An exposition on Mother Goddess in Indian Art.

By Indian Museum, Kolkata

Indian Museum Kolkata

Durga (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata


The worship of the female principle representing motherhood, fertility, creation as well as destruction is an age-old system in the religious life of the people of India. Throughout the history of the world civilization the domination of the female feminine principle in the process of creation was most obvious. The Great Civilizations like Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, etc. have bequeathed to us a heritage of the Mother Cult.

The proto-historic Harappan Civilization also yielded the earliest positive evidence of the existence of the worship of this female principle in the form of numerous clay female figurines and representation of the same on several seals. The early Vedic literature, although speaks of the dominance of male gods but does not altogether discard existence of their female counterparts. Goddesses like Usha, Ila, Sarasvati, Aditi, Prithvi, Raka, among others though were conceived as the wives, daughters or the beloved of the male gods, but collectively they personify such abstract attributes as abundance and nourishment. It is well known that the Durgastrotra of the Mahabharata and the Aryastava outline the various constituent underlying the principal cult picture of the developed nature of the Mother cult later on came to be known as Saktism. References to the tribes like the Savaras, Barbaras and Pulindas of worshipping the female principle is found in the Aryastava. Here she is described as Apama (not covered with even a leaf garment), Naga Savari (naked Savara woman) and Pama Savari (Leaf clad Savara woman) and as the great saviouress from terrors like captivity, wilderness, drowning, harassment from the robbers as also great forests.

Earth Goddess (Ca 5th-4th Century B.C.E)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Earth Goddess
The Earth Goddess carved on a gold leaf was found with a small deposit of human bones inside a funeral mound at Lauriya in the district of Champaran. The excavations were conducted by N.G.Majumdar in March,1905, and the identification of the female figure as Prithivi, the Earth Goddess, has been made with the help of a verse in the Rigveda.

Standing Yakshi (Ca. 2nd century BCE Sunga)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Standing Yakshi
The plaque shows a standing yakshi figure of the Sunga period. The figurine is fully draped with an elongated costume. The lower part of her long drapery is held by a belt, dress is in two parts of which the upper piece shows a loose type of skirt. Both her hands are in akimbo holding the sides of the swinging folds of the skirt. The lower portion of her dress is clad tightly. Both the lower and upper part of her dress is marked with incised lines. Her feet from below the ankle are missing. Yakshi is adorned with fabulously rich ornaments and jwellery including large earrings, a broad necklace, bangles and armlets. Her huge coiffure is adorned with beaded strings of delicate artistry.

Yakshi (Ca 1st century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

The bracket figure represents a yakshi standing cross legged under a sala tree holding on to the branches with her two hands. She is quite nude with the exception of a very flimsy garment, the margins of which appear below the knees and hips. The sculpture has a tenon above for fitting into another slab and has an expanded flat base, evidently serving the purpose of a pillar. The much greater breadth of the top is due to the branches reaching out over the figure beneath.

Three pillars with a lintel above showing yakshis on one side and different stories on the other (Kushana, ca. 2nd Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Three pillars with a lintel above showing yakshis on one side and different stories on the other
a) The rail pillar from Bhuteswar, Mathura shows on one face a yakshi standing on the back of a dwarf, holding a wicker cage in her right hand. A bird is seen on her left arm plucking the flowers which adorn her hair. Above the pillar a woman is seen with her maid. On the back of the pillar the attempt to destroy Lord Buddha by a mad elephant named Nalagiri, a legend, popularly known as the Miracle of Rajagriha, is depicted in three different compartments. The upper part shows the tempter requesting the enlightened one to go forth, the middle panel shows the subjugation of Nalagiri to Lord Buddha, and the lower half depicts the killing of the tempter by the elephant. b) One face of the pillar shows a Yakshi standing on a dwarf. The scene at the top shows a man and a woman in the balcony.On the backside of the pillar different scenes are depicted in three different panels. Here, three distinct sunken panels can be seen. The panel at the bottom consists of three compartments. Lowermost panel represents hands and heads of two gigantic ogres licking the blood from the hearts of two human beings with their long tongue. The middle part of this panel exhibits two mothers playing with the child seated on their knees. Third compartment represents the arched doors on a Buddhist railing. The central panel shows an aerial horse with two children on the back and two are hanging from under the horse, one holding the forelegs and the other holding the hind legs of the horse. Above there is a balcony with an arched door. The upper panel shows four children in a building and beside this a man is seen trying to climb up a tree. c) The pillar, on one face shows a Yakshi on the back of a dwarf. She is holding a bunch of fruit in her left hand. Above, a scene on the pillar shows a man and a woman. In the reverse, the story of Sibi Jataka is represented in three panels. The Bodhisattva is supposed to have passed through all forms of existence, animal and human, before he was born as Prince Siddhartha. The story depicts that King Sibi, out of compassion gave shelter to a pigeon who was chased by a hunter. In actuality the pigeon was the fire-god Agni in disguise and the hunter was the king of the heaven Indra. Both of them wanted to test the compassionate nature of the king. The king agreed to offer his own flesh in exchange of the life of the bird. But his flesh was not sufficient for the purpose and he himself sat on the pan of the balance. Then Indra and Agni appeared in real forms and showered praised on the king.The lower part of the compartment shows a seated royal figure in the middle compartment a king is seen seated on a throne and a man is depicted standing behind carrying a scale for weighing, above there is a Buddhist railing with three arched windows of which the middle one carries a female bust. The third panel depicts a king seated in the same manner but in the opposite direction and a bird is seen sitting on the abacus of a pillar to the left of the standing figure.

