Worshiping the goddess in South India: In poetry, sculpture, dance and song

A look at some of the most significant artistic odes to the Devi in sculpture, poetry and architecture.
Worshiping the goddess in South India: In poetry, sculpture, dance and song
Worshiping the goddess in South India: In poetry, sculpture, dance and song
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South India has had a long heritage of goddess worship. The Shakta traditions that hail the divine feminine has been in vogue since time immemorial. She is the only deity worshipped in the three modes of Hindu ritual of Mantra or the chanted word, Tantra or the coded ritual and Yantra or advanced esoteric geometrical diagrams that connect energy lines.

Across the landscape of South, you find ancient temples dedicated to the goddess in one of these three forms. In addition to these are the numerous artistic tributes to the Devi. In poetry, sculpture, temple architecture and classical music and dance, the goddess has been worshipped since undated times.

In fact, through all these artistic ventures one can trace back the history of human evolution in South India. While it is impossible to enumerate all the spaces and their details in South India, we take a look at some of the most significant artistic odes to the Devi in sculpture, poetry and architecture.  

Starting from the famous cave temples of Mahabalipuram constructed during the rule of the Pallava king Narasimha Varman (630-70 AD). Here we see Devi as Mahishasura Mardhini or the slayer of demon Mahisha. This is a common motif of representing the Devi from the Devi Bhagawatam. You can find this in several other heritage sites across the country.

What is exciting about the sculpture is the depiction of Mahishasura. In many places you normally find a buffalo body and the head of a demon. Here it is the other way round. You find a perfectly sculpted body of a well-built human figure with the head of a buffalo. The whole panel is filled with fascinating details. The central figure being Devi slaying Mahishasura.

Devi is shown with eight arms and riding a lion. She is equipped with all the weapons and can be seen pulling the bowstring all the way to her ear. The demon Mahisha is seen with a club in his hands standing in a position of combat observing the Devi. Around these two main characters are Ganas and Yoginis who are witnessing this war. This is one of the finest representations of plastic art for students of arts studies. Across Tamil Nadu you will find some of the biggest temples dedicated to the Devi. She is worshipped as Meenakshi in Madurai, Kamakshi in Kanchipuram and in many more forms.

Durga as Mahishasuramardhini in Mahabalipuram caves

From there to Kerala, the land of the famous 8th century philosopher and revivalist of Sanathana Dharma Adi Shankara. In his short lifespan of three and half decades, Shankara wrote some of the most seminal works of Vedic philosophy. He traveled extensively and toured the country end to end. Every sacred space or Kshetra he visited, he composed a new song with the inspiration he derived from the respective deity of that Kshetra.

Out of the hundreds of compositions ascribed to Adi Shankara, one of the most famous ones is the Mahishasura Mardhini Stotram.

One does not know when and where Shankara composed this. Filled with esoteric meaning hidden in highly complicated Sanskrit language, in powerful words known as "Beeja Aksharas" this highly energizing composition is a favourite during the Navaratri festival.

In the 1980s this composition gained great popularity with the recordings of Carnatic vocalists C Lalitha and C Saroja who are known as "Bombay Sisters". Till date no one has ever been able to match them in their rendering of this composition. Listen to it here.

Adi Shankara began traveling at a very young age. As he crossed the borders of what is current day Kerala into parts of Karnataka, he visited the ancient temple of Sharada Devi in Sringeri. Sringeri was known as Rushyasringapuram and became famous as the place where sage Rushyasrunga performed his penance to bring in rains.

Looking at the richness of foliage in the western ghats even now, you feel it could be the fruits of that penance that continue till date. Shankara decided to establish the first of his monastic schools or Peethams in Sringeri. He appointed his disciple Sureshwaracharya as the head of this school. This is the only monastic school of Shankara that has had an unbroken lineage from that time till now.

In Sringeri, the Devi is worshipped as Sharada, the goddess of knowledge, an incarnation of goddess Saraswati. Originally it was a small shrine with the central idol of Sharada made of sandalwood, installed over a Sri Chakra Yantra that Sri Adi Shankara carved on a rock. Subsequently the Acharyas built a temple in Kerala style, with timber and tiled roof. Later the original idol was substituted with the present golden idol. Lakhs of pilgrims throng to Sringeri to seek the blessings of the goddess all throughout the year.

Sringeri Sharada Devi as shown in calendar art

From there to the Telugu speaking regions of Andhra and Telangana. The region is dotted with numerous ancient temples dedicated to the Devi. She is worshipped in the famous Shakti Peetha of Jogulamba in Telangana, as Bhramarambika Devi in Srisailam, Kanakadurga in Vijayawada and Gnana Saraswati in Basara.

However she has been immortalized as Bala Tripura Sundari in the village of Kuchipudi. The undated classical dance-drama tradition of Kuchipudi was recreated and revitalized by Siddhendra Yogi in the 17th century.

Narayana Theertha (1650-1745 AD), a composer wrote the magnum opus "Sri Krishna Leela Tharangini". Each of these songs are called Tharangams and are integral to the Kuchipudi dance repertoire. While many songs are on lord Krishna, a few are on other gods. The Durga Tharangam is on the mother goddess.

Watch it here being performed by Sita Prasad and a young Pasumarthy Mrutyunjaya Sharma who comes from one of the traditional Kuchipudi families.

There are many more songs in celebration of the Devi. One cannot possibly list all of them out here. Navaratri or Dusshera is already here, even as you read this. What better way to welcome the blessings of the goddess into your homes than visiting some of the most ancient spaces she has been worshipped at.

One cannot deny the presence and importance of a mother in their lives, irrespective of your religious beliefs and ideologies. According to our rich ancient tradition, the Devi is worshipped as the mother goddess, always compassionate and ever giving. Welcome the goddess energies into your home through art. A happy and holy Dussehra.

Images courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Selva Kumar 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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