Devi is a goddess in the Hindu religion.
She is worshipped in northwest India where her shrine is located on
Trikut Mountain in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (Foulston and
Abbott 193, 195). Millions of pilgrims
go there each year. As a mother to her
devotees, she is a protector and giver of benefits (Rohe 74). She is therefore known as Mata Vaisno Devi,
or Mother Vaisno Devi (Rohe 57, 68).
mythology explains that Vaisno Devi was created during the second age, the Treta
Yuga, by the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali. These goddesses are manifestations of the
Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Foulston and Abbott 194). They came together and
used their powers to create Vaisno Devi.
During the Treta Yuga the world was struggling with strife and the
forces of the demonic world. The world
needed a guardian, therefore the creation of Vaisno Devi (Khanna 187).
are a variety of myths about Vaisno Devi. One myth in particular says she
was born on earth as the daughter of a merchant named Ratnasagar and was named
Trikuta. Trikuta wished to marry Rama,
one of the ten incarnations of Visnu, but was told by Rama himself that he
could not marry her as he was faithfully pledged to Sita his wife (Foulston and
Abbott 50, 194). Not to be disappointed, Trikuta persisted, and
eventually was told by Rama that if she could recognize him when he returned to
her, he would marry her. Rama later returned as an elderly man and was
unrecognizable to Trikuta. Rama then told her that he would return in the
fourth age, the Kali Yuga, as Kalki, the last and final incarnation of
Visnu. Trikuta could then become his consort. Until that time, Trikuta should stay on
Trikut Mountain, where she ought to practice asceticism and would eventually
become known as Vaisno Devi (Erndl 40-41).
Another myth describes Vaisno Devi’s
appearance to a Brahmin priest thousands of years after her birth on
earth. The priest, Sridhar, was holding a ritual for the purpose of
attaining a male son, when Vaisno Devi appeared to him (Erndl 41). She
told Sridhar to serve a feast for the villagers and those living around the
village. While inviting the villagers to
the feast, Sridhar met a man by the name of Gorakhnath, the leader of an order
of mendicants. Gorakhnath mockingly told
Sridhar that he would not be able to feed Gorakhnath and all his
followers. Nevertheless, the next day, everyone gathered for the feast
and they were served by Vaisno Devi. One
of the mendicants, Bhairo, complained about the food, stating that he wanted
meat and not the vegetarian food that Vaisno Devi was serving. Vaisno Devi told him that as the food was
being served at a Vaisnavafeast, he should not complain. Bhairo
became angry and reached for Vaisno Devi, but she disappeared and fled to Trikut
Mountain (Erndl 41-42). Bhairo, who looked at her with lust, pursued her
(Rohe 60). When she arrived at Trikut
Mountain, she crawled into a cave and stayed there for nine months where she
practiced asceticism. When Bhairo found her, Vaisno Devi opened the back
of the cave with her wand and crawled out with Bhairo continuing to pursue her. She entered another cave and according to one
version of this myth, transformed herself into the terrifying manifestation of
the goddess Candi. She then cut off Bhairo’s head. As he was being decapitated, he repented,
calling Vaisno Devi “Mother.” His head can now be seen as a rock at the
cave’s mouth where it is venerated by pilgrims (Erndl 41-42).
mythology of Vaisno Devi has led to the worship of her at the Holy Shrine of
Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Ji on Trikut Mountain. Pilgrims climb fourteen
kilometers up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. When the
pilgrims reach there, they crawl through a ninety-foot tunnel which has a
stream running through it called the Charan Ganga (Foulston and Abbott
196-197). At the end of the tunnel is the most important aspect of the
shrine, three jutting rocks or pindis (Erndl 39). These three pindis,
which are venerated by the pilgrims,each embodies the three cosmic manifestations
of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi. These
three manifestations are the goddesses Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali;
they are referred to as the sakta trinity (Erndl 4). The shrine of
Vaisno Devi “is the only shrine in India to house natural forms of the three
cosmic goddesses” (Foulston and Abbott 196). Vaisno Devi, who in turn is
the manifestation of the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and
Mahakali, holds their cosmic powers or saktis (Erndl 39). They in
turn each hold the powers of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Tewari 4). A
pilgrim goes to the shrine of Vaisno Devi only when the pilgrim believes Vaisno
Devi has called him or her individually (Rohe 61-62). It has been found
that “undertaking the pilgrimage annually contributes to the well-being of her
devotees” (Pandya 735).
Devi is considered by her followers to be Mahadevi, the Great Goddess herself, since
Vaisno Devi is the manifestation of the three goddesses and their three powers
(Rohe 71). In Hinduism, Mahadevi is the goddess who embodies sakti,
the feminine power that creates and holds the universe together (Kinsley
133). Mahadevi “oversees” the “cosmic functions” of creation,
preservation, and destruction (Kinsley 137). These three powers are
present in the rocks or pindis representing the three goddesses,
Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and Mahakali (Tewari 4). Mahasarasvati holds
the sakti of creation, Mahalaksmi holds the sakti of
preservation, and Mahakali holds the sakti of destruction (Rodrigues
Devi is also considered to be one of two contrasting sides to Mahadevi; the
other being the goddess Kali. The contrasting sides are reflected in two
different dispositions and personalities.
Kali is the harsh and bloody side of Mahadevi. She is depicted
with dark skin, often with a necklace of skulls around her neck, and is known
for drinking the blood of demons. She is
carnivorous, and as such, she is associated with animal sacrifice. Vaisno
Devi is the peaceful and serene side of Mahadevi. She is associated with vegetarianism, and is
not worshipped with animal sacrifice (Erndl 4-5).
In Hinduism, vegetarianism is a form of
ritual purity and it is because of this that Vaisno Devi and her shrine stand
out among other Hindu shrines (Foster and Stoddard 113). As illustrated in the second myth, Vaisno
Devi serves only vegetarian food at the feast. This validates her status as a
vegetarian. The name Vaisno is actually translated in northwestern India
as “vegetarianism” even though it literally means “in the style or manner of
Visnu and followers” (Foster and Stoddard 113).
Vegetarianism protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69). She is closely associated with the god Visnu
partly due to this vegetarian ideal (Rohe 66).
Vaisno Devi is also associated with
virginity (Rohe 70). Virginity, like
vegetarianism, protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69). The importance of her virginity is shown in the
myth and is made apparent by Bhairo’s lust and pursuit of her. A variation of this myth says it was the
goddess Kali that Vaisno Devi transformed herself into when she killed Bhairo.
This was so that she, as the goddess Vaisno Devi, would not spill someone’s
blood. The reason for this is because
blood shedding is associated with sexual relations. In order to preserve her virginity, Vaisno
Devi transformed herself into the dark and terrible Kali to shed Bhairo’s blood
(Rohe 69). At her shrine, it is common for the pilgrims to abstain from
alcohol, meat, and sexual relations (Rohe 70).
Devi is also a mother as well as a virgin, and her devotees consider themselves
her children (Rohe 70). There is a legend that says she changed the
Charan Ganga into a stream of milk when milk was not available in the local
area (Rohe 69). This myth validates her status as mother. Since Vaisno Devi is Mahadevi, and therefore sakti,
it is believed all beings were born from her (Rohe 70).
art portrays Vaisno Devi as beautiful and serene. She is commonly
shown to ride a lion or tiger (Erndl 4). She has eight arms and holds a
conch, club, and discus as well as a bow and arrow, sword, and trident.
Her clothes are red; she is gentle but strong.
Beside her are her two guardsmen, the monkey god, Hanuman, and
Bhairo (Erndl 4).
due to variations in legends or myths about Vaisno Devi, it can be difficult to
exactly pinpoint her nature (Rohe 60). No Hindu text gives definite
knowledge of her, and understanding of her varies according to each person
(Rohe 57). However, her shrine on Trikut
Mountain adds an element of certainty to her devotees about her role as a
goddess as it is a concrete place where they can go to worship her. It is on Trikut Mountain, Vaisno Devi’s home,
where she reigns as the divine feminine power, giving blessings and support to
and Further Recommended Reading
Brown, C. MacKenzie (1990) The Triumph
of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the
Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of
Durga. New Delhi: Viking.
Erndl, Kathleen M. (1993) Victory to
the Mother. New York: Oxford University Press.
Foster, Georgana, and Robert Stoddard
(2010) “Vaishno Devi, the Most Famous Goddess Shrine
in the Siwaliks.” In Sacred Geography of Goddesses in South Asia,
edited by Rana P. B. Singh, 109-124. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu
Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic
Hardon, John A. (1968) Religions of the
World: Volume 1. Garden City: Image Books.
Hawley, John Stratton, and Vasudha
Narayanan (eds.) (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of
Khanna, Madhu (2018) “Here Are the
Daughters: Reclaiming the Girl Child (Kanya,
Bala, Kumari) in the Empowering Tales and Rituals of Sakta Tantra.” In The
Oxford History of Hinduism: The Goddess, edited by Mandakranta Bose,
173-198. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses:
Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Kumarappa, Bharatan (1979) The Hindu
Conception of the Deity. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.
Pandya, Samta (2015) “Pilgrimage and
Devotion to the Divine Mother: Mental Well-being of Devotees of Mata Vaishno
Devi.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 18:9 726-737. Accessed
January 22, 2020. doi:10.1080/13674676.2015.1112771.
Pintchman, Tracy (ed.) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu
Great Goddess. Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The
Ebook. Toronto: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Rohe, Mark Edwin (2001) “The Greatness of
Goddess Vaisno Devi.” In Seeking Mahadevi Constructing the Identities of the
Hindu Great Goddess, edited by Tracy Pintchman, 55-76. Albany: State
University of New York Press.
Tewari, Lt. Col. Naren (1988) The
Mother Goddess Vaisno Devi. New Delhi: Lancer International.
Rukmini was the princess of
Vidarbha, whose father was Bhismaka. She is mostly regarded as being one of
Krsna’s wives along with Satyabhama and Jambavati as mentioned in the Mahabharata
(Majumdar 124-125). Rukmini is symbolized as a feminine deity in Hinduism;
her love and devotion towards Krsna is very substantial. She is also believed
to be an incarnation of goddess Laksmi, the goddess of fortune, the consort of
Lord Visnu. Krsna was believed to be the incarnation of Visnu.
Rukmini hearing great stories, and
good deeds about Krsna, fell in love without ever meeting him. Although she had
never met him before eloping, Rukmini was captivated by his beauty, and other
characteristics. It is said that Bhismaka was accepting of the marriage of
Rukmini and Krsna, however, her brother Rukmi was against it (Prasad 2013).
Rukmi had a grudge against Krsna and picked his friend Sisupala, king of Chedi,
as her husband. Rukmi knew that Sisupala was good friends with King Jarasandha.
With this in mind he imaged that the marriage would help shape a strong
relationship with the king which would make him more powerful (Prasad 2013).
Rukmi’s grudge was due to Krsna’s killing of Kamsa, who was a friend of Rukmi
and uncle of Krsna. Kamsa was the brother of Krsna’s mother Devaki, Kamsa was
told that his death would be by Krsna and tried his best efforts to kill him
but did not succeed (Bhaktivedanta Swami 222). In order to avoid any possible
bloodshed between the families, Rukmini had sent a letter to Krsna describing during
what time and how she would go to the temple of Ambika so he could come get her
(Majumdar 129). Krsna arrived to abduct Rukmini, accompanied by his brother
Balarama, an event which was witnessed by Sisupala. As soon as the news of them
eloping spread Rukmi and Sisupala then sent their people to kill them However,
Rukmi and Sisupala were defeated. Rukmi was spared by Krsna, with the only
punishment being shaving Rukmi’s hair off by Krsna, because of Rukmini begging
Krsna to let her brother live.
Rukmini gave birth to ten sons:
Pradyumna, Carudesna, Sudesna, Carudeha, Sucaru, Carugupta, Bhadracaru,
Carucanvdra, Vicaru, and Caru and one daughter (Bhaktivedanta Swami 49). The
best known of the sons was Pradyumna, who was believed to be the incarnation of
Kamadeva, the human god of love and desire (Rhodes 251). Pradyumna and his son
Aniruddha are considered as two of the four formation (vyuha) avatars of
Visnu in Panchayat philosophy. Pradyumna is the “creation” of the universe and
formation of dharma, while Aniruddha promotes spiritual knowledge
(Srinivasa 214). It is said that Krsna had to perform austerities for about
twelve years to have his eldest son Pradyumna. He married Mayavati the princess
of Vidarbha, who was the incarnation of Rati, the Hindu goddess of love, sexual
desires, and then married again to Rukmavati, who was the daughter of Rukmi.
According to Hindu tradition it was
believed that Pradyumna was very “beautiful and attractive” and Rukmavati could
not choose any other husband other than Pradyumna throughout her svayamvara.
Svayamvara is the process in which a princess chooses a husband based on
skills (Rodrigues 170). During the process of selection for a husband, she
hangs a flower garland on Pradyumna amongst all other princes causing a fight
to break out. Marriages between cousins was not very sanctioned by Vedic
culture, but Rukmi wanted to please Rukmini and offered his daughter to marry
Rukmini’s son. Pradyumna and Rukmavati had a son named Aniruddha, who got
married to Rukmi’s granddaughter Rocana. Aniruddha and Rocana had a marriage
party where family members were present. During this party Rukmi was killed by
Balarama due to Rukmi calling Balarama names during a chess match they were
playing and betting on, which provoked Balarama to kill Rukmi (Majumdar 1969).
dedication towards Rukmini there is a temple devoted to her called the Rukmini
temple that is located on the way to Dwarka. Inside, the temple contains a
painting of Rukmini, Krsna and Durvasa. A story behind the painting is when
Rukmini and Krsna invited the sage Durvasa for lunch in Dwarka. He had one
condition to come which was that if both Krsna and Rukmini pulled the chariot
instead of the horses. They agreed and took off to meet Durvasa. During the day
Rukmini felt thirsty and told Krsna, who pressed his toe against the ground
Ganga water came pouring out from which Rukmini then drank. Sage Durvasa, known
to be short tempered, became angry that Rukmini drank the water without asking
him first. He cursed Rukmini and Krsna by separating them for twelve years, and
cursed the place they stayed at causing it to be dry and extinct of any water
sources (Prasad 2013). Since then it is said that the reason why the Rukmini
Temple and Dwarkadheesh Temple are two kilometers far apart from each other is
because of Sage Durvasa’s curse. According to the temple tradition it is
important to drink the water that is offered by the priests after viewing
Rukmini’s idol to “perform parikrama
of the idol” (Prasad 2013).