Devi seated on a lotus (Ca. 10th/11th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Devi seated on a lotus
Devi seated on a lotus in association with Ganesha and saraswati (back slab broken).

Durga (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Wood carving of Goddess Durga, holding weapons in ten hands, standing on a lion in front of a kneeling "Asura", the demon. It is carved from a single piece of wood. The image rests on a rectangular pedestal.

Figure of MahishasuramardiniIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Mahishasuramardini
Figure of Mahishasuramardini, is standing on a buffalo, with a crown on the head. Out of eight hands, six hands are holding arms and one of the right hands is holding the tail of the buffalo and one of the left hand is touching the head of a human figure. The buffalo is sitting on a rectangular pedestal.

Figure of MahishasuramardiniIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Mahishasuramardin
Figure of Mahishasuramardini, is standing on a buffalo, with a crown on the head. Out of eight hands, six hands are holding arms and one of the right hands is holding the tail of the buffalo and one of the left hand is touching the head of a human figure. The buffalo is sitting on a rectangular pedestal.

Figure of MahishamardiniIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Mahishamardini
Figure of Mahishamardini, made of brass by lost-wax process. A halo, designed with dentate design is present on the back. The figure of Goddess is provided with ten hands, each hand holding a weapon. The legs of the Goddess, one is on the back of the lion while the other leg is on the Mahishasura, piercing him by a trident. The figure placed on a rectangular pedestal.

Coin (Sita) Coin (Sita) (C.3rd4th Century A.D.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin (Sita)
Obverse: King Standing offering oblations with right hand on an altar, behind which there is a trident, left hand holds a sceptre; Brahmi legend on right Shaka; under the left arm Sita and the letter bha near right foot.

Coin (Sita)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin (Sita)
Reverse: Throned goddess, indistinct legend in Greek characters on right.

Coin of Chandragupta Coin of Chandragupta (First quarter or first second quarters of the 4th century A.D.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Chandragupta
Obverse: Standing king and queen, facing each other; names Chandra[gupta] in Brahmi under king's left arm and Kumaradevi on left.

Coin of ChandraguptaIndian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Chandragupta
Reverse: Goddess, facing, seated on lion couchant to right with legs resting on a lotus. Brahmi legend Lichchhavayah on right.

Coin of Samudragupta Coin of Samudragupta (C.326 75 A.D)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Samudragupta
Obverse: Standing king offering by his right hand oblations on an altar, behind which there is a standard surmounted by a figure of Guruda; in left hand king holds a spear and under his left arm legend Samudragupta in Brahmi characters; legend visible on both sides of the circular margin.

Coin of SamudraguptaIndian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Samudragupta
Reverse: Throned goddess with her legs on lotus. Legend Parakrama in Brahmi characters. A symbol above cornucopiae.

Coin of Chandragupta era Coin of Chandragupta era (4th/5th Century A.D.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Chandragupta
Obverse: King standing to left, holding bow in left hand and arrow in right. Garuda standard behind the right arm. Traces of Brahmi characters on margin visible.

Coin of Chandragupta eraIndian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Chandragupta
Reverse: Throned goddess holding noose in right hand and flower in left; a symbol above flower.

Coin of Kumaragupta Coin of Kumaragupta (C.415/16454/ 55 A.D.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Kumaragupta
Obverse: King riding on a horse to right; traces of Brahmi characters visible in circular margin.

Coin of KumaraguptaIndian Museum, Kolkata

Coin of Kumaragupta
Reverse: Goddess seated to left on a wicker stool offering something to a peacock with right hand and holding lotus in left hand which rests on waist; legend Ajita Mahendrah in crude Brahmi characters on right.

Face of Durga (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Face of Durga
It is a face of Goddess Durga. The base colour of the face is yellow. A very well designed crown is on the head. A third-eye is present on the forehead. Eyes, nose, lips and chin are very prominent. Some golden coloured terracotta detachable ornaments are attached to the face by iron wires.

