Durga Worship

    The Worship of Durga in Different Traditions

    Anita Bose

    For thousands of years Devi Durga has been worshipped in India and various parts of Asia Minor. She is a multi-dimensional Goddess, with many names, many personas, and many facets. Goddess Durga is the embodiment of purity, knowledge, truth and self-realization. The highest form of truth present in any being or Jiva is known as ‘Aatma’ or supreme consciousness. This supreme consciousness or the absolute soul is infinite, birthless, deathless, beyond time and space, and beyond the law of causation. Goddess Durga is the inherent dynamic energy through which this supreme consciousness manifests itself.
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    Since time immemorial, Goddess Durga is represented in various forms in different countries and exalted in ancient texts in different languages. Traces of her cult can be found in sacred scriptures, art and ethos of many countries across the globe. There are several hints to her in the early Vedic texts and by the time the Epics were scripted, she emerged as an independent deity.   

    Consider the following Vedic hymn:

    tâm agni-varnâm tapasâ jwalantîm

    vairochanîm karma-phaleshu jushtâm

    durgâm devîm sharanam aham prapadye

    sutarasi tarase namaha

    In the Rig Veda, Goddess Durga has been described as the flame-complexioned annihilator of all evil. She is benevolent and nurturing and fulfills her worshipers’ wishes. With the passing eras, her forms underwent transformation, and she was ascribed multifarious identities like that of daughter, mother and wife – Uma, Parvati, Durga, Shivani, Adyashakti, Mahamaya, Asurdalani. Durga or Adi Shakti, the power of the Supreme Being is worshipped as a principal aspect of the mother goddess Devi and is one of the most popular and widely revered among Indian divinities. But traces of the earliest depiction of Durga can be found in other parts of Asia Minor where the cult of Shakti was in vogue. Shakti or Devi was seen as the female principle of the divine — in her many forms as the absolute manifestation of divinity.  Shakti is the motivating force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos. The cosmos itself is Shiva aka Brahman, an unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that provides the divine ground of all being. This masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, symbolized by Shakti and embodied in the multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled into one.

    Even in contemporary world, Shakti in the form of Narmada is worshipped as Shiva’s daughter. Many researchers have often wondered why the Divine Feminine was venerated as the Supreme Being in spite of growing influence of the patriarchal society and how come female divinity continued to have a place in belief and worship. As time passed, matriarchal societies gave way to patriarchy, geographical boundaries expanded following wars between kingdoms and flourishing of trade and commerce, the world witnessed rise and fall of civilizations and fusion of different races like Aryans and Dravidians – all these impacted society but the one thing that remained unaffected by the changing times is the unique existence of Devi Durga as the manifestation of Adi Shakti, the motivating force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos.

    From time immemorial, ascetics have been involved in rigorous spiritual exercise or ‘Sadhana’ to evoke divinity within the self and feel the presence of Maha Shakti. So, it was a moment of fulfillment for a researcher to come across rare documents that narrate the Divine Feminine in all her avatars. The projection of the stronger and fiercer side of womanhood is but obvious in the tales surrounding Goddess Durga. I was stunned to see a familiar small figurine at the Bangkok National  Museum. The accompanying tablet informed, this was a 7th century statue of Mahishasuramardini  Durga, discovered from Java, Indonesia.  

    The buffalo-demon slaying goddess or Mahisa-mardini is the most popular form of Devi Durga in Bengal. Durga, in her various forms, appears as an independent deity in the Epics period of ancient India, that is the centuries around the start of the common era. Bengal was introduced to the divinity of Goddess Durga through the vernacular interpretation of Valmiki’s Ramayana by Krittibas Ojha. Ojha was a medieval poet (15th-century) who composed the epic in archaic Bengali, narrating the story of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, in seven sections. The narrative is overall in sync with that of the Valmiki Ramayana, however with an interesting addition of the involvement of the Mother Goddess, Durga. 