Satyabhama was one of Krsna’s
wives. It is said that she was jealous of Rukmini and thought Krsna was always
more affectionate towards Rukmini than her. There was a story entailing
Rukmini’s devotion towards Krsna through tulabharam (Vemsani 91). Narada provokes Satyabhama to go under a vrata,
where she has to offer Krsna to Narada as a slave or win Krsna back by
proving her love towards him. In order to win him back she has to pay with
jewels and gold equivalent to the weight of Krsna on a scale. Confidently
Satyabhama agrees without hesitation. She then started to give all of her
possessions away on the scale, but it did not budge at all. She started to
worry and Narada recommended that she get Rukmini to help her out. Rukmini came
with a leaf of tulsi and placed it on the scale without any jewelry. The
scale immediately weighed the same as Krsna, and Satyabhama won him back with
the help of Rukmini. Though there are many different variations describing why
this event occurred in the first place this specific version displayed a symbol
of love towards Krsna which was so pure and genuine, her devotion was valued
more than physical wealth.
Topics for Further Investigation:
R. Christopher (2014) “The Abduction of Sri-Rukmini: Politics, Genealogy and
Theology in Harivamsa Religious Studies and Theology London: 33:23-46.
Accessed January 28,2020.
Swami, A.C (1970) Krsna – The Supreme Personality of Godhead Volume 2. Boston:
Indranee Phookan and Begum, Jerina (2014) “Bhaona, the Traditional Theatre Form
of Assam, as an Instrument for Developing Moral Values.” 19:3. Accessed January
Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna In History and Legend. Calcutta: Calcutta
Dev (2013) Krishna: A Journey Through the Lands & Legends of Krishna. Mumbai:
Jaico Publishing House
Constantina (2010) Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and
Ceremony. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hillary Peter (2016) Hinduism- The eBook by Hillary Rodrigues. Journal
of Buddhist Ethics Online Book, Ltd.
Chari, S.M (1994) Vaisnavism- It Philosophy, Theology and Religious
Discipline. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
Lavanya (2016) Krishna in History, Thought and Culture: an encyclopedia of
the Hindu lord of many names. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC
There are numerous gods and goddesses that are presently being worshipped, and/or have been worshipped in the past within Hinduism, and one of these goddesses is the deity Jyestha. This goddess is distinctive because she is associated with inauspiciousness, disgrace, misfortune and discord. She is recognized as the elder sister of the better known and worshipped goddess of good fortune and beauty Laksmi, and is acknowledged as the complete opposite of Laksmi (Orr 26). Jyestha’s name is thought to derive from the female head of polygamous households, the senior wife, elder/eldest or jyestha wife (Lesley 120). According to professor David Kinsley, in his book Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas, Jyestha is one of three goddesses that the higher goddess Dhumavati identifies as or with; the other two being Nirriti, who is known specifically as the goddess of deadly hidden realms and sorrows, and Alaksmi, who is known specifically as the goddess of misfortune (1998:178-9). Dhumavati, also known as the Widow Goddess, is one of the Ten Mahavidyas or Tantric Wisdom Goddesses, and her name translates to “she who abides in smoke” (Gadon 5). None of these goddesses are particularly well known or worshipped in the current widespread Hindu tradition (Orr 31; MET; Kinsley 178). Less often in India, Jyestha is also identified with Sitala who is known likewise as an inauspicious goddess, the goddess of smallpox, who carries a broom and rides a donkey just like Jyestha, as will be discussed below.
In all four versions or identities of the goddess Dhumavati (Nirriti, Jyestha and Alaksmi), she is associated with being ugly and frightening. Kinsley describes Dhumavati as black-skinned, tall, wearing dirty clothes, having a long nose and teeth, and having sagging breasts. She is associated with riding in a chariot that displays a banner depicting a crow, and usually she is seen carrying a skull bowl, a spear, a broom, winnowing fan, a torch, or a club (1998:176). Similarly, in existing depictions of Jyestha, she is illustrated as older in age with black or red skin, having a wide face with a long, prominent nose; having large sagging breasts that rest upon her swollen stomach and wide waist. Her hefty stomach matches her large and drooping lips, cheeks, arms, calves, and thighs. This goddess is typically seen holding a blue or white lotus, sometimes making the symbol of protection, and having a water pot somewhere in the depiction. She is shown sitting at ease, graceless, legs apart, with her knees spread wide (Gadon 7). She adorns a mark of marriage upon her forehead, which is an important aspect of her character, and many large pieces of jewelry. She, too, is shown as having a banner with a crow on it, and having a bundle of sticks near her that are thought to be a broom. In some cases she is seen riding a donkey, as is Alaksmi, a lion or a camel; in other depictions she is seen riding on a chariot being pulled by lions and is followed by tigers. The crow emblem that Jyestha is depicted with holds a negative association within the Hindu tradition. Leslie Orr and Julia Leslie discuss in their writings that crows are symbols of bad luck, famine and are associated with being bringers of misfortune. They are even believed to be evokers of other inauspicious deities such as Nirriti and Tama (Leslie 119; Orr 26). The depiction of the assumed broom connects Jyestha directly to the household, this is because brooms are used by women and servants in the home in order to sweep away physical impurities, as well as to ward off misfortune (Leslie 120).
Two assistants can be seen following Jyestha, which are thought in some cases to be her son and daughter (Leslie 115-8; Kinsley 1998:178). The male attendant is depicted as having a bull’s head, wearing a crown and holding a stick or club in one hand and with the other hand either pointing or holding a cord or rope. The woman is presented as young, with an attractive bosom and holding a lotus while also wearing a crown. Both of these figures are seen with one leg hanging and the other folded underneath their body (Leslie 118). These characteristics of the two followers of Jyestha can be seen clearly in the sculpture that is currently on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MET) in New York City. As described on their website, the piece is dated to between 500 and 1000 CE and is noted to have come from South Asia (MET). In addition to her bull-headed son and beautiful daughter, she is seen holding a blue lotus and is pictured with a crow. Some of her other characteristics are not as notable in this piece as with others, but she is clearly seen as has having large arms as well as having a stomach that is protruding from the piece. “The picture that emerges- of an unattractive older woman, unsmiling and indolent, flanked by the ideal offspring (a powerful son and a beautiful daughter), served by solicitous female servants, marked by the inauspicious, cawing crow and the protective, chastising power if the household broom- suggests a deliberate link with a real or at least archetypal human figure” (Leslie 120).
The widely accepted account or myth of how Jyestha was brought into existence is explained thoroughly by Leslie. The gods and demons decided to churn the sea in an attempt to recreate the universe to try to obtain the nectar of immortality. During this churning it is believed that Jyestha was created accidentally, as well as many other items and deities; such as the goddess Sri, the nectar of immortality, poison, the moon and the sun, to name a few (Leslie 120-1). The story of her creation can be found in the Padmapurana, where it is explained that she is granted a place “in every home in which strife prevails, in which liars use harsh language, in which sinful and evil-minded men are asleep at the time of the twilight ritual. Wherever skulls, long hair, ashes, bones, chaff or charcoal are to be found” there will be a place for her (Leslie 121). It does not give an indication of how long ago this took place, but Kinsley notes that she seems to have appeared very early in the Hindu tradition (1998:178).
After Jyestha’s creation, there are conflicting myths or stories about her remaining life, and how she became associated with those who worship her. In some myths, Jyestha marries a brahmin hermit who later seeks advice from the great sage Markandeya about what to do with his wife because she continuously runs away in fear covering her ears after seeing and hearing Vedic rituals (Leslie 121). Markandeya tells the husband/brahmin that Jyestha cannot live amongst the people and places where the religious live and worship. She is so irreligious, antisocial and inauspicious that her husband abandons her in an area where local divinities are worshipped and tells her that she must support herself on the offerings made by the women devotees. This leads to her repenting her ways and turning to Visnu for help (Leslie 122). A second myth of Jyestha’s life that is told holds some key similarities. In this one, Jyestha marries a sage named Dussaha who quickly discovers that she cannot bear to witness or hear any religious activity (Kinsley 1998: 178). Dussaha complains about this to Visnu, and is told to take her where inauspicious activities occur; such as homes where families fight, or parents do not care for their children. Jyestha is eventually abandoned by Dussaha, and she again turns to Visnu to ask for help sustaining herself. He tells her that she will be sustained by the offerings from women (Kinsley 1998: 179).
As noted in the myth of how Jyestha was created, she is attracted to homes in which chaos, unruliness and inauspiciousness occur. She was rightfully abandoned by her husband, in both myths explored, and made to live off of the offerings left to her specifically by women devotees. Leslie notes this importance because of the connection between those women who are making the offerings and this inauspicious goddess; “…she is reduced to living off the offerings made by women, that is, the offerings made by the largest segment of society traditionally excluded from orthodox ritual and sacred knowledge” (Leslie 122). Jyestha is able to sustain herself off of these female offerings because women in the Hindu tradition are thought to be less pure than their male counterparts, for the most part. However, Leslie also notes that she is likewise worshipped by male devotees who ask for an increase in wealth, an end to misfortune and success to their wives and children (122). Why draw attention to yourself from this ugly and inauspicious goddess at all? It is believed that offerings made to Jyestha will leave the family who made the offerings alone and when leaving, take all of their inauspiciousness with her (Leslie 122-3).
Worship of this goddess has decreased immensely in the past centuries, however during some point of time in the past it seems that she had a widespread following (MET; Kinsley 178). According to the MET website, her earliest appearance can be traced back to northern India in the fourth century. There is also a chapter on the worship of Jyestha found in the Baudhayanagrhyasutra which is dated between 600 and 300 BCE. Many images of her have been found in south India that date back to the seventh and eighth centuries, indicating that it was during this time that she was extremely popular (Kinsley 1998:178; Leslie 114). The MET website also suggests that her cult following either began to diminish or was already in its downfall in the post-medieval era. Orr, however, notes a specific case in Tamil Nadu where the worship of Jyestha can be dated from the eighth to the eleventh century, which would indicate that her cult following began to decline during the medieval era; it was through the eleventh century that the auspicious goddess Laksmi overtook her sister’s role and became more widely worshipped (Orr 26;31).
Today, the goddess Jyestha is very rarely worshipped. Her image receives very little attention, and is hidden away in corners, removed or thrown away completely. However, in the places that the deity Jyestha is still recognized, she is feared (Leslie 114). Leslie furthers this observation with an example from a temple in Uttaramerur, southern India where Jyestha is still recognized. “In the Kolambesvara Temple in Uttaramerur, an image of Jyestha is kept with its face to the ground for fear that an upright image would bring death to the village. Legend has it that this belief has been proven correct several times” (Leslie 114).
The decline of Jyestha’s cult worship is hinted at in different articles, but Orr discusses it in detail. In the Hindu tradition, changes were taking place in many different ways, including terminology related to the deities. Specifically discussed is the term pitari, which now is understood to mean “village goddess,” whereas once, around one thousand years ago, it meant a goddess belonging to the “great tradition” (Orr 30). More simply put, when talking about deities in the Hindu tradition, goddesses that were once worshipped as great goddesses turned into lesser known and worshipped village deities. “From the eleventh century onward some of these goddesses were displaced even from this position; the images of saptamatrkas (seven mothers) were removed and installed as guardian deities in small village temples, becoming pitaris in the modern sense of the word” (Orr 30). Jyestha, or one of her alternate identities, was one of these goddesses that was turned from a great goddess into a village deity. Orr further suggests that this change in meaning could point to de-Sanskritization (Orr 30). This is also an explanation as to why Jyestha is only worshipped in villages such as the aforementioned Uttaramerur, because she is known as the village deity to this southern India community.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Elgood, Heather (2004) “Exploring the Roots of Village Hinduism in South Asia.” World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3: 326–342. Accessed October 3, 2018. doi: 10.1080/0043824042000282777.
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Gadon, Elinor W. (1998) “Revisioning the Female Demon.” ReVision, Vol. 20, No. 3: 3-30.
K.G., Krishnan (1981) Studies in South Indian History and Epigraphy volume 1. Madras: New Era Publications.
Kinsley, David R. (2008) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
_____ (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Leslie, Julia (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (2011) “Jyeshtha Flanked by Her Children.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38136.
Orr, Leslie C. (2005) “Identity and Divinity: Boundary-Crossing Goddesses in Medieval South India Author.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.73, No.1: 9-43.
Rao, Gopinatha, T.A. (1981) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
India is a patriarchal society in which men are considered more important than women; wives are often ranked based on their husband’s social status. However, goddesses are an exception and challenge this notion, as they hold power (Sakti) over all humans and often hold presidency over male gods in the Hindu religion (Vaudeville 1). Radha is an inspirational goddess in the Hindu religion, due to her everlasting love and unbreakable devotion (Bhakti) for the god Krsna, who is one of the eight incarnations of Visnu (Mukhhopadhyay 4). Unfortunately there is no record of Radha’s individual identity before she met Krsna; therefore, they are often considered one entity with the name Radha-Krsna (Miller 13). Radha’s story is unique because it reinforces love between human and the divine (Dimock and Levertov 9). Together, their story constitutes the attainment of the highest level of connection, passion, and love that two beings can share, which is known as Rasa.
