This sandstone sculpture represents the goddess Durga, a manifestation of the great Hindu Mother Goddess, who is the mistress of life and death. She is shown here as a triumphant warrior, standing on the body of the conquered buffalo demon. Though Durga appears as a sensuous figure, adorned with ornate jewelry and wearing sheer clothing, the severed head and various weapons held in her multiple arms communicate her warlike prowess and role as protector of divine law. The most readily identifiable objects in her hands are a sword, shield, watering can, and severed head. Durga also often carries a club, mace, and conch shell, which may have broken off this sculpture.
Durga, the central figure in this sculpture, is one of the incarnations of Devi, the Hindu mother goddess. Her name means “she who is difficult to approach,” and Durga is usually portrayed having a beautiful face and sensuous body with eight or ten arms, holding various weapons. According to one story, Durga was created by the male Hindu gods as a manifestation of all their energy and strength. They call upon her to defeat a demon that none of them can and collectively bestow all of their weapons. She is the wife of Shiva, who is lying beneath her feet in this sculpture. Durga is surrounded by a heavenly court, meant to mimic earthly royal courts, as indicated by the various architectural elements, mythical animals, and heavenly attendant at the lower right. Additionally, the Hindu god Brahma appears on the left, watching Durga as she dances atop her husband Shiva.
This sculpture shows Durga celebrating her victory over a demon, indicated by the severed head she holds. Her power is demonstrated by the many weapons she holds, which destroy ignorance and were given to her by the various Hindu gods. After destroying the demon, Durga began a triumphant dance that shook the worlds so vigorously the other gods became frightened of her and pleaded that she return to her formerly demure state. As Durga continues, Shiva intervenes by lying beneath her feet to absorb the impact of her dance. Quickly, Durga realizes that she is trampling her own husband and stops her dance.
Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss Durga.
Attributes are objects that carry special meaning or symbolism. They can be used to both identify a figure and gain insight into the figure’s purpose or character.
Durga often appears with multiple arms, each hand of which may be seen holding one of the following weapons. These various attributes were gifted to her by another god. This sculpture is damaged in several places and attributes have broken away. However, still identifiable are the shield, sword, and water jug.
The bell is a symbol of primal sound that is the origin of creation. In the hand of Durga, it is a weapon that inspires fear in all her enemies.
The bow represents female and the arrow male energy.
The club is a weapon that protects the wearer and also represents the power of natural laws and time, which destroy everything in their path.
The conch shell is used as a musical instrument, and its sound is intended to ward off demons. The clockwise spiraling of the conch is symbolic of infinite space and the balance of the laws of nature.
The drum symbolizes primal sound, which is the origin of all things and creates a rhythmic strength in creation.
The shield provides protection against enemy attacks for gods who are engaged in combat with oppositional forces.
The skull represents the cycle of life and death and the ephemeral nature of all things.
The snake symbolizes eternal life and the never-ending cycle of time.
The sword is a destructive force that combats ignorance and promotes wisdom.
The trident is a magic means to drive out demons. The three prongs represent the aspects of creator, protector and destroyer.
The water jug symbolizes fertility and wealth.
Originally signifying the sun wheel, the wheel represents the cycle of life and death. It is also considered a weapon.
In early Indian cultures the mother goddess’ incarnations were linked to natural forces such as the earth, dawn, or night. She was seen as the source of all energy in the universe and the creative force that brought fertility to the earth. Later, the mother goddess became associated with Shiva’s Shakti or consort. Her strength remained in her power as a creative force, and though Shiva embodied potency, Shakti provided the energy to release it. Devi, meaning goddess, refers to all Hindu goddesses and is considered the Mother Goddess.
Devi appears in many contrasting manifestations, some amiable and others frightening. These opposing manifestations underline the concept of female strength as the source of all life and yet powerful enough to destroy it. Non-threatening manifestations such as Sati or Parvati [PAHR-vah-tee] reveal the loving and caring aspects of the goddess, while Durga and Kali portray the goddess as a great protector and terrifying warrior who maintains divine law.
Temple Art and Architecture
After the establishment of the Gupta [GUP-tah] kingdom in the fourth century A.D., Hindu art began to flourish. The first Hindu temples were constructed and modeled after earlier Buddhist monuments. Hindu temples are designed to represent a diagram of the universe. Temples take on the form of a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred diagram that is oriented to the cardinal directions and contains patterns and images intended to aid viewers along the path to understanding and enlightenment.
