The Goddesses of the Indian Pantheon  
friday 4th march  at Lecture Hall, Crafts Museum 10.00 am - 12.30 pm  

He says that Mother Earth and the image of Mother Goddess was associated primarily with agricultural societies, specially that of ancient Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Nile and in the earlier planting cultures. From the Homeric hymn to Gaia ‘mother of all’, to the erotic Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, the Egyptian Isis, the Aztec ‘Toci’, the Celtic ‘Anu’, the Germanic ‘Nerthus’, the Olympian goddesses of classical Greece and the great Roman goddesses all thrived in the ancient or classical world. However they live now only in history books.

But the Hindu female pantheon not only survives, it thrives. No other living religious tradition displays such an ancient, continuous and diverse history of ‘devi’ worship. It is a fascinating and rich source of mythology, theology and worship, a captivating field for the study of architecture, sculpture and painting. The music, dance and art forms devoted to the praise of female deities cannot even be imagined by persons not steeped in this culture. Sri Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, Durga, Kali, the Matrakas and the River goddesses such as Ganga and the village goddesses are not deities worshipped on particular days of the week or year, they are all pervasive and inextricably linked with the daily life of the people.

This festival explores the full range of these spellbinding traditions.

Through the lecture panels that explore some aspects of the Greek, Roman, Christian and Gypsy traditions. The Chinese, Japanese and Central Asian deities will be discussed in another panel and the third panel will focus on Indian fertility goddesses, the dasavidyas, Jaina goddesses in an atheistic tradition and the continuing Kali tradition in the Sindh province of Pakistan.



‘In the Throes of Multiplicity: Celebrating Goddesses in India’ -  Dr. Nilima Chitgopekar  

                                             In India, within Hinduism, as well as other cultural indices such as language or food types, one accepts multiplicity as a norm  rather than a peculiarity. Nevertheless, goddesses provide us with  a  spell binding  variety, ranging  from the macabre to the  sublime.  Goddesses like  Kali provide her worshippers with a certain ethos, a certain mood and  Sarasvati with another. Somewhere the goddess’ role and natures may coincide, yet,  there are times when they stand alone in isolation.  In the lecture Dr Chitgopekar  would  trace  elments of goddess worship from the earliest period  highlighting certain well known goddesses like Durga and some of the more obscure ones like the Chaunsatha Yoginis. Also included would be goddesses like  Tripurasundari, who has one specific  set of verses dedicated to her called the Saundaryalahari.  

 What is interesting is to try and probe the raison d’etre for this large number. An attempt will be made in this lecture to examine the factors that may have given rise to this plurality.  Historical contexts will be explored along with sacred texts and sculpture to manifest the connections between  these important aspects that help draw out a tradition. 

 Dr Nilima Chitgopekar is an Associate Professor at the department of history in the Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University.  She is the author of ‘ Encountering Sivaism: The Deity, the Milieu, the Entourage;  ‘The Book of Durga’ and ‘Rudra: The Idea of Shiva’ and has edited ‘Invoking Goddeses: Gender Politics in Indian Religion’. She has lectured widely in India and overseas  and has been the recipient of prestigious fellowships  to  Oxford University among others. 

Goddesses in India though multiple in numbers  are also varied in their types One would not like stating the obvious  Goddesses abound in India.


‘The Cult of the Feminine - Kali and the Sindh province of Pakistan’ - Raza Rumi

Pakistan’s Sindh province, the fulcrum of Indus Valley civilization also known as the land of the Sufis has retained its centuries old belief and worship practices. Since the advent of Islam in the 8th century, the emergence of an Islamicate, the ancient and well-grounded beliefs and deities acquired a new dimension representing themselves in the mystical poetry and folktales associated with the major Sufis. The tumultuous events of 1947 and the gradual but massive exodus of the Sindhi Hindus and the Sikhs from the province have not affected the historical patterns of cult-worship in this region.