The Gitagovinda describes the love relationship of Radha and Krsna through poetry and song, and was written in the 12th Century by Jayadeva (Miller 14). Jayadeva reveals that Radha and Krsna first encountered one another in the country Braj. This was Radha’s birth town where she was well known and often called Lali, which means darling (Vaudeville 11). Krsna was married to sixteen thousand wives, and had sixteen thousand Gopis, which are cow-herding women. Krsna’s flute had the power to make women drop whatever they were doing and join him in listening to beautiful melodies, thus attracting Radha (Dimock and Levertov 8).
Krsna and Radha knew and longed for each other before they had any first encounters, leading to the notion that they are not, and never were, separate entities at all. Rather, Radha is Krsna’s characteristic of power and strength (Sakti), and everything that he wants out of a partner; she is said to be his reason for coming into the world (Wulff 111). Radha evolved from Krsna to bring nature (Prakrti), Maya (mysterious power), and Sakti (energy) into existence (Brown 62). This alludes to the idea that Krsna needs Radha because she is the energy and power that he transmits to all of the other Gopis when he loves them. When Radha and Krsna are apart he longs to feel the stability he encounters in her presence.
One crucial concept of importance when surveying Radha and Krsnas love is the importance of memory. It is highly recognized that both Radha and Krsna remembered each others’ encounters and the way they made each other feel, most of their relationship was spent lovingly devoting themselves to each other through their connection of memories, and the hope that they would one day reunite after huge bouts of separation. Krsna is absent for long periods of time as he goes away to the Mahabharata war, in hopes of finding his lost identity (Miller and Goswami 14, 89). Radha becomes so obsessed with the idea of Krsna that she sees him everywhere she goes, even in the trees, almost as a hallucination (Wulff 31). Radha remembers miniscule details about Krsna, and fantasizes about making love to him. Through this, Krsna can sense her love and they share a connection through wanting each other; this desire is known as Kama (Miller 20). The foundation of their relationship is that they love each other so deeply that they will do anything to stay devoted, even after great amounts of time pass without contact. Their love is eternal and they both never feel the strength of that bond with any of their other significant partners.
Radha is often perceived as Krsna’s mistress because Krsna never married her but always admired her. Radha and Krsna never marry because they desire a love without constraints and one of spontaneity (Wulff 41). Radha’s biggest insecurity is that she is forced to overcome the jealousy she experiences when she imagines Krsna participating in sexual acts with other Gopis (Dimock and Levertov 7). Radha feels intensely conflicted in her own mind, as she is aware that Krsna is attracted and involved with other women, but this does not stop her from giving Krsna all she has (even though she is also married). She is aware that she appears mad to everyone else around her, but she does not care because her feelings of love are so deep that no object, or human could change the way she feels (Wulff 38).
Radha’s love is Krsna’s Sakti; without it he would be incomplete and lost. She energizes Krsna providing him with the means to carry on as a friend, master, child, or lover (Brown 69). Because Radha is Krsna’s favourite, she becomes one with him; alone she is just a normal cow herding Gopi, but in combination with him she is considered to be a powerful mother figure who Krsna needs and desires. Sometimes she is even regarded as more important than he in the Hindu religion. The image in which Radha forces Krsna to let her put her feet on top of his head, demonstrates the power that she had over him (Miller and Brown 23,71). The two complement and complete each other; something is taken away from one being without the presence of the other.
Radha submits her complete self to Krsna in a variety of ways. First, she listens and sings with Krsna, which proves that they are emotionally surrendered to each other. Radha and Krsna can mediate and be on the same level with one another, through this they achieve Samarana, which means spontaneity, in which all expectations are lost and they are able to love each other freely without restraints of other people (Goswami 80). Radha and Krsna are trying to achieve Rasa, which is the highest level of love, in which they will no longer feel like separate entities; rather, their love will be so powerful that it joins two individuals into one being (Goswami 80).
Today Radha and Krsna are still very important deities in Hindu worship; the Hindu calendar allows them both to be praised on separate days. Radha Ashtami is celebrated in August or September, and it is to commemorate the day of her birth. On this day people fast from food and worship her (Bellenir 1). All goddesses are seen in the Hindu calendar to have both a dark (Kali) and a bright (Durga) side, to represent the waxing and waning of the moon. The light side is said to take on human form, which carries weapons, and the dark represents a cosmic mother figure (Vaudeville 3). One also finds renounced paintings of Radha and Krsna; these represent their deep love and bond. Most original paintings show Krsna alone playing his flute, although later on Radha is also shown playing. This represents that Radha is most definitely Krsna’s favourite, and therefore receives special privileges over the other Gopis (Goswami 87).
Radha and Krsna’s relationship illustrates that not only humans can attain extreme love connections for one another, but the love between a human and God is also possible. The Radha-Krsna relationship proves that the highest Bhakti, Rasa, is possible for these two as they remember every characteristic and devote their entire being to another; even when jealousy and anger take over, their devotion for one another prevails (Dimock and Levertov 13). Krsna proves his love by making Radha his favourite out of all of the women he has encountered, and Radha devotes every action to loving Krsna and being his power to continue loving her and all of his wives and Gopis (Brown 63).
Bellenir, K (2004) Religious Holidays & Calendars. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc.
Brown, Mackenzie. (1982) “The Theology of Radha in the Puranas.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.57-72. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dimock, Edward and Levertov, Denise (1967) In praise of Krishna: songs from the Bengali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goswami, Shrivatsa. (1982) “The Play and Perfection of Rasa” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.72-89. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Miller, Barbara. (1982) “The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.13-27. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mukhoradhyay, Durgadas (1990) In Praise of Krishna. Delhi: Br Publishing Corporation.
Vaudeville, Charlotte. (1982) “Krishna Gopala, Radha, and The Great Goddess.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of India, p.1-13. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wulff, Donna. (1996) “Radha: Consort and Conquerer of Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India, P. 109-112. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wulff, Donna. (1982) “A Sanskrit Portrait: Radha in the plays of Rupa Gosvami” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.27-42. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mohini is a manifestation of Visnu in the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk. The myth starts out with a war between the devas (representation of good) and the asuras (representation of bad), but the devas were losing due to an unfair advantage on the asuras’ side (Glucklich 158). The asuras got help from Siva who had given them the ability to resurrect from the dead after the devas had killed them (Glucklich 158). Because of this, the devas sought after Brahma to help them. He suggested that instead of fighting with the asuras they should partner up with them to summon Visnu to help them churn the ocean of milk in order to gain “the nectar of immortality” (Glucklich 158). Visnu plays a vital role in this myth because he manifests in many forms to help the devas and the asuras to churn the ocean. Visnu takes on forms to be: the foundation for the churning stick (a tortoise), the churning rope (a serpent), and of course Mohini (Kinsley 67).
While the ocean was churning, various other things emerge before the nectar of immortality. Once it appeared out of the ocean the devas drank, which is when Mohini appears as a seductive woman who distributes the nectar and beheads Rahu, an asura disguised as a deva, before he can swallow the nectar (Glucklich 159-160). With the nectar and Visnu’s weapons, the devas defeat the asuras as they retreated (Glucklich 160). Some believe that the nectar of immortality was a euphemism for Soma (Glucklich 160) while others interpret it as a “representation of the abundance of earth” (Kinsley 68). This shift between sexes often has bad or negative connotations in religious myths. Normally, when a god, or anyone for that matter, is turned into a different sex (usually men turning into women) it is form of punishment or a curse, with the exception of Mohini (Parasher-Sen 45). Earlier versions of the myth were short and did not use Mohini’s name but rather spoke of an anonymous woman (Visnu in disguise) who took back the immortality nectar that the asuras had stolen (Parasher-Sen 48). A different rendering of this myth believe that Mohini’s role was to cheat the asuras out of their share while distributing the immortality nectar (see Parasher-Sen 48). In the Vayu Purana version of the myth, Brahma says a mantra that brings Mohini out of the ocean, and when he sees her he is so pleased by her looks (Parasher-Sen 48).
Part of the churning the ocean myth is the chase of Mohini by Siva. There are several versions of this part of the myth. In the Bhagavata Purana, after seeing Mohini, Siva loses his senses and runs after Mohini. He becomes so overwhelmed with passion that only after he ejaculates, he realizes that Mohini is really just a manifestation of Visnu and that he had been fooled (Parasher-Sen 48). In the Agni Purana once Mohini turns back into Visnu, Siva asks him to turn back into his female form. When he does, Siva becomes naked and grabs Mohini by the hair until she frees herself and runs away. He follows her and it is unclear if he catches her again but whereever his semen drops is where sacred places of lingas and gold appear (Parasher-Sen 48). These ‘connections’ between Mohini (Visnu) and Siva was said to have created a child (Aiyanar) which turns Mohini into a mother figure instead of a temptress (Parasher-Sen 49).
The final part of the myth is the binding of Visnu and Siva which creates Harihara. Harihara is an androgynous figure which is created by Visnu who is often, but not always, composed as feminine and Siva who is always depicted as masculine (Parasher-Sen 45). Even though Visnu reverts back to his masculine form before the binding with Siva, he is still considered to be the feminine side (Parasher-Sen 45). Although the Harihara is described as being androgynous, with Visnu possessing the female body parts, it is rare to find a depiction of this (Parasher-Sen 51). It is hard to find sculptures of Harihara with Mohini on the side of Visnu, although there are instances of this representation (Parasher-Sen 51). The feminine side (Visnu/Mohini) is often depicted holding either a wheel, a conch, or a mace in one hand and a crab in the other, while wearing a crown and crocodile earrings (Parasher-Sen 51). While the masculine side (Siva) is often holding a trident, sword, drum, rosary, battle-axe, or a skull while wearing serpent earrings and a ‘top-knot of hair’ with a crescent moon (Parasher-Sen 51).
Mohini can be considered many things: the seducer of Siva (Parasher-Sen 46), the nectar distributor (Parasher-Sen 48; Glucklich 159-160; and Kinsley 67), the mother of Aiyanar (Parasher-Sen 49), and the deceiver of asuras (Parasher-Sen 46). Some scholars think that Mohini is important to the Hindu culture because she helps show women in a more positive light, and that the transformation from a male to female is not always a curse but rather a gift (Parasher-Sen 56), and in the case of Mohini, a necessity to stop the bad from becoming more powerful than the good.
REFERENCES AND RELATED READINGS
Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Visnu. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parasher-Sen, Aloka (1999) “Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1: 43-60.
The Sakta Pithas are places of worship, created to worship Hindu goddesses and or places of sacred capacity regarded as seats of the Devi (the Great Goddess). Sakti is known as the female principle of Hinduism and means ‘power’. Sakti is worshipped under many different names such as Durga, Ma, Devi and so on. These places of worship are spread throughout India, often with 51 places of worship in total, most of which are in Bengal or Assam (Payne 1). The 51 Pithas or places of worship are first described in the Mahapithanirupana or Pithanirnaya manuscript. (Sircar 3). Although it is not exactly evident when these manuscripts were composed, it is probable that they were prepared in the Medieval period (Sircar 4). However, it was not until later that works were prepared for Saktism to be greater studied and understood (Payne 15).
Related to these places of worship is an ancient myth depicting how these Pithas, or places of pilgrimage, came to be created. This myth involves the goddess Sati who is regarded as the wife of the great god Siva. There are many different legends and stories that go along with the naming and placing of these Pithas, as every author writing on the Sakta Pithas present different lists as to where the body parts fell. This myth is one that can be described as grim and violent, and thus has not received much attention as far as research goes. However, Saktism is a very important religious movement within Hinduism, and there are millions of Saktas or worshippers of Sakti throughout India (Payne 14). With any religion, the origins of certain myths can vary making it complex to comprehend. In this article, we will examine the well-known myth of the Sakta Pithas, which tells how they came to be created. We shall also examine some of the legends of the Pithas in regards to their placement and names
One of the most ancient myths, which although not directly connected to the Pithas, provides a parallel symbolic motif. It tells a story of incest between a father, the creator god Prajapati and his daughter, the goddess Usas. The gods became disgusted with this act of incest and, requested Rudra to destroy Prajapati. Rudra thus pierced Prajapti with an arrow and Prajapati proceeded to fall to the ground, which is thereafter used in sacrificial rituals. Since Prajapati represents sacrifice his body could not simply be destroyed. This version of the myth can be found in the Puranas or Tantras (Sircar 5).
Although the above is an ancient tale, with no direct connection to the Pithas, it grows from there into the well-known Daksa-Yajna Story approximately in the fourth century CE (Sircar 5). This tells of the mother goddess, in the form of Sati, who was a daughter of the “great king Daksa”. She took on this form of Sati in order to marry Siva (Courtright 39). After the couple was married, they went to live in Siva’s home at Mt. Kailasa. Following their marriage Sati’s father, Daksa Prajapati, hosted a sacrifice inviting all the gods but excluded his daughter Sati and his son in law, Siva. Dadhici, (Daksa’s priest), warned against the exclusion of Sati and Siva. He stated that without the ‘great God’, Siva, the ritual would be ineffective (Courtright, 39). However, Daksa believed that Siva was a terrible son in law and that he did not deserve to attend the ritual. Sati, enraged that she and her husband were not invited to her father’s sacrifice, decided to attend nonetheless. Upon attending the sacrifice, Sati was greatly mistreated by her father. Due to this mistreatment, Sati is said to have thrown herself into a fire feeling broken hearted and hurt. News of Sati’s death reached Siva, who furiously headed to the sacrifice and completely destroyed the scene. Some versions of the myth say that he beheaded Daksa. Others say that it was Virabhadra who destroyed the sacrificial ritual and beheaded Daksa (Courtright 41).
