Goddess Durga in Javanese Sculpture

Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon, c. 1300 — c. 1500; volcanic stone; Java, Indonesia. Rijks Museum

The “Javanisation” of Durga

The general outline of Javanese Durga figures shows a certain uniformity, despite great diversity in details. Since the variety of depictions of Durga in the Indian context is much greater, one can assume that only very few examples were available to Javanese artists to take iconographic inspiration from. They applied certain general iconographic prescriptions for images of a divine nature such as high headdresses, heavy jewellery, multiple arms, sacred thread, etc. to the Durga figures. Yet, little is known of how the story was handed down within the community of worshippers, and instead, we can only see the adaptation that takes place at the iconographic level.

Temples exclusively devoted to the goddess Durga, though common in India, have not been found in Java. There also appears to be no evidence to Durga being associated with a more independent cult as a goddess such as the Indian Śakti cult. Rather, from a number of Durga statues found in situ, it can be inferred that Durga Mahiṣāsuramardinī mūrtis were almost always placed in the northern niches of Śaiva temples — heralding her association with the Śaivite cult that was popular in Java. For instance, in the Lara Jonggan complex at Prambanan, dedicated to Śiva, she is situated in the northern niche as found in Indian temples. Although Durga was a part of the Śaivite cult, but she has never been depicted as consort of Śiva nor used to represent a deceased queen, as was often the case with Pārvati or Prajñāpāramitā.

A large number of depictions of Durga have been found at various regions in Java dating from the 7th to 15th centuries — the Hindu-Buddhist era in the history of the Indonesian archipelago. The representation of the battle from the Devi Mahātmya, a part of the Mārkaṇḍeya purāṇa showing her more violent aspect is less common in East Javanese Durga statues, where She usually depicted as a beautiful, slender goddess, with a graceful and peaceful countenance. Her mūrtis from the East Javanese period (10th — 15th c.) have a special trait in that her hair is long and hangs loose — while those of the Majapahit period (13th to 15th c.) have long canine teeth, a grimacing face and frightful, protruding eyes.

In Javanese tradition, She is worshiped primarily to gain victory over and protection from enemies, as evidenced by Javanese rulers propitiating her for victory in battle, reclamation of their throne or to strengthen their position of power. (For instance, King Erlangga, who ruled over Java during the 10th — 11th centuries fled his capital in the face of an enemy attack, only to find his way to the Terep hermitage and worship goddess Durga (bhattarl arccarupa). He gained victory, and upon returning to his palace he promulgated the prasasti Terep (in the Terep inscription) in 1032 C.E.,granting the Terep āśrama tax-free status.)

Not much is known about the ritual manner in which Durga was worshiped in Java. The only source that we have for this is the manuscript Calon Arango dating from the Majapahit era which is an Old Javanese manuscript written in Balinese script, translated into Dutch by Poerbatjaraka in 1926. It tells the story of Calon Arang, a witch-widow from Girah, whose disciples worship Durga in rituals that appear similar to tantric rites. The first ritual is performed at night in the graveyard to ask for the blessing of bhatari (goddess) Bhagawati (Durga). They perform a dance during which Durga and her entourage appear and join them in the dance.

ICONOGRAPHY

There are basically two different renderings (as opposed to at least nine existing in the Indian art tradition apart from variations of the goddess to reflect her different qualities and contexts) in which Javanese Durgas are shown. The earlier one is a dramatic depiction of the helpless Mahiṣa (buffalo) who has his haunches raised high as his tail is pulled up by the goddess, and the demon is controlled by the lower hand on her other side.

Eight armed Durga slaying the demon Mahisha. Dieng Plateau, Wonosobo district, Central Java province 9th- 10th century, Isidore Kinsbergen, 1864; Photograph from the Rijks Museum

Note — this depiction of Durga wherein bufalo’s haunches are held dramatically high, appeared in India around the Kushan period in terra-cotta, and later in stone scultpure of the 4th-5th centuries, although without the human form of the demon. In South India the buffalo is hoisted up by the tail instead of the leg, and this seems to be the model for the West Javanese examples of this type.

