The myth of Durga MahishaMardini is a complex, multifaceted narrative with its origins in ancient India. I started working on these drawings because of a desire to investigate the evolution of some key decorative patterns in Indian sculpture and painting. I wasn't sure what form my investigation would take - something between a graphic novel and animation. I think I was drawn to the story of Mahisha because of the number of incarnations it has enjoyed over the centuries.
Strangely, after researching the story for many years, and eventually basing my MFA thesis project at UCLA on this story - I feel ever more confused and distanced from it - unsure if I really understand it at all. Initially I had an impulse to exoticize the subject matter, but not without a certain level of self-awareness. At this point, I've gotten over that and I think Durga is almost like Santa Claus in India, a pop icon who has been used for crude political and commercial purposes. On the other hand, like Santa Claus, the phenomenon of Durga does demonstrate a lot of very fascinating ideas that I think apply to many other stories - for instance how the way stories are told (orally versus written) changes the stories themselves - often for socio-political purposes.
One of the easiest places to read about the story of Durga and Mahisha is in a series of Hindu religious texts called the Puranas. The Puranas are a collection of myths and stories written down by Hindu priests over the centuries. Durga and Mahisha's story is outlined in a book called the Markandeya Purana in a section called the "Devi Mahatmya" transcribed by a Brahmin priest named Vyasa some time around the 3rd-5th century AD. This version goes as follows: long ago a powerful Asura (rough translation "other"/demon) named Mahisha declares war on all the gods. He is an invincible Asura, and his army besieges the heavens for 100 years. Indra, the king of the gods, tries to fight back, but things are going badly. Eventually he asks for help from Siva, Visnu, and Brahma.
In response, all the gods pool their energy together to create Durga - a warrior to defend them all and a tiger for her to ride in to battle. Right after she is created, Durga charges towards Mahisha's army to battle this ultimate demon. Mahisha hears Durga's roar and sends his army to kill the goddess. Durga battles Mahisha's army for days. This is described in bloody detail in the poem, not unlike the description of war in the Odyssey or any other action-oriented epic with an oral tradition. There is an argument I will describe below for this battle having some basis in history. After finally getting to Mahisha himself, Durga discovers he can change shape. She attacks him many times, but each time he appears to have died he changes form. He transforms from a bull to a tiger, then a man, an elephant, and back into a bull. Durga eventually decapitates him mid-transformation, and he is gone for good. Durga successfully defends the heavens and assums her role as a symbol of power and protection. She notably mourns the death of Mahisha after killing him, acknowledging that he had only become so powerful from meditation and prayer.
Here are some sketches showing the creation of this invincible Asura Mahisha as I imagine him - emerging from gestural paisley patterns. My process was not linear. I used the evolution of Durga's iconography in sculpture, performance and painting as subject matter for the drawings. The relationship between decoration, craft, and religious/political power in India is fascinating. I am especially curious about the way Indian art has developed a metaphorical, poetic understanding of the human form.
Above I drew one version of Mahisha's origin where he receives powers from Agni after standing in the forest and praying for years. But there are 6 different versions of Mahisha's origins that I was able to find, and I'm sure there are many more if you travel around and talk to people around India. Below you can see my drawings of a version of his origins described in the Varaha Purana: A priest named Sindudvipa is meditating in a temple he built when an Asura named Mahishmati comes by to take it from him. Mahishmati turns into a cow to drive him out, but Sindudvipa's father stops her from trampling him. He curses her to remain a cow until she gives birth. Sindudvipa much later is bathing in a river upstream from the cursed Mahishmati. Sindudvipa masturbates and as the semen floats downstream it impregnates Mahishmati. She gives birth to Mahisha, the invincible Asura who terrorizes heaven.
In this version and those like it you might read themes related to the tensions between the cohabiting cultures of the Indus Valley- the "Aryans" and the "Asura," according to Upendra Nath Dahl, the author of a book called Mahishasura in Art and Thought. Dahl writes that the Asura described in the Puranas could have been indigenous Assyrians who had peacefully settled the Indus Valley before the northerners arrived. Mahishasura could have been a historical figure who is found in some early primary documents dating back thousands of years, a descendant of these Assyrian settlers who were seen as the "other" in the mainstream Brahminical Hindu narrative.