The further progression of this myth was added in the later part of the Medieval period, to justify the creation of the Pithas. It tells how Siva roamed around mad with despair carrying Sati’s body. Sati’s body was eventually cut piece by piece out of Siva’s hands; each piece was a different body part, which fell to the earth, thereby creating the holy sites of the Sakta Pithas. Some versions of the myth state that it was Brahman, Visnu and Sani that freed Siva from carrying Sati’s body, while others state that it was Visnu alone. As Sati’s body fell to the earth it spread Sakti or power across India. This spreading of Sati’s body, which not only created the Sakta Pithas, but which offers a mythic rationale for why the entire landscape of India is sacred, is the final portion of the myth.
Courtright suggests that there is a link regarding the creation of the Sakta Pithas and the ancient sacrificial ritual of sati practiced by widows upon the death of their husbands. However, different circumstances resulted in the immolation of Sati versus the sacrificial practice of sati performed by Hindu wives. Sati’s immolation was due to the harshness of a father towards a daughter and her husband while sati is a sacrifice performed by widows to accompany their husband after death (Courtright 37).
The locations where Sati’s body parts fell, or the Pithas, are often connected with linga, which represents Siva. Hindus believe that both worship of the linga and yoni should be held in the same high regard (Sircar 7). The locations, names and traditions of the Pithas differ throughout history. Many writers used a great deal of imagination when creating the lists of Pithas, so there is a great deal of variation amongst them (Sircar 32). However, many texts speak of the four Pithas also known as the Adi Pithas. The Adi Pithas are considered the major sites of Sakti worship, associated with the northern, southern, eastern and western regions of India (Sircar, 17). One early tradition, written about in the Catususpithatantra, indicates the four Adi Pithas as “Atmapitha, Parapitha, Yogapitha and Guhyapitha” (Sircar 11). Due to the fact that Saktism and the worship of Sakti and the Sakta Pithas are not strictly linked to Hinduism, and are also worshipped in Buddhism and Jainism, there are various names and traditions of the Sakti Pithas amongst these groups. The Hevajra Tantra, a Buddhist religious text, lists the Adi Pithas as “Jalandhara, Odiyana, Purnagiti and Kamarupa” (Sircar 12).
Popular writings about the Sakta Pithas speak of the Adi Pithas or the four Pithas and also state that there are a total of 51 Pithas. However, A section of the Kalika Purana contributes an account of seven Pithas as opposed to four: Devikuta, where the two feet of Sati fell, Uddiyana, where the two thighs fell, Kamagiri, where the pudendum muliebre fell, the eastern borders of Kamarupa, where the navel fell, Jalandhara, where the two breasts fell, Purnagiri, where the neck and shoulders fell and once again the borders of Kamarupa, where the head fell. The Rudrayamala, a Tantric text, mentions ten holy sites, rather than four. This tradition discusses sites in Kamarupa, Jalandhara, Purnagiri and Uddiyana, similarly to the Kalika Purana. The Matysa Skanda and Padma Puranas list the large number of 108 Pithas in total. Such variations seem to derive from the writer’s fabrication and the imagination (Sircar 32). Although the list of names for the Sakta Pithas vary and are plentiful, the Kamarupa Pitha is commonly mentioned in many of the lists. Another commonality is a list of countries connected to a high level of Sakti worhip, namely: Gandahara, Uddiyana, Jalandhara and Kashmir (Sircar, 16). Two of the best-known temples that are widely acknowledged as Sakta Pithas by most worshippers today, are Kamakhya and Kalighat.
One of the oldest and most popular sites of goddess worship is Kamakhya temple, located at Guwahati, Assam. The legend of this site, as forwarded by the current temple management, tells of the king of Nepal approaching a sage known as Vatsayana. He was seeking advice on how to convert the popular ritual of human sacrifice to a more socially accepted rite of worship. Vatsayana suggested the worship of a Tantric goddess named Tara in place of sacrificial rituals. The worship of Tara spread reaching to the Garo Hills where local tribes worshipped a fertility goddess named Kameke. As time went on the Tantric goddess Tara, and the fertility goddess Kameke were linked with the legend of the Sakta Pithas and began to be worshipped as Devi. This site is said to be where Sati would escape to spend time with Siva. It is also said to be the location where her yoni fell (kamakhyadham.com).
The Kalighat is an ancient site located in city of Calcutta (Kolkata), on the bank of the Hooghly river, and said to be where Sati’s toes and right foot fell. A well-known, newer temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, is now situated there. Legend has it that a devotee’s eye was caught by a ray of light while passing the Bhagirathi river. Upon moving toward the light the devotee found a human toe carved in stone. After discovering this stone foot the devotee immediately began praying to the mother goddess. The temple was originally a small hut, constructed in the early 16th century. It was founded by Chowringee Natha, son to the king of Bengal. Kalighat was lavishly reconstructed in 1809 by the Chowdhrys family, transforming it from a small hut to a beautiful site. The government of Bengal has taken a great interest in this temple, as it has become a main tourist attraction (kalighattemple.com).
The Sakta Pithas have not been well studied; perhaps this is because scholars in the past have regarded the myth and the tradition of the Pithas negatively instead of attempting to understand their complex origins. However, these sites attract many pilgrims from far and wide, and will continue to serve as an important place of worship for centuries to come.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Courtright, Paul (2011) “Searching for Sati.” Studying Hinduism in Practice. edited by Hillary Rodrigues. P.37-45. London: Routledge.
Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. London: Oxford University Press.
“kalighat Kali Temple.” http://kalighattemple.com/legend.htm
Payne, Ernest (1997) The Saktas: The Introductive and Comparative Studies. New York: Dover Publications.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books
Sircar,D.C. ( 2004) The Sakti Pithas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
The Goddess Camunda is depicted as ferocious and fear striking in Hindu storytelling. Often described as having flames shooting from her eyes, surrounded by goblins, and wearing a garland of skulls it is no wonder she is feared (Jones and Ryan 102). Yet with the fear that surrounds Camunda she is worshipped by many to help cure people of ailments and for protection. Camunda is closely associated with the Goddess Kali. Kali is the fiercest aspect of Durga and can sometimes be described as her helper (Minturn 169). Camunda is known by many names and can be worshipped in different forms. In the Tantric Saptamatrka cult Camunda is depicted as an independent sakti in the cosmic cycle. This cycle begins with Brahma, the creator, and ends with Camunda. Since Camunda is understood as the fierce goddess of destruction she is depicted at the end of this cosmic cycle which signifies the power of destruction which then leads to renewal (Foulston and Abbott 111). It should be noted that as Kali and Camunda are similar; Camunda is depicted as very ugly and Kali, while disheveled, is beautiful. Also, Camunda has an association with death while Kali is more associated with violence (Mohanty 34).
Camunda’s origin as a Hindu Goddess is recounted best in a few stories in the Devi Mahatmya. In the first story Camunda came to life when Siva, Visnu and Brahma called the Mother Goddess, Durga to stop king demon Mahisa from taking over the universe. Mahisa sent his demons Canda and Munda to find the goddess and bring her to him as he wanted to take Durga to be his wife. In the form of Parvati, Kali sprang from her brow due to Durga’s fury toward the demons. Kali decapitated Canda and Munda and presented their heads to Durga. Durga was so pleased by this that she announced to Kali that she will be worshipped and remembered as Camunda, a blend of both the demons names for which she has destroyed (Amazzone 6-7).
In the second story, which continues later in the previous battle, Mahisa is so enraged by the death of his demons that he sends Raktabija to defeat Durga. This battle is difficult and in her anger she transforms into the Goddess Candika for the battle. To her dismay, she learns that every drop of blood Raktabija loses turns into another powerful Raktabija. Feeling herself losing the battle, the Goddess calls Camunda and commands her to lick up the blood so Candika can eventually defeat Raktabija. Camunda’s complexion changed to red as she drank the blood of the enemy (Coburn 67). These stories are significant as they depict Camunda’s power and ability to defeat demons through her power and strength. These stories reiterate that goddesses are not to be thought of as weak or defenseless; they were to be feared and worshipped for their power. Camunda represents that people should be fierce, possess strength, and hold the confidence and ability to go at many things in life alone.
Camunda has been described as looking emaciated and near death to remind people of the fragility of life. She is known to cause fear from her eyes through this form. Her companion to ride is an owl, which can see in the night sky and has 360 degree perception (Amazonne 118). Also, in an image of Camunda on Bubhanesvar temple shows her so emaciated that all of her bones are showing and her eye sockets are sunken in with her eyes popping out. She has drooping breasts and a sunken in stomach (Kinsley 1988: 148). The expression on her face is consistently fierce showing teeth in most representations of her. There is also a sculpture of her in Jajpur in Orissa where she carries all of the discussed features including four arms which hold things such as a wine cup and severed heads. She also wears a necklace made of skulls and has a bald head with fire projecting from it (Kinsley 1988: 148). In history it has been told that King Pratap Singha made a garland out of severed heads from the Muslims slain in the sacrifice battle as a tribute to the goddess in her ferocious form who also wears a garland of severed heads (Urban 96). From these defining features one can see how she is projected as a fierce Goddess.
Camunda is worshipped as an independent deity of the Tantric Saptamatrka. Camunda and the other seven Saptamatrika deities are worshipped for personal and spiritual renewal which leads to rebirth. With this devotion it is understood that all energy is directed towards the Great Goddess, Mahadevi, to reach the highest levels of liberation (Kinsley 1988: 150). Due to this significance Camunda is often worshipped in ancient sculpture and described in detail as a way of worshipping the Great Goddess in her more aggressive facet. Camunda’s association with death brings on more life and represents the recycling of energy (Kinsley 1988: 149).
As with all gods and goddesses in the Hindu tradition there are specific rituals and forms of worship that please such deities. These rituals can come in forms of speaking mantras, rituals, and sacrifice. Camunda is known as a deity who is worshipped through sacrifice. Historically, meat offerings and animal sacrifice, such as sheep, were made to her which seems to play into her ferocious nature (Kinsley 1988:146). In Jainism, these blood sacrifices had to end to keep with Jain practices. In the story of Saciya Nata, sweets were offered to the goddess in place of animal sacrifice. It is said that Camunda became infuriated by the change in sacrifice and caused pain to the monk. However, when seeing how well the man took the pain, she became scared and asked the man for forgiveness. From this point, Camunda no longer demanded meat as a sacrifice (Babb 142). Sacrifice may be a way in which the goddess is worshipped but she is often called upon in times of need. Camunda is also often associated with rituals to remove evil spirits and cure illness. Camunda can be called on during exorcisms to help scare away demons from the ailing (McDaniel 125).
In Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, a hymn is sung that praises Camunda. She is described as having a gaping mouth, laughing in a terrifying tone, and dancing so wildly that it threatened to destroy the world. Due to this depiction of the goddess it has been known to build temples and sites of worship for Camunda far away from villages and towns yet near cremation grounds due to her proximity with death (Kinsley 1988: 147). There is a Camunda-devi temple found 15 kilometers from Dharamsala where the ten Mahavidyas are painted on the walls inside. Since Camunda was a form of Kali this is why this temple dedicated to her depicts many goddesses. This temple is an example where the Mahadiyas appear as a group, but the temple is only dedicated to one of them, this one being Camunda (Kinsley 1986: 16).
Camunda is often worshipped during the Navaratri festival. This festival is dedicated to Durga and lasts nine nights and ten days four times a year. During the last three days of the festival, the many manifestations of Durga are celebrated, which includes Camunda (McDaniel 79). In this festival Durga is worshipped in her many forms by people reciting stories of her, addressing tantric mantra, setting up shrines, and singing her praises.
Camunda is a fascinating goddess in the Hindu tradition. Her role as a Mahavidya and in association with Kali in historical stories solidifies her role as an important figure in Hindu religious culture. Even though her image may be portrayed as fearsome and horrifying, she is still worshipped for her power and strength. Many people gather at her temple to participate in rituals and worship her to gain relief of ailment or to further themselves towards the path of liberation.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.
Babb, Lawrence A. (1996) Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a study of its interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1986) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.
Minturn, Leigh (1993) Sita’s Daughters: Coming Out of Purdah: The Rajput Women of Khalapur Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Mohanty, Seema (2004) The Book of Kali. London: Penguin Books.
Jones, Constance, James D. Ryan. (2007) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing
Article written by: Melanie Wasylenko (2015) who is solely responsible for its content.
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In the Hindu tradition, the Matrkas are groups of goddesses with various origins that are associated with violence and diseases that afflict children (Bose 36). In literature, these goddesses are often presented with more recognizable goddesses such as Kali’s precursor Camunda (Donaldson 301) and the Great Goddess Devi in battle (Donaldson 305). The size of the group of goddesses varies throughout literature and mythology, and early references to the group of “mothers” mention their innumerable size (Kinsley 1986:151). Eventually, the representation of the Matrkas evolved from unspecific groups of goddesses to an organized unit because of development in the Brahmanic tradition (Harper 97). The group is unique in that each individual goddess holds little significance and is therefore difficult to describe individually but they garner significance when mentioned as a group (Kinsley 1986:158). The Matrkas are featured most prominently in the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:156) but are also featured in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1986:152) and Puranic literature (Harper 52) both as the Matrkas and the Saptamatrkas, a specified Tantric group of seven goddesses. These goddesses are not often worshipped like other significant goddesses, however worship is done for specific circumstances both in literature and tradition. Although these goddesses do not have one specific role within religious tradition, they have a very interesting origin and place within Hinduism and Indian culture.
The origins of the Matrkas is cautiously believed to be a synthesis of both Vedic and tribal goddesses that were worshipped regionally (Foulston 107). These goddesses were all seen as mother goddesses that could cause harm to children and were often featured in battles (Donaldson 301). Due to the belief that the Matrkas are drawn from tribal village-goddesses, epics and Brahmanic traditions are weary of the goddesses, possibly contributing to their negative depiction (Kinsley 1986:155). Iconographically, the Matrkas are mostly represented in calm and maternal form, often holding a child and in some instances emblems of their supposed male counterpart (Donaldson 320). These visual depictions of the goddesses heavily contrast with their physical descriptions that emphasize their fearsome natures and frightening features (Kinsley 1986:155).
