Durga: Iconography, Discourse and Counter-Discourse

Arindam Roy discusses the evolution of the Hindu goddess at the intersection of history, politics and religion

Durga and her daughters

Through a complex system, we elevate a mere mortal to divinity and humanise gods.

Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Kabir, the two Sai Babas and more are venerated as gods. Often their births are associated with miracles, premonition of curse or shrouded in mystery. Let us examine three cases:

  1. The birth of Ram and his brothers are marked with celebrations, in Ayodhya, but Dasharath is worried in his heart of hearts. He recalls how he had killed Shravan Kumar accidentally and the curse of his blind parents that he too would suffer the pain of parting with his son. A keynote is struck. We are prepared psychologically for the events to follow with an epic hero in the making.
  2. Krishna’s birth is magical. The prison guards fall asleep. A raging storm, torrential rain and Sheshnag acting as an umbrella for swapping Baby Krishna with Yogmaya. Many miracles would follow. A god is born.
  3. Kabir’s birth is shrouded in mystery. His death and the quarrel over his corpse are resolved as beneath the shroud, roses are found. Hindus and Muslims followers perform last rites according to their traditions. A sage-god arrived among us.

Allow me to quote from one of my articles, ‘Of Durga’s Homecoming and other stories’, (Oct 16, 2007), from my blog, Wise Planet:

“The faith of faiths is a touchy matter. But let us find out why strange stories about gods gained currency. Have you ever wondered why gods behave like human beings?

“Why Durga comes to visit her parents’ home annually or why Shiva enjoys his marijuana? Why Bal Krishna stole butter? Similarly, why Jagganath of Puri, who bathes once a year shivers and has fever? Once every twelve years, he is cremated with his siblings in his private crematorium, and so on.”

Amitabh Bhattacharya, a senior journalist in Varanasi, explained that humanism – the belief that gods behave like human beings – gained currency in the post-Puranic era. In fact, the period between Puranas and 10th century AD, the time of Muslim invasion, saw a spurt of miracle-performing gods. This was also the time when angry gods became a part of the Hindu pantheon.

He explained that Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam had threatened the very matrix of Hinduism. Those amongst the ordinary masses, who could not be won over with devotion (bhakti), had to be scared in some ways. The Hindi poet of the Bhakti movement, Goswami Tuslidas had said, “Bhaye bin preet nahi” (no love without fear).

“But why fear? What’s role of fear in religion? Even the Holy Bible categorizes different kinds of fear. It talks of good fears and bad fears. The fear of god is a good fear,” stated Sebastian John.

Fear of being cursed by angry gods stopped large-scale conversions. The fear of burning in hell, causing grave curse to the forefathers and future generations, might certainly be a good marketing ploy but it helped the Hindu sages and seers to keep the flock together.

Durga, Chamunda and Kali – the terrible forms of Shakti – had the elements of fear inbuilt in them. To mellow the element of fear, the motherhood aspect, the all-forgiving, all-loving goddesses were also woven into these myths. At a more mundane level, it was said, “Don’t our mothers get angry? But do they love us any less?”

Durga Iconography

In the research paper, ‘Iconography and Visual Culture of Bengal’ (published in Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2012) Ruma Chakravarti tells us the meaning and intent of iconography:

The subject of iconography, the study of images with a specific narrative or symbolic intent, raises complex aesthetic and philosophical questions for the modern world about the universal appeal of pictorial messages. In the iconography of temples, it has never lost its relevance, because the messages conveyed through religious icons are the same messages that have been part of the religious vocabulary for hundreds of years. Often icons carry more than one meaning. These are each accurate in their own way as they usually address a number of separate mythological or historical concepts.

“In investigating the link between iconography and religion it is worth noting that ‘much of Indian sculpture was produced in order to embellish a sacred scripture.’ (Dehejiya, 1997) Religion is not successful unless it is spread to the masses. In order for this to happen, the first requisite is that people across all strata of society understand and know the basic beliefs on which the religion bases itself. In general, the reading and understanding of Hindu scriptures was and still is largely the domain of the privileged, either through reasons of birth, wealth or access to education. Physical symbols that represent religious beliefs and the gods are much easier for people to view and assimilate. The identity of gods as nirakar or formless is much less easily understood than their physical depictions as sakar or having a form. The sacred thus moves from the formless to the concrete. Hinduism displays the power of iconography as a profound stimulus to the memory.”

