She is the ashtabhujhadharini Durga, the Durga who is possessed of (‘dharini’) eight (‘ashta’) arms (‘bhuja’). While the Mahishasuramardini, slayeress (‘mardini’) of the buffalo-demon (‘mahisha-asura’), is hands-down a wrathful deity, this bronze composition depicts the tranquil side of Her. Instead of weapons in each and every one of Her hands, She holds sacred implements like the conch and the discus in the posteriormost hands. Note the diminutive trishoola (trident) in Her anteriormost left hand, designed for the right counterpart to be raised in blessing.
From the shringar layered delicately over the curves of her body to the folds of silk that clothe Her limbs, each aspect of the figure has been carved with lifelike detail and perfect symmetry. On the back of Her lion - She is simhavahini, borne by the lion - She is seated in lalitasana. She looks straight ahead, Her determined gaze complemented by the tall, stately crown on Her head. The murti is poised upon a simple, multi-tiered bronze pedestal with subtle lotus engravings.
This bronze image from Swamimalai, a statue of a bit larger size than the Swamimalai bronze-casts usually are, represents goddess Durga in her eight-armed form, the goddess’s most popular ‘ashtabhuja-dhari’ manifestation. Durga in her ashtabhuja-dhari form has been more widely represented in visual arts than any of her other forms. The goddess is riding her mount lion, plumpish in modelling and a toy like looking : bulky figure with short height, tail coiled like a rope, elegantly dressed mane and contrary to the effect that a lolling tongue and wide open mouth should breed the face of the animal delights by its gesture. The animal has on its back an ornamental saddlecloth composed mainly of laces of tassels and knots and decorative border. Not exactly on the animal’s back, the figure of the goddess seems to float in the space over it, perhaps denoting that she is not bound to any particular spatial domain.
Though there are hundreds of legends of the goddess relating to her exploits against demons and evil powers and also related to protecting her devotees, the statue portrays just her vision – her divine presence, her divinity, pervading the earth and the sky, beyond action, beyond representing her as engaged in an act against a demonic power. Obviously, unlike an act confining the goddess contextually to one event or the other this image aims at representing her as a divine presence pervading all spaces, commanding all acts – every intellect and every mind where an act shapes, and transcending time. Not wrath or a determination to annihilate, sublime calm – something like benignity and contentment, enshrine the face of the goddess. The vision of the goddess holds the viewing mind, drags it away from the material bonds and transcends it into the realm of sublime delight.
The image of the goddess, as also her mount, have been installed on a three-tiered rectangular pedestal, the lower part, comprises, besides a plain base, an upwards narrowing moulding elevating along stylized lotus motifs, the middle part is a plain rising, and the upper, again a plain moulding with edged bottom and chamfered top. Besides her normal right hand held in ‘abhaya’ the goddess is carrying in her other three hands on the right side, and four on the left, chakra –disc, arrow and rod, and conch, bow, trident and casket. With sublimity enshrining her face the image of the goddess has been conceived on the lines of divine icons : roundish face with well-fed cheeks, sharp nose, cute small lips, mildly protruding chin, meditative half-shut eyes, well-trimmed eyebrows, broad forehead, head covered with a tall crown with Vaishnava character, voluminous neck, broad shoulders, and a highly balanced anatomy – subdued belly, voluminous hips and other aesthetically conceived parts. Besides a magnificently pleated ‘antariya’ – lower wear – the common component of almost every divine image, the goddess has been cast as wearing also an upper costume with half sleeves. The image is normally bejeweled with ornaments on her ears, neck, breast, arms, wrists and feet.
Even for a layman the statue’s origin in the Swamimalai workshop is by itself the assurance of its level of perfection, classicism and technical accomplishment that the craftsmen of Swamimalai have attained after pursuing the craft over centuries through many generations. A centre of bronze casting with its rare distinction, perhaps hardly any other in India to stand equal, with about 1200 artisans still engaged in the profession Swamimalai till now pursues the standards of great South Indian bronzes that had a centuries old tradition under many ruling dynasties. Despite that as an art-medium bronze is the toughest alloy to work with bronzes from Swamimalai, a small town near Chennai in Tamil Nadu, as this tiny piece, are rare in their aesthetics, spiritual fervour as well as their decorative aspect – even the smallest part conceived with a jeweler’s eye. A Swamimalai bronze breathes, besides a kind of classicism, divine aura and beauty par excellence.
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