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In its theme as well as form the painting reveals strange adherence to Puranic texts. The Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana and Vishnudharmottara Purana are the earliest texts to allude to the goddess and to the myth represented in the painting. Greater emphasis of Vishnudharmottara Purana is on the form of the goddess. Though the attributes that the goddess is carrying in her hands are not the same as Vishnudharmottara Purana prescribes, she has, however, the same ten-armed form and anatomical vision as the text perceives. The Vishnudharmottara Purana directs to cast the image of the goddess carrying in right side hands ‘shakti’, ‘chakra’ – disc, ‘bana’ – arrow, ‘shula’ – spear, and ‘khadga’ – sword, and in those on the left, orb of the moon, ‘khetak’ – shield, ‘kapala’ –skull, bow and lotus. Except ‘bana’ and ‘khadga’ in the right side hands, and bow, in one on the left, other attributes in her right hands are conch, noose and shield, and on the left, trident, mace, bell and goad. The shield is carried on the right side, not on left. In the type of the crown and ornaments the artist has followed broadly the prescription of Vishnudharmottara Purana.
The painting is outstanding in the depiction of force which most powerfully reflects in her act of striking upon the demon and in killing him. This powerful image of the Great Goddess shooting at the buffalo demon an arrow and striking him with her trident reveals rare force and divine energy. Her dynamically moved arms, weapons flung into space, body-language of her mount lion and its upwards shot tail and the boisterous sound of her bell, besides the far-flung animal’s severed head, all portray motion and force with which she overpowers the demon. As is the iconographic convention the demon’s human form has been delineated as emerging out of the decapitated figure of the buffalo which symbolises the demon’s identity as Mahisha – buffalo. The buffalo, completely baffled by the goddess’ sudden strike, has lost his grip over the situation and lies motionless and completely overpowered. A sublime force and the divine energy define the act of the goddess, whereas completely baffled and dismayed the helpless and frightened demon meekly surrenders to her, as if his destiny.
The Devi-Mahatmya attributes the act of killing Mahishasura to Mahalakshmi, though in later tradition his elimination is unanimously attributed to Devi, in her form as Durga. As reveals scriptural tradition, once a demon, named Mahisha for the reason of having the appearance of Mahisha, meaning buffalo, performed great penance and propitiated Brahma who bestowed on him the boon that no male, man or beast, would ever be able to kill him. Turned highly ambitious and arrogant, Mahisha began inflicting cruelties on all. He overthrew all earthly kings and invaded heaven and ousted Indra from his seat and all gods from Indraloka – their abode. Later, Brahma disclosed to them how Mahisha had won from him the boon of invincibility against all male – gods, men or beasts, though he said that such immunity did not cover a female form. With Brahma they went to Shiva and Vishnu and after due deliberations they decided to create out of their own powers and attributes a female form. After such female divinity was created out of their divine lustre each god bestowed on her his power, attributes and weapons. All gods bowed to her in reverence, Thereafter, sage Narada disclosed to her the gods’ errand and prayed her to redeem them of their sad plight. The Goddess delightfully accepted the prayer and later in a fierce war killed the buffalo demon Mahisha. This warrior form of the goddess is popularly called Durga, and as she killed Mahisha, as Mahishasura-Mardini. This form of Devi as Mahishasura-Mardini is a unique blend of feminine beauty and sublime force and has been the most popular theme of all visual arts.
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.