Indian Mythology & Sculpture
By PRABHAKAR BEGDE
We hold rivers in great reverence. The rivers are female
divinities, food and life bestowing mothers. As such, they are prominent among
the popular divinities represented in the works of art of the classical period.
most holy of rivers, the best known and most honoured, is the Ganga or Ganges.
She is personified as Goddess Ganga. The river rises from an ice bed, 13,800
feet above the sea level in the Garhwal Himalayas.
are various legends associated with Ganga’s descent from heaven to earth in
the epics and Puranas such as the Mahabharta, Devi Bhagavata
and the Bhagawata Purana etc.
to the Bhagavata Purana, Ganga had its origin during the incarnation of
Vishnu as Vamana. When Vamana measured the three worlds in three steps, the
nails of his left feet were raised high. They caused a pore on the upper side of
the universe. Ganga, starting from the finger of Vishnu’s feet, fell in heaven
and is therefore called Vishnupadi.
of the Ganga by mythical figure Bhagiratha is beautifully depicted in the famous
Besnagar sculpture, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This sculpture
belonging to the Gupta period is of about 500 A.D., from lintel of a temple at
Besnagar. Here Ganga stands gracefully on the back of a makara whose
mouth is held open by a small male figure who is depicted as taming the monster,
symbolizing the taming of the Ganga by Bhagiratha. As always, she is portrayed
as a beautiful maiden with lower half of her body resembling flowing water which
reflects the myth that formerly the Ganga was a celestial river. The story of
Ganga’s descent to the plains should be viewed in this context.
is often identified with Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva, or one of the other
forms of mother goddess like Annapurna, goddess of food and plenty. Ganga’s
form varies according to local tradition. Thus in South India she is represented
as mermaid, swimming in water with folded hands, wearing a crown, and bearing on
her forehead the Saiva mark in sacred ashes. In Bengal she is depicted as
a woman, coloured white (denoting her cleansing and purifying qualities),
crowned and seated on her vahana, a makara. In her right hand she
holds a lotus, in her left a lute.
has always remained a symbol of purity and holiness. Even the remembrance of her
name purifies devotees, a look at the river and a bath in her waters assure
sanctity. According to legend, the waters of Ganga flow into every river in
India at a certain time each year; these streams then assume the great holiness
of Ganga herself and the power to purify pilgrims.
story of Goddess Ganga is one of the most important themes in Indian mythology
which has inspired the artists and sculptors. The doorway of every temple in
India is guarded by an anthropomorphic representation of river Ganga. In the
South, Ganga usually appears on the both jambs, but in the North, Ganga is
represented on one jamb and Yamuna on the other. On these portals Ganga is
represented as a damsel holding a water vessel and standing on her mount, the
tortoise. These celestial guardians are seen most frequently on sanctuaries
dedicated to Siva. They are also often present in shrines to other deities and
even appear in the Vakataka caves at Ajanta.
of the most beautiful representations of Ganga and Yamuna flanking a doorway is
from a Gupta temple in Dah Parvatiya in Assam. Indian museums have several such
representations of Ganga and Yamuna personified on door jambs. Each river
goddess is shown on her mount and is accompanied by attendants, one of whom
raises a parasol over her head. The swans that flutter above, with garlands of
lotuses or lilies in their beaks, suggest the cool fragrance of an aquatic
has been represented in art and sculpture in various forms. She is seen as the
celestial stream and as the triple stream, as a damsel, pride incarnate, who
rushes down on Siva’s head, and as the river mother feeding the children of
the soil with her water of plenty.
Elephanta, Ganga is seen on the locks of Siva Gangadhara, at Paattadakal she is
depicted as a mermaid dancing on the locks of Siva which swirl as he performs
the virile tandava dance. A beautiful sculpture of Sena period shows
Ganga standing by the wish fulfilling tree, which is a symbol of heaven, with a
pitcher in her hand, indicating prosperity through abundance of water.
acquired many names indicating her various incarnations, the geographical
regions through which she flowed and personages with whom she was associated.
These are: Visnupadi (flowing from the foot of Vishnu), Haimavati (flowing on
Himavan’s lap, daughter of Himavan), Alaknanda (from the ‘locks of Siva’),
Bhadra-soma (blessed drink), Abharaganga or Akasaganga (the celestal Ganga),
Devabhuti (heaven born), Mandakini (gently flowing, the milky way), Bhagirathi
or Bhagirathasuta (from Bhagirtha), Patalaganga and many more.