Early references rarely specified their number, and it is unclear whether the same goddesses were involved every time they were mentioned (Kinsley 1986:151). During the medieval period though, and possibly after being merged into Brahmanic tradition, the number of goddesses in the group were standardized and named. Most often there are seven goddesses, the Saptamatrkas, but groups of eight and sixteen were also used in literature (Kinsley 1986:152) with up to 24 Matrkas being mentioned by name (Donaldson 318). How the Matrkas are created differ throughout the literature, however it is agreed upon that rather than divine consorts or saktis of male gods as mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya and the Devi-bhagavata-purana, they are extensions or forms of the Great Mother or Goddess, Devi as mentioned in Puranic literature (Bose 36). The popularity of these goddesses increased after 400 CE due to many casual references in literary works (Kinsley 1986:55).
The Matrkas are featured in many literary works. Most prominent is the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya, however it draws on a tradition that was established in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1978:494). In the Vana Parva, the narrative of Karttikeya is told. In this, a group of goddesses were sent by Indra to kill Karritkeya but when they arrived they developed maternal instincts towards him and were unable to kill the child. Instead, they ask him to adopt them as his mothers. They also requested that they be elevated and worshipped in the same position as Brahma’s and Siva’s consorts as the “mothers of the world” and for permission to live off the offspring of man (Kinsley 1978:495). Karritkeya denies the last request, asking that they protect children. However, he adds a caveat that they may torment children with disease and ailments up to the age of 16. The Matrkas’ desire to be mothers and to punish men through harming children stemmed from their own lost opportunity to bear children due to their divorces (Kinsley 1986:152). Further mention in the Mahabharata includes when Karttikeya is given command of the army in which the Matrkas assist him in battle (Kinsley 186:153).
The Matrkas in the Devi-mahatmya are similar to those in the Mahabharata including their ability in battle and dangerous nature (Kinsley 1975:496). The third episode of the Devi-mahatmya includes the formation of the Saptamatrkas from the saktis of seven gods (Donaldson 304) to assist Camunda, precursor to Kali, defeat Raktabija during Devi’s battle with demon brothers Sumbha and Nisumbha (Donaldson 303). The goddesses created closely resemble the saktis they were created from (Kinsley 1986:156) but it is believed by scholars that the story in the Devi-mahatmya references a group of seven goddesses that are further representing a larger group of village goddesses (Kinsley 1978:496). This story is echoed in the Devi-bhagavata-purana (Kinsley 1986:156).
In Puranic literature, the Matrkas are always featured in battle in a supportive role (Kinsley 1986:160). In the Vamana Purana, the story stays similar to the battle in the Devi-mahatmya, however the goddesses are formed from various parts of Devi’s body (Donaldson 305), adding evidence to the belief that the goddesses are an extension of Devi herself. In the Matsya Purana, Siva created the Matrkas to help combat the demon Andhaka, who possessed the ability to duplicate from the blood spilled from his wounds. The Matrkas were instructed to drink the blood of the demon in order to kill him; because of their bloodthirsty nature they gladly complied with Siva’s request (Kinsley 1986:158). However, the blood intoxicated the Matrkas, and Siva was unable to control them or convince them to return to protecting creation, thus beginning their destructive bloodthirsty path (Donaldson 310). The Varaha Purana is based on three battles mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya, however the demons change and Camunda is dominant rather than Devi (Donaldson 308). In this version, the Matrkas were created from Camunda’s mouth and when they emerged, they were deformed and bloodthirsty. In order to control them, Siva set out guidelines for how they should quench their thirst (Donaldson 309). Puranic writers are credited with making the Matrkas mainstream through the simplification of the origins and personalities of the group. The goddesses are restricted in number, are related to male gods in name and depiction and to draw away from their dangerous nature, the Puranic writers focus the Matrkas role to assisting Devi in maintaining cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:158). This intention could stem from a need to incorporate the goddesses into the Brahmanic tradition, however it is still understood by scholars that this group is dangerous and violent, especially towards children (Kinsley 1986:160).
Although the Matrkas are mentioned in varying numbers, seven goddesses are most often referred to as the Saptamatrkas. The significance of the number seven stems from the Indus Valley Civilization, in which seals have been discovered featuring seven female figures that are believed to be “officiants or ministrants of the goddess” (Harper 6). In addition to the seals, the heptad recurs so frequently that it implies the heavy significance of the number seven in Indus culture (Harper 6). In early folk tradition, there were many groups of seven female deities that brought disease and bad luck (Harper 34) and communities would often be subject to these various deities’ wrath for disregarding their worship and as a result be plagued with various diseases and ailments (Harper 41). In Vedic literature, the heptad is also very prominent. The Rg Veda contains the division of the universe into seven regions and in the Artharva-Veda and Kathaka Samhita there are references to seven suns (Harper 13). Even though it seems that the origin of worship to female heptads did not emerge from Vedic literature but rather aboriginal or tribal traditions, the number seven in both cultures seems to represent regeneration of people and the universe (Harper 45).
The Seven Goddesses, Saptamatrkas, of Vedic literature are adaptations of village goddesses and because the village goddesses and Vedic goddesses share many characteristics, they were mutually acculturated in order to be incorporated in Hindu tradition (Harper 52). They are a systematically refined form of the earlier Matrkas that represent the Great Goddess Devi and the cosmic powers of creation, preservation and destruction (Foulston 109). The goddesses named are Brahmani, Vaisnavi, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Varahi, Indrani and Camunda (Foulston 111). The names of these goddesses are similar to the male deity whose sakti they were formed from, however, it is understood that they are not in any way consorts of male deities instead are from the sakti and body of Devi (Foulston 111). Identified as tantric goddesses, they were very popular between the fourth and sixth centuries (Foulston 109). The similarities between the significance of seven and of the Seven Mothers allowed for the mutual acculturation of the Saptamatrkas between Brahmanic and aboriginal traditions (Harper 52). When the Saptamatrkas were accepted into orthodoxy, through being featured in Vedic literature, they contributed to the recognition of some aboriginal deities in Brahmanic worship.
As the Matrkas are associated with harm to children, most worship that is directed at them is essentially to keep the spirits of the goddesses away from their families. This includes shielding children’s beauty from the world, both in speech and in reality (Kinsley 1986:154). Most worship of these goddesses is done in fear of what may come; however they are worshipped for positive reasons as well. The Saptamatrkas are often worshipped for personal spiritual renewal, which touches on the shared belief that the Seven Mothers represented renewal and rejuvenation (Foulston 112). In the Kadambari, Queen Vilasavati worships the Matrkas because of her desire to have a son (Kinsley 1986:156), possibly implying that the Matrkas can influence fertility. The Nayta-sastra speaks to worshipping the Matrkas before setting up a stage for theatre and dance and presenting offerings to the Matrkas at times of indecision and at cross roads in one’s life is encouraged by both Caruddatta of Bhasa and Mrcchakatika of Sudraka (Kinsley 1986:155).
The Matrkas have a vast and diverse history in both Vedic and folk tradition. Their origins and nature differ through the course of Hindu literature. It is generally understood that they are extensions of Devi and are often featured as bloodthirsty and very dangerous. They are dangerous to children and very formidable in battle. However, their portrayal in Hindu iconography portrays them as soft maternal figures. This juxtaposition brings out the two sides of the goddesses that are mentioned in the story of Karritkeya, maternity and danger. It is evident that the Matrkas have evolved over time to fit in the Brahmanic worldview, although their fearsome, dangerous nature remains embedded in both orthodox and folk tradition.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu tradition: rules, roles, and expections. New York: Routledge
Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa Vol. 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu goddesses : belief & practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic Press (Canada)
Harper, Katherine Anne (1989) Seven Hindu goddesses of spiritual transformation : the iconography of the Saptamatrikas. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press.
Hawley, J. S., and D. M. Wulff (eds.) (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devi-mahatmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.4 (Dec.,1978): p 489-506. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Evidence of the importance of femininity in the Hindu religion dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 BCE (Rodrigues 31), the source of thousands of terracotta female figurines (Hawley and Wulff 1). Further evidence lies in Vedic scripture that dates back to 1500 to 1000 BCE (Rodrigues 496). Vedic literature is still revealed today and has with numerous references to goddesses and women (Hawley and Wulff 2). Evidently, Hindu goddesses were and still are embedded in all aspects of life and land (Foulston and Abbott 1). This close association between India’s geography and the divine is an ongoing theme throughout the Hindu religion. This is evident when one listens to the traditional stories told and heard throughout India (Eck 11). Pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals related to India’s landscape still continue today and help illustrate how symbolic the geography of India really is.
Hindu goddesses are known to represent seemingly complex notions such as power and energy. These same goddesses can be found manifesting in simple forms such as water and rivers throughout India (Foulston and Abbott 2). The symbol of water signifies potentiality, fluidity, and a vehicle for creation (Baartmans 210). Water, according to the Vedas is all encompassing; it is foundational to the universe (Baartmans 214-215). Rivers, as sacred entities, are said to be known as “the great descenders” (Eck 18-19). In fact, the latter portions of the Rg Veda claims that anyone bathing where the Ganga and Yamuna meet will rise to heaven (Eck 145). Further evidence for this lies in the Padma Purana, as it states that bathing and drinking in the junction between the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati allows one to achieve freedom (Eck 147). The belief that these river goddesses can grant access to heaven or freedom, which are common goals in Hinduism, demonstrate the extent to which Hindus believe in the power of these goddesses.
India’s rivers and their goddesses are intricately entwined. They form trivenis, or “triple-braids,” as they meet in different forms throughout the land (Eck 7). These trivenis are often interpreted symbolically as “sacred crossings” or tirthas and represent “spiritual ladders to heaven” (Eck 10, 140). The rivers are pilgrimage sites for both humans and the goddesses (Eck 167). Humans visit these holy sites to gain freedom and a deeper devotion to their faith. The river goddesses visit other rivers seeking support when exhausted by their own pilgrims (Eck 167).
River goddesses are referenced by the Vedas as “mothers” (Eck 166). The seven “mother-rivers” are the oldest collection of rivers in India (Eck 167). In modern India, the focus of worship lies around the seven rivers known as the saptanadi: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sindu, Narmada, Godavari, Krsna, and the Kaveri (Eck 168). The water belonging to these river goddesses is said to be analogous with milk belonging to the mothers themselves, as well as soma (Eck 138), a sacred plant and intoxicating beverage (Rodrigues 67). It is the mantras, or sacred verses, (Rodrigues 168) of these rivers and goddesses that are recited while performing modern Hindu water rituals.
Ganga, the holiest of all Hindu rivers (Oestigaard 130), is also known as the goddess “Mother Ganga” (Eck 131). According to myth, the water of Ganga divides into many streams as it descends from the heavens (Kinsley 188). Therefore, Ganga and the rest of the Hindu sacred river goddesses are said to have a divine descent from heaven (Eck 138 – 140). Together, the Ganga and Sarasvati Rivers purify, nourish and fertilize the land of India (Kinsley 57). Today, Hindus worship Ganga by bathing along her river and offering flowers, oil lamps, and even ashes of loved ones while performing sraddha rites, or death rites (Eck 163), in her waters (Eck 131-132). Ganga Dusehra is a ten-day celebration of Mother Ganga on the tenth day of the third month, Jayeshta (Dwivedi 27). During this festival, Hindus bathe in Ganga’s waters, take her clay home with them, chant her name, and meditate along her banks (Dwivedi 28). Bathing in Ganga’s waters is also regarded as a purifying practice during other festivals, such as Makara Sankranti, a harvest festival (Dwivedi 32-33).
Now extinct, the river Sarasvati used to be associated with her cleansing properties (Eck 145). Today, the goddess Sarasvati is largely recognized as being associated with the theme of arts and learning (McDermott 3608), creativity and knowledge (Ludvik 1), oral artistry and culture in general (Kinsley 55). Sarasvati is also either the daughter or wife of Brahma, the source of creation (Kinsley 55). As a river, Sarasvati is commonly known as representing both purity and abundance. According to Vedic literature she is also known as a “healing medicine” (Kinsley 56). Currently, Sarasvati is celebrated on the fifth day of the twelfth month, Phalguna, during the spring festival called Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 30). During the celebration, Hindus will often wear bright colors, especially yellow, to welcome the arrival of the spring season and honor Sarasvati (Dwivedi 30). Hindus tend to partake in ancestor worship, Pitri-Tarpan, and rooftop kite flying on Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 31).
Myth claims that Krsna, a highly worshipped deity, was forced to grow up in and came to love the lands surrounding the Yamuna River (Eck 170). Many believe that Ganga’s love for Krsna stems from the mergence of Ganga and Yamuna at the site of Prayag (Eck 170). This union is also regarded as sacred to the Hindu religion as death in this location was once thought to be fruitful (Dwivedi 138). Also taking place in Prayag is Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering (Gupta 1329). Every twelve years Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain take turns hosting Kumbh Mela celebrations in which millions participate in the purifying practice of bathing at the union of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers (Gupta 1329). It is regarded as highly sacred to do so when the planets align correctly and a full moon is present (Gupta 1329). Yamuna is recognized as the “daughter of the sun” and the “waters of love” (Eck 169-170). Many Hindus sing hymns and visit Divya Shila, the Divine Stone, and the Ma Yamuna temple at Yamunotri to worship the image of Yamuna (Eck 169-170).