While working on the evolution of Durga through her iconography, for a Gurgoan-based online magazine that I was heading as Managing Editor, I found that Durga was a minor goddess perhaps worshipped by armies, in certain parts of India, that went to war — there were numerous wars in the past —  but as her influence grew, her icon also underwent transformation (read development).

In the article, ‘The lion of Durga is a gift from a Greek goddess, published in Merinews, and later, posted in my blog, Wise Planet (Feb 15, 2009), I observed:

“The white lion of Mahisasur-mardini (Durga) has been imported from Greece. The lion, as a vehicle, was incorporated in the Durga iconography between sixth century AD and 12th century AD. It was ‘imported’ from (read, gifted by) the Greek goddess, Nanaia.

“We find occasional representation of Nanaia riding a lion on some Kushan coins and seals. Historians point out that on the basis of the development of the Durga iconography, it might be said that the prominence of the war-goddess grew in 700 years.”

In the early Kushan period, around first century AD, Durga was a lesser goddess. The terracotta figurines and stone sculptures of this period depict the goddess with two or four hands, wrestling with the demon (Mahisasur), locked in hand to hand combat. Most of these figurines and sculptures were excavated at a site called Sonkh, near Mathura. It forms a rich legacy of the Mathura Art. For 300 odd years, during the Kushan period, the lion is not seen.

A rare image of Mahishamardini Durga from the 5th AD found at Chandrashala, M.P. Preserved at Allahabad Museum PHOTO CREDIT: Bhaswati Bhattacharya

“The Mahisasur-mardini icon of goddess Durga, as we see it today, evolved in the Gupta period, undergoing changes in iconography. Around this time, we find examples of Devi with eight, 10, 12 and even 16 hands. As her stature grew, her iconography evolved,” informed Dr Sriranjan Shukla, the assistant keeper of Allahabad Museum, in an exclusive interview.

Durga is the most widely worshipped aspect of Shakti, till today.

The Gupta period is a time of transition. Referring to a sandstone relief, of the latter part of the fifth century AD, of a Chandrasala (which were placed outside temples to indicate the ruling deity), we see Mahisasur-mardini combating the asura (demon). It shows the goddess place one of her feet contemptuously on the head of the vanquished demon. She lifts his hindquarters by the tail and pins him down with her trishul (trident). A short male figure, as her attendant, establishes her glory. He is a gana(army) of Shiva, consort of the goddess. The locks of the gana and the goddess are elaborately treated, in the style of that period.

The Kushan artists of the Mathura Art School are credited to conceptualise Mahisasur-mardini, or the form of Durga defeating the buffalo-demon. From a lesser goddess, depicted in terracotta figurines and sandstone relief, she attained glory in the Gupta period. Most of the Puranas were authored in the Gupta period, which was a golden era of Indian art, literature, trade, commerce and polity. It was a time of peace and prosperity.

The Aryan-Dravidian Divide

At another level, the Aryans accepted the Dravidian-tribal gods. An authority on iconography, BN Mukherjee explains in his book that one way to distinguish between gods of Aryan and non-Aryan origin is that the former always have water cosmology. Thus, Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Saraswati are of Aryan origin, while Shiva, Durga and Kali belong to the non-Aryan roots.

Never mind if a god of Aryan origin is the child of a god of non-Aryan origin. In this case, all children of Durga are Aryans, while she herself has a non-Aryan origin.

Mrinal Pande, in her article, The evolution of Durga, from demon slayer to nourishing mother, in Scroll, says, “After the 4th century CE, images of Durga slaying this demon began to surface all over India. As an armed goddess, unprotected by males, fond of flesh, alcoholic beverages and even blood, who upon victory breaks into frenzied dancing with her battalions of female soldiers, Durga stubbornly retains the stamp of her non-Aryan origins.”

