Essay and memoir by Devi Priya

The Great Mother Mandala

I sustain, I nurture the world entire
with the plants that sustain life,
and that are born of my body.
In this guise I am called
Sakambari. (1)

The Mandala, although not an anthropomorphic icon, should be understood alongside the anthropomorphic icons of India-Shiva, Ganesha, Kali, and others. It is inseparable from them, even if its origins can be traced to the beginnings of civilization, while the anthropomorphic forms were conceived much later and evolved over time. In the world’s collective imagination, these anthropomorphic icons elicit immediate association with India, while the Mandala is thought to come from elsewhere. This essay examines (and corrects) several such misconceptions.

Anthropomorphic icons and the Mandala

Indian icons, particularly those with multiple arms and heads, amaze and intrigue, raising many questions to which Indians themselves–even learned, cultivated people–respond with errors and fantastic explanations. This often happens when the questions refer to customs, culture, and religion. In fact, few Indians know the significance of their symbols. Apart from those for whom the symbols hold a particular interest, in general no one asks how or why they’ve emerged the way they have; for example, why that particular number of arms, or why so many other details of the icons that have so entranced us are the way they are. In the same way, it does not come naturally to an Indian to wonder how the Mandala emerged (the non-anthropomorphic form). Its irreplaceable, simply natural form accompanies all the rituals that we take part in over the entire course of the year. For this reason there is even less of a chance that people will be able to explain where the Mandala came from.

Images of anthropomorphic icons have always been part of our lives, as though they were members of the family. What could be strange about the four arms of Vishnu, or about the fact that in his four hands he carries a conch, club, lotus, and the Chakra? (2)  There’s absolutely nothing strange about the image of Vishnu. It is the way it is. In the same way, it’s normal for the Mother Goddess to have four, six, eight, or ten arms. An Indian who is illiterate or insufficiently educated, but sincerely lives his own traditions, cannot respond to many questions along these lines, nor would he ever invent explanations. He, or she, would not be bothered by saying he doesn’t know. Rather, he would be amazed that someone might ask the reason why Vishnu has four arms or why Durga has ten, or why Ganesh has the head of an elephant, and so on. For him, these things are simply normal: there’s nothing to explain. Probably he would end the discussion by smiling innocently and telling the myths he knows. It’s true that for every icon, beyond the intrinsic hidden significance, there is a myth, simple and lively: a synthesis absolutely understandable and accessible to everybody. The variations, narrated in popular style, are more eloquent and beautiful than any reading. These stories from mythology, sometimes even told by illiterate people, are in no way inferior to the stories written in books. Their tales are vivid and true, and that’s not all: the manner in which they narrate the myths and transmit their spirit has a vitality that belongs only to the oral tradition. The force of receiving, living, and carrying memory on is a force like no other. In these cases, the lack of scholarly instruction is not a disadvantage. The wise teachings are still current in India today, thanks to this means of transmitting popular memory.

The Mandala in the Tantra

As a result of the Tantra being so much in fashion recently, one often hears erroneous comments about it, and its geometrical diagrams called Mandalas, but these comments have no clear sources of information. The first point to make is that Tantrism and the Mandala are linked, beyond a doubt, only in Buddhism and in particular in Tibet (an important point since Buddhism, now widespread in the west, is commonly associated exclusively with Tibet). So it is all the more vital and interesting to know the history and origin of the abstract-geometric diagram known as the Mandala. The Mandala and the Tantra were born in India before the birth of Gautama Buddha, and the appearance of Buddhism in Tibet dates from around eleven centuries after Buddha. Therefore, to know the origin of the Mandala as an element of ancient Tantrism, it is necessary to consider first of all the history that in India connects the abstract-symbolic iconography to the anthropomorphic iconography, because the Mandala is an icon of the Great Mother Goddess.

The cult of the Great Mother

It is believed that the cult of the Great Mother or Earth Goddess has its origins in western Asia, but, in India, this cult did not end along with the ancient civilization called the Indus Valley Civilization. Throughout the Indian subcontinent, the Great Mother remained, the prototype of strength, the Prakriti (nature) that was later developed as Shakti (energy): Energy incarnate. It has various names and attributes according to the locale, but all indicate that She, the Divine Mother, is the Creatrix, embodiment of explosive energy, and goddess of fertility. There is no doubt that among the divinities of the post Indo-Aryan migration populations, she indisputably holds the position of greatest prominence. This fact is also proven by the prevalence of her cult in India among the autochthonous and rural populations. In addition, it is notable that in the rural world the most important rituals and ceremonies that have to do with the Divine Mother are not conducted by Brahmins, but by members of more ancient origin, prevalently women, who know how to invoke and summon (and “make manifest”) the Goddess. These populations have never adhered to official Hinduism. Their veneration of the Mother Goddess or Mother Earth is especially intense. In addition, the rites of the cult of the Divine Mother are manifest at every social level, and are practiced alongside those of institutionalized Hinduism. In the case of the cult of the Divine Mother, the Brahmin priest has no authority or role; in Hindu homes, the rituals having to do with the Goddess, clearly of pre-Aryan origin, are conducted by women.


The invasions of the northwest of India conducted by semi-nomadic shepherds from the central-western Asian steppe date back to 3500 B.C.E. These people called themselves Arya, and were later called Aryans by historians. The invasions were successive and continuous until the conquest of a large part of this area of India. At the same time, in the same region of the vast Indus river valley, there had already been a highly advanced agricultural-urban civilization for a long time, attested to by archaeological excavations. Harapp and Mohenjo-daro were the first two cities brought to light under the direction of Sir John Marshall, then Director-General of the Archeological Survey of India, who named their civilizations Indus Valley Civilizations or Pre-Aryan Civilizations. (3) The excavations confirmed the invasions, and gave evidence of the massacre of the communities that lived in the region. In India the rural subconscious preserves the memory of these enormous migrations and of the ancestral wars between the invaders, light-skinned nomadic shepherds, devotees of solar-male divinities, and the dark-skinned autochthonous people who tilled the earth, devotees of the Divine Mother.

Birth of Hinduism and its derivative philosophies

In the Indus valley, with intermittent raids and incursions, these invaders came into contact with the local communities and ended up establishing themselves in that lush green landscape, cultivated by farmers and people who lived in well-constructed houses in well-planned cities. As time went on some of the invaders, having become sedentary, composed the Vedas and the Upanishads, defined as “sacred books” at the origin of Hinduism-Brahmanism. Historians have established the so-called “Vedic period” beginning around 2500 B.C.E., thus the preceding period is defined as “pre-Vedic.” From that time in Indian culture there have been two fundamental orientations: the non-Vedic and the Vedic. The original Tantra, including its Mandala (the original one), belongs to a philosophy-ideology that has its roots in the ancient pre-Aryan culture. While the ancient Mandala, with which we are concerned now, remained connected to the cultivation of the earth and the veneration of the Earth Mother, and is striking for its complete simplicity, the other branch of the Tantra discipline, emphasizing the same feminine principle, developed a highly sophisticated esoteric practice that has to do with the psychic sphere and aims at the evolution of the intellect and the soul. Variations in the details of the Mandala were developed in response to this journey.

