The South Indian tradition of sanctum imagery little celebrates divine exploits. Except rarely, the elegantly poised images, seated or standing, but revealing great divinity and spiritual aura, portray its preference for sanctum icons, and hence despite that a divine image is seen carrying instruments of war and sometimes a symbolic vision of an exploit, such as Apasmarapurusha, demon of inertia, in the iconography of Shiva or Durga, it is rarely represented as engaged in an action. It is more conspicuous in the Devi’s imagery. In stark contrast to the North Indian perception where even the sanctum images, as those of Durga, are often operative representing her as annihilating Mahisha or any other demon, in the South she is often a divine presence in great majesty and with rare divine aura revealing a gesture of assurance against everything untoward and demonic. South Indian sanctum imagery does not celebrate divine exploits as it does divine presence.
This statue of Durga has been carved out of the fine Bangai wood, used for artistic carving and for temple images now for centuries. Fully matured, the wood-piece, the tree-trunk’s innermost part, is endowed with copper-like rare lustre attributing to the image a copper-statue-like look. The tradition, textual, popular or devotional, venerates Shiva’s consort in her manifestation as Durga, Parvati, Uma, Gauri, or even in a regional form like Mari Amma or Mari Amman, perhaps the same as this wood-image represents, as the model of supreme beauty to have ever emerged on the earth. Whether as Durga or Mari Amma, this image of the goddess has been conceived to reveal the same supreme form of beauty. However, the same tradition that perceives her as the model of supreme beauty also perceives her as the supreme warrior annihilating the mightiest demons in the battlefield, though in context to Parvati or Uma it perceives beauty as the main thrust, but in Durga’s context, valour. Hence, valour, not beauty, defines the pith of Durga’s being. As such, Durga beyond battlefield, not engaged in eliminating demons, is rarely her image in the North, and in the South, her image is an essential synthesis of supreme beauty and ultimate valour.
This Shashta-bhuja-dhari image of Durga, conceived with well defined features, a sharp nose, meditative half-shut eyes, rounded cheeks, receding chin, cute lips with a delicate smile on them, a little angular face revealing benignity, feminine softness and bliss, and a perfect anatomy : subdued belly, broad shoulders and a well proportioned body-structure, carrying in her hands ‘chakra’ – disc, battleaxe, dagger, noose, damaru – double drum, with a serpent to hold it, and the gesture of her hand assuring freedom from fear, presents a unique blend of valour and beauty, neither subordinating the other. She has been conceived with large sensuous breasts contained and adorned with a lace of pearls, which alternates the usual ‘stana-patta’. The flames of fire rising from around her face, ‘damaru’, serpent, third eye and ‘tripunda’ mark on the forehead reveal her Shaivite identity. Her figure has been conceived as putting on resplendent jewels to include a towering crown and an elegantly pleated ‘antariya’.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.