101 AD - 1500

River Goddesses in Sculptural Art of India

American Institute of Indian Studies

The mighty rivers of the Indian sub-continent namely the Ganga, the Yamuna, (represented standing on their vahana- makara and  kurma)  and the now lost Sarasvati, personified as goddesses and depicted as such in the sculptural art of India, form a prominent backdrop as well as the essence of this Photo-exhibition.


Map of South Asia showing select archaeological and historical sites where River goddesses are depicted in the Sculptural art of India.

Confluence of three rivers (Triveni sangama).

Cascading down from the lofty Himalayas or originating gently in the pristine forested plateaus of the Indian sub-continent, the Rivers of India have sustained, nurtured, and helped blossom a plethora of forms of life from times immemorial. They have catered to the swings and swifts, both natural and man-made, of not just the human life but those of flora and fauna too that is bound together in an intricate and symbiotic manner.

Vishnu rescuing earth goddess Prithvi

The visual material (drawn upon from the Photo-archival holdings of the American Institute of Indian Studies) displayed here on a very select basis, comes from the historical sites and locales of Indo-Gangetic doab, central, western, southern, and eastern parts of India.

The select panels, ranging in linear time scale from the 2nd century A.D. to the 16th century A.D., and emanating from varied archaeological, historical, and architectural contexts portray the Indian concepts of Rivers as personified goddesses with their highly signifying associated attributes

Confluence of three rivers (Triveni sangama)

Doorframe depicting river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna

Descent of the celestial Ganga (Gangatavarana)

Siva as Gangadhara (receiving Ganga in Tripathaga and Trisrotas form)

The cultures and communities of India that have shaped their destinies along the banks, basins, and valleys of these innumerable rivers have reverentially and bewitchingly celebrated the “Sustainer of life” in myriad ways.

Umasahita- Siva receiving Ganga (in Tripathaga and Trisrotas form) onto his jatas (locks)

Ganga and Yamuna with attendant figures, as Siva's dvarapalikas (door-guardians)

The mythology, the folklore, the literature, the festivals and rituals, and the many art forms of India dealing with the concept of "River" (the flowing Water) have intensely endeavored to conceive, comprehend, and capture the rhythmic and cyclical bond as also the interplay between the "River" (the flowing water), the associated forms of life and their vital interdependency.

Siva releasing Ganga from his locks (Gangavisarjanamurti)

Ganga complying with the wishes of Vasus (Ganga as Tripathaga)

Ganga received in the water vessel of sage Jahnu and released again through his ear to flow from the Himalaya (Ganga as Jahnavi)

The Indian architects, sculptors, and artisans were very much a part and parcel of this overarching conceptual ambit.

Sarasvati, seated in ardhaparyankasana

Sarasvati with attendant figures

Yamuna, standing on her vahana kurma (with attendant figures)

Yamuna, standing on her vahana kurma (with attendant figures)

Ganga standing on her vahana makara (with attendant figures)

Ganga standing on her vahana makara (with attendant figures)

Doorframe depicting river goddesses Ganga (with Saiva pratihara)

Doorframe depicting river goddesses Yamuna(with Saiva pratihara)

Yamuna, as dvarapalika, accompanied by a camaradharini and gana

Ganga, as dvarapalika, accompanied by a camaradharini

River goddess shrine with the images of Sarasvati, Ganga and Yamuna

Doorframe depicting river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna

Yamuna, as dvarapalika, with attendant figures

Ganga, as dvarapalika, with attendant figures

Ganga as a celestial nati (dancer)

Ganga with attendant figures, on her vahana makara flanked by Vaisnava pratiharas

Yamuna with attendant figures, on her vahana kurma flanked by Vaisnava pratiharas

Doorframe depicting river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna with attendant figures

Descent of the celestial Ganga (Gangatavarana)

Yamuna, as dvarapalika, accompanied by a gana

Ganga, as dvarapalika, accompanied by a gana

Siva as nataraja with wavy pattern of jatas (showing Ganga in Bhujanga and taranga combination)

Ganga releasing lustral waters through a perforated kalasa

Ganga as Suranimnaga (heavenly stream) under the Kalpa tree

Ganga and Yamuna as dvarapalikas (door-guardians) of Siva-Mahesa.

While each sculptural panel symbolically captures the sanctity and the sacredness associated with the “River” (the flowing Water), can the India of the 21st century, “progressing” rapidly in a globalized world, pause for a moment and introspect how are we treating our Rivers that have sustained us for the last two million years of our history?

Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies
Credits: Story

River Goddesses in Sculptural Art of India is drawn from the photo archives of the Center for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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