The philosophy of the Vedas and the Upanishads does not include idolatry. As a consequence, in its practices the cult of the image was always excluded. However, gradually in some sectors of Hinduism that felt the influence of pre-Vedic culture, the veneration of idols was accepted. In pre-Aryan Indian culture, beyond the abstract-geometric symbols, idols too were venerated, as attested to in the ancient records of Indus Valley Civilization. The excavations of the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro revealed figures representing divinities carved into ancient seals, alongside the dominant image of the Divine Mother. Some of these divinities were adopted by and assimilated into Hinduism, along with total adherence to the cult of the Mother Goddess, whose fundamental characteristic is the representation of the divinity in the abstract-geometric diagram. The rich Hindu anthropomorphic iconography that we know today began to develop under the conquerors, during the Vedic or post-Vedic eras, and continued during the following eras, bearing within it the unmistakable stamp of autochthonous, pre-Vedic India: the final victory of the conquered over the conquerors, certainly not the only such example in human history.

The anthropomorphic and the abstract-geometric diagram

Early Hinduism, contrary to anthropomorphic idolatry, first absorbed the abstract-geometric language of pre-Vedic culture and made it its own, giving the Mandala a place of great importance and guiding its gradual elaboration. Subsequently, with the appearance of Jainism and Buddhism, Tantrism and the Mandala were adopted by these doctrines as well, becoming two fundamental elements of Buddhism. Many centuries later, when the teachings of Gautama Buddha came to Tibet along with his doctrines, Tantrism and the Mandala were welcomed, adopted, and further elaborated upon. There was great development in the Mandala in Tibet, where it became a powerful means for meditation, with a spiritual function that was very rigorous and connected to the requirements of doctrines long practiced in that area. In this process, the design was transformed into an extremely complex decorative picture, in which anthropomorphic figures from the Tibetan-Buddhist pantheon were also inserted. This particular diagram, in its evolving variations, acquired a different appearance and identity: the Tibetan-Buddhist Mandala became unmistakably distinct from the one that originated in the agricultural communities of ancient India.

Symbology of the Mandala

The Mandala symbol belongs to the original Tantra. It was conceived and created in India in the womb of pre-Aryan civilization, and it has been in use ever since, without interruption. The image of the Mandala is a circle, composed of stylized lotus petals, squares, triangles, dots, and so on, enclosed within a colorfully painted decorative square frame. There are many variations added to this basic design, according to the needs of different rituals. The anthropomorphic icons of the Mother Goddess were formed much later, with the birth and development of Hinduism-Brahmanism. The two iconographic forms belong to two worlds historically and culturally distinct from each other, but the original rural-popular vocabulary based on abstraction was always widely recognized even by upper class people and esoteric movements. In fact, to establish and confirm the female principle with the dawn of Life through figurative abstraction is so well rooted in the Indian consciousness that the presence of the Mother Goddess has continued to exist in both iconographic forms in all of India, without one ever substituting for or gaining supremacy over the other. Much later, after having established itself extensively in the Indian subcontinent, the geometric diagram was also brought beyond its borders.

The word Mandala signifies “circle” and represents, among other things, perfect harmony. By definition, a Mandala is a yantra. Yantra, in Indian ritual, is a Sanskrit term that indicates generally all the “instruments” of devotion. The word means “machine” in the pre-industrial, pre-technical sense: a means devised to obtain energy through which one can stimulate internal visualization and develop physical strength. The design of the Mandala is a yantra, that is, an icon that in the rural world represents “the place” in which one invokes and worships the Mother-Goddess, “the recipient” through which one offers thanks and praise; She is asked to watch over the work in the fields and over the life of the community. And so for various devotions, there are various Mandalas, with pre-established variations in their details, but always created based on the same diagram.

The Mother worshiped in other symbols

The most ancient, authentic, and detailed idol of the Mother venerated is the symbolic one. It is the vase of clay combined with the diagram of the Mandala: the amphora is of the typical, traditional convex form, filled with water and placed on a Mandala inscribed on the ground. The rounded vase, filled with water, represents the womb of the Mother, full of life. The receptacles of water modeled out of clay glitter with mica, because the clay out of which they are made is mixed with crumbled mica. According to ancient Indian alchemy, mica is the ovum of the Divine Mother, while mercury is the male seed. The vase-maker does not always know the intrinsic significance of the mixture of mica and clay, but he makes it simply because he is following tradition, adding a handful of mica to the clay as his ancestors have done for generations, so that the amphora, more than becoming a receptacle for water, becomes an icon of the Mother: prepared in the right way, it acquires the same functions as its anthropomorphic image. Still today, if needed, it substitutes for the consecrated, worshipped idol in the temple, but in reality it is the original icon; the anthropomorphic idol took shape much later. At home, for daily and other periodic rituals, women use not just rounded amphorae of clay, but also those of metal and of similar shape.

Household devotions

For household devotional rites, a priest’s participation is not necessary; the house is the personal and intimate temple, it is always available, and in it the woman serves as “priest.” In home worship, the amphora is adorned with many diverse fruits, leaves, and sheaves of grain, and a clay platter depicting the Mandala serves as its base. One fills the amphora with water, puts in a branch of mango budding with five green leaves, on each of which a round mark is painted with sindur, a vermilion-colored powder that is mixed with oil, and rests a coconut with a green husk amidst the leaves. (4) With the same paste of brilliant red, on the convex surface of the amphora, a quite simple and linear abstract human figure representing a child is painted: the picture is therefore of a baby in the womb. Thus prepared, the amphora is ready for devotion: it configures fertility, of the earth and the human being, granted and conveyed by the Mother. Some pictures by Picasso bear a marked resemblance to these typical Indian figures depicted on devotional vases.

In many cases, in rural huts, beside the original abstract-geometric designs, some anthropomorphic icons have been added completely naturally. Yet in urban areas, in the same Brahmin rituals, the cult of the Mandala is treated with great conservatism. Probably because of the limited visibility of the Mandala in these rituals, or because people have inadequate, superficial information, in some artistic and intellectual circles a great deal of esoteric speculation has arisen on the subject. In these circles the Mandala is presented as something that belongs exclusively to intellectual knowledge and to high spirituality. From that point, interpretations and explanations of the significance of the Mandala have become so complicated and sophisticated as to be contradictory, and quite distant from its true nature.