This paper will examine the existence of the worship of the feminine since the Indus valley civilization. In the later eras, the widespread cult of Kali and its various manifestations acquired a major position in the popular imagination and spiritual practices.

Interestingly, the ascendancy of the feminine is also reflected in the Sufi poetry of the medieval eras, especially in the works of Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai, whose mystical thought represents a culmination of the Sufism in Sindh. This paper will review these trends and identify more recent feminine cults that start with Marvi of Malir to the struggles of the peasantry represented by Mai Bakhtwar in early twentieth century. More recently at the start of the twenty-first century, the martyrdom and sacrifice of Pakistan’s twice-elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is the continuation of the way feminine legends are constructed and worshipped.  

The last part of the paper would locate selected folk figures within the broad context of Kali divinity, strength and ferocity and argue that folk legends and their integrity are vital to preserve an inclusive and plural society in Sindh as well as in other part of Pakistan.

A few recommendations would also be made on why the state needs to own the folk heritage of Pakistan and move towards a holistic cultural policy reversing the falsifications of the history. This is critical in these times when Pakistan faces grave onslaughts of narrow faith-related ideologies and international terror networks masquerading as messiahs.

Raza Rumi is a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. He regularly writes for the Pakistani weekly The Friday Times, The News and Daily Dawn on history, arts, literature and society. Raza blogs at Jahane Rumi – a website devoted to Sufi thought, the arts, literature, and cultures of South Asia. Raza also edits cyber-magazines Pak Tea House & Lahore Nama. His interests include writing, literature, world civilizations and cultures, travel, painting and mysticism. Academically, he is trained in economics, social development, law and public administration.


Endurance through assimilation: Permeation of goddess into Jaina atheistic traditions’ - Dr. Smita Sahgal

It is commonly believed that that Jainism, atheistic and puritanical as it was, kept away from tantric ideas and goddess worship. Quite contrary to this belief Jaina sects, especially those associated with Digambaras, were engrossed in tantric practices wherein the veneration of Yakshini formed an integral aspect of devotion. The trend had started much earlier when the advocates of Jinism/Jianism began to include shasan devatas and [ yakshas] and yakshinis in their pantheon, myths and ritual. The benefic character of Jhakkas [ yakshas] was projected in many stories. The yakshinis grew in stature and power with the permeation of tantricism within Jinism. Jvalamalini, the guardian spirit of the eighth tirthankara Candraparabha, was one of the most widely invoked Yakshinis in the Karnataka during the early Medieval period.

The cult associated with it gets a reference in the text Jvalini kalpa [10th century] which was authored by Digambara monks of Karnataka. Similarly Padmavati, the guardian deity of the twenty third tirthamkara, Parvasanatha, was another popular goddess of Jainas in Karnataka and figures in the foundation myths of Ganga kingdom. Ambika was yet another yakshini who was eventually deified in her own right with the passage of time. She is often depicted as one with four arms and with two children in her lap.

It may be worth dwelling on the issue of how goddess came to be accepted within traditions quite antithetical to their existence in the formative phases. Did it have anything to do with the abstract nature of core Jain teachings? Was the permeation of goddesses mandated by the need to keep the social base intact? The absence of ‘god’ had denied the laity to identity with the supernatural, who could be invoked in the hour of crisis. It would be also be worth contextualizing different dimensions of goddess worship within the Jaina tradition and bring out mutations within Jaina scriptures to accommodate changes in order to keep the popular base intact.

Dr. Smita Sahgal is an Associate Professor, Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi and has been teaching in the university for over two decades. She graduated in History from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and did her M.Phil on ‘Spread of Jainism in Ancient India, with special reference to Mathura ’ and her PhD on , ‘ Bull Cults in North India; A socio-Religious Study upto 550 AD’.

She is currently engaged in a post doctoral research project sponsored by Indian council of Historical Research on ‘The institution of Niyoga in Early India’ and has received awards on research projects and papers from the Indian History Congress and the Romanian Embassy.


