A BLACK STONE STELE OF DURGA MAHISHASURAMARDINI
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTION
A BLACK STONE STELE OF DURGA MAHISHASURAMARDINI

NORTHEAST INDIA, PALA PERIOD, LATE 10TH/EARLY 11TH CENTURY

Details
A BLACK STONE STELE OF DURGA MAHISHASURAMARDINI
NORTHEAST INDIA, PALA PERIOD, LATE 10TH/EARLY 11TH CENTURY
51 ½ in. (131 cm.) high
Provenance
Private collection, Germany, since 1970, by repute.
Consigned to Spink & Son, London, in July 1986.
New York art market.
Acquired by the present owner from the above on 2 January 2007.

Lot Essay

Durga puja or the festival of Durga’s victory of good over evil, is one of the most celebrated festivals in eastern India. In Bengal, Durga is considered the daughter of every home and the festivities celebrate her return to her parents with her children, where for five days she is adored, worshipped and celebrated. The festival marks the battle between Durga and the powerful buffalo demon Mahishasura. A pious devotee of Brahma, Mahishasura was rewarded with a boon that no man or god would be able to conquer him. Thus invincible, he battled the gods and took over the heavens. The gods appealed to the goddess Parvati, who agreed to harness the shakti of all female celestial beings and create Durga, who is bestowed with all the weapons from the gods and a lion for her vehicle. After nine days of battle, Durga vanquished Mahishasura and his army and restored the heavens to the gods.
The worship of a mother goddess as the source of life and fertility has ancient roots, but the text Devi Mahatmya (Glory of the Goddess), composed during the fifth and sixth centuries, led to the dramatic transformation of the female principle into a goddess of great cosmic power. Later, textual sources generally refer to this form of Durga as Mahishasuramardini. She remains the most important and popular form of the goddess, also referred to as Devi or Shakti.
The present sculpture of Mahishasuramardini is a brilliant and a very important example of Brahmanical sculpture from the Pala period. Between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, the regions of Bihar and Bengal (presently Bangladesh and India) were politically and culturally unified under the reign of the Pala kings. Stone sculptures from these regions are of grey or black schist and it is believed that the grey stone originates in the Gaya region of Bihar and the black and more dense stone is found primarily in the eastern Bihar and Bengal.
The origin of the Pala school of sculpture can be traced to various stylistic sources, including Mathura-Kusana prototypes from the early centuries of the Common Era to the late fifth century Gupta idiom of Sarnath and related sites. Some of the earliest known depictions of Mahishasuramardini are small stone images from Mathura where the goddess is seen killing the buffalo demon or standing peacefully with sun and moon on either side, indicating her presiding over day and night. Other earlier examples are from the entrance to caves 6 and 17 at Udayagiri in Madhya Pradesh from the fourth to fifth centuries and from Aphsad in the seventh century. According to Claudine Buatze-Picron in her discussion on the Hindu images from this region, “As a close study of some of the forms reveals, the [iconographiy] was not for once and ever fixed but underwent transformations in the course of time; starting in Bihar, the movement reached it apex in north Bengal from the 10th century onwards (Claudine Bautze-Picron and Gouriswar Bhattacharya. The Art of Eastern India: In the Collection of the Museum Fu¨r Indische Kunst, Berlin: Stone & Terracotta Sculptures, D. Reimer, 1998, p. 12).
Bautze-Picron, in her lecture Durga, The All Powerful in Eastern India (The Annual Lecture on the Arts of South and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5 March 2017), identifies various motifs and compositional choices seen in ninth and early tenth century examples of Mahishasuramardini from the region. She cites examples such as the style of garland belt worn by Durga, her sensuous belly fold and large hair bun, the lion playfully nipping at the back of the buffalo, the chakra lodged in the body of the buffalo, and the demon emerging from the beheaded beast, all attributes stylistically forming part of the ninth and early tenth century repertoire. By the late tenth and eleventh century, the rounded hair bun of Durga is replaced by the jata, and the overall compositions become more elaborate with attendant figures and various gods who watch the battle scene unfold between Durga and Mahisha. Later examples show Durga with twelve arms, unlike earlier examples with eight and ten; her lion mount becomes smaller and Mahishasura larger, taking a more central position under the Devi.
The present sculpture depicts the final moments of the duel between Durga and Mahishasura. The execution and scale of the piece are indicative of her importance as a central figure of worship. Carved in deep relief, the sculpture is rendered almost fully in the round. The hardness of the stone lends itself to the extraordinarily fine carving and intricately detailed jewelry. The significant size of the sculpture also allows for greater iconographic embellishment around the central figure. Durga stands in pratyalidhasana, with one leg planted on the beast’s back, and the other extended over her lion mount. Her full and supple body leans forward, adding a sense of movement and immediacy to the whole composition. Her waist and limbs are slender, while her breasts are firm and round. The buffalo demon lies beheaded at Durga’s feet with the chakra still lodged in its body, with Mahishasura emerging in his anthropomorphic form from the slain animal. Her array of arms brandishing weapons connotes her many powers, while the pronounced musculature of her stomach reveals the tension in her body. As she braces her foot against the back of the dead beast and raises her sword to dispatch the final blow, she uses her divine strength to plunge the trisula into Mahisha while her lion bites the rear of the slain buffalo. Eyes wide with intensity, Durga has a smile that lends sweetness to her otherwise wrathful appearance. Her facial features may be compared to an example from the Museum Für Indische Kunst, Berlin, which Bautze-Picron compares to images from South Bihar, “i.e., the front is very narrow, the eye-brows are extremely curved and form a high arc above the eye, the mouth is small with the lips going up at their extremities, the chin is pointed, the nose […] pointed and the nostrils are indicated through well incised round lines…” (Bautze-Pircron, pg. 92). While the Berlin example has a jata for its hair, the facial features of this sculpture and those of the present work are very similar. However, the overall composition and execution of the present sculpture is far more elaborate, sophisticated and ornate than those of the comparable sculpture.
To visualize the stylistic development of Mahishasuramardini in Bihar, compare the present work with a ninth century example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahisha, second half of the 9th century, Eastern India, Bihar, probably Gaya district, Schist, Accession Number: 2016.650). Their shared similarities include crowns with a triple diadem, the center projection rising up in a triangulated form above a large topknot of hair. In addition, both display detailed and beautiful ornaments including elaborate jeweled belts. In both examples, she holds a shield, a sword, the noose with which she binds Mahisha, a long bow with an elaborate handgrip, an arrow and a quiver. However, in the current work, one can also see the stylistic evolution into a composition that has gained complexity, such as the inclusion of an attendant figure holding a peacock fan, and various gods and apsaras above overseeing the battle. The lotus base is beautifully carved with fully articulated petals and is held up by devotees and dancing figures including Chamunda. It is an archetypal example of the triumph of good over evil and one of the finest images of Brahmanical sculpture from the Pala period to come to the market.

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