Narmada runs through central India and is known to have the most sacred sites along its riverside (Eck 467). Although there are many myths on the subject of Narmada’s creation, it is widely accepted that both the river and goddess were formed by the very sweat of divine Siva’s face (Eck 172). Another common belief is that Narmada’s main role on earth is to relieve mortals of their sins (Eck 173). Parikrama or Pradakshina, meaning circumambulation, is the highly recommended pilgrimage of the Narmada (Eck 170). It is common for Hindus to divide this nearly nine hundred mile hike into sections. By doing so, what would be a three year journey, is instead, completed over one’s lifetime (Eck 171). Shri Narmada, within the Narmada Mandir temple, is a sacred shrine dedicated to Narmada. Offerings such as white candy Prasad, incense, and split coconuts are brought here to worship Narmada (Eck 173-174).
According to legend, the river and goddess, Godavari, descended to earth on a hill called Brahmagiri as a form of Ganga. Godavari is also known by the name, Gautami, due to a myth involving the sage, Gautama (Eck 175). In this myth, Gautama killed a cow, committing the worst sin possible according to the Hindu religion. Godavari is now commonly referred to as Gautami because of her heavenly descent that relieved Gautama’s sin (Eck 176). Pilgrims today commonly visit a well on top of Brahmagiri, a shrine dedicated to Siva, the ritual bathing site, the Chakra Tirtha, and the Gangadvara, a symbolic representation of the “Door of Ganga”, through which they worship Godavari (Eck 176). Another common pilgrimage to worship the deity Godavari, is to Nasik, famous for the settlement of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Ramayana (Eck 177), a prominent Hindu epic (Eck 470). This site hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims for mela, or bathing festivals (Eck 467) During mela, the waters are infused with numerous floating lights (Eck 178).
The river Kaveri is said to be the goddess, Vishnumaya, a deity worshipped by lower castes (Hoeppe 126), in liquid form. According to the Puranas, Kaveri was sent by Visnu to water the land as she descends from the heavens and becomes a symbol for blessing (Eck 179). The Kaveri River is the site of many famous Hindu pilgrimage temples such as, Shrirangapattanam, Shivasamudram, and the most well known temple of Visnu on the island of Shrirangam (Eck 180).
Pushkaram is a popular Hindu festival in which the twelve main rivers and their goddesses are celebrated at different astrologically determined times once every twelve years (Dalal no page). The seven “mother-rivers” (Eck 167), previously mentioned, are included in these twelve as well as the Bhima, Tapati, Tungabhadra, Indus, and Pranahita Rivers (Dalal no page). Other minor rivers may be worshipped such as the Tamraparni and the Sangutirtham, but these are less popular (Dalal no page). Ancestor worship, bathing, and making offerings is said to grant spiritual benefits because it is believed that the divine bathe in these rivers during this festival (Dalal no page).
Performance of sraddha or visarjana, the “committal of ashes to the river” is commonly done on the rivers of India (Eck 163). Prayaga, Kashi, and Gaya, the tristhali or “three places”, are popular sites for these death rituals (Eck 163). Many myths surround these acts, but one of the most widespread beliefs is that the rivers can grant liberation or moksa (Eck 147). In the past, one of the death rituals was to commit suicide at Prayaga in hopes to obtain moksa (Eck 165). A common tradition is to honor the loved one’s ashes, release and sink them in the river, and offer rice balls, pindas, to connect the deceased with their deceased ancestors in heaven (Eck 164). It is said that for ten days following a death, one rice-ball a day is to be sacrificed on an altar bordering a river (Oestigaard 158).
The importance of water is displayed in verses dedicated to various deities and also in its life-giving contribution to creation of the universe (Oestigaard 239). With ritual purity and pollution playing such a large role in Hinduism, water and rivers, as life-giving elements, are especially prone to pollution. Pilgrimages, daily bathing, relieving of sins, and countless offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are all efforts to achieve and maintain purity. The consequences of these acts can have negative, polluting effects on the rivers and goddesses themselves (Eck 183-184). In Hinduism, death is regarded as the greatest source of impurity (Oestigaard 241). With that said, India’s rivers and river goddesses face a dilemma both physically and spiritually, as clothes and charcoal from death rituals (Oestigaard 199) are constantly polluting the sacred rivers, with the Yamuna River being the most polluted of them all (Eck 184). Although impure objects should not be cast into the water, it is still a daily occurrence (Narayanan 184). Despite the ongoing restoration efforts, “the rivers that are said to have descended to earth as sources of salvation are now, in their earthly form, in need of salvation themselves” (Eck 188).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Hawley, John Stratton (1998) “The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. pp. 1-28.
Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A Primordial Symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.
Dalal, Roshen (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: The Penguin Group.
Dwivedi, Anil Kumar (2007) Encyclopaedia of Indian Customs and Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Eck, Diana L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Random House, Inc.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Gupta, Om (2006) Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (In 9 Volumes). Delhi: Isha Books.
Hoeppe, Gotz (2007) Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India. New York: Berghahn Books.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
McDermott, Rachel Fell (2005) “Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess.” In Lindsay Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. p. 3607-3611. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning.
Narayanan, Vasudha (2001) “Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions.” Daedalus, Vol. 130, No. 4: 179-206
Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life-Giving Waters: Cremation, caste, and cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
The Navadurga Tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal: An Ethnographic Account
The following paper is an ethnographic report that describes the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal. All data collected was generated through qualitative research means relying mainly on the use of observations and interviews with the tradition’s practitioners and followers. I collected all the data used for the composition of this paper over the summer of 2014 in the months of June, July, and August. This paper will first provide a brief introduction to the geographical area of the study and the tradition itself. The paper will then proceed with a section discussing the collection of the information followed by a historical account of the tradition and finally the tradition as it is practiced today by discussing the tradition’s membership, activities, operations, and relations.
Nepal is a land locked county in South Asia bordered by India and China (specifically the region of Tibet). Nepal is a country rich in culture, language, landscape, history, and religion. Not only is Nepal home to the Himalayas and Mount Everest, but it is also the birthplace of the Buddha, and one of the only countries in South Asia (including Southeast Asia) to remain autonomous and free from colonial rule. Like India, Nepal’s most practiced religion is Hinduism, a complex religion that encompasses thousands of deities, thousands of ritual practices, and even competing and sometimes contradictory beliefs. The Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal is an excellent example of a Hindu tradition that is contradictory in some of its practices from that of mainstream Hinduism.
The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal is made up of three major cities, Kathmandu (the nation’s capital), Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan have both experienced rapid modernization and development that has caused the cities to loose some of their traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs. Lying on the outskirts of the valley, Bhaktapur has managed to preserve and retain more of its traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs than the other cities have. Bhaktapur’s population is mainly comprised of Newars, an ethnic group that accounts for less than ten percent of the country’s population, and is indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley and the areas surrounding it. A tradition important to the Newar community of the greater Kathmandu Valley, and specifically the citizens of Bhaktapur, is the Navadurga tradition.
The Navadurga is translated as the nine Durgas, referring to nine different forms of the great goddess Durga. To most of the Indian subcontinent Durga is the divine mother, presider over the seasons of life, death, and birth, the liberator of the oppressed and marginalized, and warrior. She is often depicted with eight to eighteen arms, each of which yields a different weapon. Most Hindu deities wield specific items that allow for them to be easily identified. Durga, however, holds the weapons of other deities, including Śiva’s trident and Visnu’s discus, reinforcing her characteristics as a warrior and liberator. Durga’s power is representative of the feminine principle of the cosmos known as Shakti. The goddess Durga is said to have as many forms as there are beings on the planet. Her many forms come in a variety of dispositions and include many female deities from the Hindu pantheon. Such goddesses include Laksmi the goddess of prosperity; Saraswatī the goddess of creativity; Lalita the goddess of light; Vajrayoginī the goddess of power; and Kālī the goddess of transformation and death. Durga is not mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, Hinduism’s earliest literature. The Vedas speak of the goddesses Vac and Ratri, but neither of these goddesses is associated with battle or blood sacrifices, both of which are important aspects of Durga today. Although the Vedas do not portray the wrathful manifestations of Durga some aspects of the Great Goddess are portrayed. The goddess Vac is believed to be an early representation of the goddess Saraswatī, who as previously mentioned is one representation of the Great Goddess. Durga is specifically mentioned in the Puranic literature, which emerged after the Vedas. The Puranas attempted to assume status as the fifth Veda, however it was unsuccessful and is now considered secondary Hindu literature. The Devī Mahatmya arises out of the Markandeya Purana and provides a narrative of Durga’s victory of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. The Devī Mahatmya is the most integral piece of literature on the goddess Durga. Although Durga was not mentioned in the Vedas she has become an important Hindu figure across the Indian subcontinent.
The most widely celebrated festival in Banaras, Indias is for the goddess Durga is Navarātra (Nine Nights) this festival is celebrated over nine nights, each night marked by a journey to one of the nine different Durga temples. More than fifty thousand Hindus participate in the festival each year. The traditions of Bhaktapur differ significantly than the traditions in Banāras. A major distinction is that the festival for the Navadurga lasts for several months rather than nine nights. Another distinction is the use of iconography; in Banāras full images are created and displayed for worship, whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur uses masks that are worshipped when they are stationary and on display, in addition to when they are worn and move around. The use of masks in Durga traditions is a unique practice to Bhaktapur. Mask use, however, is not a unique practice. The Balinese employ the use of masks in various traditions and rituals, specifically when portraying the Ramāyana, a great Hindu epic. The masks used by the Balinese are sacred heirlooms that are treated as gods; when they are not in use they are placed inside the temple next to the main images of the deities to be worshiped and given daily offerings. There are several parallels between the mask use in Bali and Bhaktapur, mainly the reverence and homage paid to them and their ceremonial use. Differences between the use of masks is that the Balinese masks are heirlooms passed down to the next generation whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur begins each year by constructing new masks and ends by cremating them. Bhaktapur’s use of masks is a unique practice within Hinduism and is deeply established within Bhaktapur’s community.
Having introduced the region, topic of this study, and provided a brief contextual account of similar traditions this paper will now begin to present a full account of the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur. It begins by explaining the methods used in the research to generate the information for this paper. This is followed by a historical account of the tradition’s origins, and then outlines the tradition as it is practiced today. Specific aspects of the tradition to be discussed include its membership, operations, activities, and relations.
The information gathered for this paper was mainly collected directly from Bhaktapur, Nepal over a three-month period (June, July, and August) in the summer of 2014. Visits were made to Bhaktapur on a weekly, or biweekly basis to conduct interviews or observe various aspects of the religion such as rituals or ceremonies, preparation for such activities, or the daily actions of the members of the Navadurga community. The following section will discuss and reflect on the methods utilized to gather the information in addition to my personal experiences in conducting the research.
Prior to arriving in Nepal preliminary research was conducted to familiarize myself with Durga, the Navadurga, the use of masks in Hinduism, and Bhaktapur. This was beneficial in building an initial base of knowledge that became useful when talking with members of the Navadurga community, observing the various activities, and conducting interviews. The research in the field would have benefitted had I done more preliminary research on a wider range of topics. This will be discussed at more length in the end of this section. Once in Nepal research was done directly with the locals through interviews and observations.
Interviews serve as the main source of information for this study. A total of twenty-two (22) individuals were interviewed. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed seventeen belong to the Navadurga community and the remaining five are citizens of Bhaktapur. The five informants outside of the Navadurga community consisted of a one local historian, two tourist guides, and two individuals who pay homage to the Navadurga at their various festivals and ceremonies. The seventeen interviewed from within the Navadurga community consist of performers (both dancers and musicians), priests, community leaders known as Nayas, and various other individuals who participate in the tradition through some other capacity. All but two of the individuals have asked to remain anonymous. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed only eight individuals will be frequently cited. That is because these eight individuals were able to give additional insight into the topic that the other individuals were either not able to share due to a lack of knowledge or because they were not comfortable sharing. Included in the eight individuals who will be frequently cited are the two individuals who did not ask to remain anonymous, leaving six individuals who will be provided with pseudonyms. Table 1 presents information regarding the individuals’ experiences and base of knowledge of those who have been assigned pseudonyms. Information that was widely agreed upon will not be cited in this paper.
Naya in training, learning from his father and the other Nayas
A senior Naya
A young Naya
Performed as Duma when a child, comes from a family line of temple priests
Priest and performer
* note: Roshan was also a translator
Interviews were conducted with the use of a translator and were recorded using an audio recorder. The interviews were initially based of a basic questionnaire and then evolved along with the conversations as they progressed. Interviews were conducted with either one individual or in groups of two or three. Due to the nature of the topic being studied individuals were hesitant to answer some of the questions or felt as though they were not educated enough to answer properly. Those interviewed were very concerned that they might misrepresent something or share the wrong information, making conducting the interviews very difficult. In fact, a month into my research I found that the information I was collecting from the individuals not to be consistent. After some time I had realized that when I asked certain questions that pertained to information that the Navadurga community regards as sacred and secret they would fabricate their answers. This was a reoccurring theme in many of the interviews, so much so that I decided to start my research again having modified how I approach certain questions and the interviews in general. For this reason you will notice that there are rarely any citations from interviews held in June, except for the interviews held with the two individuals familiar with the interview process; these individuals are Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha (a historian) and Kedar Raj Upadhyay.
One adjustment made to the way interviews were conducted was a change in the translator I used. Originally I had hired a translator recommended to me from a colleague that was not familiar with Navadurga. I believe this had a detrimental effect on the work I was doing, as the translator knew less about the tradition than I had. Following the restart of the interviewing process I was introduced to a young individual named Roshan [pseud.], a son of one the Navadurga temple’s priests. Roshan had recently graduated from with bachelors of tourism, was proficient in English and was very knowledgeable on the Navadurga tradition. He was also eager to secure experience working with tourists (although I consistently claimed not to be a tourist). Hiring Roshan had a very positive impact on my research by opening new doors and creating a more comfortable and familiar environment for the interviewing process; all of the members of the Navadurga community either knew him or were related to him. Not only was Roshan excellent as a translator, but he also proved to be a very valuable informant himself. The more time I spent with Roshan the more inclusive the community became of me and the more I was able to learn.