Durga Destroying the Buffalo Demon, 2nd century Mathura (Kushan Period); Terracotta Brooklyn Museum

The later rendition depicts Durga standing calmly in various postures on the quietly reclining buffalo with the asura placed either beside or above his head. She holds up the buffalo’s tail , while pulling the asura by his hair or just touching his head. Although the elements of the goddess, buffalo and the demon in his human form point to the story of dramatic events, hardly any traces of the cosmic battle can be recognised in the Javanese sculptures. In some of the sculptures she pierces the triśūla into the animal’s back in a slightly more aggressive gesture, but the majority of Durga scultpures show a very relaxed and serene figure. She often smiles and has her eyes half closed as in meditation. We can assume that the specific power and function ascribed to the goddess and for which she was venerated, finds local expression in this type of serene, superior and relaxed figure. The half-closed eyes, a feature never found in Indian images where the worshipper always comes to see and be seen (darśan), may aid in supporting this assumption.

Durga killing the buffalo demon, Candi Nusukan, Central Java, Indonesia, circa 900–1100. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

While Indian images generally depict the scene with a decapitated buffalo from whose neck the demon emerges, the second type of Durga seen in Java show the buffalo lying benignly under the feet of the goddess. The transformation of Mahiṣa into human form is an important, albeit newer aspect of the story, derived from the Kālikā purāṇa in which he is also understood as a devotee of Śiva with a Śivaliṅga around his neck. Although in principle Durga was thought to be justified in killing him, in some later stories She herself has to undergo ritual repentance for having done this to a devotee of Śiva. The asura in this context is turned into a little gnome who quietly sits on the buffalo’s neck. Durga scultupres from Central Java as well as early ones from East Java are based on this peaceful rendition, whereas later, in East Javanese iconography a significant change takes place where Durga is turned into a fierce and demon-like threatening image.

Durga Mahisasuramardini, Wonosobo, Jawa Tengah, Dieng, Central Java; Leiden University Libraries

Durga as fierce protector of the world underwent an adaptation into an image that expressed more fearsome aspects of divine forces. This metamorphosis took place gradually during the height of Majapahit power in East Java and became stronger during the decline of Hindu influence in Java (15th-16th century), when, by the end of the Majapahit period the remnants of Śaivite Hinduism was driven eastward through Java and to Bali, while the centre of political power in Java shifted to the Muslim Sultanates on the north coast.

Goddess Durga Victorious over the Buffalo Demon, Mahisha. 9th century Java, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This emergence of the fierce (krōḍa) form of Durga in East Java in the 13th century indicates another kind of adaptation within the Hindu-Buddhist context of the time. Various tantric cults that are known to have been popular within the courtly and royal families, who used tantric rituals in order to gain or preserve power and control over their subjects, and enhance the charisma of kings and leaders. These included the use of tantric rituals and ritual slaughter, narcotic drinks and nightly performances in graveyards. Śiva in his dreadful form, called Bhairava, presided over these rituals and his female companion was Durga. In India, Durga in her dreadful form is represented by Kālī, with a garland made of skulls, wild hair and canine teeth, among other characteristics. Within the tantric form of Hinduism in Java, Durga has been transformed into this fearful, powerful goddess.

The final act in this story places Durga as a frightening demoness, the guardian of the cremation grounds and cemeteries, where she continues to dwell as a dreadful demoness in the realm of death. This transition took place from the 15th century onwards, a period during which evidence from reliefs and written sources tells us more about Durga’s appearance and interaction with her worshippers, and the immense power she has over the life and death of humans and the world.

References/Further Reading:

  1. Victorious Durga: Javanese Images of the Hindu Goddess who Conquered the Buffalo Demon by Krista Knirck-Bumke
  2. The Goddess Durga in the East-Javanese Period, Hariani Santiko

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