The role of earth-humus

Among the autochthonous, rural populations, the question is simple. The presence of the Mother Goddess in the Mandala is perceived through simple symbology. This design, through geometric and decorative forms, is meant to illustrate the fundamental functions of the Mother, that is her multiple acts, to recognize her and praise her as the source of life. The Mandala emerged spontaneously from the necessity of praising and praying to the forces of nature, benevolent or destructive as they were; the veneration of the Mandala is first of all an agricultural rite. Its defining characteristic is the complete absence of solemnity, the unfolding of the ritual amidst festivity and joy, simply expressing unconditional Love for the Mother. Existence for the autochthonous people is always connected to the earth, essential to their creation and to sustaining Life. Because of this, for them the earth, the principal material that is the basis for life, simply represents the Mother, the generator of everything, which they therefore identify with the fertile humus, dark in color. Rather than turning their gaze to the sky, the autochthonous people keep their ears to the ground.

Matriarchal and patriarchal

Originally, autochthonous societies were matriarchal. As other populations immigrated into the Indian subcontinent, they brought male gods and patriarchal society along with them. Regarding their relation to the female divinities, it is interesting to note how, in the entire panoply of myths, one can read the culminating victory of the Goddess over the male divinities, after a series of conflicts. One finds the essential Story of India preserved in its mythology, communicated through traditional collective memory. (5) Also in the ancient texts, annotated by successive waves of immigration, one finds, after many conflicts and wars against the dominant male divinities, that the Goddess is restored to her supreme position, as she who gives everything its inception.

Original/popular knowledge

The authentic Mandala is created according to the simple rural language of color and design, untainted by intellectual pretenses. The women who design the Mandala, even those who are illiterate, know well the significance of the various triangles, circles, squares, and so on, and why an area of the design should take on a particular form and a particular color. The natural and innate knowledge of these women is without negative complexes, inhibitions, or bad intentions. For example, they know that the male-female unity is at the origin of all of creation, that this unity is inherent in every form of life, and that it is therefore recognized as sacred. The people have transmitted this knowledge over the generations orally. Wisdom has traveled in this way from one era to another, surviving periods of intellectual decadence and the disintegration of cultures via popular memory, which has unconsciously conserved it in its own simple language. This becomes clear only if we are able to receive the light of this original wisdom, even as a blinding flash.

The Mandala belongs to the rural world, and it is created solely for rituals. These rituals have no connection to Vedic rites. They are also more ancient. Agrarian culture in India and the orthodox culture established by the Brahmins according to the Veda are two worlds apart.

The Mandala in the rural art of painting

To understand the Mandala in its proper context, one should take into consideration rural art, in which pictorial representation has an extremely important ritual function. This art takes shape in a variety of ways. It is the art of the people, containing the ancient memories of living myths and keeping life in rhythm with nature: its cyclical laws, and all the attendant changes. In harmony with these cycles, through song, dance, and theater presented in the village squares and at festivals, the mythological epics and stories that together preserve the memory of ancestral patrimony are narrated and kept alive. All of this gives life to various aspects of this art, in which all the techniques involved are integral and extremely important; among them, painting has a vital role, and it is strictly representative.

The singular aspect of this culture is the fundamental importance of ritual worship using figurative pictorial art. These figures, geometric diagrams, invoke and establish within the hut or habitation, and in the village community, the Goddess, the living seed, fecund with energy and power. As a consequence the Mandala is a means of veneration and contemplation and at the same time an essential element of rural painting. And among other things, it expresses the essential unity of form and color: in fact its attributes and symbols, like the symbology of the colors assigned to the Goddess, have their origin in observations made in the alchemical laboratories of ancient India. The painting of the Mandala is important also in that it reveals knowledge of the substances from which natural colors could be obtained, as well as the techniques used to create the artwork itself.

In India, since the 1970s, the Mandala has been recognized by people in the great urban centers and has been raised to a position of particular esteem and importance, especially among art lovers. The sacred circle, since that time, has been reproduced on paper and placed in art galleries, and it still continues to fascinate people today; however, in its proper context and according to its authentic function, the Mandala, rather than a depiction on paper or canvas, a woven textile or a piece of engraved metal, should rather be a floor painting. It is to be located in its proper place, where it reconfirms that the earth is the Great Mother.

Pictures on the floor

In spite of the many changes in Indian life, the tradition of drawing pictures on the floor continues in many families, not just in the villages; and without exception these pictures are done by women. In almost all regions, it is fundamental to paint the floor of the house, whether for a wedding or for another type of celebration or anniversary, and always to worship the Goddess. The pictures vary according to the circumstances: in addition to the complete Mandala, single elements are depicted such as dots, circles, lines, squares, triangles, rectangles, swastikas, and so on. The priest has no role in these rites of veneration: it is entirely the domain of women, almost always working in groups. A type of ritual that supplicates the Great Mother for the good outcome of the harvest, determining factor in domestic life, is called Vrata. There are different Vrata over the course of the year, one for each season, and for each one specific designs must be made. Making the depiction on the floor in the Indian regions of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam is referred to as Alpona, and it is done only with rice ground with water, called Pituli, which is prepared in the home especially for making these pictures. (6) There are also many Vrata for nubile girls and young newlyweds. One of them, for girls, serves to express wishes: the wishes are depicted, and while the figures are being painted, the wishes are expressed, sometimes even aloud, in song. For example, the girls paint a comb, a hand mirror, a jewel box and a chaise, and while making these designs, they sing:

We worship the comb of Pituli–
so we might have a comb of gold.
We worship the mirror of Pituli–
so we might have a mirror of gold.
We worship the jewel box of Pituli,
so we might have a jewel box of gold.
We worship the chaise of Pituli,
so we might have a chaise of gold.

And so on. One can see the wishes made visible in the designs, and hear them echoed in song; the wishes are sung for the ears of the Great Mother, who is in the earth as she is in every atom of life. The list of desired things is not meant literally, but is simply symbolic of the good life, of which the innocent girls of the village dream.

Painted huts

The painted murals on the external walls of the village huts are purposely representative: they illustrate characters in the epics and in the mythology, in which images of the Mother Goddess dominate. All the technique brought to bear, in the preparation of the background surface, the colors, and the picture itself, derive from the practice of the Mandala. The external walls are repainted at the end of the rainy season, when the pictures done the previous season have already faded. After having washed the clay walls, the background is prepared, carefully smoothened with layers of argile. In the villages, where this particular type of painting is quite evident, for example in the region of Bihar, all such work is carried out by women in groups. As in the art of making the Mandala diagram on the floor, memory has an important role to play also in the painting of murals; the women know not only stories deriving from epic and myth, but they also know how to properly extract colors from the earth, from plants and minerals, and they know that for this type of painting the colors must be mixed with goats milk. The “brush” used is rudimentary, made by the women themselves with a little stick to which a bit of fabric has been attached. Every item is prepared at that moment. The women, surrounded by their children, call on them to help when needed. The whole process of realizing these pictorial murals becomes part of the festival of the community, with joy and collective boisterousness. The children, through events like these, learn the stories of epics and myths.