Observing the community in action and witnessing specific events provided an excellent source for gaining new information as well as to confirm information received from informants. During my time there this summer I was able to observe the rituals and ceremonies of Sirja, Gathemangal, and Ganesh Chaturthi. I was also able to witness the preparations being made for Dashain and the daily puja performed at the temple, except for the puja done in the sacred room that I was not permitted to enter. I was also able to capture images from all of the events I attended, some of which will be shared in Appendix A.
Reflecting back on my experiences collecting information and researching in Bhaktapur I can think of modifications that would have benefitted the information collection process. First and foremost this research would have benefitted from more additional preliminary research. Having only taken one university course on Hinduism the knowledge I poses is basic at best. Had I been more familiar with topics such as Tantra, gender roles, puja, and Hinduism in general I would have been better able to pick up on certain aspects that I had otherwise missed. The most beneficial alteration made to my approach was using someone like Roshan, someone knowledgeable about the Navadurga, as my translator. While I was conducting research in Nepal I was also working an internship with a local environmental non-governmental organization. It was because of this position I was only able to visit Bhaktapur on a weekly or biweekly basis. Spending time with Roshan made connections grow faster and provided new opportunities that helped make the most out of the time I was able to spend in Bhaktapur. If I were to repeat a similar situation in the future I would hope to find an individual as resourceful as Roshan.
The largest hindrance to my research was certainly the internship. I lived and worked in Patan and had to take the local bus out to Bhaktapur, travel time would amount to somewhere between three to four hours each day I travelled. The next time I conduct field research I will certainly ensure that it is my only project and that I immerse myself in the environment of my study. I missed many opportunities because of my internship, whether having to miss an event for work or having to schedule interviews. Although a common practice in the West, setting up meeting times is not a frequent practice of the citizens of Bhaktapur. Often I would meet an individual and have a brief conversation with them to find out that they would make an excellent informant, however, I would be on my way somewhere so I would have to set a time to come back and talk with them. More often than not, the potential informants would not show up to the meeting place, or they would come along at a leisurely pace while I waited for the afternoon. Had I lived in Bhaktapur and was able to focus solely on this research I know it would have had yielded significant benefits.
The Origin of the Navadurga
Few people in Bhaktapur know the story of the origin of the Navadurga tradition. Having spoken with the locals many are familiar with the Navadurga, their processions through the streets of Bhaktapur, and their use of masks and dance. However, not many are acquainted with the story behind the tradition; except for the Navadurga community and citizens who have sought education on the topic. Robert I. Levy is the leading scholar on the city of Bhaktapur and provides an account of the origin story in his book Mesocosm. This section of the paper will present the story as told by Levy followed by key differences and distinctions made by informants from Bhaktapur. The following is a summary of the origin story as presented by Levy:
The Navadurga inhabited the forest Jwala, which was located Northeast of Bhaktapur. As people passed by, the Navadurga would capture them, kill them, and then drink their blood as a sacrifice to themselves. One day the Navadurga captured a man by the name of Sunanda, who was a Ācāju (a priest of farmer origin). Unlike most Ācāju, Sunanda was an expert in Tantric knowledge and mantras (a sacred utterance) and was able to bind the Navadurga, restricting their movement with the use of a mantra. Embarrassed, the Navadurga pleaded to Sunanda to forgive them, and in exchange they would not sacrifice him. Rather than releasing them, Sunanda shrunk them, placed them in his basket and brought them back to his home in Bhaktapur where they were placed in a chest and received periodical worship.
Time passed, the amount is unknown, until one-day Sunanda’s guru, Somarā Rājopādhyāya (a Brahmin) came for a visit. Somarā Rājopādhyāya had a deep and intricate understanding of Tantra and had conveyed to Sunanda that he had not been worshiping the Navadurga properly. Therefore, Somarā Rājopādhyāya took the chest containing the Nine Durgās back to his own house in the Palisāche neighborhood, where he hid them. Somarā Rājopādhyāya worshiped the Navadurga in secrecy using Tantric bidyā (secret arts) and made sacrifices to them. The Navadurga were forced to dance and tell stories using the movements of their hands. Sometime prior, the Navadurga had informed Sunanda and Somarā that should anyone else see them they would be released from the spell. This made Somarā Rājopādhyāya act very surreptitiously; he told his wife to never look into the room where the Navadurga were kept locked up. One day Somarā Rājopādhyāya had left the house and his wife peeked into the room and saw the Navadurgas dancing. The stories differ in what happened to Somarā’s wife; some say that the Navadurga killed her as a sacrificial offering, others say that she was simply severely scolded by her husband. Regardless, the Navadurga, now released from their Tantric binds, escaped from the Brahmin’s home.
Upon their escape, the band of deities captured, sacrificed, and ate a pig at the place known as “Bha: Dwākhā.” Upon his arrival home, Somarā Rājopādhyāya was informed that the Navadurga have escaped. He immediately began pursuing them and with the beating of a small drum and the use of mantras he was able to freeze the Navadurga in their flight in the upper part of the city known as “Swaga Lwaha.” Somarā pleaded with the Navadurga to return to his house. However, this was not possible since the Navadurga had consumed a pig, making them ritually impure and thus impossible for them to reenter the Brahmin’s home. Since the Navadurga could not return to the Brahmin’s house they made the suggestion that a pyākha (dance drama) be arranged where the Navadurga would enter into the performers, allowing for the whole city to be able to see and worship them. Somarā established a god-house for the Navadurga and commissioned to the Gāthā community the authority and responsibility of performing each year as the Navadurga.
An alternative ending to the story is given where Somarā Rājopādhyāya instructed one of his students, an Ācāju to capture the Navadurga in a spell. After some difficulty the student was able to capture them, he then placed them into a god-house in the district of the city where the Gāthā reside. At the request of Somarā the Gāthā cared for the Navadurga and learned their dances. Somarā taught both the Ācāju and the Gāthā all the necessary Tantric procedures they would need. And thus, still following Somarā’s instructions, the Ācāju and the Gāthā still perform their duties for the Navadurga today.
The origin story as told by Levy provides a very thorough overview; only a few distinctions need to be made. The alternate ending to the story is reflective of the Navadurga community’s (Gāthā) perspective, whereas the first ending is reflective of the Brahmin’s perspective, minus a point or two. An informant of mine, Kedar Raj Upadhyay, claims to be the descendent of Somarā, the Brahmin priest from the story. Kedar makes the key distinction that the reason the Brahmin had to pass on the tradition, that is the responsibility and the authority of the Navadurga practices, to the Gāthā, a low ranking caste, was a form of punishment for breaking the oath of secrecy. Another key distinction made is that Somarā had two wives, one Brahmin wife and another low caste wife, and some believe that it was because the lower caste wife saw the Navadurga that the tantric bond was broken releasing the deities. As mentioned previously, the alternate ending provides the account believed by the Navadurga community (also known as Gāthā). The only difference in the story believed by the Gāthās is an element of predestination. The Gāthās say that while Somarā taught the Ācāju a Gāthā brought a delivery of flowers to Somarā, this Gāthā happened to have as many sons as men were needed to carry out the tradition’s practices, providing an easy solution as to who should assume the responsibilities and leadership of the tradition. The Ācāju, or priest, is now called Karmacharya, a role that will be elaborated upon later in this paper.
Some additional points can be made about the history of the tradition that is not included within the origin story. The Navadurga tradition began in the twelfth century of the Common Era under the Malla dynasty, who reigned over Nepal for six hundred years. The Malla were followers of Shakti gods (female), because they believed that the gentleness of the male deities could not protect their nation, king, and countrymen, whereas the dangerous Tantric goddesses could protect all three. Bhaktapur had temples built in cardinal points throughout the city for each of the Navadurga, replicating the Navadurga yantra thereby increasing the tantric power as a means to protect the city. Figure 1 presents a drawing done by Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha of the layout of the Navadurga’s individual god houses with that of the Navadurga yantra. Each point on the periphery is a god-house as well as the point in the center. During the period of Malla rule over Nepal tantric practitioners knew that divinity could transfer itself into wood, stone, and
metal so they began running experiments to see if the divine could transfer into the human body. These experiments happened in the twelfth century and were found to be very successful. It is from this point that the Navadurga tradition as it is known today began. Furthermore, an interesting component of the Navadurga traditions is the use of pigs in sacrifice. Pig sacrifice is not a common practice in Hinduism, animals typically sacrificed include, sheep, goats, chickens, and buffalo. The central use of the pig in the tradition and from the origin story also began in the twelfth century. During that period the Muslim Turks established a powerful kingdom in northern India around Delhi and began to expand their control over the area. In an effort to preserve their culture and traditions the Newars of Bhaktapur adopted the use of pig sacrifice since the Muslims think poorly of pigs and avoid them. The efforts made by the Newars of Bhaktapur successfully preserved the beliefs and traditions of the Malla dynasty so that they could still practiced today.
The Navadurga Today
The Navadurga tradition as practiced today is an intricate tradition that relies solely on the tradition’s keepers, who have been referred to as the Navadurga community throughout this paper, and from the local patrons who provide their support. The Navadurga festival is the longest festival in the area, spanning over nine months and including many specific rituals and ceremonies, and encompassing several other festivals. This section of the paper will present the tradition as it is found today, first by identifying the traditions membership, then its activities such as ceremonies, rituals, and preparations, in addition to its relations and operations.
The first group of membership to be elaborated upon will be that of the Navadurga themselves. The name Navadurga refers to the nine Durgas who are Mahālaksmī ,Mahākālī, Kumārī, Vārāhī, Brāhmanī, Bhadrakālī (also known as Vaisnavī), Indrānī, Maheśvarī, and Tripurasundarī. Each of these goddesses has a dyo-chen (god house) located in a specific area in the city of Bhaktapur that together form the shape of the Navadurga yantra (figure 1). Of these goddesses Mahālaksmī is the paramount deity; she draws power from Taleju and gives it to the Navadurga. Mahālaksmī does not have a mask; instead she is represented as a silver repoussé that is carried in the lead of the Navadurga processions to showcase her superior position. The Navadurga tradition involves an additional six deities who are Bhairav, Sweto Bhairav, Śiva, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Bhairav is the leader of the Navadurga and assumes that role in the performances. Sima (tigeress) and Duma (lioness) are the protectors of the Navadurga and accompany them everywhere. All of the deities aforementioned are represented in the Navadurga tradition in some fashion. There are thirteen masks who represent all but Mahālaksmī and Tripurasundarī. As mentioned previously Mahālaksmī is represented in a silver repoussé that is carried in front of the processions. Tripurasundarī’s representation is disagreed upon. Some informants say that Tripurasundarī is represented in the three musical instruments played, while others insist that she is represented by the Kolachen (human skull cap used a cup).
As mentioned earlier there is a specific community who acts as the sole authority and keeper of the Navadurga tradition. This community prefers to be called Banmala. Other names used for them include Gāthā, as used by Levy, and Gunkā. These names provided are the surnames used by the community. While a majority of them identify themselves as Banmala, you may also find some of the other variations, dependent upon how the individual’s forefathers decided to identify themselves. The Banmala are a low caste group that traditionally farmed and sold flowers to the greater community. Today some still occupy this traditional role, however others have began to farm other crops such as rice and barley. The Banmalas are the tradition’s keepers; they alone fulfill the requirements of the tradition as well as occupy an overwhelming majority of the positions in the tradition. Other individuals or communities assist and will be elaborated upon shortly. The Banmalas provide all of the performers, known as Gana, for the tradition. The Gana includes twelve dancers and three musicians. In addition to the Gana, the Banmala also occupy the roles of temple priests (additional priests from other communities come to perform specific rituals), temple caretaker (known as the Nakin, also to be elaborated upon shortly), the tradition’s leaders (the Naya), as well all other roles needed to upkeep the tradition. The roles of Gana, Naya, and Nakin are restricted to Banmalas only. Should a Banmala marry someone from outside of their community both they and their offspring will not be allowed to assume a position within the Navadurga tradition. As previously mentioned there are other groups or individuals from outside of the Banmala who assist in the tradition. Table 2 presents the various other groups or individuals who assist along with their respective role. These groups either assist as a whole or there is a specific individual from the group that is responsible for completing the tasks (those who are individuals are marked with an asterisk). Some of the groups fill very minor roles, specifically the Shakya, who interestingly enough are the highest caste in the Newar community but assume the least important role within the tradition. This is an interesting contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. The Shakyas are the highest caste in the Newar community, however, they assume a very minor role in the city’s dominant tradition. All of these roles listed in Table 2, regardless of how small they may seem, are important aspects of the tradition.
Artisan who creates the masks each year. This role is passed down from generation to generation
The clay workers who provide the clay for the masks
Sacred priest of the Navadurga who performs specific rituals. Such rituals include the puja at Ganesh Chaturthi and Dashain
Also performs rituals and puja, such as the cremation of the masks
Colour the sacred thread
Musicians who perform at some events. Different from the musician members of the Gana
Newar priests who perform special puja
Kill the buffalo during Dashain
Repair damaged jewelry
* Note: the names marked refer to a specific individual from their respective community.