Mask of Durga (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Mask of Goddess Durga
It is made of paper, cloth and clay. The mask is light yellow in colour. A large crown decorated with beads, tinsel, wool, coloured paper and feathers on an iron frame makes the mask gorgeous. A third eye on the forehead, widely open eyes, sharp nose and thin lips are present. A nose ring is present. It is used in Chou dance.

Durga Mask (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Mask of Durga
The mask is cream coloured having a pink coloured crown on the head. It is provided with a third-eye in forehead.

Dakshina Kali (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

All these references prove that prior to the emergence of the developed Sakti cult where predominance of the female deity is found India had witnesses prevalent of worship of the natural phenomenon in female form. The Sakta Devi in her developed form absorbed within herself innumerable goddesses representing different streams. Gauri, Satakshi, Sakambhari, Sri, etc. were undoubtedly the developed forms of the rudimentary Earth and Mothers. The second stream as represented by the Uma-Parvati group which developed under the garb of Saivism. The epithet Haimavati was responsible for Uma's identification with Parvati or Durga. . In some of the Puranas like the Markandeya and Vamana we find the terrible demon-slayer form of the Devi represented by Chandika or Kausiki and further developed by Kali.

In Bengal the cult of the Female Principle received a great impetus from the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or Prajna popularized Mahayana and its offshoots which led to the introduction of a pantheon of female deities. In fact the Buddhist deities like Tara and others made their way into the Sakta fold and became identified with the Supreme Being of the Saktas. The Tantras describe numerous forms of the Sakti, a number of them being classed as the Mahavidya or Vidyas and the Nityas.

Bust of Tara (Ca 5th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Bust of Tara
The bust of a female figure, identified as Buddhist goddess Tara is marked with the characteristic features of the Gupta school of Sarnath. It is bedecked with armlets, necklace, beaded chain and earrings. The hair is arranged in a bun clasped by a beaded band. A stringed beaded tiara is around the hair.

Vasudhara (Ca. 9th/10th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Vasudhara seated on a double lotus seat in lalitasana with the right hand in varada mudra and the left holding the ear of corn. A seal is at the back of the halo.

Khadiravani Tara (10th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Khadiravani Tara
The two-armed Khadiravani Tara is standing on a lotus pedestal. Her right hand is in the varada mudra, while the left holds the stem of a utpala. She is accompanied by Asokakanta Marichi and Ekajata. The inscription on the pedestal reds: 'This is a gift of gods; by the pious devotee Bhatta Ichchha, the son of Bhatta Naho. May the merit abiding in this, contribute to the well beings with his father and mother at the head! The second year of King Sri Ramapaladeva, 28th day of Vaisakha.'

Manasa (12th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Seated in lalitasana on a double-petalled lotus placed on a pancharatha pedestal the two armed serpent goddess Manasa is holding a leafy branch in her right hand while her left hand holds a snake. A seven hooded snake is represented behind her head.

Kali (15th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Four armed seated Kali.

Tara (Ca. 15th/16th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Brass figure of Tara seated, two arms halo behind.

Tara (Ca. 18th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Copper figure of a Arddhanaggnisvara ? Standing on Alidha posture. Eight arms. Pedestal bears a lion and a bull.

Decorative Art (Ca. 16th/17th Century CE)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Tara seated in lalitasana, with right hand placed on her lap.

Kali (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

The figure is in standing posture with a crown on the head, which looks like a tree. Four arms of the figure holding different weapons and a skull. The pedestal is designed like a flower.

Jamuna (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

The figure is standing on a tortoise, holding a mirror in the right hand and a lamp in the left hand. The body is designed. There are three short stands below the tortoise, one each under two fore legs and one under the tail.

Figure of AnnapurnaIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Annapurna
The figure of Goddess Annapurna with a crown on the head, holding a ladle and seated on a rectangular pedestal.

Figure of "Gajalakshmi"Indian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of "Gajalakshmi"
Figure of Gajalakshmi, having four arms, is in sitting posture on a high circular pedestal. Two elephant motifs are present beside the image making a crown on the head of the Lakshmi by their trunks.

Figure of SaraswatiIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Saraswati
Figure of Goddess Saraswati, seated on a square-shaped pedestal having a few tiers.The image is holding a 'vina'(musical instrument) in her hands. The facial part is plain. A crown is present on the head.

Figure of PardeshimaiIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Pardeshimai
Figure of Pardeshimai, made of brass by lostwax process. The figure is in standing posture. A crown like designed structure is present on the head which extends up to the shoulders. The right hand is holding an axe while the left hand is holding a dish. The figure is standing on a circular pedestal.

