sovereignty and strength.

Conclusion

From a long list of traditional and folk-art forms that revere and remember the great goddess, presented here is a hand-picked list to give us a sense of the universality of Devi.

Among other notable traditions are Thangkas from Nepal, particularly from the Newar culture which uses the meticulous brush and line work of the region to show goddesses such as Kaumari with Bhairava, Bhadrakali, Vajrayogini, and Vajravarahi as well as the gentle Laxmi, Saraswati and Vasudhara (earth goddess).


In the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition, the goddess is represented most commonly as Green Tara, the mother of Buddhas and compassion manifested, Red Tara, White Tara, and in Yab-Yum or mother-father pose, a depiction of a physical union between male and female deities resulting in cosmic events.

Another instance of Devi’s supremacy can be seen in Mughal miniatures, where medieval idiom meets ancient traditions, depicting worship of Durga who emerged as one of the most popular goddesses in medieval Hinduism.

Like the glories of the great goddess, a discussion on all the ways she is present in Indian art tradition is almost impossible to conduct. Every region, town, and even village in India has its own personal way of remembering her.

To some she is the massive sculpture placed at the heart of a royal Pandal, to others, she is the “Shreem” Beeja Mantra (seed syllable, dedicated to Lakshmi), but to all beings, human and others, She is Maa, the mother who is infallible and unfailing in providing protection and nourishment to her children.

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