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The legend of Mahisha’s elimination by Durga is perhaps her most popular exploit. It has given her the epithet Mahishasura-Mardini. In her form as Mahishasura-Mardini her aesthetic beauty better reveals for it combines with the beauty of form also the beauty of sublime force. Perhaps for such reasons, Mahishasura-Mardini is her most widely represented form in any visual medium and any kind of art, spiritual, secular or votive. Clad in typical Orissa costume and ornaments and conceived with characteristic Oriya iconographic form, on the Devi’s face reflects her determination to punish the demon for his misdeeds. The buffalo demon Mahisha has been represented in human form though with horns on his head, deep blue body-colour, and a repulsive face, besides a buffalo-form, a severed head and torso, symbolic of his buffalo lineage, painted around his human form. The eighteen-armed Devi is carrying in her various hands a trident-cum-spear, rod, vajra, battle-axe, khanda, flag, noose, wheel, mace, arrow, sword, shield, serpent, conch, lotus and bow.
Chapter 46 of the Maha Shiva Purana narrates the legend of Durga eliminating demon Mahisha, literally meaning buffalo. Mahisha, the son of Rambha, head of a mighty demon clan, who had begot him of a female buffalo, once ruled the earth. As the legend has it, after long rigorous penance the childless Rambha was blessed by Agni – the fire-god, to have a son by the female he first met, enamoured and wedded. On his way back, he encountered a she-buffalo and captivated by her beauty fell in love and married her. The she-buffalo bore him a son who looked like half buffalo and half human being. He was named Mahisha. Highly ambitious, Mahisha performed great penance and won from Brahma the boon of invincibility against all males. This made the highly ambitious Mahisha, also arrogant and atrocious.
Not merely that the entire earth fell under his yoke, Mahisha also invaded heaven, defeated Indra and all gods and forced them to flee. Indra and other gods approach Brahma who revealed on them that under a boon from him Mahisha was invincible against all males and hence they could not defeat him. On Brahma’s advice and along with him they approached Vishnu and Shiva and narrated to them how Mahisha had usurped not merely their land but under his patronage his demons had usurped also their functions. With faces radiating like fire enraged Shiva and Vishnu looked into the sky which began glowing with the radiance of many suns. All gods also saw skywards and the glow that their faces emitted also blended with that of Shiva and Vishnu. Gods commemorated Durga and instantly the radiance revealing from their faces transformed into the form of a female divinity. Each of them blended into her form his attribute and gave her his weapon. After her form had fully evolved, the goddess laughed and with its thunderous voice shook all three worlds. Mahisha too heard it and with crores of his warriors rushed into the direction the voice was coming from. Here the goddess confronted him and in a fierce war killed him and his entire army.
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.