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The Puranas that perceived Saraswati as the goddess of battlefield conceived her form as multi-armed holding a number of attributes in them. Her transformation into the Brahma’s consort or the presiding deity of learning, arts and creativity seems to have deprived her of the multiplicity of arms; however, her four-armed form was ever consistent, though again the attributes carried in them kept varying except one or two, such as ‘pustaka’ – book, symbolic of the Vedas, rosary, or ‘kamandala’ – pot with handle and spout, associated with the iconography of Brahma, her spouse. Puranas attribute to Brahma his emergence from Lord Vishnu’s navel riding over a lotus. Early Saraswati icons associated this lotus also with the iconography of Saraswati, sometimes one or even two lotuses being carried by her in her hands, but more often, as her seat. For long time Saraswati’s ‘Kamalasana’ – lotus-seated form represented the goddess’s most popular image, a form still widely used. The Puranas widely lauded her as : 'Asina kamala karairjjapabatim padmadhyam pustakam bivrana', that is, the goddess is lotus-seated and carries in one of her hands a ‘japamala’, in two, lotuses, and in the fourth, a ‘pustaka’.
However, subsequently this position, more so in regard to lotuses carried in her hands, not in regard to one comprising her seat, largely changed, especially after lotus was associated with Lakshmi’s icons almost in complete exclusion to any other female divinity. Quite interestingly, Saraswati who was initially the demon-slayer goddess operating in battlefield was subsequently transformed into the Brahma’s coy mistress, a mere divine presence and later, again into a semi-operative deity. As patron deity of arts, literature and music she not only granted ability among her devotees for attaining distinction in them but herself performed and was thus operative. Accordingly, in her subsequent iconography she not only carried a ‘vina’ – stringed instrument, in her hands replacing lotuses but also played on it. In her later iconographic vision ‘pustaka’ that she carried in one of her hands symbolised literature and knowledge she is the patron deity of. Saraswati stood for absolute purity and accordingly her image was conceived with pure white ensemble and a goose, symbol of purity that fed on pearls as its meal, was associated with her as her mount. Sometimes the dancing bird peacock, not a goose, symbolising colours of culture and creativity, defined as her mount the goddess’s cultural aspect.
As the iconographic tradition has her form, in this magnificent brass-cast : a rare masterpiece, the goddess has been cast as ‘param jyoti-swarupa’, one abounding in ultimate lustre that her exceptionally rich adornment further enhances. Though seated well on her ‘pitha’ – seat, in ‘lalitasana’, a sitting posture revealing ease and aesthetic beauty, her figure seems to move with youthful vigour and ecstasy of the melody emitting from her lyre. As prescribed, besides her large breasts beautifully clad under ornamented ‘stana-patas’ – breast-bands, her form has been conceived with a tall slender figure exceptionally balanced in anatomical proportions and rare in beauty of face. Though lotus-seated the statue represents on her left a majestic bird with large beautiful feathers, obviously a peacock, her mount, stationed around her seat. Her normal right and left hands represented as engaged in playing on ‘vina’, and the upper left, as carrying ‘pustaka’ apart, very strangely, in her upper right hand she is holding another, quite beautiful but smaller bird, perhaps the mythical goose. Thus, the image is all inclusive. Besides lavish ornamentation, especially the towering crown with peacock feather like styled back and very special ‘kundalas’ – ear-ornament, the statue represents her with the lotus seat, peacock, as her mount, ‘vina’ and ‘pustaka’, among the attributes in hands, goose, defining her purity and overall identity, and her absolute form with fine modeling and absolute beauty.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.