Durga in Hampi Letter
LETTER EXCERPT FROM APRIL 2001
so Jonathan and I spent a lot of time discovering little nooks and crannies where the Mother was represented, and found some magical spots. in particular, we found a 12-or-1400 year-old statue of Durga (the "Inaccessible"!!?), the fierce female aspect of Ma who is seen riding a tiger, with many many arms -- each arm carrying a weapon. she comes from that fine tradition of warrior goddesses, not unlike Athena in the Greek mythos.
I first discovered Durga in a book of Tibetan deities, many years ago while helping to design a computer game based in Tibetan Buddhist traditions and locations.
Durga, who's a hair's-breath away from Kali, the dark bloody mother who wears a necklace of skulls around her neck and drips blood from her fangs, is, according to the Tibetan book, armed to the teeth because she is destroying duality, and the ignorance that accompanies it. I was immediately enraptured with her, her many arms, her belligerent stance, the noble tiger she's mounted on, and the fact that she's slicing dualism with every weapon -- I always knew, instinctively, that the conventions of 'good and bad, right and wrong, life and death,' etc., were a total crock. that human beings split reality into black and white because it feels safer that way, because living in the grey seems too ambiguous and frightening...
anyway, after I first saw that drawing of Durga, I was hooked on her. totally identified with her, loved her presence and what she stands for.
seeing, then, in Hampi, this 1200-year-old or so stone statue of Durga, was a powerful experience. meditating in front of her door (she's kept behind a locked door, with a small metal-barred grill in front so you can peep in and see her through the bars) was wild, there's an ancient lion, also carved in stone, right in front -- about as large as a St. Bernard -- that we hung out near. (lions, tigers, it's all the same here; the point is that a Big Cat of Some Kind is her official mount, so they always make a statue of a god or goddess accompanied, nearby, by its mount.)
they do a special puja (ceremony) for her every morning, we met the lovely Brahmin priest who does the puja, one day, an old man with a wizened and brightly-lit-from-within face named Acharya, "The Non-Moving." Acharya is commonly translated to mean, 'master.'
so the puja happens at, gulp, 6am, and a priest opens the locked door, strips the ornamental sari and flowers and so on from the statue, washes the statue while chanting all kinds of vedic mantras, and then offers flame to her. and then to us, so that her light can be ours.
okay, so, we actually got up at 5 am, got into the delightful auto-rickshaw (luxury golf cart, the vehicle of choice along the Hospet-Hampi road, you really get to know every bump and ditch in the road after a few days of THAT) and went out to Hampi in the dark. the jolting journey takes about a half-hour.
we piled in front of the Durga temple ("temple" in this case is an exaggeration, the whole area is about 500 square feet, if that, including the statue area, front entrance with the lion, etc.) and waited for the priest to show up. a young guy from the main Shiva temple complex came along around 6:15, and opened the doors. wow. seeing the full statue directly, unobstructed by the padlocked doors, was an experience in itself.
it stands about four feet hight, dark dark black stone. her facial features are accentuated with a sandal paste, bright yellow, -- like her eyes, the lines of her jawbone, and her forehead. so they really jump out at you. also, she had a huge solid circle of fire-engine red kum-kum powder stuck on her third eye, and on other parts of her face, neck, multiple hands and weapons, etc. her expression is at once completely stern and forbidding (almost repulsive), and also that of an infinitely gentle, loving mother. the genius of whoever carved it, all those centuries ago, the ability to capture such a complex expression and emotional range in a piece of stylized rock, left me speechless.
it's also a part of the secret of Divine Mother, and of Nature, which she represents -- almost all of the Durga and Kali statues are rendered with a forbidding, if not completely grotesque, facial structure. folks who're only operating on the surface take a glance and wince, and go away, oblivious to the deeper significance of this apparent ugliness.
if you look at any of these "hideous" statues long enough, you begin to see the gentle, flowing, sublime beauty behind the grotesquerie. after a certain period of time, you don't even register that the statue's face was repugnant in the first place -- it's just beautiful. the message is that Nature is like that -- potentially ugly and disturbing on the surface, but celestially beautiful underneath -- no duality. both elements, ugliness and beauty, are present and accounted for, blended together and molded into the same coin -- not even the proverbial two distinct sides are perceptible, if you really look.
then he went through the ritual, tenderly taking the sari off of the statue, (they have this whole order of how they fold it, arrange it, etc., quite precise and yet the whole activity flows, like a choreographed dance with some room for improvising) and the flowers from the day before, etc. underneath, she is a surprisingly supple and almost ridiculously voluptuous woman, huge breasts carved without clothes of any kind, and the black stone suggesting a sort of skirt, clinging to her shapely hips. wow, whoda guessed that under the garish sari is this total sex symbol??? also, this particular statue is a standing Durga, not sitting on her tiger, though the tiger (or lion or whatever it was, the carving was a bit vague on this point
a few stray Indian women and men, from Hampi village, straggled over in the semi-dark, carrying baskets, or plastic bags, containing flowers and fruits as offerings during the little puja. they made their pranams (full bows, forehead pressed reverently to the ground), gave their offerings, murmured some prayers under their breath....
then he started the abishek, or the washing of the statue. usually they chant, pour lots of cuploads of water over statues, (I've seen a lot of abisheks, have also participated in them), and the chanting and the washing and the statue and the energy and this surreality factor in the air all combine and somehow energy starts increasing, flowing outwards, free for the taking. like a huge blessing, spreading butterfly wings out in front of you, inviting you to partake and enjoy and feel touched by feathery love.
the priest started the washing, and it happened that this particular statue is decorated every day in a ton of kum-kum, the bright blood-red powder that Hindus often wear between their eyebrows, signifying the 3rd, or psychically aware, eye. Durga, and her sister in essence, Kali, are known for eating the blood of their demonic enemies, drinking it down so as to save creation from Ignorance. in many places, even today, the ancient tradition of offering animal sacrifices to this particular form of the Divine Mother is still observed, because it's thought that she needs blood. (they used to do human sacrifices, as well. yikes.)
and, you know, we cannot be born without the blood of our mothers accompanying the experience.... the significance of blood, in the Hindu mystic tradition, is intense and powerful, and is considered a huge blessing -- since blood is the essential liquid of a creature, they think it also contains the essence OF a creature, ie, the soul.
I mention this because the first little jug of water the priest poured over the head of this Durga was enough to loosen up ALL the kum-kum powder on her head and torso, so the startling result was a TON of thick, bright red water that looked like blood cascading down the dark stone body of the Mother. it was so unexpected, and so visceral, like a literal blood-bath, that I almost fell over. it was like a mild blast of wind, just out of nowhere.
I DID make a shouting sound, half-surprise, and half-roar... I'm sure the priest thought I was nuts.
it may not sound like much, a priest in a rural temple pouring a cup of water over a naked female statue carved from black rock, and the water appearing like blood whooshing down over the whole form of the woman.... at dawn, the sky beginning to lighten, full of the promise of a new day...
but it WAS much. really much.
we were so full of that red much, Jonathan and I, that once the half-hour ceremony was done, Durga re-clothed in a fresh sari and re-made-up with new red powder and bright yellow sandal paste, new flowers strung around her neck and fruit offered at her feet, that we sank into a deep deep meditation that lasted until mid-morning.
we were so satiated with it that the sun's rays rising on us, so hot so early it's usually cause to duck and cover, rolled right off our backs..........