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Various ancient texts have dealt with the legend of Durga killing Rakta-bija. As usual, there are also some variations in their accounts, however, those in Vamana Purana and Devi Bhagavata are more often pursued and considered more authentic. As these texts have it, Rakta-bija was variedly Rambha’s transform, as also the son and the minister of Mahisha, the buffalo demon; hence, the legend of Rakta-bija is entwined with the legend of Mahisha, a descendant of the demon king Danu. Danu had two sons, Rambha and Karambha who were without a son to continue the line. They, hence, decided to appease their Yaksha deity Malavata and obtain from him boons for sons. Rambha set himself amidst five fires, the same amidst which Parvati had accomplished penance for winning Shiva’s love. Karambha entered into deep waters. They thus began meditating upon their deity.
Indra, well aware of their designs, took to the form of a crocodile, dragged Karambha and killed him. After he heard of his brother's sad demise, Rambha too decided to end his life. But before he killed himself, Agni appeared into his vision and asked him not to commit suicide, which was a sin worse than killing others. Agni assured him that he would accomplish anything that he wished if he did not end his life. Hence, instead of choosing death, Rambha asked Agni for giving him a son who should be invincible in all three worlds against all men, all gods, and all demons. Agni granted the boon declaring that with whoever he first fell in love and wedded, she shall bear him the son as he desired.
On his way back, Rambha happened to see a beautiful she-buffalo and fell in love with her. He married her. After some time she conceived. Fearing that other buffalos might kill her, he took her to Patala loka – nether world. However, as destined, one day a buffalo, passionate to unite with Rambha's wife sexually, confronted Rambha and killed him. Rambha's wife, the she-buffalo, too, burnt herself with her husband. However, from the burning pyre, there emerged a figure, half man-half demon, who came to be known as Mahisha – one born of buffalo A transform of Rambha, sometimes claimed as Mahisha’s son and sometimes as Rambha’s mere transform, also emerged from the fire but was now known as Rakta-bija. Rakta-bija later meditated upon Shiva and won from him a boon to the effect that wherever a drop of his blood shall fall, the spot shall send back a Rakta-bija demon, and he shall keep multiplying.
When Durga killed Mahisha, Rakta-bija, along with Mahisha’s ministers Shumbha and Nishumbha and other demons, rose in arms against Durga. Durga in wrath knocked the earth, which each time produced a loud roar and from each roar appeared one of the Sapta-Matrikas : Brahmani riding her swan, Kumari riding her peacock, Vaishnavi riding Garuda, Maheshwari riding bull, Indrani riding Airavata, Narsimhi in her lioness form, and Varahi in boar form. They confronted different demons. Durga herself charged at Rakta-bija and wounded him grievously, but to her astonishment, his blood, as soon as it fell on the earth, reproduced a Rakta-bija demon from it and the number of Rakta-bija demons was only multiplying. Finally, Durga summoned Kali, in her form as Chamunda. She enormously extended her tongue and before a drop of Rakta-bija’s blood fell on the earth and transformed into a Rakta-bija demon, took on it and drank it. She also consumed all duplicate Rakta-bija demons and thus, turned the battle in Durga’s favour, and thus the gods were enormously relieved.
The painting does not include Sapta-Matrikas. Besides innumerable ants-like tiny figures reproduced of Rakta-bija’s blood, the painting portrays just three figures, the horribly massive form of Rakta-bija, lion-riding Ashtabhujadhari Durga carrying in her hands bow, arrow, sword, conch, mace, noose, spear and a multi-bladed trident-type weapon, and Kali with a tongue extended like a vessel huge enough to contain on it Rakta-bija and all forms produced of his blood. For symbolising his links with Mahisha’s buffalo-wife the artist has conceived his form with a pair of horns and a tail. Black-complexioned Kali’s emaciated figure has been conceived with her large pendulous breasts and semi-nude body. The agility with which Durga’s form has been conceived is amazing. She is charging at the demon with all her weapons and force of all hands in simultaneity. As swiftly moving is her mount, and all combined turn the tide in gods’ favour.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.