Later, she adds, “As Durga slays … she creates her own fierce female armies who love to join a good fight when they see one. Together, they defy all norms sought to be imposed on them by a patriarchal religion. They get drunk, kill, ululate and scream, play football with the decapitated heads of demons and then break into a bizarre war dance until the petrified gods politely request Durga to stop and leave for her heavenly abode with her women (Devi Mahatmya).”

Though several authorities stated that Durga was an aboriginal goddess (non-Aryan), Bahujans and tribals, believe that she was a fair-skinned Aryan, who killed Mahisasur by deceit and trickery. Amidst huge controversies, a counter-narrative about Durga and Mahisasur emerged. During the Navaratri, while the mainstream Hindus celebrate Durga’s victory, twice a year (Spring and Autumn), tribal communities mourn the death of their dark-skinned valiant hero. (A case in point among the Muslims: while Shias’ mourn the defeat and beheading of Husayn ibn Ali (on Oct 10, 680), at the Battle of Karbala as his martyrdom, during Muharram, Sunnis’ celebrate victory. There were Shia-Sunni clashes in India).

Four years back, in 2016, Durga and Mahisasur were in the news. A group of students belonging to the All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF), at Jawaharlal Nehru University, claimed that their hero, Mahisasur, a martyr, was being insulted by upper the caste Hindus. Smriti Irani, the Union HRD minister read out a pamphlet in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament), where Durga, a fair skinned goddess had been shown in poor light and Mahisasur as the victim, by this group of students. Irani described this as “a depraved mentality”.

In fact, AIBSF celebrated the first Martyrdom Day of Mahisasur in 2011, as per media reports. They said that they had the constitutional rights to celebrate the martyrdom day of their hero, a dark-skinned brave warrior.

There is a tribe in Jharkhand and in some pockets of Bihar, Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh, with the title ‘Asur’, who claim to be the descendants of Mahisasur. A vanishing tribe, the Asurs are in the margin of the margins. The face extinction due to abject poverty and conversion into Christianity.

Prashant Pandey and Premankur Biswas, in an article, ‘Meeting the Asurs’, in Indian Express, reported:

“Sushma Asur, a tribal activist in Sakhuapani, says the community also celebrates Sohrai, which coincides with Diwali, by applying koronj (or karanja in Hindi) oil on their navel, chest and nose, and eating cucumber. ‘The symbolism here is that when our ancestor Mahishasur was killed, he had blood oozing from his navel, nose and chest. Applying oil on those parts depicts the same. Eating cucumber is a symbol that we are avenging his death by eating the ‘kaleja (liver)’ of the killer,’ Sushma explains.

“In her 20s, Sushma says she has studied up to Class XII and is working with tribal activists to ‘revive our lost traditions, songs and skills’. Over the years, she says, there are several of these traditions that have given way to modern practices of the ‘outsiders’.

“Asurs, she says, were once iron smelters, but now the village doesn’t have a smelting unit. Chamru says he used to make small weapons, ‘but I have forgotten all that now’. According to one of the theories, the Magadh Empire benefited a lot from the weapons the Asurs made. ‘Their iron does not catch rust. And we know there are many Ashokan-era edicts on iron that haven’t rusted,’ says Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi.”

Pandey and Biswas add that the legend of Mahisasur finds its echo in the Santhal and other tribal folklore:

Vandana Tete of the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra, an organisation that works to revive tribal history and the tribal way of life, says the legend of Mahishasur finds its echoes even in the folklore of the Santhals, numerically the biggest tribal group and spread across Jharkhand and West Bengal. ‘When others celebrate Navratri, the Santhals look for their missing chief, whom they call Hudur Durga. When they cannot find him, they pretend to dismantle a clay model. This is presented through a dance form,’ she says. Many academics have interpreted this as the Santhals seeking Mahishasur, who, they believe, was killed by deceit.”

Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi, says, “While Asurs may be the only one to have taken on that surname, the Mahishasur story has its parallel in different tribal languages.”

In the report, ‘Asur tribals mourn “martyr” Mahishasur, Jaideep Deogharia, wrote in The Times of India:

“Asurs believe they are descendants of ‘Hudur-Durga’ – the Santhal name for Mahishasur – and do not worship any god. They say that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to them, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a ‘crooked conspiracy’.

