The Goddess Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon (Mahishasura Mardini)

Period: Pala period

Date: 12th century

Culture: Bangladesh or India

Medium: Argillite

Dimensions: H. 5 5/16 in. (13.5 cm); W. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm); D. 1 3/4 in. (4.4 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, Diana L. and Arthur G. Altschul Gift, 1993

Accession Number: 1993.7


Among the most exquisitely carved objects from South Asia is a group of miniature Pala-style (ca. 700–1200) sculptures in one of two types of material: an extremely fine-grained yellow-beige stone, known as argillite (which can take several forms, such as pyrophyllite or kaolinite) or an extremely fine-grained black or dark brown phyllite. Most portray Esoteric Buddhist deities; however, a few, such as this example, represent Hindu divinities. Durga is portrayed as the sixteen-armed slayer of a buffalo inhabited by the fierce demon Mahisha. A threat to the world, Mahisha was invincible. Even the Hindu gods who had challenged him could not kill him. In desperation they created the goddess Durga to be their champion and gave her their weapons. Here, a missing right hand held the spear with which she is about to stab Mahisha. In her other right hands she holds an arrow, sword, chisel, hammer, thunderbolt, elephant goad, and war discus. The objects in her left hands are a shield, bow, bell, mirror, and noose. Durga has just severed the buffalo's head with her many weapons. Mahisha, in the form of a tiny, chubby man, his head backed by snake heads, emerges from the buffalo's decapitated body and looks up admiringly at the warlike but beautiful Durga even as his toes are being bitten by her lion. Durga smiles serenely as she hoists Mahisha by his hair and treads gracefully on the buffalo's body.

All of these narrative details are skillfully composed and placed on a double-lotus base in a carving no larger than a human hand. This sculpture must rank as one of the finest known Indian miniatures. Its astonishing plasticity and subtlety make it comparable to the finest large-scale Pala-period sculptures, while its size affords the viewer the delights of personal discovery.