Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahisha

Eastern India, Bihar, probably Gaya district

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 238

Durga slaying Mahisha (Mahishamardini) is here represented in her multi-armed form, manifesting her supreme power as the dispeller of evil, personified in the buffalo demon (asura) Mahisha, seen slumped at her feet. Following the Devi Mahatmya text, she wields the mighty weapons lent to her by the assembly of male gods who singly could not defeat the demon. In this eight-armed form, Durga wields the mighty broad bladed sword above her head with which she has just decapitated the buffalo, whose severed head lies at her feet. With her remaining right hands she displays the discus weapon of Vishnu (also seen embedded in the buffalo’s side) while pulling an arrow from the quiver she wears on her back, and plunging Shiva’s trident (trusula) into the demon’s human form. With her lower left hand she grips the demon by a tress of his hair as she transfixes him with the trident as he emerges from the slain beast. In her raised left hands she holds the shield, poised as a counterpoint to the raised sword, and the noose, with which she binds her enemies, and the long bow with an elaborate handgrip, which echoes the arrow and quiver opposite.

Durga here assumes one of the most dramatic poses for the goddess in all Indian art, which conveys to devotees the unequivocal power of the aroused devi, known in the iconographic literature as pratyalidhasana, a posture shared with some esoteric Buddhist imagery. Durga stands with one foot robustly raised on the beast’s back, and the other extended to anchor him to the ground. Her body is full and supple, and modelled with a remarkable artistry. The pronounced musculature of her stomach, for example, reveals the tension in her body as she uses her divine strength to plunge the trisula into the demon’s body. Her waist is slender, as are her limbs, whilst her breasts are firm and full.

The prescriptive sastric text from this time, the Sadhanamala, dictates that goddesses are required to have the “appearance of a girl of sixteen”. A diaphanous waist cloth, secured with jeweled belt, is her only attire, apart from her jewelry, a large neck torque, jeweled arm bands and the heavy protective wrist bands of a combatant. Asymmetrical ear ornaments, borrowed from Shiva iconography, decorate each earlobe splendidly, while the goddess is crowned with a diadem with triple projections, the center one rising up in a triangulated form above a large topknot of hair. The ribbons that secure the diadem appear as knotted textile projections, framing her head. The lion, Durga’s divine mount (vahana) on which she is shown riding majestically into battle in manuscript illustrations, is here seen emerging from behind the goddess, mauling the demon-buffalo’s hind quarters. The remainder of the composition is remarkably plain, with only a raised undecorated ridge defining the perimeter of the arched backplate. The goddess stands on a simple and shallow projecting plinth. This is unusual in Pala Hindu steles and points strongly to the early date of this work, likely in the second half of the ninth century.

Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahisha, Schist, Eastern India, Bihar, probably Gaya district

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