Mahākāli


The acquisition of Mahākāli, a fine example from the magnificent period of the Cholas in South India, has helped partially to fill the large gap in the Gallery’s Indian collection. The Chola Empire, which extended from Orissa in the north-east to Ceylon in the south, lasted roughly from the mid 9th to the mid 14th century. It flourished economically and culturally and the cultural and political impact of the Empire was felt as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Although bronze casting was carried out earlier in South India, the remains are very scarce and it was only from the Chola period that innumerable and splendid images have come down to us. These are remarkable not only for superb modelling but also for their skilful craftsmanship. The cire perdue or the lost wax process, which has been advocated by the silpa sastra or the Indian handbook of the ancient craft traditions, was employed to cast both solid and hollow images. The immovable images (dhruva bēras or mūla-vigrahas) that are fixed in the central shrine are usually of stone. But innumerable images in smaller sizes were cast in metal in order to be carried in procession (utsava bēras) during festival times. These images have either holes in the base through which carrying poles were inserted or have rings with which they were fixed to the litter. The Mahākāli belongs to the processional image group with rings attached to the base. 

To appreciate this image one must understand the Hindu philosophy and theology. According to the Hindu,1Originally the term Hindu did not have a religious significance, it is derived from the word Śindhu, the name of the river (Indus) which flows on the north-west frontier and in Punjab. The early settlers on the bank of the Śindhu river were called Hindu by the Persians and the later invaders. there is only one Supreme Universal Being who cannot be realised by the sensory organs and determined by form or name. But as the human mind longs for something definite, the religious seers, using their imagination, expressed their vision by comparing their own self conscious personality. ‘We are persons, puruṣas, and God is perfect personality (uttama puruṣa). If we analyse the concept of personality, we find that it includes cognition, emotion and will, and God is viewed as the supreme knower, the great lover, and the perfect will, Brahmā, Visṇu and Śiva’2Radhakrishnan, The Hindu view of Life, Unwin Books (London), 1927, p. 21. – Brahmā, the Creator, Visṇu the Preserver and Śiva the Destroyer. In the course of time, Visṇu and Śiva rose to the honoured position and two strong devotional cults evolved around them, namely Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva cults. The energies or the potencies (Śakti) of the Gods was conceived as the female counterparts or their consorts, Lakshmi was the consort of Visṇu and Pārvati, or Kāli, of Śiva. Simultaneously, there existed a cult of the Śaktas who worshipped the Supreme Being as a female principle (Śakti or Devi) who was the ‘source of all divine as well as cosmic evolution’. This Śaktism is closely akin to Śaivism. Hence, the Śakti of the Śākta cult is identified with the consort of Śiva who takes both mild and ordinary form or fierce and special forms. Amongst the numerous fierce forms of the Dēvi, Kāli became the supreme honoured one. She is the fierce and bloody consort of Śiva, the Mahākāla, the great destroyer and originator who has full power over time, Kāla. As the energy or female counter of Mahākāla, Mahākāli is the destroyer of evil. The form conceived of the deity is worshipped either inwardly by identifying consciousness with the deity concerned through yoga methods, or outwardly by the worship of material images. These images are produced by a professional craftsman who ‘goes through the whole process of self-purification and worship, mental visualisation and identification of consciousness with the form evoked and then only translates the form into stone or metal.’3Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The transformation of nature in Art, Dover Publications (New York), 1956, p. 166. 

The National Gallery’s Mahākāli (all pervading time aspect) has all the characteristics of Mahākāla, her male counterpart, and carries his favourite emblems. The terrifying aspect of the deity is indicated by the round eyes and side tusks. Like her consort, she carries in her flame hair the crescent moon, the measure of time in counting days and months and the snake, representing the cycle of years. In the upper right arm she carries Aṅkuśa, an elephant goad, and in the upper left arm, pāśa, a noose of ropes with which to bind offenders. She carries in her lower left arm the Kapāla, or the human skull, used by Śiva to receive food and drink. In the lower right arm she has the trident, triśūla, the favourite weapon of Śiva. It symbolises three functions of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer.4Alain Daniélou, Hindu Polytheism, Pantheon Books, (New York), 1964, p. 216. It is also the giver of punishment on the spiritual, mental and physical planes.5It is interesting to note that in the trident at the Musée Guimet (Encyclopedia of World Art Vol. VII, pl. 233), Mahākāli is shown against a trident as the background. It is only fitting that Mahākāli, who is the destroyer of the three kinds of pain – spiritual, mental and physical – should be represented on the trident which is the giver of punishment on the mental, spiritual and physical planes. She is also adorned with a garland of skulls as her consort, which represents the eternal revulsion of time and the consecutive births and deaths of human beings. Her jewellery, which is sparse and selected, is modelled in low relief. In her distended ear lobes she wears parakuntala on the right and makara kuntala on the left. Her youthful face is compassionate and calm in spite of the side tusks and the round eyes. Her head is surrounded by a mass of hair as a halo. The subtle modelling of her breasts accentuates her femininity. Her back is beautifully and convincingly modelled. This rigid but majestic figure is imbued with a strange, awe inspiring aloofness. 

Emma Devapriam, Curator of European Art before 1800, Acting Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1976).

Notes

1              Originally the term Hindu did not have a religious significance, it is derived from the word Śindhu, the name of the river (Indus) which flows on the north-west frontier and in Punjab. The early settlers on the bank of the Śindhu river were called Hindu by the Persians and the later invaders. 

2              Radhakrishnan, The Hindu view of Life, Unwin Books (London), 1927, p. 21. 

3              Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The transformation of nature in Art, Dover Publications (New York), 1956, p. 166. 

4              Alain Daniélou, Hindu Polytheism, Pantheon Books, (New York), 1964, p. 216. 

5              It is interesting to note that in the trident at the Musée Guimet (Encyclopedia of World Art Vol. VII, pl. 233), Mahākāli is shown against a trident as the background. It is only fitting that Mahākāli, who is the destroyer of the three kinds of pain – spiritual, mental and physical – should be represented on the trident which is the giver of punishment on the mental, spiritual and physical planes.