Most of the subordinate female divinities in Hindu pantheon are either Mahavidyas or Matrikas who are usually ten and seven in number, but sometimes for attributing authoritative status to those proliferated under Tantrika cult these numbers were expanded and such divinities were classed as either of them. However, Gayatri and Tripura-sundari, the two often painted female deities of Indian art, to whom even a few independent shrines are dedicated, are neither Mahavidyas nor Matrikas. Though a body of minor kind of myths has cropped up around them both, their origin is obscure. As for Gayatri, the goddess seems to personify ‘Shakti’ that manifests in ‘mantra’. As the Vedic Gayatri ‘mantra’ is the crux of the entire body of ‘mantras’, the tradition attributed to the deity-form personifying the ‘Shakti’ of ‘mantra’ as Gayatri.
A more often quoted myth in regard to Gayatri relates to Brahma. The Puranas allude to her as one of the consorts of Brahma. It is said that once Brahma was performing a ‘yajna’. He had nominated his other consort Swara to preside over the ‘yajna’ along him. However, when the auspicious moment to begin it arrived, Swara was not found anywhere. Brahma hence asked Gayatri to sit along him for the performance of ‘yajna’ and proceeded. In the mean time Swara arrived. Infuriated she looked at Gayatri and cursed her to turn into a river. Thus, Gayatri is seen as personifying simultaneously three divine aspects : the ‘Shakti’ of the Gayatri-mantra, a sacred river, and accomplishment of ‘yajna’. It is for such divine status of Gayatri that she is sometimes represented as an aspect of the Supreme Female Divinity, and even Kali and Saraswati are represented as paying her homage.
In this manifestation Gayatri is represented in her same supreme deity manifestation, that is, as the embodiment of all feminine potentials of gods in one form. Ten celestial females with various attributes in their hands attending upon her attest this supreme status of Gayatri. With her five faces, painted in five different colours : pale white, red, golden yellow, mauve, and pink, she manifests five constituents of cosmos – the five cosmic elements. She is seated on a large lotus laid over a goose that she is riding. A third eye on her forehead reveals her Shaivite identity. In her hands she is carrying Brahma’s rosary, Shiva’s trident, goad, demon-head and crescent, and Vishnu’s disc and conch; it is however in the lotuses, the attribute of Mahalakshmi, that she is holding in two of her hands in a form that they comprise a shrine-like arch, that her Mahalakshmi links prominently reveal. Clad in white costume printed with green floral motifs she is wearing a common crown with nine crests covering her all five heads.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.