    According to legend, Lord Ram went to Lanka to rescue his abducted wife, Sita from the demon King Ravana. Before the commencement of the battle, Rama wanted to seek the blessings of Devi Durga but he realized, the season of spring (Basant) is the conventional period when Goddess Durga is worshipped. However, he was desperate for her blessings  and decided to opt for ‘Akaal Bodhan’ and invoke Durga in the month of Ashwin, an uncustomary time for the puja. His devotion and sincerity pleased the Goddess, who appeared before him and blessed him. This myth, introduced by Krittibas, somehow became very popular and since then,  Bengalis  stuck to Akal Bodhan and, Goddess Durga is ushered in autumn annually and her arrival is celebrated with reverence and gusto.  

    Goddess Durga was a popular deity across many countries in the entire Asian continent and many pundits, including Swami Vivekananda, have discussed her wide-scale presence and acceptability in their writings. Sister Nivedita attended the International Science Congress held at Paris in 1900. After listening to discussions by sociologists and anthropologists, she wrote in her book, ‘Footfalls of Indian History,’ the classical postulation of the Queen being the sovereign ruler is older than the notion of a male ruler. Similarly, female divinity is far more ancient and was conceptualized much before the male gods came into being. This is felt even to this day. 

    The prehistoric culture of the Indus Valley arose in the latter centuries of the 3rd millennium BCE from the metal-using village culture of the region. In most village cultures, small terra-cotta figurines of women, found in large quantities, have been interpreted as icons of a fertility deity, whose cult was widespread and extended as far as the Mediterranean area and in Western Asia from Neolithic times (c. 5000 BCE) onward. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the goddess was apparently associated with the bull — a feature also found in ancient religions farther west.

    In Greece, Kubileya/Kubeleya Mother, perhaps ‘Mountain Mother,’ is an Anatolian Mother Goddess who may have a possible forerunner in the earliest Neolithic age at Çatalhöyük, where statues of plump women, sometimes sitting, have been found in excavations. Phrygia’s only known Goddess was probably the national deity. Greek colonists in Asia Minor adapted her Phrygian cult and spread it to mainland Greece and to the more distant western Greek colonies around 6th-century BC. She became partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, of her possibly Minoan equivalent Rhea, and of the harvest–mother goddess Demeter. Some city-states, notably Athens, evoked her as a protector, but her most celebrated Greek rites and processions show her as an essentially foreign, exotic mystery-goddess who arrives in a lion-drawn chariot to the accompaniment of wild music, wine, and a disorderly, ecstatic following. 

    In Rome, Cybele became known as Magna Mater  or the ‘Great Mother.’ The Egyptian worshipped Isis. But this goddess proved popular enough to transcend her original Egyptian centers of worship and expand to all corners of the known world. Her cult first began to spread around the Mediterranean, following establishment of Hellenist rule in Egypt in the 4th century B.C. and several temples to Isis were erected throughout the Mediterranean world. Then as Roman power expanded, worship of Isis went even farther afield. Swami Vivekananda mentioned about a ‘Singhavahini’ Goddess who resided in the mountains, worshipped by the ancient inhabitants of Crete islands (modern Greek Kríti) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

    Venus, the ancient Roman Goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory is one of the most widely referenced deities of Greco-Roman mythology. Like other major Roman deities, Venus was given a number of epithets that referred to her different cult aspects, roles, and her functional similarities to other deities. Similarly, the female war goddess is present in ancient cultures and civilization in different names and forms the world over. Isana, Anahita, Nona, Nonai, Istara are the different forms of the cult of Mother Goddess.  


    [Editor’s note: The worship of Mother Durga as Mahisha-mardini originated in Mysuru, Karnataka. The most ancient Durga temple on Chamunda Hills in Mysuru is legendary. The divine text, Chandi or Durga Saptashati, is supposed to have originated in a village near Mangalore. The official worship of Mother Durga by any government and procession of Mother round the city happens only in Karnataka. Read on…]


    In India, Durga is worshipped as a principal aspect of the mother goddess and there are several hints to her in the early Vedic texts and by the time of the epics, she emerges as an independent deity. From the point of iconography, the goddess is depicted as a fierce warrior (Rana-Chandi) who is annihilating a buffalo/ a demon in the form of a buffalo single-handedly. She is sometimes depicted with 10 arms or eight or even two. Figurines of the fierce and destructive form of Sakti or Mahisasuramardini, literally ‘the one who crushes Asura Mahisa’, that is the demon with a buffalo appearance, are found in abundance in Java in Indonesia, again, this very Mahisasuramardini  Durga was worshipped in South-East Asia as Uma and Parvati. She was an important deity in ancient Siam (Thailand), Kamboj (Cambodia), Champa (Vietnam), Anom and Sreshthapura.  

