I’ve always found it interesting and amazing that the portraits of the (debatably most) important Hindu goddess, Durga, differed region to region. Before you roll your eyes, frown from incomprehension, or click at some other link, let me explain myself.
India is a wee bit complicated. The country itself doesn’t have one unified identity; there are many regions that have their own languages, ways of dressing, cuisines, ideologies, and traditions. To bring that into perspective, imagine going to Indiana, right downstairs, and everyone speaks a radically different language, the art and architecture look completely different from Michigan’s, the men and women wear togas rather than jeans, and you can’t recognize anything that they’re eating.
So, in a sense, the word “Indian” doesn’t really mean anything in terms of summarizing a culture because… well, an “Indian” culture doesn’t exist.
Which makes the art throughout the country so interesting. Like so many other cultures around the world, art and religion are inextricably linked. Hinduism especially relies on art because it places such high importance in the visual aspect of religion. Stories of famous mythologies are painted on the streets and temples and images of gods and goddesses are omnipresent. I mean everywhere. Bumper stickers, posters on restaurant doors, statues at business entrances and every empty crook and cranny on the streets, walls in houses. Literally everywhere.
My dad’s job had us traveling throughout India so I couldn’t help but notice how radically different the images around me were, despite depicting the same figures. Durga is particularly interesting. She’s an Indian goddess in some sense because many Muslims and tribal people also worship some form of her, not just Hindus. She is hailed as the Supreme Goddess and the origin of all energy and life in the universe, a timeless maternal spirit that pervades everything, transcends time and religion, and ensures that the world remains in balance. Think Eywa, from the movie ‘Avatar.’
Here’s a statue of Durga from my home province, Andhra Pradesh.
Note how colorful and vivid it is. Also, note what the Goddess is wearing. A fairly simple sari. The people of Andhra are traditionally farmers, very rural people. Though we’re known for having a beautiful and poetic language, we’re simple people who toiled away in the lush lands of southern India. Hence, the folksy, bright colors and fairly simply draped sari. Juxtapose this with the sophisticated refinery that is the North.
Northern India has seen far more attacks and conquests, from the Muslim Mughals to the Christian British, and has been more directly placed under their rule than southern India. Thus, the depictions of the Goddess tend to be more anglicized and highly influenced by what is considered beautiful by that region of the country. Her body is generally made of white marble to reflect the more appealing (to them) aesthetic of having lighter skin. Her garlands are made of roses, as opposed to native flowers such as the hibiscus or the marigold flowers. Her jewelry is also more intricate and contains many gemstones and pearls whereas in southern depictions, She wears extremely ornately designed gold due to relative abundance of gold and lack of gemstones in the south.
Depictions of Durga from the state of Bengal are radically different from all other regions, especially in terms of Her distinct facial structure. Also, while northern India generally depicts Durga as marble white and southern India depicts Her with a more flesh-colored tone, Bengalis depict Her with yellow skin. I mean the yellowest yellow of all the yellows you’ve ever seen. Her bindi (the marking on her forehead) is also more intricate than the standard red dot and her jewelry is out of this world.
Durga is the Bengal’s most loved deity and Her festivals are celebrated with more pomp than any other.
A depiction of Durga from Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India:
Her skin color is a lot darker. It is also common to find Durga statues made of black marble in these parts of India because they more accurately depict the darker pigmentation of southern Indians. Also, Her bindi is completely different (three horizontal lines and a red dot in the middle) to reflect a more popular strand of Hinduism in Tamil Nadu. The usage of animals more prevalent in this region, such as buffalo, is common in imagery associated with Her.
The following depiction is from Rajasthan, a state in the north that perhaps had the greatest association with the Muslim Mughals. She has on a blouse and a long skirt and drapes Her sari over her shoulders rather than tying it around her body, like the women of Rajasthan. The way She’s painted, with Her head facing the side but Her body facing the viewer, is a direct influence of the Mughals, who also painted their figures this way.
In the coastal Orissa, where peacocks are especially used as a sign of beauty and majesty, silver is abundant, and jewelry is designed after the beautiful conches and seashells found along the beaches.
In Assam and Tripura:
Depictions of the Goddess are endless. There are paintings and statues of Her naked, clothed, blue, green, black, orange, with bindis of all shapes and sizes, with Oriental features, with blue eyes, etc, etc, etc. But this post is getting way too long and I’ve realized now that none of these pictures do justice to Her or to the beautiful statues and paintings they’re portraying.