The women continue to make the designs according to the calendar of rituals, without any concern about whether the murals will fade in the rain, or whether the depictions on the floor will be trampled by children. None of these designs are made to be permanent. There is no means to preserve them; this transitoriness is a constant, inherent in all these practices, and the women will paint again according to the rituals that make up part of the ceaseless cycle of seasons and years. According to the family tradition, the floor diagrams are even remade each morning. And the home where the courtyard’s designs are the ground upon which the children play their games is considered fortunate, blessed because the family is graced by the presence of children.

In the regions of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam, a young village girl, after having bathed, dressed in a clean sari, and put flowers in her hair every morning before sunrise, makes her offering to the Mother Goddess. She decorates the threshold of her house and the courtyard to give thanks to the Goddess and to make her welcome. On the clay floor, which is carefully painted each morning with argile, the designs, which are traced by her freehand in a naturalistic manner, are made with the Pitulì, the rice paste made in the home. A very small piece of fabric is dipped into the Pitulì and then spread on the delicate fingers of the girl so that she may run them unerringly over the floor, tracing lines, dots, circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and swastikas; to these are added the stylized outlines of the Goddess, sheafs of rice, lotus flowers, shells, fish, trees, flowers, leaves, vines, mangoes, oil lamps, peacocks, owls, and so on. If one were to ask the girl the significance of what she is doing, she would probably respond simply that she is doing it to thank the Mother for her gifts and to ask for her protection. This was taught to her by her grandmother, her mother, and her aunts, and she in turn will pass this knowledge on to her daughter. So the Goddess will continue to lend her grace: the harvest will be good; the children of the house will grow strong, hard-working, and respectful; and peace and prosperity will prevail in the town.

The tradition of decorating the floor is widespread today in all regions of India. These designs are made with rice flour, or with rice ground with water. While in the regions of the west it is customary to combine the white of the rice with colors, and in some cases also with grains that provide color in a greater variety, in the east and south the white dominates, highlighted by just a few points of red. In addition to offering welcome to the Goddess, the rice flour and other grains attract the insects around the house and provide them with their food.

In the traditional mode of taking the meal one sits on the floor with a plate placed before one, on the ground; in these surroundings one never walks in one’s shoes, and thus, before every meal, the ground is cleaned thoroughly. Before beginning the meal, one customarily takes several grains of rice from one’s plate and places them on the ground, as an offering of thanks for the daily sustenance. The gesture means the food is also shared with other beings. According to the ethics of the ancients, “he who eats alone is a sinner.” The range of those who should share their food is not limited to human beings, but includes also animals, birds, and all the other creatures that live in the vicinity. In fact, no one brushes away the ants or other insects that come to eat the rice flour of the designs painted on the ground.

Returning to the Mandala, this exists not only as a design and a picture: the diagram, preserved in memory from long ago times, is also present in a variety of other expressions of which just one example are the flower bouquets composed by gardeners. In this case, the flowers and the leaves are arranged like the designs and colors of the Mandala. Similar gestures, marvelously spontaneous, are the fruit of traditional memory.

Humus = Goddess

The presence of the Mother Goddess in the culture of India is the foundation and the quintessence of this civilization. This belief considers the stuff of the earth as the “body” of the Mother, the primordial generatrix that nourishes her creatures with her own substance: (mineral/metal) + water = clay. Clay, the base material of life on Earth = the source of all things, thus it is the Great Mother. As such each one of these materials, each in itself, is considered part of the Mother. This apparently naive and elementary concept has its spontaneous origin in the alchemy of ancient times, and it depicts the Great Mother Goddess as “young, beautiful, and virgin”: the virgin earth that contains in itself all the potentialities that give rise to every thing.

Everywhere in India a great variety of vessels are modeled out of clay. The custom continues to this day, but it is rapidly disappearing. These vessels are fired by the sun or in the kiln. Once they were indispensable every day, particularly as recipients for drinking water and in general for domestic use, because in these containers water remained cool, and cleaner than it would in today’s refrigerators. In a new pitcher, the water would be perfumed with the pleasant aroma of slightly damp clay, which added another element of enjoyment. To be offered for sale, these vessels were simply displayed on the sidewalks, in great quantities and in a great variety of shapes and sizes. Pitchers in the traditional round shape were particularly numerous, but these are not as common as they once were because just about everything has now been replaced by plastic. Those of terra cotta could be seen everywhere, beginning at the side of the street, and it was normal to see them on a woman’s head or at her hip. Now these scenes are typical found only in the rural areas where every day the women carry pitchers of water on their heads without any help from their hands, often as they’re busy holding other things or carrying a baby on their hip. With admirable bearing, very elegant and graceful, the women walk with ease in bare feet and speaking among themselves as though they were carrying nothing at all.


In Indian tradition many things are not destined for permanence. The terra cotta pitcher is not unbreakable, the terra cotta cup called the kulhar–used to drink tea in public places, such as sidewalks and train stations–is thrown away after one use. Many fabrics are even dyed with colors that easily fade. The beautiful tradition of indicating transitoriness practiced by Tibetan monks, in which their Mandalas are designed with sand and then erased, is a moving ritual that teaches an essential lesson of life. In Indian tradition, on the other hand, the concept of the transitoriness of all things is experienced through the hundred actions of daily life, the rituals and festivals that go along with being Indian in a constant act of formation, all pointing toward posterity. As a consequence, the Indian is an unwitting vehicle of this knowledge.

Red and mica

The dot which we Indian women mark on our foreheads with red kumkum is called bindù (bindi). The word comes from the Sanskrit, and its literal meaning is “dot.” In the various Indian languages it is called bindì, tika, tip, and so on. The dot, which in shape and size resembles a seed, has been considered a symbol of the Mother Goddess, as she herself is the seed, the originating point of creation. It is a widespread belief that the bindi on the forehead of Hindu women is a religious mark or a decoration. For this reason, not all Hindu women are aware of the fact that marking the red dot on one’s forehead signifies recognizing and invoking in oneself the fertility and creativity of the feminine principle. In her phase of expansion, that is, the fertility-creativity phase, the Mother adopts the color red. For this reason, according to the real tradition, the bindi on the forehead must be round, exactly like a seed, red in color, and made with kumkum, a vegetable substance mixed with crumbled white mica. In India mica is found in four colors: a silvery white, red, yellow, and black.

As explained above, alchemy considers mica the ovary of the Great Mother and mercury the seed of the Male. According to this symbology, it is believed that the addition of white mica to the red powder of kumkum strengthens its meaning, therefore indicating with more emphasis the creative act of the Mother. The other substances used to place the dot on the forehead are the powder sindur or hingul (cinnabar, a composite of sulphur and mercury). Sindur or hingul are more particularly designated for married women, and in this case, in addition to marking the forehead with the bindi, one covers the parting of the hair with this powder. Widows neither paint on the red bindi nor do they paint the parting of the hair.