    Devi Durga remains a popular deity and is still worshipped widely in Thailand as Uma Devi. Sculptures depicting Uma Devi and Lord Shiva sitting atop a bull are preserved with great care at the Phya Thai Palace or Royal Phya Thai Palace and at the national museum. It comes as a surprise to discover how effortlessly this cult of the Mother Goddess found its way to these South-East Asian countries from India and established itself as a major divine form. In fact, Hinduism exerted an enormous influence on the civilizations of Southeast Asia and contributed greatly to the development of a written tradition in that area. About the beginning of the Common Era, Indian merchants may have settled there, bringing Brahman monks with them. These religious men were patronized by rulers who converted to Hinduism. Use of Sanskrit language for communication was also one of the prime bridging factors. 

    The civilizations of Southeast Asia developed forms of Hinduism that incorporated distinctive local features and in other respects reflected local cultures, but the framework of their religious life was largely Indian. In this short write-up, I intend to trace the path of this religious and cultural export from India to countries of South-East Asia in ancient times. Swami Vivekananda wrote on this aspect, “The miracle of language, which was called Sanskrit or Perfected, lending itself to expressing and manipulating better than any other tongue.” (extract from ‘Historical Evolution of India’).

    The spread of Indian spiritualism in South-East Asia has been very well explained by Dr Dawee Daweewarn in his book, ‘Brahmanism in South-East Asia.’ He writes, “India gave the whole South-East Asia its own culture…Cambodia, Champa, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia, all these were the glorious collaterals of Brahmanic Cultural poly phylum, the sage of each of which shows the undercurrents of a traditional homogeneity.” (page 199) 

    In the countries on the shores of the Mediterranean, we often find reference of Goddess Durga in the form of Anahita aka Ana and I shall discuss this form in detail later. There was a temple of Anahita in Armenia. It is very surprising to note that the annual festival in the Anahita temple used to be celebrated in the month of ‘Navasard’! Doesn’t this remind us of the nine-day ‘Sharadiya’ (in the season of Sharat) festival in India?

    Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and also of war, later was identified by the Akkadians and Assyrians as Goddess Ishtar, and further with the Hittite Sauska, among many others. All these goddesses are depicted riding on a lion or are on a chariot that is being pulled by lions. Shiva has always been a very popular deity since antiquity and devotees have paid obeisance to Lord Shiva in different countries in different forms. 

    Shiva, in whatever form he is depicted in ancient cultures from different parts of the world  — including the amalgam of pre-Vedic religions and traditions who is later aligned with the Vedic deity Rudra or Shiva  in India — the iconographical identification in all these forms is the trident and the crescent moon, both synonymous with the cult of Shiva. From the unifacial Shiva-linga to Panchamukhi (five-faced) Sadashiv, the quintessential Indian gods and goddesses have been appearing on the face of Earth in different forms from time to time and these primitive deities have been decked with the trident and crescent moon, symbols of the original form.

    I had mentioned earlier how I was shocked  to discover the form of an ancient Durga Mahishasuramardini statute. The name of the figurine also surprised me. The hand-long (ek-hath, hand being a unit of measurement for assessing height or length) laterite stone sculpture from the 7th-century has eight arms and is minimally attired. In those days, women did not cover themselves fully. The sculpture depicts the goddess holding the asura in one hand and is standing atop a buffalo. Her posture is not the artistic kind we see these days. Instead, she is portrayed as confident and brave and completely detached from her action, suggesting the cycle of crime and punishment. If you commit a sin, I shall not spare you and you will have to accept the punishment. That is the basic principle of life and death on earth. 