A fleeting fertile presence: birth goddesses and their birth work’ - Janet Chawla

This presentation will consider some little known and locally based goddesses who continue to be invoked during childbirth, mostly by women who birth at home and outside a medical context. Dais, ritual practitioners as well as physical midwives, are considered to have the ability to influence the cosmic forces of procreation (pregnancy, birth, postpartum. Predominantly aniconic, birth goddesses signify more in the realm of female physiology than conventional visually rendered deities. Invocations of Shosti Ma in Eastern India; Bemata in Delhi, UP, Punjab, Rajashthan and Satavi in Maharashtra will be described based on stories, descriptions and other data from dais themselves.

Janet Chawla did graduate work at Vidyajyoti Institute of Religious Studies in Delhi, earning a Masters of Theology with her dissertation “Childbearing and Culture: The Role of the Dai as a Ritual Practitioner.” She initiated and taught one of the first gender-sensitive Indian theology courses at that institution--“Gendering God: The Goddess in the Indian Traditions”.

In her work as activist, health educator, scholar and founder-director of the NGO, MATRIKA, Ms. Chawla has introduced a holistic perspective to work on dais and their indigenous ‘reproductive health’ knowledge. Her research and writings attempt to comprehend indigenous medical forms previously considered ignorant and ‘superstitious’. Utilizing data from dais about rituals, birth songs, notions of goddess and demoness, ghosts and ancestors, MATRIKA has generated a rich documentation of Indian traditional birth knowledge and practice. She is currently co-investigator for a research project called “Jeeva” which focuses on dais/traditional midwives in four areas of India.

Ms Chawla has researched, lectured and consulted on indigenous concepts of ‘reproductive health’ nationally and internationally. She has written numerous articles for the popular press, scholarly journals and edited books. Her own books include: BIRTH AND BIRTHGIVERS: THE POWER BEHIND THE SHAME (Har Anand Publishers, Pvt. Ltd: New Delhi 2004) and CHILDBEARING AND CULTURE: A WOMAN CENTERED REVISIONING OF THE TRADITIONAL INDIAN MIDWIFE (Indian social Institute: New Delhi, 1994)

Bemata, a basically aniconic figure, rendered on a charpoy leg along with auspicious symbols often painted on walls after childbirth.

‘Manifestations of Feminine Power: The Tantric Circle of the Ten Mahavidya Goddesses ‘ -
Prof. Madhu Khanna

This presentation explores the female-centered theologies of medieval tradition of the Tantric circle of the Ten Mahavidya Goddesses. The circle includes the Goddesses Dakshina Kali “The Dark One”, Tara “The Saviouress”, Sodashi “the Maiden of Sixteen Years”, Bhuvaneshvari “the Mistress of Three Worlds”, Chinnamasta “One with Severed Head”, Tripurabhairavi “the Bhairavi of the Three Worlds”, Dhumavati, “the Somokey One”, Baglamukhi, “the Crane-faced One”, Matangi “the Elephant One”, and Kamala “the Lotus One”.

The lecture will examine the nature of the eclectic group of Tantric goddesses, their characterizations and influence in shaping the Tantric worldview of post medieval religious traditions. The lecture raises the crucial question: can these Goddesses become role models for women today?

Prof. Madhu Khanna (D. Phil. Oxon) is at present Professor in Religious/Indic Studies and Director at the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religion & Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Her books include: The Sricakra: History, Ritual and Symbol of Goddess Tripurasundari (forthcoming); Sakta Pramoda of Deva Nandan Singh (edited with an Introduction in English: The Subtle Body – An Illuminated Tantric Scroll - Translation with Commentary; Rta – The Cosmic Order, Proceedings of an International Seminar (editor); Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, London 1989, The Tantric Way – Art, Science & Ritual (co-author). She has edited five exhibition catalogues and contributed innumerable papers related to gender, religion and culture in academic publications. She is the Honorary Advisor, Narivada: Gender, Culture & Civilization Network of the IGNCA and founding Trustee of Tantra Foundation, New Delhi.



About Us