The Myth and the Goddess

According to mythology, in one of the recurring cycles of time, the Mother Goddess, incarnated as Sati, wife of Shiva, deliberately practiced Tapas to her death, leaving her husband so shattered with grief that he lost his mind and began wandering about carrying the lifeless body of his wife on his shoulders. (7) It was necessary to put an end to this anomaly; to bring Shiva back to his normal state from the aberration into which he had fallen. To this end, Vishnu with his Chakra cut the inanimate body of the Goddess into many pieces. There were fifty-one pieces, and they fell on as many places spread over the whole of India. From Assam to Kashmir, from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. Each of these fifty-one places has become the destination of a pilgrimage. The locations of pilgrimage in India are innumerable; this series of fifty-one Maha Pithasthan, which invokes, honors, and celebrates the Great Mother Sati exclusively, is considered the most important of them all. (8) The first place in the list is called Hinglaj, where according to the myth, the cranium of Sati fell. Hinglaj derives from Hingula: in this pilgrimage Sati is venerated under the name “Hingula Mata,” Mother Hingula, for the part in her hair, tinted with vermilion powder. It is a reference to the custom of Hindu women to cover the parting of the hair with red powder, hingul or sindur.

Hinglaj is the first of the series of fifty-one places of pilgrimage, and it is situated in the west of India (the last of the series is in the extreme east of India, in the region of Assam). Hinglaj is found in that region which became Pakistan in 1947. This place of Hindu pilgrimage has been declared a “prohibited area” to Hindu nationals by the Pakistani government. As for Hindus who are not resident in Pakistan, such visitors are much reduced in number. Beyond the problems an Indian citizen has in acquiring permission to visit, the approach to the particular location in Hinglaj is very arduous. As a result of disinterest and neglect, the temple of Mother Hingula, which is said to have been there for a thousand years and more, has fallen into ruin. The temple, which appears to belong to the first Neolithic period, is a structure made of clay containing a bowl-shaped stone, and it is located at the back of a natural cave on the banks of the Hingol river. Hinglaj is now an uninhabited place; there is nothing else in the area, and it is far from any inhabited areas. The place is unusual, in the desert along the continental shelf of the Arabian Sea. There, where the desert borders the Hingol river, a volcano emerges to spew a mist of mud and boiling minerals. This type of volcano is generated by the activity of hot water springs, in which a great quantity of gas and small amounts of water react chemically with the surrounding rock, producing a boiling mixture of mineral-rich mud.

The choice of this place as the recipient of the mythical cranium containing the brain of the Goddess is curious. A place so geologically peculiar, composed of elements essential for life: water, humus, sand, and a variety of minerals all in a state of ebullition, in a state of full activity. In my view, it would be entirely consonant with the language of symbolism to hypothesize an analogy between this location and the brain of the Goddess.

In general, mud volcanoes are of two types. One resembles a receptacle, a bowl of color, in which the boiling mud becomes a mix of yellow, green, and blue, generated by the many minerals in the surrounding rocks, to which are added colors released from the flaming of various metals. The seed of the unity of form, color, and sound is imbedded in the image of the Mother as cosmic energy. In the color spectrum, the Mother is the source of all, and of non-color at the same time.

There have been a variety of particular colors attributed to the diverse phases of the Great Mother’s activity. This same scheme of color attribution and of forms has been handed down through the generations, and is faithfully repeated by the village women painting the devotional icon of the Mother: the ancient diagram of the Mandala.

(1) From Markandeya Puran, Devi Mahatmya, Sakambari means “adorned with plants” or “composed of plants.”

(2) The Chakra, a discus that he carries on the index finger of his right hand, is the weapon of Vishnu. At his command, the discus slices through its ordered target, then returns to its place, its master’s finger, which has remained steadily in place.

(3) Thanks to the supervision of Sir John Marshall, the excavations brought to light the cities of Harappa (1921) and Mohenjo-daro (1922): these were the first archeological discoveries of Indus Valley Civilizations. “Five thousand years ago, before even the Aryans were heard of, the Punjab and the Sindh, if not other parts of India, as well, were enjoying an advanced and singularly uniform civilization of their own, closely akin, but in some respects even superior to that of contemporary Mesopotamia and Egypt. One thing that stands out clear and unmistakable, both at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, is that civilization at these two places is not an incipient civilization, but one already age-old and stereotyped on Indian soil with many millennia of human endeavour behind it. Thus India must henceforth be recognized, along with Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, as one of the most important areas where the civilizing processes of society were initiated and developed” (Sir John Marshall, Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization. London, 1931). The scholar O.R. Ehrenfels writes as follows: “The excavations, and Sir John Marshall’s summary of their archeological results, have changed the outlook of the history, especially of the more highly developed strata within the matriarchal culture-circle of India, and brought about two fundamentally important facts: (a) the predominance of the pre-Aryan element in the cultural structure of what we call “Hinduism,” and (b) the matriarchal character of this advanced pre-Aryan civilization” (O.R. Ehrenfels, Mother-Right in India. Hyderabad, 1941).

(4) Vermilion is a pigment with a mercuric sulfide base.

(5) The vision and concept of History are among those things that are singular to the Indian people, a particular quality of memory. India’s innate capacity to remember is quite selective: rather than chronological dates, it remembers, preserves, and amplifies the useful and the positive, preserving the essence of History. Keeping this characteristic in mind, one can appreciate that its myths harbor significant deposits of its essential History.

(6) In other regions, there are other names for this artistic practice: Aripan, Kolam, Mandan, Rangoli, etc.

(7) Sati, deeply offended and wounded by the insult, the grave wrong that has been done to her, is brought back to her husband Shiva by her father Daksha, and commits the iccha-mrityu in protest. The iccha mrityu is “dying of one’s own will,” “liberating onself” of Life, abandoning one’s own body by one’s own will and action through meditation or Tapas. The Tapas meditation is the yield of anxiety, passion, the burning of deep consciousness; not the flame exactly, but its lighting. To use an analogy from physics, it is as though the heat’s potential grows until a spark is thrown…this aspect of devotion conforms and conditions the little individual soul to the Absolute. Tapas, in its intrinsic character, is the interior luminosity that contains ardor. Through Tapas meditation, the soul can, through its own will and action, increase this heat and cause it to catch fire, burning oneself up and leaving the body behind. It seems that this is possible for the true great yogis. The concept and the practice are not related to suicide. And it is not an act of “penitence,” often an interpretation of Tapas and a (mis)translation of the word.

(8) The fifty-one places dedicated to the Great Mother Sati are together referred to as Maha Pithasthan: “Great Pithasthan.” The meaning of the Sanskrit is “seat of divine female energy.”

