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The Cosmic Goddess Bhavani
Gautama V. Vajracharya
This blazing beauty is indeed a masterpiece of nineteenth-century Nepalese art. This painting plays a significant role for two reasons. First, the artist convincingly captures the awesome power of the cosmic goddess Bhavani emerging from the sudden blast of the enormous fire, which symbolizes both the end and beginning of time and space. Second, we have reason to believe that this is the work of the renowned painter who was the first Nepali artist to travel to European countries and, as a result, was exposed to Western artistic styles. Although he introduced new elements to Nepalese art in his later work, the present example represents an early contribution that is highly promising for comparative studies.
According to a popular ancient theory, the universe came to existence through the combination of male and female principles. But in a tantric tradition, the female principle is elevated to a higher status because it was believed that the goddess Bhavani symbolizes cosmic energy, or shakti. Without her, the great god Shiva, who is the male principle, remains impotent and lays dormant until they are united. Although this original concept was broadened in many different directions by the medieval tantric tradition, the basic view is still discernable in nineteenth-century tantric art.
At the bottom of the painting, the milky white body of Shiva is lying horizontally on a golden two-story pavilion-like structure that is inhabited by many important divinities. An interesting iconographic feature of this painting is the green-colored stem of the red lotus emerging from Shiva’s navel. This feature is originally associated with Vishnu, another great Hindu god who slumbers every year during the gloomy days of the monsoon season, which symbolizes the dark nights of cosmic time. According to legend, the creation of the new world began when a giant lotus emerged from his navel while he was resting. This element is borrowed here to convey the idea that the universe came into existence as Shiva became united with he cosmic goddess. Judging from many other examples, we expect to see her being united with Shiva either physically or sexually. In this painting, the cosmic goddess is shown standing on the supine body of Mahakala, a wrathful form of Shiva. The dark blue body of the wrathful god is floating weightlessly above the red-hot flames, but he is unharmed. She stands on him firmly planting her right foot on his face and gently placing her left foot on his massive leg.
In the painting, the red goddess is clearly larger than Shiva and Mahakala; here, she is rendered with the intention to show her superiority to them. She has sixteen crowned heads, and they are arranged in a pyramid. Her faces are rendered in several different primary colors, and each face has a third eye. Her principal face has a slightly open mouth. She has tiny teeth and a pair of fangs, which indicate her ferociousness. Her ferocity is further highlighted by her crooked eyes, a feature seen in all of her frontally depicted faces. Despite having such fearsome attributes, she is still cute and hauntingly beautiful.
Perhaps the most fascinating element in this painting is her dizzying number of hands, all of which hold a variety of items, ranging from animals to the images of important Hindu divinities. This unusual feature, as well as her red complexion, helps viewers identify her as cosmic goddess. Her likeness can also be seen in a large painting at the Rubin Museum of Art in which she is represented as the multi-headed red-skinned goddess with 108 hands, as the consort of Shiva Vishvarupa. Although she has more heads in the Rubin painting, this may not matter much once we consider the logic of the original symbolic representation of the universe as an anthropomorphic figure with four heads symbolizing four directions. The logic of four heads was quickly forgotten, and the number of heads multiplied freely in accordance with the interpretations of artists and Hindu and Buddhist priests. What is more noteworthy is the transformation of a divine cosmic form from male to female.
Originally, the Rigveda, a text composed around 1500 BCE, refers to the concept of microcosm and macrocosm, according to which the cosmic god is male (purusa) and vice versa. The union of male and female principles for creation is not even mentioned there. That first appeared around 100 BCE and became more and more popular throughout South Asia. Even though the idea gained popularity in the region, it took many, many centuries for a female to be recognized as the cosmic goddess. As a matter of fact, most of the time a female divinity is regarded as a cosmic goddess only because she is the spouse of an important male deity. But the representation of the cosmic goddess in this painting is different. Here, she herself represents the cosmos, which is shown by her holding deities, creatures, a river, a tree, and a solar disc in her hands.
The evidence that this particular painting can be attributed to an important Nepali artist is oblique but convincing. The aforementioned Rubin painting provides us with multiple clues. First, the stylistic similarities between the present example and the Rubin painting are undeniable. These similarities include the following: the flames on the blazing fire, the cuff-like golden bracelets on the goddess, Mahakala’s facial expression and body position, the manner of holding objects, and the representation of pavilion-like superstructures. They suggest that these two paintings are the work of the same artist. Second, we know that the Rubin painting is the work of Bhajuman Chitrakar, an illustrious Newar artist who traveled with his master on his historical journey to England and France in 1850–1851. Chitrakar worked for Jang Bahadur (1846–1877), the first Rana prime minister, and an almost identical painting of cosmic Shiva and Shakti was seen on the wall of Jang Bahadur’s Thapathali Palace. In light of this historical anecdote, as well as the stylistic similarities, the Rubin Museum painting and the Thapathali Palace painting can be attributed to Bhajuman Chitrakar. Very likely, both the Rubin painting and the present example came from the Thapathali Palace. The palace does not exist any more; fortunately, however, photographs of the wall-painting have survived [Pratapaditya Pal, Art of Nepal, part 2, fig. 126 (mistakenly the palace is identified as Hanumandhoka Palace), Mary Slusser, Nepal Mandala, vol. 2, fig. 512].
Finally, it should be noted that recently Jang Bahadur’s portrait bearing a label inscription that shows the artist’s name as Bhajuman Chitrakar has come to light. The light and shade, an important feature of Western art that we see in this monumental portrait, is unprecedented in the history of Nepalese painting. Thus, we know that the portrait was done after Chitrakar returned from his European trip. Although the painting is well preserved in the British Library, no art historian, to my knowledge, has given much attention to this portrait painting. An analytical study of this painting together with the present example and the Rubin Museum painting certainly provide us with enough information to write a new chapter in the history of nineteenth-century Nepalese art.
Private collection, Switzerland, 1970s.
Gautama V. Vajracharya, Nepalese Seasons: Rain and Rituals, New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2016.
Mary Slusser, Nepal Mandala, 2 volumes, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Pratapaditya Pal, The Arts of Nepal, 2 parts, (Sculpture and Painting), Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978.