400 AD - 1320

Ganga on Makara: River on the Doorways

American Institute of Indian Studies

River Goddess in her Journey from Myths to Temples

According to a story in Puranas, the Sage Bhagiratha through his penance led to descent of the goddess Ganga on Earth for the salvation of his ancestors in accordance with traditions. Ganga was therefore called Bhagirathi.
This rock cut panel from Mahabalipuram gives the graphic detail of this Puranic story.

The sage Bhagiratha standing on one leg and performing penance to bring down the river Ganga from heaven. According to the Puranic lore, moksh i.e. liberation of the ancestors could be achieved by the purifying ability of the river Ganga.

Puranas tell the story of god Siva, the destroyer who contained the divine river Ganga in his matted hair as she descended with fury. Siva thus mitigated her descent to the Earth.

Siva is also called Gangadhara, upholder of Ganga. Siva releasing Ganga from his locks and broke her flow into seven streams.

Naga kings and queens ready to receive Ganga in anjali mudra, i.e. with folded hands. Both Nagas and Ganga have water as a common element therefore sometimes seen together. Nagas who lived in patala i.e. the underworld receive Ganga with reverence.

The story of Ganga's descent continues with Ganga flowing with fury, is about to ravage the ashrama of rishi Jahnu and the sage drank Ganga. Later with divine intervention he released her through his ear. Hence Ganga is called Jahanvi.

From the divine river goddess of the Puranic stories in temple architecture Ganga is seen as a doorkeeper along with Yamuna. Ganga is on Makara while Yamuna is on kurma i.e. tortoise.

Ganga is mounted on a Makara i.e. crocodile. Forms of Makara is beautifully carved, although a much feared animal. Its decorations change with time and region.

This sculpture from Aurangabad has a Makara with floral pattern. The Makara was supposed to be embody the life-giving powers of the goddess.

Here Ganga as the doorkeeper is carved along with a Chhatra i.e. parasol which is an auspicious symbol.

She holds a Ghata, a pot. As a doorkeeper she was probably believed to purify people who would enter the sanctum.

Ganga as dvarapala i.e. doorkeeper, is mounted on a exclusively carved Makara and accompanied by a gana, a dwarf who represents growth. This imagery of life threatening and life giving aspects together with Ganga represents the river in her true form.

The form of Ganga is little varied as besides being surrounded by attendants, she also has a Chhatra, the parasol, which symbolises divinity.

Ganga on the carved doorway beautifies the entrance besides as a guardian she wards off evil as well as marks it different from domestic architecture.

In the 8th century, Mukhalingam temple in Andhra Pradesh a serene Ganga can be seen. Mounted on a well carved crocodile and surrounded with attendants, Ganga holds a pot. One attendant holds the parasol.

This tenth century sculpture has a bejewelled Ganga with attendants. Ganga according to legends has life giving properties. A purna-kumbha, a full vase, a symbol of creativity and abundance.

Ganga as a resplendent doorkeeper is a common feature in early temple architecture. Well ornamented, the divine goddess beautifies as well as purifies the temple. The myths record her descent from heaven. In temple architecture as a dvarapala, she marks out the holiness of the structure.

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

Dr. Shatarupa Bhattacharya, Assistant Professor, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi.

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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