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Five-faced Goddess Gayatri
This elegantly coloured statue, one of the finest examples of South Indian temple wood-carving rendered using Bangai wood, a regional specie of timber used for wood carving in South now for generations, represents the five-faced and ten-armed Gayatri, a goddess of Hindu pantheon in Shaivite line. One of the finest species of wood growing around a specific coastal region in Tamil Nadu near Chennai, neither too hard nor too soft, and hence ideal for carving, Bangai has been the medium of temple wood carving in entire South for long past. Endowed with natural ability to keep insects away and to resist against all climatic changes this naturally tempered timber is the chosen medium of art lovers world over.
The multi-faced goddess Gayatri, a favourite theme of South Indian artists in all mediums, wood-carving being the most suited for in the dimensional character of a log of wood the five-faced and ten-armed form of the goddess is better revealed, is a late addition to Hindu pantheon. Except that the Vedic literature comprises a hymn in the name of Gayatri celebrating wisdom – the divine power of intellect, Gayatri is not an early deity with an anthropomorphic or iconographic form. Besides Gayatri Tripura-sundari is other female divinity who has massive presence in medieval art yet her name does not appear in early texts. As a matter of fact, most of the later goddesses in the pantheon are contended to emerge either as Mahavidyas or Matrikas and sometimes even the usual numbers of Mahavidyas and Matrikas, i.e., ten and seven, are extended for accommodating other new emerging divinities, especially those proliferated in the course of Tantric cult, but even such extended list does not include Gayatri and Tripura-sundari among them. In Tantrism she has special significance and presides over many Tantric practices.
Though like Tripura-sundari Gayatri too has a number of shrines, especially in South, dedicated to her and is in live worship as also has a body of myths cropped around her Gayatri’s origin is as obscure as that of Tripura-sundari. In whichever texts Gayatri is alluded to, she is linked with Shakti. Shakti is also the divine power that the Vedic Gayatri-mantra invokes; hence, Gayatri is often seen as personifying Shakti. However, in her imagery, as it evolved in the visual tradition over a long time, especially in the choice of her attributes to include lotus, mace, conch and her lotus seat, she appears to be a Vaishnava deity more often linked to Brahma. Under an often quoted myth emerging in Brahma Purana she is contended to be one of Brahma’s consorts. It is said that once Brahma was performing a ‘yajna’. He had nominated his consort Swara to preside over the ‘yajna’ along him. However, Swara failed to reach when the moment to begin the yajna arrived. Consequently, Brahma asked Gayatri to join him and performed yajna with her. This gave her the status of a consort for only a consort could accompany him in the performance of holy rite. However, on her arrival Swara, finding Gayatri accompanying Brahma in performing yajna, cursed her to turn into a river. Thus, in mythical tradition Gayatri personifies ‘Shakti’ of the ‘mantra’, accomplishment of yajna and also a river’s sacredness and life-giving power. In wider perspective Gayatri represents senses, purity of thought, word and deed. Sometimes Gayatri is seen as personifying abstractionism of the ‘mantra’ or the power of ‘mantra’.
The wood-carving represents the five-faced goddess Gayatri seated in ‘lalitasana’ – a sitting posture revealing aesthetic beauty, on a fully blown lotus laid over a rectangular two-tiered seat consisting of stylized lotus motifs. Her five faces, consisting of sharp features – pointed sharp nose, rounded cheeks, cute small lips, eyes closed as in meditative trance, prominent eye-brows, broad forehead with a flame-like mark in the centre, perhaps the third eye that scripturally an image of Gayatri is supposed to have, manifest five constituents or elements of the cosmos. She has on each head a towering Vaishnava crown. The ten-armed goddess carries in hands on the right side a nail, lotus, wine cup, mace and the fifth is held in ‘abhaya’, and on the left, a conch, battle-axe, noose or rope, ring and sweet. Her normal left hand carrying sweet also signifies release or ‘varada’ – the accomplishment of the desired. Most accomplished in modeling the image of the large-breasted goddess – rare in plasticity and finish, and proportionate, is clad in green ‘antaraya’ held on her waist with a beaded girdle, and in a light pink breast-band strangely designed covering besides her breasts also her shoulders and upper arms. Though only selective and not very wide in range, the ornaments used in adorning the image of the goddess are exceptionally beautiful.
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.