The atmosphere is thrilling in the makeshift studio constructed by Bengali craftsmen, adjacent to the dusty road south of the village of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. An ephemeral haze surrounds the sculpting of the deities for Navratri, the nine-day Hindu festival in honor of the Divine Mother. The dates are calculated according to the lunar calendar and held annually in September or October; beginning on the first and ending on the tenth day of the bright half of the lunar month Asvina. A fleeting magic fills the air – from the wooden skeletons covered with straw and mud to the polychrome paint and bejeweled crowns. Not only is the workshop short-lived but also the lifespan of these beautifully handcrafted works of art.
In early September, Mangal, his wife and craftsmen travel eighteen hours by train from their small village near Kolkata, to arrive in time to make over sixty statues for Vrindavan’s Navratri Festivals. They’ve brought their tools, various essential ornaments and over forty years of experience to create a celestial pantheon. Most of the statues are prepared on-order from the surrounding neighborhoods; although a few are produced in hopes that a “last-minute priest” will eventually stop by. The workshop is quickly set up with wooden poles to support a layered plastic roof. Then Mangal’s team immediately sets to work.
Wooden stands are fitted with armatures that form the skeletal framework for each sculpture. These frames are stuffed with straw, secured by string and covered with local earth mixed with water. Layers of mud build up until the body of each god takes shape under the craftsmen’s skilled hands. The deities’ heads are created independently then attached to the bodies and placed outside to dry in the warm autumn sun. Finally, a thick layer of white paint is applied, providing a smooth surface for the ensuing brushwork.
As multiple layers of paint are applied over many days, the deities slowly acquire the individual characteristics of their celestial counterparts. Special attention is given to each face; this is where the artists’ apply their finest brushwork. The stylized eyes with their transcendent gaze look far beyond the confines of the workshop. The full bow-shaped lips, about ready to mutter a mantra are painted with meticulous care. Finally, the appropriate tilaks are drawn on each forehead with a delicate hand.
Accompanying the deities is their vahana or companion animal/vehicle. Equal attention is given to Durga’s lion, Ganesh’s mouse or Kartikeya’s peacock. Each set of gnarling teeth, every furry muzzle, and each feather is painstakingly painted in great detail. The multiple hands are adorned with auspicious marks and symbols, ready to grasp the arsenal of divine accoutrements: swords, arrows, bows, and discs. Durga is seen with her chief nemesis Mahishasura. He takes the menacing form a buffalo/man and is painted with fantastic features, his lifeblood streaming from Durga’s assault.
As the statues reach various stages of completion, the vastra or clothing is attached: a sari for Durga, a dhoti for Ganesh and a vest for Kartikeya. Synthetic hair is combed, lion’s mains arranged, sashes cut and blouses glued in place. Now the workshop is ablaze of color and glitter as the celestial weapons and regal jewelry ornament the host of devis, devas and asuras (demons.)
The hustle of the workshop is interrupted when the first client arrives to collect his statue. The Goddess is placed in a small room for inspection and the family is very pleased. Extreme care and caution are taken while the deity is carried to a waiting bicycle cart. The Goddess is secured with rope, her face respectfully covered with red cloth, while the first son is enlisted to ride with her, lest the delicate figure topple over. Before long other patrons arrive to collect a single goddess or an entire heavenly host either to install in their homes or neighborhood shrines.
Countless temporary temples are set up throughout Vrindavan. A quick rickshaw ride reveals shrines under tents, in vacant shop fronts or nested between two buildings. It is the cause of much neighborhood excitement and pride. Altars are constructed from wooden planks or bricks and decorated with beautiful fabrics. Backdrops of every style are fashioned with simple cloth or elaborate scenes depicting mountains and streams. Although impermanent, every effort is taken to create a pleasing setting for the arrival of the Goddess.
The community serves the deities for nine days with early morning rituals and late night ceremonies. The Goddess is the focus of all attention. In fact, across India, millions are performing similar functions – offering flowers, cooking special food and attending the Goddess. The worship is as diverse as the participants. Hinduism, alone of all the major religions in the world, is a religion of individuality. “The focus and means of worship are many, but the process has a common thread. It acknowledges one of the fundamental principles of Hinduism: God is a universal force indivisible and yet infinitely divisible, the one and the many, the perfect mixture of all facets of existence.”1
The arrival of the sculpture gives rise to enthusiasm within the community. With the statue in place, the priest invites the deity to reside in the effigy. Beautifully painted mud is transfigured into a divine deity. The purpose of a murti (a consecrated image/statue) is to represent some fundamental aspect of the universe, which is not directly perceptible to the senses. The concept is to worship the invisible through the visible. People do not worship mere wood and straw but the Divine Essence that is invoked to enter the image by the utterances of mantras and performances of sacred rites.
The tenth day is Dasahara; in popular dialect called Dussehra (ten days). This additional day named Vijayadashami is the culmination of the festival. The Goddess is respectfully thanked for Her visit and for the privilege of worshipping Her. But before she is transferred to a waiting truck or rickshaw a ceremony is performed called “mirror immersion/dispersal” (darpan visarjan) which signifies her departure. She is shown Her image in a mirror and it is placed in water.
The village boys beat drums, clang cymbals, and joyously call out Her name as they make their way to the Jamuna River. The scene is exuberant and called visarjan, literally, to consign into water. A last obeisance is paid on the riverbank before the deity is loaded onto a boat. The boys continue singing as they cheerfully release the statue into the swirling waters where She quickly sinks and dissolves. Thus the entire process reflects the creation and dissolution of the universe, a reoccurring theme in Hindu philosophy.
The Hindu calendar is punctuated by other festivals throughout the year, which are accompanied with equally elaborate preparations. As always, the intense labors of the artisans are recognized only in fleeting moments. “Its value lies solely in its creation and in the link it provides between the devotee and the deity.” 2 Nonetheless, Mangal will return next year to the same spot to set up his roadside studio and begin again
All photos by the author
1.Huyler, Stephen P. Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999.