The involvement of the Banmala in the tradition can be broken down into four positions or roles. There are the Gana (fifteen individuals), the Naya (eight individuals), the Nakin (one individual), and periodical roles of assistance (number of individuals varies dependent upon the event). The periodic roles are filled according to availability and vary in their responsibilities. These positions are not dictated in the same fashion as the other roles of the Naya, Nakin, and the Gana. The Gana is made up of twelve dancers and three musicians. The musicians are responsible for playing the traditional instruments known as the khin (a large drum played on both sides), ta (small cymbals), and kya (large cymbals). The remaining twelve
members of the Gana are performers who dance and wear the masks throughout the festival. These twelve members wear the masks of Bhairav, Mahākālī, Vārāhī, Kumārī, Bhadrakālī, Brāhminī, Indrānī, Sweto Bhairav, Maheśvarī, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Young Banmalas between the ages of five to twelve wear the masks of Sima and Duma. The Gana occupy their roles on a yearly basis, although they may be chosen to perform back to back in either the same position or another one; the rotation cycle comes from a sacred book that will be discussed later in this section. Gana members have to follow specific rules while in their position; such rules include not sharing food from the plates of others except for from fellow Gana. They can not wear their costume or ornaments outside of the specified performance areas, they must always act in a respectful manner; they are restricted to only one meal on performance days, they must be barefoot whenever they are in their ceremonial costume, and finally they may not participate in funeral rights during performance or ritual periods. When the Gana are learning their roles during the off months of the Navadurga tradition they are restricted from coming in contact with women, and must visit their respected god’s/goddess’ dyo-chen (god house) everyday to worship and pray. The Gana positions are restricted to men only. The only position occupied by a woman is the role of Nakin.
The Nakin is a specific role that takes care of the Navadurga temple and performs the daily puja. The daily puja is known as Nitya puja and the Nakin performs it twice a day, once after sunset and again before sunrise. The Nakin position operates an annual cycle, each year a new woman will assume the position. The Nakin must live on the temple grounds and act as a guard to protect the images, keep the temple clean, perform daily puja, and take on additional responsibilities during various ceremonies and rituals.  Such responsibilities include purifying the Gana before performances and preparing for feasts that are held at the temple. The Nakin must be married. If she is widowed during her time as Nakin she will be replaced. The Nakin has more specific responsibilities over the course of the year than any other member of the Navadurga tradition. The Nakin’s role is another contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. Women are typically not the caretakers of temples as they are not able to become as ritual pure as their male cohorts.
The Naya are the leaders of the tradition. There are eight Nayas in total who work collectively as the managers of the tradition.  The Naya are experts and knowledgeable about all aspects and roles of the tradition. They ensure that the temple has all of the supplies it needs to perform all of their required rituals, events, and ceremonies of the tradition as well as care for the ornaments and clothes and manage all of the performances. Such supplies include oil, food, animals for sacrifice, and all essential items for offerings. The role of Naya is a family position that is passed from father to son. If a Naya does not have a son he will instruct his oldest nephew from among his own siblings. It is unknown how the linage of the Nayas was chosen. Like the other positions, the role of Naya operates on an annual cycle; the number of Nayas who are active in their position changes each year. Also like other positions, the Nayas selected each year is predetermined in a book that is kept secret. The Nayas are the sole caretakers of the unnamed book that provides some sort of mechanism for selecting the people who will fill the various roles of the tradition each year. The name and origin of the book are kept secret; interestingly though they are comfortable revealing its existence.
The Tradition’s Activities
The Navadurga tradition is unique in its use of masks, its mobility, and in its social roles. While wearing the masks, it is believed that the gods who are represented come to manifest themselves in the humans. This instance is an excellent example of an aspect of the Navadurga tradition that contradicts mainstream Hinduism. While wearing the masks the Banmala, a low ranking social group, becomes regarded as divine and assumes a position on the top of the social hierarchy. While wearing the masks the Banmala are believed to transcend the normal social order as well as normal human capabilities. During this time the beings are able to do things not normally done by humans, such as drinking liters of alcohol and eating hundreds of eggs. While wearing the masks the Gana also drink blood from sacrificed animals. Most sacrifices to the Navadurga are pigs, however, buffalo, goat, sheep, chicken, and ducks are also sacrificed. The concept of sacrifice and blood offerings can be found in the tradition’s origin story in addition to being a common practice in Durga worship. Of the Navadurga, Bhairav is the member mainly responsible for conducting the sacrifices. Some instances require Mahakālī to perform the sacrifice, and if neither Bhairav nor Mahakālī are able to perform the sacrifice than Varahi is responsible for it. This order is reflective of the order of importance of the deities and is also reflected in the order of dance performances. The Gana perform their dances in the following order: Bhairav, Mahakālī, Vārāhī, Badrakālī, Kumārī, Maheśvarī, Brāhmanī, Ganesh, Indrānī, Sima, Duma, and finally Sweto Bhairav. The Navadurga tradition follows an annual cyclical pattern that begins with Gathemangal.
Gathemangal is a Newar festival that is dedicated to cleansing away demons. Constructing figures built from straw, to represent the demons, and then burning them removes the demons. The festival is marked with loud music and processions of people carrying torches through the streets to light the straw built demons at each cross-road. For the Banmalas this day marks the beginning of the new Navadurga cycle. Every year new masks are made at the beginning of the Navadurga cycle and then cremated at the end. When the masks are cremated the city of Bhaktapur believes that the Navadurga has left their city to go into the countryside to ensure that the agricultural cycle begins. During this time while the Navadurga are away the city becomes occupied with demons. On Gathemangal the Prajapati provide the Banmala with the clay that is used to build the masks. In turn the Banmala take this clay to the Chitraker’s home to be worshiped as Śiva and sacrifice a chicken as an offering. This marks the beginning of the construction of the new masks and the return of the Navadurga to Bhaktapur, which is why the city is being cleansed from demons. The masks need to be completed by Dashain, which is less than two months away. Gathemangal happens in accordance with the lunar calendar and marks the start of a rigorous training period for the Gana. During this training period the Gana have to adhere to the rules listed above under membership and must perform puja at their respective god’s house each day.
The next annual event is Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival dedicated to Ganesh. The Navadurga have their own event that coincides with this festival. At this time the Gana make a procession from the Navadurga temple to the Nasadyo temple where the Karmacharya will perform the ritual and sacrifice a sheep. Nasadyo is a tantric god of wisdom and knowledge that is worshiped by the Gana everyday from the period of Gathemangal to Dashain so that they may be granted the knowledge necessary to perform their roles. Following the sacrifice of the sheep all Gana members eat a piece of the raw flesh combined with beaten rice. The Gana who performs as Brāhmanī takes a piece of the sacrificed sheep to the Brāhmanī temple to performs a specific puja ritual. After these rites have been completed all of the Gana members return to the Navadurga temple where a feast is being prepared. The sacrificed sheep is butchered and cooked for the feast and the sheep’s hide is removed, stretched, and framed and placed in the sun to dry. The temple will use the sheep hide for some task, such as to repair a damaged drum. Following the feast the Gana perform their first dance of the season. This is the only dance that the Gana perform in public that they do not use their masks for, since the masks have not yet been completed. These dances are not expected to be perfect, since it is some Gana’s very first public performance. Each performer will perform an independent dance, except for Indrānī, Sima, and Duma who all perform together. Following these dances a group number is performed in honour of Ganesh, with the Ganesh Gana in the center.
The next event in the annual cycle is Dashain, the largest Durga festival. By this time the Chitraker will have completed the masks and they are placed on display on the ninth day of Dashain where the citizens of Bhaktapur come to give them offerings and puja.Offerings typically consist of egg, fish, meat, wine, and set Newar food dishes (beaten rice, dal, and spicy potatoes). Before the masks are displayed they are taken to the Taleju temple in the palace compound (Durbar Square) of Bhaktapur where they receive initiation rituals. These rituals are unknown as the members of the Banmala would not share this information; they did however say that the masks received similar initiation rituals as Hindu people. Following their initiation the masks are then regarded as divine and set out to be worshipped by the public. On the tenth day of Dashain Brāhmanī is worshiped in the morning and then a buffalo is sacrificed at the Brāhmanī temple. Following the sacrifice the Navadurga make a procession towards the Taleju temple in Durbar Square. Prior to making the procession the Karmacharya hands each performer their masks, symbolic of the Karmacharya’s, or Ācāju’s, role in capturing and placing the Navadurga into the care of the Banmala. The Taleju image is removed from the temple and placed at the front gate to greet the Navadurga. Having greeted the Navadurga the Taleju image is then taken on procession with them throughout Bhaktapur; this is the only time that the Taleju image is removed from the temple.
Following Dashain the Navadurga Gana journey around the Kathmandu Valley where they perform specific rituals in each community they pass through in addition to being commissioned by patrons to come perform private rituals. The Navadurga travel to the following destinations:
Kavre District: Nala, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Panauti, and Shreekhandapur.
The Navadurga are prohibited from using vehicles. Instead they walk everywhere; they go with bare feet. It is believed that they cleanse the areas they walk through from disease, which is why they must walk everywhere.
After visiting the surrounding areas and performing their rituals at each one the Navadurga season begins to come to an end. Sirja and De-chā-mukego, the last supper and last ceremony, mark the conclusion of the Navadurga season. The De-chā-mukego is the final procession of the Navadurga through Bhaktapur that ends at the Taleju temple. Within the temple compound the Navadurga have their last supper (Sirja) and then return to each of their own respective god house. The next day the masks are cremated at the Brāhmanī temple funeral pyres. The cremation marks the end of the annual Navadurga cycle and it is believed that the goddesses have left Bhaktapur to attend to the fields, crops, and farmers. After the Navadurga have left the city compound a sacred room in the Navadurga temple is sealed off until the Navadurga return, in the next two to three months. After this point the Banmala community begins to train the new Gana and prepare for the next annual cycle.
Relations Between the Locals and the Navadurga
The Navadurga of Bhaktapur are the city’s protectors from violence, disasters, disease, and illness in addition to ensuring agricultural prosperity. The Navadurga dance is a symbolic representation of the struggles, responsibilities, and discipline of the society in which it is based. A common belief in Bhaktapur is that the ringing sounds of the music played by the Navadurga Gana not only give the rhythmic signals to the dancers but also removes all obstacles caused by evil beings. It is for this reason that the Navadurga perform in so many communal areas throughout the Kathmandu Valley. The local people not only believe that the Navadurga remove obstacles and illness, but also that they answer wishes and provide blessings for those who worship them and give them offerings. Those who give the Navadurga money receive Prasad, a gift, in the form of flowers, plants, sacred thread, or food. The sacred thread is tied around the wrist and/or the neck using a specific knot according to tantric beliefs to grant the individual purity in their life. One informant’s grandmother stated that the Navadurga also assist in the digestive system. She recommended that you be careful about what and how much you eat during the months when the Navadurga have left the city. The relationship with the Navadurga and the local populations is of reciprocal nature. While the locals rely on the Navadurga for protection and as removers of obstacles and illnesses, the Navadurga rely on the locals for financial, social, and physical support. The local community donates the clothes worn by the Gana and the Gana must keep and use these clothes until new ones are donated. It is believed that the clothes hold Shakti power which would be lost if the clothes were washed, therefore the clothes remain unwashed and unchanged until the community provides new ones. It is typical for the outfits to be worn for years before they are replaced. While the Navadurga protects the locals they in turn are also in need of protection. Although the Navadurga are gods, they posses the bodies of humans during the Navadurga rituals and become vulnerable. On several instances the Navadurga Gana have been attacked or stolen from while wearing the masks, resulting in broken bones, lost artifacts, and offended deities. The Navadurga rely on the local people and authorities to ensure that the spaces they occupy for their rituals remain safe and sacred. The Navadurga tradition as operated by the Banmala relies heavily on the local community for financial support in order to maintain the traditions as it is practiced today.
The Navadurga tradition relies heavily on its patrons for financial support. The tradition costs approximately 900,000 NRS (Nepali Rupees) per year, without accounting for inflation, which is equal to $10, 537.41 CAD (at an exchange rate of $1 CAD to 85.41 NRS). While this amount seems small from a western perspective, it is a large sum for the people of Nepal. Most of the community members are labourers and a labourer’s salary may range from $80-$250 CAD per month. This total covers the maintenance of the temple, the daily necessities (such as oil for the lamps), the supplies for specific rituals, and animals for sacrifice. The Navadurga make a small earning by renting a few small pieces of property either for farming or in the city to be used for small storage spaces or stores. The remainder amount of the costs is collected throughout the Navadurga festivals from either privately commissioned rituals or from the crowds of people at Navadurga ceremonies and events. The members of the Navadurga tradition do not receive any monetary compensation for their roles. This places a huge strain on the members of the tradition since the various roles last for a whole year when one includes training periods. Members are permitted to work when they are not training or performing. However, the type of work they can do is limited due to the demanding schedule of the tradition and the odd hours it requires. These strains cause a lot of Banmala to remove themselves from the tradition and focus on earning a living and providing for their families. Modernization and westernization are challenges and obstacles faced by the Navadurga tradition. In years past the tradition had the patronage of the royal family, which secured the tradition and brought with it ample support. However, today the government of Nepal does not provide any subsidies or support for religious traditions. Modernization also has effects on the individual and collective values. In past periods the sacred was closely aligned with people’s values, and the positions in the Navadurga tradition would have carried prestigious value. However, today values are beginning to be reflective of the western practice of materialism, which lures the Banmala towards jobs, and positions that do not allow for them to commit the time necessary for being an active member of the tradition.
This paper has presented a report of the Navadurga, a Hindu tradition from Bhaktapur, Nepal. The Navadurga employ interesting and unique practices not present in other traditions. Such practices include mobile deities, the use of masks, an integral female position, and a unique inversion of social roles. It is interesting how interdependent the Navadurga and Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley are. The Navadurga are just as much reliant on the community as the community relies on them. The Banmala have managed to preserve the ancient Navadurga practices due to their rigorous dedication. Although they face many strains I am hopeful that the tradition will remain for many more generations in to the future.
I would like to thank the University of Lethbridge for providing me with the opportunity to travel to Nepal and experience this amazing tradition. I have learned and grown from this experience in countless ways and know that this growth will benefit me in my future endeavors. I would also like to thank my Professor Dr. Hillary Rodrigues for believing in my capabilities and helping me make this all possible. Finally I owe a lot of gratitude to the Banmala for allowing me to conduct this research and for welcoming me into their community and sharing their stories with me. I will cherish the memories built throughout this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you.
 Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010), 3.
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[Article written by: Brandon McNally (December 2010) who is solely responsible for its written content and pictures.]