Among the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation that created the cultural standards for the entire region in the third and second millennia BCE, archaeologists have found a distinctive set of female terracotta figurines numbering in the thousands. One may not know yet who created them or what they symbolised, but the importance of the great female is obvious.

The Aryan civilisation that grew dominant thereafter relegated goddesses to minor roles in warfare with the others, but under the generic Sanskrit name Devi or the great goddess, she continues, even now, to animate the religious lives of hundreds of millions of devotees in numerous forms: Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini, Durga, Swaha and Swadha. Every year, in the month of Ashwin, the Sharadiya Navratri, and with that the festival of Durga Puja, arrives in the land with the nine-day celebration of the Devi as Durga.

What does Durga mean? If we go by Bhimsen Joshi’s famous rendering of Jai Durge Durgati Pariharini, it means one that rescues her followers from every mess (durgati).

Another interpretation is she who is hard to access (Durgen Gamyate). Literally true, given the fact that two of her legendary abodes are located in two of the most inaccessible regions north of the Vindhyas – she resides as Vindhyavasini Devi in the Vindhya Kshetra, the forested area around the Vindhya mountains south of the Himalayas; and as Nanda Devi in the Himalayas, where she sits atop a peak that bears her name and is worshipped in various forms in the region.

Durga’s name does occur in Vedic literature (Taittiriya Aranyaka). But while a host of muscular and armed Vedic deities (Indra, Varuna, Pooshan and Mitra to name a few) play a central role in battling dark forces, there are no militant goddesses, even though a prototype existed in the tribal belts of the North before the rise of the Vedic gods. The many-armed and fiercely combative Vindhyavasini Devi and Nanda Devi were two such goddesses worshipped by tribes living in the Himalayan region from Afghanistan to Nepal. Both are conceptually related and in time, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, have become the template for Devi’s avatara as Durga (also Kali, Chandi or Bhadrakali), slayer of the dreaded buffalo demon Mahishasur.

Fierce goddess

After the 4th century CE, images of Durga slaying this demon began to surface all over India. As an armed goddess, unprotected by males, fond of flesh, alcoholic beverages and even blood, who upon victory breaks into frenzied dancing with her battalions of female soldiers, Durga stubbornly retains the stamp of her non-Aryan origins.

And despite efforts at associating her with life-supportive qualities and linking her to the peripheries of the world of married couples, Durga continues to violate the submissive image of the Hindu woman on most counts. She is never submissive, is not expected to fulfil household duties, and excels in all male function: fighting a great solo fight and, in the process, showing off her prowess with weaponry.

As represented in the Puranas, when the male gods fail to tame a particularly tricky demon, they create a goddess to do the needful. But Durga will not empower the male gods who have created her. Instead, by mercilessly grabbing their proffered combative shaktis in the form of arms and shields and going to battle all alone, she relegates them firmly to the sidelines as spectators awed by her might.

As Durga slays and misleads the various demons – Mahishasur, Shumbh and Nishumbh – she creates her own fierce female armies who love to join a good fight when they see one. Together, they defy all norms sought to be imposed on them by a patriarchal religion. They get drunk, kill, ululate and scream, play football with the decapitated heads of demons and then break into a bizarre war dance until the petrified gods politely request Durga to stop and leave for her heavenly abode with her women (Devi Mahatmya).

Aryan influence

Durga’s somewhat later association with prakriti, both as primordial matter and nourisher of the physical world she creates, developed over the centuries following the Aryan influx. The patriarchal theology the newcomers brought with them ensured that since the all-powerful Durga could not be wished away, she was morphed into a more unitive figure fit to be worshipped during a community festival that also celebrated the arrival of new crops.

Thus, the modern-day Durga of the poojo pandals, as a figure in which the benign qualities of Parvati – the daughter of the hills and wife of Shiva and mother of four divine children – somewhat dilute the aggressive, untamed and bloodied original image of Durga the warrior. As an armed and fierce deity with a flying mane, slaying the buffalo demon amid a splattering of gore, she would have frightened off many of her latter-day devotees, particularly males keen to see the goddess as a nourishing but also protective Ur-Mother.