Many stone sculptures were created to decorate the exterior walls of these temples. Sculptures decorating the temple serve the dual purpose of familiarizing worshipers with the appearance and stories of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods and goddesses and welcoming the worshiper into the temple. For example, many doorjambs that frame the entrance to a temple offer a visual summary of the cults honored inside. Though most Hindu objects in museums today appear unpainted, these sculptures would have originally been painted using a polychrome or multiple color technique.
Many sculptures decorate the interior of Hindu temples as well. For example, temple niches often house images of the Hindu deity to whom the temple is devoted. Hindus believe that the spirit of the deity represented can enter sculptures to receive prayers and offerings. Thus, these images are treated as living entities and are carefully attended to by temple priests. Priests often adorn the sculptures with silk garments, jewels, and flowers.
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason discuss aspects of the Hindu temple.
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe the development of the Hindu temple in India.
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe Hindu temple structure and worship.
Due to the pervasiveness of Hinduism in Indian culture, Indian art, which primarily consists of religious art, remains a living tradition that has survived without significant interruption over several millennia.
The early inhabitants of India were farmers and herders who practiced religious cults focused on the fertility of nature. When the Aryans arrived in the region around 1500 BC, these indigenous traditions were combined with the Indo-European cults of the Aryans to create Hinduism. Then, in the sixth century BC, the Buddhist religion, grounded in Hindu roots, developed and spread. During this same time, the Jain religion also grew out of Hinduism, establishing the third major world religion to originate in India.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu, and Shiva [SHEE-va]. Followers of Hinduism strive for liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle of life a rebirth (samsara). Hindus believe in reincarnation, the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, and the attainment of positive karma in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
1. What adjectives would you use to describe Durga?
2. Durga is a protective figure in the Hindu tradition. What are other protective figures or heroes that you can think of that appear in other cultures and societies (i.e. superheroes, rulers, gods/goddesses, family members.) How is this figure similar to or different from other protectors and heroes with whom you are familiar?
3. Durga appears at once feminine and powerful. Who are other female figures that hold great power?
1. In this sculpture Durga holds many different attributes that aid her in her purpose. Research a Hindu attribute and create a presentation outlining the purpose and function of the attribute with reference to its appearance in Hindu art or literature.
2. Based on class discussion and your own personal knowledge brainstorm with your classmates a list of at least five hero figures. Next, brainstorm a list of ten adjectives or attributes that could be used to describe a hero (i.e. strong, wears a cape, has a side-kick, etc.). Then, create a table that connects the five heroes to the appropriate adjectives or attributes. *Younger students can create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts Durga with another hero figure. What does each figure have that is unique and where do their adjectives or attributes overlap?
|Learn about the role of Hinduism in Indian culture.|
| Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss Durga.|
| Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason discuss aspects of the Hindu temple.|
| Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe the development of the Hindu temple in India.|
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe Hindu temple structure and worship.
|Watch curator Anne Bromberg discuss Durga.|
Agarwal, Urmila. North Indian Temple Sculpture. New Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1995.
Dallapiccola, Anna L. Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
Desai, Vishakha N. and Darielle Mason eds. Gods, Guardians, and Lovers : Temple Sculptures from North India A.D. 700-1200. New York: The Asia Society Galleries, 1993.
Goddess Durga. New Delhi: Aravali Books International, 1998.
Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Hindu Imagery: The Gods and their Symbols. Diever, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications, 1993.
Pal, Pratapaditya. The Sensuous Immortals: A Selection of Sculptures from the Pan-Asian Collection. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977.
Storm, Rachel. Indian Mythology: Myths and Legends of India, Tibet and Sri Lanka. London: Anness Publishing Limited 2000, 2002.
Topsfield, Andrew ed. In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2004.
Vashishtha, Neelima. Sculptural Traditions of Rajasthan, ca. 800 – 1000 AD. Jaipur: Publication Scheme, 1989.
Books for Students:
Chatterjee, Manini. Eyewitness Books: India. New York: DK Children, 2002.
Ries, Julian. Man and the Divine in Hinduism. Philadlephia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Watson, Francis. A Concise History of India. Southampton: Camelot Press Ltd., 1979.
Learn more about Hindu art and sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum's Heilbrunn Timeline.
This short passage discusses ways to identify religious figures in art.
This resource discusses Hindu sculpture.
Learn more about the goddess Devi on this site from the Smithsonian.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System offers a description of Buddhism.
Learn more about South Asian culture from the Heilbrunn timeline at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Learn more about the art of Asia from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
This website provides strategies for teaching Indian art.
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
This web site provides a rich, multimedia exploration of India through photos, commentary, and educational resources.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”