“The tribals now have help from experts and academics to bring their perspective to the forefront. Started three years ago in Kassipore area of Purulia district in West Bengal to search for tribal roots of Indian mythology, an organisation called ‘Shikar Dishum Kherwal Veer Lokachar Committee’ has gone from strength to strength and now invites tribal counterparts from neighbouring states to Purulia later this month to help out with their mission.

“A team from Jharkhand – comprising Sushma Asur, Vandana Tete, Ashwining Pankaj and other new-age activists researching tribal literature – are set to participate in the programme this year. Sushma, a member of the primitive tribe group (PTG), features prominently on a Facebook page titled ‘Asur Aadivasi Documentation Initiative’. She urged other communities – particularly those in the power corridors from ‘Akhra’, a platform for tribals to promote their art, culture and literature – to stop celebrating the assassination of their ancestor with ‘such grandeur’.”

A Bahujan thinker, Premkumar Mani, in his article, ‘Who are the Bahujans really worshipping(published in Forward Press), wrote:

“Mahishasur means people who rear buffalo, the buffalo-rearers. Those who trade in milk, the dairy people. Asur may have changed to Ahur and then to Ahir (the present-day milkman caste). Mahishasur or the buffalo-rearers must have been the people dominating the Banga region. Racially they must have been Dravidians. They must have also been opponents of the Aryan culture. Aryans had to defeat them. These people used Durga. In the Banga region, prostitutes mention Durga to be of their clan…. It took Durga nine nights to kill Mahishasur. The Brahmins who sent her waited nine nights with bated breath. This was a difficult task. If not force, deception. Force of deception. On the ninth night Durga tasted success, she killed Mahishasur. As they heard the news, the Aryans (Brahmins) were all agog. They swooped down on Mahishasur’s people and cutting their heads (munda) off made a new kind of garland. They put this garland around Durga’s neck. Even Indra couldn’t do what Durga had done…. What Durga achieved was miraculous. She was most important. Most blessed of all! The very incarnation of Shakti!”

It is rather sad that Mani and few others, who worship Mahisasur, described Durga as a sex-worker/prostitute. Perhaps counter-persecution is born out of long years of subservience and exploitation. Attacking the exploiters makes sense — in this case, upper-caste Hindus — rather than their gods. I strongly feel that we do not need victims to be victors. Such lapses and folly discredit all counter-discourses.

Pandemic and Durga Puja

For the first time, the autumnal festivities have been cancelled. When Sarbojanin puja committees pleaded that the Shakti puja cannot be discontinued, the celebrations have been allowed with lots of restrictions – for the public good – in Uttar Pradesh. Passes have been issued to residents of a para/mohalla (locality). Online pushpanjali and arti has been arranged. For the few, who may be issued time slots for pushpanjali, the mantras are being chanted without the flowers. The priest offers flowers on behalf of all.

At some places, there is Ghot (urn/pot) puja, with an image of the goddess. Some puja committees have put up the idols, where the largest idol (Durga) is not more than four feet tall.

Ram Dal, a unique feature of Allahabad (Prayagraj, now), where tableaus depicting the scenes of Ramayana, led by Kiran Ghora, are watched for better part of the night. Two Ramleela Committees, Patharchatti and Pajawa vie for the best tableaux. These processions are held on fixed days, locality wise, with traffic restrictions. The lighting of the streets are to be seen to be believed. This year, all Ram Dals have been cancelled.  

During pandemic, with the spread of COVID-19, it makes sense to impose restrictions. In West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court had to intervene and impose restrictions on puja pandals and pandal hopping.

There were mixed feelings. The social self in each of us appreciated the steps taken by the state and district administrations. However, we still missed the fun and joy of nine days, hopping pandals and binge eating during this time of the year.


Arindam Roy, publisher, editor, author, poet, translator, a teacher of Mass Comm and Creative Writing, has 39-year experience in various newsrooms. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths. He has held senior positions in several publications. He has launched several publications. He participated at various seminars, symposia, poetry meets and webinars as chief guest, keynote speaker and has delivered presidential addresses. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications, of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back.  He shuttles between Allahabad and Bangalore.


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