Figure of TaraIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Tara
Figure of Goddess Tara, sitting on a lotus pedestal. A lotus is present beside the left arm of the image. A crown is present on the head. A halo is present behind the image.

Figure of Sitala MaiIndian Museum, Kolkata

Figure of Sitala Mai
Masks and effigies; Figure of Goddess Sitala Mai, made of brass by lostwax process. The figure in standing posture with a crown like structure on the head. Snake hood are present on the each side of the figure on the shoulders. One of the right hand of the figure holding a dish while one left hand is holding a fan like structure. The whole body is ornamented. The figure is standing on a circular pedestal.

Danteswari DeviIndian Museum, Kolkata

Danteswari Devi
Masks and effigies; Figure of Danteswari Devi, made of brass. The figure of a female deity is in a swing, riding on an elephant. There is a designed conical crown on the top of the howdah which rests on four poles. The poles are present at four corners of a seat on the back of the elephant. A figure of a man who drives the elephant sits on the head of the elephant (in front of the howdah). The body of the elephant is designed and four wheels are attached to four legs.

Kali (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Wood carving of Goddess Kali. It is carved out of a single piece of wood. The image is standing on Lord Shiva, who is lying on the ground. The image has four hands, exposed tongue and wearing garland of human heads.

Dakshinakali (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Ivory piece shows Dakshinakali standing on Lord Siva placed on a low pedestal. Her four armed shows varada mudra, Abhaya mudra, kadaga and human head. She is bedecked with human head garland, human hand apron, beads necklace, crown bangle and anklets.

Goddess Kali and an Ivory Chalchitra (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Goddess Kali with Chalchitra
Ivory piece depicting goddess Kali and an ivory chalchitra at the back.

Devi Durga or Jagaddhatri (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Devi Durga or Jagaddhatri
Devi Durga or Jagaddhatri sitting on her mount the lion with a child on her lap.

Goddess Ganga seated on her Vahana-Makara (19th Century (1892))Indian Museum, Kolkata

Goddess Ganga seated on her Vahana-Makara
This painting shows Goddess Ganga is sitting on makara on padmasana. The word Ganga etymologically means that which emerges (ga) from the sky (gam). She is divine river that flows down to the earth from the heaven. Ganga water has always been considered as liquid medicine(Gangani pathyam or Himavat prabhava pathyah punya). She is considered sacred. Personified as a goddess, Ganga is worshiped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitaes liberation from the cycle of life and death. Pilgrims travel long distances to immerse the ashes of their kin in the waters of ganges, bringing their sprits closer to nirvana. There are several beliefs that give various versions of the birth of Ganga. According to one version, the sacred water in Brahma's Kamandalu (water vessel) became personified as a maiden, Ganga. According to Vaishnavite legend, Brahma had reverently washed the feet of Vishnu and collected this water in his Kamandalu. According to yet a third version, Ganga was the daughter of Himvat, king of the mountains, and his consort Mena; she was thus a sister of the goddess Parvati. Every version declares that she was raised in the heavens, under the tutelage of Brahma.

Goddess Jagadhatri (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Goddess Jagadhatri
The chromolithograph depicts goddess Jagadhatri wondering amongst mountains riding atop a brown lion.

Dakshina Kali (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Dakshina Kali
The chromolithograph depicting Dakshina Kali standing on lord Siva, holding Khada (weapon used for sacrifice.) and a head of demon with blood dripping, standing in between massacore of battlefield, while her both right hands represents the Abhaya mudra and varada mudra.

Goddess Tara (19th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Goddess Tara
The chromolithograph depicting 'Tara' with four hands standing on lord Siva. The right hands holding full bloomed lotus and kapala, while the left hands holding khadagas (the sacrificial weapon). She is wearing skull garland and crown along with snake ornaments standing in the midst of crematorium ground.

Mask of Bhadrakali (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Mask of Bhadrakali
It is a wooden mask of Goddess Bhadrakali, a female deity, carved out of a single piece of wood. The mask has red coloured crown on the head.

Mask of Kali (20th Century)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Mask of Kali
The mask is highly decorated. Red coloured marks are present on the eye brows below the cheeks and on the side of the oral cavity. Deeply dentate red crown on head, large decorated ears, exposed teeth (upper jaw) with protruded tongue firmly held between the teeth and lower lip are the features of the mask. The nose and tongue are made of papier- mache. This mask is used in "Kali nach" mask dance.

Credits: Story

Sponsoring Institution: Indian Museum, Kolkata

Chief Co-Ordinator: Dr. Jayanta Sengupta

Exhibition prepared by:
Dr. Mita Chakrabarty
Dr. Nita Sengupta
Shri Tushar Nath Roychowdhury
Shri Satyakam Sen
Smt. Shrabanti Sardar

Photographs by: Photography Unit

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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