From Devi Priya’s memoir More Than One Life


My memories are plentiful. I even remember things from when I was very little. Lingering memories of places, of houses, of so many different houses that I loved and had to leave. They were like loved ones I was forced to separate from. For me these memories, of experiencing such a particular rapport, are still visceral. The list of my other memories is endless. I can’t explain why in particular instances some come back to me suddenly, nor what precise association in the present reawakens them. One decidedly provocative factor is scent, more so even than sound. From childhood through my youth, I lived in an ambience in which the pervasiveness of perfumes, emanating from various sources, was normal. Maybe this is why perfumes have the capacity to evoke memories of a particular moment, or of a person or a house, with a penetrating, unique force. Those of loved ones have remained within me; and I am not speaking of the perfume one buys, but the natural scent of good people. It was natural that the house would be full of a variety of aromas of fruit and vegetables on the sideboards. Then there were the fragrances of the gardens of great trees and flowering vines. All of this dominated the world of my infancy, childhood, and entire youth.

The repertory of memories begins with the ceaseless passage of enchanted seasons, vast starry skies, flocks of parrots, swarms of butterflies of various colors, the endlessly busy squirrels. The joyous festivals, the singing and sound of distant drumming, the “poor” children given to laughter, the abundance of colors everywhere, and of loving people. The most profound, moving, and constant is the memory of my beloved dogs. From no other source have I ever felt the sense of security given me by my dogs, with their unconditional love and their absolute faith in me.

I like reliving the memories that remain preserved in my mind, but I only enjoy thinking of the happy ones. Now I realize how important and significant are the times of my childhood, and later. It was another India. That era is over. Not just because it has receded in time, but because for a number of years now, among so many other attributes, India has lost a fundamental quality: the understanding of Beauty, the kind celebrated since time immemorial by our poet-mystic-singers and our contemporary poet Tagore. Further, it is losing one of its unique and precious qualities: its memory. The selective memory that for centuries has been capable of preserving the useful and the positive, to say nothing of the words, the philosophy, and the example of its great, enlightened minds. But I don’t want to write a lament. Rather, I would like my memory to preserve only the positive. I would like to follow the example of the Great Gander in our mythology. According to this mythological story, a metaphor, the Migrating Gander flies toward the Himalayas on its way to Mansarovar, the lake composed of a mixture of water and milk. Submerging its beak, it selects only the best part, the pure milk, carefully separating it from the water. Water, the prototype of purity, was in the context of this myth the element that diluted the wholeness of the milk.

My memories have their source in listening and reading. I have always been alert to capture and understand what I could hear of the conversation of the elders: the events they lived in person, and the myths, stories, and fables related to me by my father and aunt and then the knowledge I gained from reading. I have read voraciously since I was a girl. I practically devoured books. Remembering now what Tagore wrote, “The worm thinks it foolish that man does not devour his books,” I think the worm would have considered me one of the not so stupid ones, which is wonderful consolation! As a girl I would read stretched out on the broad limbs of the trees in the garden. I had to find a place apart from my mother, because she would always have me memorize the multiplication tables and she prohibited me from reading “books of stories.” I think that it’s because of this persecution that I hated math until I was much older. Unfortunately for me, at school too I had a math teacher whose teaching methods unnecessarily contributed to this aversion. Only a few years ago I happened to read A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy, which opened my horizons to the magnificence of mathematics. This was also essential to my study of astronomy, which I chose freely out of passion. And to think that mathematics is at the base of Indian thought, and is an ancient study in India. Not only that, but its functionality goes beyond simple calculation. For example, the word in Sanskrit for zero is shunya, literally emptiness/nothingness, also used to indicate “space,” all sharing the same term with the one used in mathematics. Zero is also “entire,” “full,” “whole,” “infinite,” and “perfect,” as explained by the Sanskrit verse:

This is whole, that is whole.
The whole added to the whole remains whole.
The whole subtracted from the whole remains whole.

And in Indian-Hindu thought, the zero refers first of all to a metaphysical concept: to the Absolute of the Upanishads.

I had one other negative experience due to the method of teaching. This involved Sanskrit. I was in school in Banaras. The Sanskrit teacher for my class was an unpleasant woman, already unlikeable outside of class. Her method of teaching was just as unlikeable. The lessons were entirely on grammar, and involved memorizing many charts. Nothing else. These dry lessons in grammar and nothing but grammar doused my enthusiasm. And so I was deprived of the beauty of this language. Unfortunately this effect lasted a long time. Where was the beautiful music of Sanskrit? At home I had become familiar with the sound of this language from the verses that were recited every day. They were of an enchanting, musical elegance. My father and his brothers knew them well, as that was normal in the family tradition and according to the education of those times. And none other than Banaras is the principal location for the study of Sanskrit.

In spite of my unhappy first encounter, the beauty of its music and poetry were so appealing and strong that they often recurred in my mind. Much later, when I needed to do further research for a variety of my studies, I approached Sanskrit again, “on tiptoes,” trembling but happy. On my own I was able to find, even if just in fragments, the flavor of its beauty and its enchantment. The grammar is essential and its importance is beyond debate, but I know from personal experience that when the teaching blindly places that above all else, obscuring the subject itself, it succeeds in trimming its wings and killing its soul. I ask myself what sort of Sanskrit is left, stripped of its vitality and the power of its delightful perfume?

Then once, when I had the chance to hear the poet Jayadeva’s “Gita Govinda,” it was a surprise. In the renowned poem I found the source of my embarrassing unease with the Sanskrit I was taught in school. I was also relieved by the confirmation of what I had intuited, that in this simple country boy (in this 12th century poem, Krishna is a cowherd) there really was much to love. I understood this, because Gita Govinda celebrated the whole people. The Sanskrit of Gita Govinda is beautiful and profound, and that is not all; it is uniquely light and free as if it had wings. It is not the classical, solemn Sanskrit of the court of the erudites, but within reach of everyone, of common people like me who can understand, love, and sing it. Sing it to the point of wanting to dance. In fact, in some areas of India the ritual dances of veneration at the temples are carried out in accompaniment to the song of Gita Govinda. As far as I’m concerned, I felt happy and also comforted. It was as though I had found myself in harmony with myself.

For festival days and on my birthday, I was given books by my Mashima, my favorite aunt, my mother’s big sister, and sometimes also from others. The lists of Bengali language (Bangla, my language) publishers are also quite rich in the literatures of other languages; my first encounters with the great world classics were through translations into Bangla, in abridged versions for young readers. They were also very well illustrated. The Odyssey and the Iliad, for example, were illustrated with pictures of sculptures by Canova and Bernini. When, many years later, I visited Italy and Rome, and I went to the Galleria of Villa Borghese and saw some of these works there, I was moved to remember the illustrations in the young reader’s encyclopedia in Bengali, my language. Then, still in Rome, I had an unpleasant experience on Piazza Navona. The fountain of four rivers shocked me, and filled me with disgust. In that massive sculpture the figure of the Ganga is, for me, a monstrosity: Mother Ganga is represented as a male! What a terrific gaffe! I was amazed at the ignorance of whoever had made that choice. And in the end one could only laugh at such an enormous mistake.


