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Along with other Matrikas Varahi has an early origin. At their earliest Matrikas are alluded to in the great epic Mahabharata, though the concerned part of the text is widely believed to be a later addition of about the first century AD. In early sources the number of Matrikas varies from seven to sixteen, and sometimes even more, but subsequently it standardized as seven and so their Sapta-Matrikas epithet. As denote allusions made to them, their shrines, and the worship-rites offered to them, in literary writings – Bhasa’s Charudatta, Shudraka’s Mracchakatika, or Banabhatta’s Harsha-Charita, Matrikas were well established deities by around fourth-fifth centuries. In sculptures Matrikas begin having a noticeable presence from the seventh-eighth century. Many of the seventh-eighth century temples, in Central India in special, have Sapta-Matrika panels over their main entrances just above the lintel carrying dwaja-deity icon – mini image of the deity that enshrines the sanctum sanctorum. As such, Matrikas seem to have been known to masses much before many of the Puranas came into existence.
The Puranic vision of their emergence is however different. The version which is most relied on comes from the Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana. As Devi-Mahatmya has it in its third Canto, when the Great Goddess was confronting the mighty demons Shumbha and Nishumbha and the battle was getting tougher, the male gods who were witnessing the battle created their Shaktis – their female counterparts, for assisting the Devi achieve her target. The number of Shaktis that they created was seven, Brahma created Brahmani; Shiva, Maheshwari; Karttikeya, Kumari; Vishnu, Vaishnavi; Vishnu as Varaha, Varahi; as Narasimha, Narasimhi; and Indra, Aindri. As they were male gods’ counterparts, they had male gods’ like appearance and attributes – completely different from the forms they had in the Mahabharata and other early sources. In later texts, Matrikas’ forms and attributes have been most variedly portrayed; however, their status as the feminine aspects of their male counterparts remained unchanged. The Devi Bhagavata contends that Sapta Matrikas were Devi’s own Shaktis she invoked for assisting her eliminate Shumbha and Nishumbha and forces of evil. The Shiva Maha Purana and other Shaivite texts attribute the emergence of Matrikas to Shiva who created them to assist Virabhadra in destroying the yajna of Daksha and kill him.
Her sow head being a feature common in all texts, this form of the goddess, a reproduction of her form as represented in a seventeenth century Basohli miniature, is widely different from the form as given in various canonical texts. In Anshumadbhedagama she is said to have normal two hands carrying in them a plough and shakti, and an elephant being her mount. Vishnudharmottara adds to her form a big belly and four more hands carrying in them danda, khadga, khetaka and pasha, while the other two, being held in abhaya and varada. The Purvakaranagama and Rupamandana conceive her form with yet other sets of attributes; and, finally, Devi Purana visualises her as carrying skull-bowl and drinking blood from it – a strictly Shaivite transform of the goddess.
In this representation the goddess has the usual sow head with fangs jutting out; however, not two or six arms, she has been conceived here with ten arms carrying in the five of them on the right side sword, arrow, disc, bowl, and mace, and in those on the left, conch, lotus, bow, shield, and trident-cum-spear. Most of her attributes – disc, conch, mace and lotus in the main, are Vaishnavite linking her with Varaha, a Vishnu’s incarnation, whereas the trident and bowl, as also bow and arrow, Shiva’s attributes in his Ishan or archer manifestation, link her with Shaivite line. This duality is not however mutually contradicting but rather better reveals her being. Created by Vishnu’s Varaha incarnation but to assist the Devi in the Shaivite line Varahi was Vaishnavite in origin but Shaivite in role. Not an elephant, the goddess rides in the painting a majestic tiger that not only overshadows the Devi’s figure by its amplitude but also covers the entire breadth of the canvas. She has her head held aloft with air of pride but the rest of her figure does not reveal that majesty. Except the use of beetle-wings which Basohli artists had used for creating dazzling effects and blue-green colour, the artist has represented the goddess in typical Basohli mode, more so in the style of her crown, a characteristic Basohli feature.
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.