    In this context I am reminded of a story. In some Puranas, Mahishasura is said to be Rambhasura’s son. Rambhasura performed arduous penance to please Lord Shiva who granted him a boon resulting in the birth of his son, Mahishasura. There is a specific hymn in Devi-Bhagwat: “Mahishtwam mahavira shivroopo Sadashivah.” One night, Mahishasura had a nightmare – he saw the 16-armed Bhadrakali appear before him. She beheaded him and drank his blood. Mahishasura was very frightened by the dream and the next day, he piously prayed to the goddess. He said, “Devi, I have no doubt that I am destined to be killed by you because   according to Brahma’s boon, I shall be annihilated only by a female. I have only one request to make – as long as there is the Sun and the Moon (the celestial bodies) in this universe, grant me the wish that whenever and wherever you are being worshipped, I may get part of the yajna-bhag (ritual/ offering done in front of a sacred fire, often with mantras) offered to you.” The demoniac Mahishasura suddenly asked for a sattvic (a person who has mental clarity, is pure in thoughts, words and actions) boon! The goddess was pleased with the demon’s piety and said, “Since it is not possible to share the yajna-bhag with you, I give you assurance that as long as I am worshipped by mortals of the Earth, your buffalo form will remain attached to my feet and you too, will be worshipped. 

    After this, the terrifying battle ensued. Every Bengali’s blood curdles hearing the somber beat of the ‘rana-dundubhi’ (military drum) on the dawn of Mahalaya annually, when Chandipath (a holy scripture) blares from radio sets and reverberates in the air. In that catastrophic war, Devi Durga got atop the buffalo and pressed its neck with her left foot and crucified him with her spear. Asura emerged from the buffalo when Devi Durga’s left foot’s big toe pressed the buffalo’s neck –

    Tatah so’pi padâkrântah tayâ nija-mukhât tadâ

    ardha-nishkrânta evâsît devyâ vîryena samvrtah

    This is the form of Mahishasuramardini Devi Durga worshipped in Bengal. It often gives rise to the question: since when did Durga Puja begin? There are multiple doctrines about this in our country and the issue is debatable. First, let us verify the various ancient Durga worship traditions and cults in India. The antiquity of worship of the Mahisamardini Durga goes back to remote past. Dr Manas Bhandari points to a terracotta sculpture of Mahisamardini  Durga from mid 1st-century that was found at a location close to Mathura. A four-armed statue from 700 AD was excavated by archaeologists from a site in Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. We also get primitive terracotta sculptures of Mahisamardini Durga on the temple walls of the ancient Basheshwar Mahadev Temple at Bajaura in Himachal Pradesh, at Bhuvaneswar in Odisha, a site close to Dumka in Bihar. Worship of the Divine Shakti is also an ancient and integral part of the Kshatriyas (warrior race) of Rajasthan. In ancient cities like Udaipur, Vishalgarh, Bikaner and Rajghat, the iconic Durga as the warrior Goddess has been discovered sometimes in the form of statues or insignia or in terracotta panels.  

    In the southern part of the country, the renowned Durga temple in Aihole, Karnataka, is the most prominent attraction for tourists and scholars. The eight-armed figurine of Goddess Durga has a distinct element of aristocracy and unique style and posture. The four-armed Devi at the famous temple in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu is stunning in appearance. In undivided Bengal, we get Goddess Durga with many arms in Rajshahi district (Bangladesh) and Dinajpur in North Bengal. In fact, all pious and faithful Hindus revere and worship Goddess Durga. Durga Puja for the Bengalis is much more than a festival – it is an amalgamation of fervor and fun. It is a carnival and an emotion that marks the time of happy tides. Durga Puja is intertwined with the Bengali ethos and is a high point of Bengali way of life, culturally and socially. 

    The worship of Durga in the form of daughter or Mother was incorporated in the Bengali society by the famous Bengali poet Krittibas Ojha in his version of the epic, Ramayana. It is believed that the first Durga Puja in Bengal was celebrated more than 500 years ago in 1480 AD at the temple of King Kangsa Narayan of Taherpur in Bagmra Upazila of Rajshahi district in Bangladesh. The king’s learned ‘Kul-purohit’ Ramesh Shastri guided him to perform all the rituals of the puja. ‘Durga Puja Tattwa’ compiled by Pandit Raghunandan is still considered an important seminal work. 