My father, after having completed his studies at the Medical College in Lucknow, capital of the U.P. (the region called the United Provinces during British reign, and Uttar Pradesh since India’s independence), entered military service as a medic-surgeon. I am speaking of the 1914-1916 war, known as the First World War. A great number of Indian men were conscripted by the British Government then and again later, in the Second World War. My father was sent to the Middle East and to Egypt as captain of a Gurkha regiment. When the war was over, on reentry, he was assigned to the civil service, still as a medic-surgeon. Every region, or “Province,” was administered separately. My father, as a resident of Banares in the U.P., was taken into the Civil Service of the U.P. He was to work as a medic-surgeon in civilian hospitals. At that time there were not so many specializations, and my father, like many other doctors, was just as excellent a general practitioner as he was a surgeon. In my very first memories, he is Assistant Surgeon in the hospital of Ghazipur, in other words assistant to the primary head surgeon. In later years, after he had been promoted to Civil Surgeon, he was responsible for conducting medical inspections, even of prisons, and in some cities, of “mental jails.”

According to the bylaws of the British administration, officials of the Civil Service were transferred from city to city, but always within the same province. My father, during his years of service, was transferred to various cities within the province, both small and large. Ghazipur was a small city, but the imposing tomb of Lord Cornwallis, one of the British Viceroys, who died in Ghazipur, is there. I have a vivid, intense memory of the perfume of flowering sweet peas in the garden of the mausoleum. The opium factory of Ghazipur was founded by the British.

Before Ghazipur, for his first civil service posting, my father was at the hospital of Jaunpur. I was born there. I have no memory of Jaunpur because the transfer to Ghazipur occurred soon after I was born. As an adult, I have passed through the train station of Jaunpur many times, but without ever getting off the train; the station is located on a very busy line, between Banares and Lucknow. From the train one sees a beautiful panorama of immense cultivated fields of roses, jasmine, and keora, extending over a vast area. The vista begins long before one reaches the station, and continues for kilometers afterwards. For centuries Jaunpur has been famous as the traditional source par excellence of flower essence and oil which are sent all over the world. And it also produces rose water and keora water, which are used in our cuisine. Keora is an Indian flower with the botanical name pandanus odoratissimus. And it is truly “odoratissimus!”

In the history of Jaunpur, the apogee would be the 14th century, when the governor declared independence from the sultanate of the throne of Delhi. Jaunpur was an important cultural center. At that time it was one of the major centers of the Urdu language and of Sufi learning. Many great and beautiful buildings were constructed. The architecture of its mosques combined original Hindu and Islamic motifs, creating a unique style. Its political independence did not last, but it left a deep impression in the realm of music, and culture in general. The city’s bridge over the Gomti, built in 1564, is still standing today.

My first memories go back to when I was 4 or 5 years old. We were in Ghazipur. Our house was on the grounds of the hospital. It was comprised of a row of rooms built around a rectangular courtyard. Between the rooms and the courtyard extended a covered veranda. At one corner a staircase brought you to the first floor, where there were two quite large rooms and a terrace. At night we slept there, on the upper floor. We had two dogs: Jackie, a white Cairn terrier, and Pansy, a terrier of some other type.

All around the house there was ample space planted with many trees. To one side was the hospital and to the other a broad field. Once a circus came to that field. On our upper storey there was also a balcony, right on the edge of that field. There was a rip in the great circus tent. I remember that through the hole in the tent, I could watch the shows from the tranquility of the balcony. But one day they sealed the opening, and so ended my happy viewing of the circus from the balcony of our house. The circus was a small, humble imitation of those people are familiar with in the west. But then, for me, as it was the first, unprecedented and unique, the acrobatics and games were a fascinating spectacle.

Our butler and servant in all matters was Khushial Singh, a Garhwali. Garhwal is one of the Himalayan regions in Uttar Pradesh. He had been my father’s batman during his military service. My father had him send for his wife and child so they could live with him. My mother spoiled that child. After having eaten his rosgolla (a Bengali Indian dessert) he would take little bites out of every other piece in the container, and my mother never said a thing. But my mother did not like Khushial Singh; between my father and him there was a special confidence that went back to their time together in the army. The personal servant was accustomed to serving his master in the manner of those times. In short, Khushial Singh had to leave us.

According to his rank, my father was assigned one or more Chaprasi, who were paid by the government. Chaprasi is probably a Farsi word. The British also called them Orderlies, a word that was Indianized as Ardali. Chaprasi, Orderly (or Ardali) were “those who took orders.” They wore uniforms and worked exclusively in the public parts of the house: the foyer, the verandas, and the rooms in which we received visitors. In Ghazipur there was a Chaprasi in our service. I never knew his name, all the more irrevocably because everyone simply called him “Chaprasi.” He had a beard that had turned gray, and wore a safa, a traditional turban. Every morning he swept clean the foyer and living room. When necessary, he would change the living room’s arrangements of flower bouquets, which he called Gul-dasta. At the appropriate times, he would make Namaz. Of course, I knew every movement he would make when he was saying his prayers, because I would observe him carefully while playing a short distance away. I followed my usual practice, my habit of observing carefully everything that surrounded me. So I became familiar also with the movements and gestures my maternal grandmother would make, not during Islamic Namaz prayer but during Nyas, a type of Hindu prayer ritual. The gestures of my grandmother were completely different and much more elaborate. They fascinated me; I would have liked to know their significance, but at that age I would not have understood. To understand one needs to grow and have experiences in life. According to our tradition, for this reason, one only approaches the world of formal prayer ritual and meditation as an adult. Returning to the Namaz and Nyas, the difference between the two prayer rituals did not surprise me. That everyone prayed in their own manner was a reality I took for granted; it was part of the daily reality in which I was born and grew up, along with thousands of other Indians. And as a consequence, no one and no thing was thought of as so different as to cause surprise or undue curiosity. But later in life, due to the beliefs and behaviors of those outside our culture, I did have to accede to the concept of “the other” and “the alien.” And that the difference of the other could present social problems. In India, since ancient times, there has been a continuous passage of peoples of every race and religion. We are accustomed to this by tradition. There is no concept of the outsider, and so the notion of the alien does not exist. On the contrary, what exists is a synthesis of cultures. And the people on the teeming streets do not pry or gawk at foreigners, something which occurs elsewhere without exception.