In Bengal, her devotees today mostly treat Durga tenderly as a typical married daughter visiting her natal home, longing to meet her people and for home comforts denied her by an ascetic husband. Her avatara as Ma places her at the heart of the typical Indian family where mothers breastfeed babies, the male ones for long while daughters are married young in faraway lands, and they visit the father’s house during a harvest season, seeking succour, sympathy and elaborate hospitality denied them by their indifferent husbands. These family resemblances carry over in ritual dimensions as well.

But make no mistake, the fiery cinders cannot be put out. The Bengalis and the Priyas continue to do Chandi Path to propitiate the goddess as Chandi (the angry one) under the shrine also known as Chandi Mandapa.

Ways of worship

While in Bengal, women weep and welcome Durga to her badi (home), and then weep again as they bid her farewell after nine days, down South, Tamil and Malayali myths and rituals play up the liminal tension between Durga and Mahishasur, seen as an alpha male chasing a beautiful female. In most southern myths, Mahishasur is identified as a brazen suitor lusting after Durga without realising that she is no pushover but the purest form of untamed and untamable energy. Durga sends out clear vibes to warn off any males who may harbour audacious desires of a sexual nature towards her, and those that refuse to accept her power must pay a price like the buffalo demon.

But men, clever power chasers that they are, also realise early on that women possess a power that transcends any structures they may build. How then can a goddess like Durga be made to relate to a male partner and become more controllable? The somewhat romantic cry of the male Nayanar devotees of Shiva down South, “ettaltaniyeirunteempirane” (Lord, why are you alone?), finally led to Adi Shankara’s Saundarya Lahari, the great hymn to the goddess in which he defines Shiva as a shava (corpse) without Shakti (another name for the goddess). This leads to the smooth launch of the Shiva Shakti duo as paradigm of a world view, which also has the pure genius of creating a syncretic pan-Indian icon that plays an important role in containing the original fierce autonomy of Shakti.

Durga Puja in Tamil Nadu, thus, over the centuries, became a simple domestic event full of the playful creative setting up of ‘Golus’ – where little girls arrange dolls on a platform and join their mothers in singing Dikshitar compositions for Devi in front of the Golu in the evening.

In Kerala’s Guruvayur also, before the famous temple became dominantly that of Lord Guruvayurappan, the shrine is said to have belonged to goddess Durga as Bhagvathi. The presence of her aura, writes the scholar Pepita Seth, still runs through the temple like a thread, the string on which Guruvayurappan’s pearls are strung. Her name, Edathariyathukavil Bhagvathi, itself means the goddess who moved to the left to make room for the Lord. It is obvious that for both men and women working through their relationship with the great creator as mother, the path remains a complex and highly conflicted one.

Many forms

Revealing the many-aspected nature of Durga as Vindhyavasini in a 1830 journal, Enugula Veeraswamy writes that within the Vindhya Kshetra, there were three different sites representing three aspects of the goddess as Kali, Maya and Maya Bhoga. The first resided in open forests, the second in a cave and the third in a shrine closer to the inhabited areas. The present-day sacred kshetra of Vindhyavasini Devi proves that as India has developed as a modern democratic state, the local goddesses will need to get a more acceptable social identity. In the process, many aspects of a multi-form deity will get de-emphasised and older icons will be relocated (to be resurrected only for ancient tantrik rites by informed groups), and in time be morphed into a larger image of a goddess of big things mothering the largest numbers and the males, who by now outnumber female devotees and demand to co-opt and possess the goddess.

A joke comes to mind. The husband asks his wife how the Lord could create her as a creature so bewitchingly beautiful and yet, dumb at the same time.

The wife answers, “The Lord made me beautiful so you should be attracted to me, but he also made me dumb so I would be attracted to you.”

The rest, as they say, is history that we still witness being made each year, as the Sharadiya Navratri begins to unfurl and the Durga Ma pandals and Golus come up, and bhajans blare from loudspeakers urging Sheranwali Mata to save the world, and her devotees begin to reverberate all over.