    Historical records suggest initially, Durga Puja was held in the houses of royalty and wealthy landlords. In 1600, the famous ruler of Bankura, Bir Hambir of Malla dynasty initiated Durga Puja in 1600 AD. After this, the puja became widespread and many aristocratic families sponsored the puja with great pomp and splendor. The 20th century witnessed the emergence of community Durga Puja (Barowari puja) which was organized publicly and now National Geographic has acknowledged it as the grandest public festival in the world. One important aspect that we notice here is that Devi Durga was not worshipped as Mahishasuramardini in the rest of the country. In northern India, she is ‘Sherawali Ma,’ and famous as Goddess Amba and Ambika. In Gujarat and other parts of western India, she is Hingala and Rudrani, in Kanauj (Uttar Pradesh) she is worshipped as Kalyani, in Mithila (Bihar), she is Uma and even on the southernmost tip of the country, she is worshipped as Kanyakumari. 

    That is why it came as a shock to discover the presence of  Durga in the form of Mahishasuramardini in the cultures of Java-Bali and far off Indonesia. I was intensely attracted to the two statues on display at Bangkok’s National Museum and it helped me find a direction to carry out my research. One was a five feet bronze sculpture of Sri Rama and the other one was a Durga idol. 

    Every time I went to the museum as a guide, I stood transfixed in front of the hall that displayed historical art and artefacts collected from Java island. One side of the wall displayed Agastya and a huge statue of Vighnanashak (the one who squashes all impediments) Ganapati. On the other side, the idols of Lakshmi, Sree, Durga, Sri Krishna were all placed in a row. I had been nurturing my inner urge for a long time to find that ancient Bharatvarsha which was revealed by Swami Vivekananda. I do not know how far I will be able to reach among the masses with my individual quest, but for the past five or six years I have been trying with utmost sincerity to find the amazing link between the rest of India and Bengal. My journey continues. Now I am going to share all that I have experienced so far. 

    India has a glorious maritime heritage. Bengal, being situated on the western coast of the Bay of Bengal (on the east coast of India) had close maritime contacts with the countries located on the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal and played a conspicuous role in the maritime activities of India. Now it has also been established as historical fact that traders from Bengal had close maritime contacts — commercial, cultural and political — with the countries of South-east Asia. Once when renowned linguist Acharya Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay accompanied Rabindranath Tagore to Indonesia, he learnt that ‘Bharatiya’ meant two parts – one was ‘Kling’ or Kalinga (ancient Odisha) and the other one was Bangli (Bengali). Contemporary Phuket in Thailand  is a very popular tourist destination. One place close to Phuket is named Bangli! To find the reason why it is named thus, we will have to recede several centuries. 

    This Bangli, Bangla and Mahishasuramardni – all have a lait motif binding them together. I have seen exquisite statues of Shiva and Parvati with the Taurus as their ‘vahana’ (vehicle) on display at Feemai Museum in Thailand, Champashak Museum in Laos, sometimes in the form of temple relief and sometimes as sculptures. I have witnessed giant-sized statues of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma as exhibits and scenes from the Puranas on temple walls. I have visited Indonesia, an Islamic state and there at the museums at Jakarta, Surabaya, Mojokerto, Yogyakarta, I have seen hundreds of Durga, Ganesh and Lakshmi statues and this reminds me of Swami Ji’s words. In his book, ‘Prachya and Pashchatyo,’ Swami Vivekananda had written, “That old Shiva, playing his damroo and riding on his bull, not only crossed the borders of India to reach places like Sumatra, Sulawesi and then went as far as the coasts of Australia and America, but he also took his bull to Tibet, China, Japan and Siberia, and is still riding the bull. And can you see Ma Kali? She is still accepting Puja offered by her devotees in China and Japan and then in the form of Baby Jesus’ Mother Mary, she is being worshipped by the Christians.” (Vani O Rachana – 6/151)    



    Mrs Anita Bose is a Ramayana scholar and a researcher in Madhubani art. She lives in Thailand. Mrs Bose has made comparative studies of Ramayana in different cultures and civilizations. Ramayana: Footprints in South-East Asian Culture and Heritage, Saptapadi, Mater: Letter from  mother to son [with others] are some of her works.