The Hindu goddess Durga is a form of the Great Goddess, Shri Devi. While she is sometimes identified with Parvati, the wife of the god Shiva, she also has aspects of Kali, the terrifying Hindu goddess of destruction and death. Her title in this work means “destroyer of the buffalo demon.” The story of Durga destroying the buffalo demon, Mahisha, is one of the best known in India. Although Mahisha was a demon ( asura), as a result of his perceived piety he was granted a boon by the god Brahma that no man or god could slay him. After a rampage that conquered both the heavens and the earth, the gods were dismayed until Durga, a warlike goddess of great strength, came to the rescue. Each of the gods gave her their weapons and power, so that she might triumph. “The great mass of their united energies seemed to all the multitudes of gods like a blazing mountain that pervaded all the regions of the sky with flames. Then from the combination of these energies a certain woman appeared.” She was also called “the supremely radiant Durga, more dangerous than all the gods and demons.” Since she was neither man nor god, but rather a woman and goddess, she was able to rid the earth of Mahisha.
As Durga is shown here, she holds attributes of the major gods in her ten arms, including Vishnu’s chakra and Shiva’s trident. Like Athena in Greek art, she is a woman with a man’s warlike prowess.
This relief is from the time of the Pala dynasty (approximately 9th to 12th centuries) in eastern India, where Durga is an important subject. The goddess stands dramatically in a martial stance, with her sword raised and one foot upon the defeated buffalo. Her body is both robust and feminine, and her expression is a captivating mixture of intensity and smiling charm. She is adorned in delicate jewelry and diaphanous feminine garments, which contrast with the blunt force of the brandished weapons. The coup de théâtre of the scene is the severing of the buffalo’s head. From its neck, the demon himself emerges in anthropomorphic form, his hair firmly grasped in Durga’s fist. The decapitated head of the buffalo lies on the ground below him. Durga’s helpful lion mount, more like a cat, nips at one of the demon’s feet. This remarkable work is very inventive in its mixture of dramatic force and sculptural delicacy. In Hindu belief, Durga is actually freeing the demon from his bonds of ignorance by killing him, and in some versions of the story the demon appears with hands joined together in reverence.
Frederick M. Asher and Anne R. Bromberg, "Durga Mahishasuramardini," in Anne R. Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Have: Yale University Press, 2013), 84.