The Chaprasi addressed us all, even me, with the epithet “Ghareeb Parwar.” As a grown-up, recalling these words and searching for their meaning, I was mortified because they mean “protector of the poor” (or, in a word, “benefactor”). An old man, such as he was, addressed even a child like me with this title! In our culture, the privilege of respect is given to the elders. I felt very sad. Chaprasi was very kind and affectionate. Often I would go about under his wing, and and he would tell me stories, stories of fairies, of phantoms, and of his village. There was one story that really scared me, but I wanted to hear it almost every day. A man returning home was walking alone on the path that led to his village. It was night. At a certain moment he realized there was someone he didn’t know walking alongside him. This person told him that if he was having money problems, he could help him. The man noted that the soles of the other’s feet were turned around, facing backwards. It was a certain sign that he was “Shaitan,” that is, the devil. He understood that he had to accept the offer; there was no alternative. The Shaitan gave him two coins and advised him to spend one that day, saving the second; that one he shouldn’t spend. Then he vanished into the darkness of night. The man, returning home, put the coins in a little box. The following day, out of curiosity, he took one and went to buy something he needed for the house. The day after, opening the box, he saw that in the spot where, the day before, he’d left the remaining coin, there were two. And so it always was; he’d spend one and find two. Finally, one day out of foolish curiosity he took both coins and spent them. From that day on the box had remained empty.

The gardener, the Mali, was named Sukkhu. He was extremely thin and silent, and worked harder than anybody. He wore a very short dhoti, the traditional Indian robe wound around one’s hips, which reached just down to his knees. He protected his head from the baking sun with a piece of woven cloth which he wore as though it were a turban. He wore nothing on his back, like many in those days. Far from the house were the “servants quarters,” lodgings for the household help. Sukkhu Mali had a little room there, and he cooked over a wood fire in a hole in the ground, like those in which the renowned Tandoori chicken is cooked. He prepared one meal a day, always two roti (unleavened bread). But every morning he made a circuit of the fields and spread a little sugar on the anthills! At lunch time, Sukkhu Mali ate his roti with a little salt and green pepper. I would sit in front of him and watch him swallow each bite with the help of a drink of water. He had to send all that he could save of his stipend to his family in their far-off village. But giving food to the creatures, depriving himself of sugar, was an act of piety and compassion that he would not renounce.

I am ashamed to admit that I would have liked a taste of his roti. At home I had regular meals full of good things, and I wanted to know how that roti was! The most painful part for me was, and still is, that he had to swallow each bite with the help of a swallow of water. I had a powerful urge to steal things from our kitchen and bring them to him. I didn’t do it for two reasons: he would have never accepted them, and because my mother, if she had found out, might have been angry with him, as well as with me. The memory of Sukkhu Mali’s meals make me feel awful, really awful. Why did I always have to watch him while he ate? Why was I so insensitive and stupid? Why are children insensitive to the point of cruelty? Certainly Sukkhu Mali understood that I was only a child, and maybe he didn’t mind having some company while he was eating?

When my parents went out for dinner, Sukkhu Mali was my babysitter. Until my parents returned, he sat on the ground near my bed as the two dogs Jackie and Pansy did. I amused myself making little round rotis in the palm of my hand from dough taken from the kitchen, and I would “cook” them there on the kerosene lantern. Electricity had still not been brought to small cities. The light of the lantern placed on the ground projected the long shadows of Sukkhu Mali and the dogs on the walls and ceiling. The shadows moved with the flickering flame of the lantern. Sukkhu Mali patiently watched over my business with the mini rotis but would not permit me to eat them because clearly they were not edible. In his own way Sukkhu Mali loved me; I intuited this, even though he did not show much emotion. Illiterate people have a natural restraint and a wise sense of propriety, often found lacking in educated people and those who move in high society. Sukkhu Mali knew that he could not and should not become too attached, because he and I were to travel such different tracks.

What makes me much sadder is the degree of poverty that continues to exist in my country and in the entire world, as much today as it did then. We should never accept such things. I can’t and don’t ever want to forget Sukkhu Mali, his generosity, and his meals. His gaunt frame has become the symbol of a painful, persistent reality for me. So much so that I, as an adult and a student, was able to understand why our country and our leaders were making such great sacrifices in order to liberate us from foreign domination, from colonialism and to be able one day “to dry the tears, at least on one face”…for the sake of so many like Sukkhu Mali. If it was not possible then to join the Movement for Indian Independence directly, because I was too little, I was at least lucky to attend a school and a university that were fully involved. In my soul, spirit, and later in my activities, I lived entirely in that atmosphere, that wind. But today, even after the nation has been free for so many years, Sukkhu Malis continue to exist! What disappointment, so many noble sacrifices and so much noble service wasted! The dream of rebirth, of a more just society, shattered! For the last thirty or so years, it has seemed that my independent country is acting as though it would like to take up the unfinished work of those who exploited it…ignoring and abrogating the dedication and the hard work of our leaders, women and men and entire families who worked to restore our rights, our identity, and our dignity. And as this goes on, there are countrymen of mine making abundant profits for themselves by turning our philosophy, with global “marketing,” into a business. What can one say?

In Ghazipur, my father’s boss was the Civil Surgeon, Major Garrod. Mrs. Garrod sent me a present for my birthday: a pram for my doll. Yes, I had a doll that was typical of those times. I went with my father to thank the Major and his wife for the gift. From the entrance gate to the Bungalow of Major Garrod, one walked between tall hedges on either side. Then one came to an impeccable garden, in full flower. Beyond, one climbed several marble steps and reached the veranda that was the entrance to the house. I still see all of this clearly in my head. My father had taught me my first English phrase: “Thank you very much for the doll’s pram.” For days I had repeated it along with my father, getting ready for the occasion. At the right moment I recited it for the Major and his wife, curtseying while my father held me by the hand. They were very entertained and pleased with my English thank-you, even if I had obviously memorized it.

Eventually, Major Garrod retired. He returned to England and sold his furniture and many other things. My father bought a great amount of crockery, silverware, furniture, and beautiful curtains. For this reason, I grew up in a house largely outfitted with all of Major Garrod’s things, the heavy English furniture of the period that lasted a lifetime, or at least until I visited my parents’ house in Lucknow for the last time, in 1972. In the same year my father left us orphans. My mother lived for several years in the same house, but eventually she had to move to my elder sister’s in far-away Kolkata. At that time the furniture was dispersed here and there, and given away as gifts. All of it had emotional value, I think, for everyone in our family.

From Ghazipur right up to Lucknow, the last post my father was assigned to as Civil Surgeon, we lived in many cities in the U.P. Meerut, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Jhansi, Barabanki, Fayzabad, Banaras, Lucknow, and still others. I can’t locate all of these places in the fragments of my memory, only a few. The progression of my memories is not linear. The first and clearest memories are of what had the most impact on me. I do not try to understand all the reasons why, but so it is.

I am Bengali. In India, one’s identity is decided by one’s language, not exclusively the place of birth. In any event, through all changes, one’s original identity is never erased. A Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, or Gujarati may be born and live in any part of India, and even before she is an Indian, she is Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, or what have you. The Indian Constitution recognizes eighteen languages, each with its own alphabet. Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Kashmiri, Konkani, Nepali, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, and Sindhi. Tamil is among the most ancient languages of the world that is still spoken. Bengali, the language of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, is the fourth most spoken language in the world. Hindi, the most widespread language in India, is the fifth.

My family has its origins in East Bengal, today called Bangladesh. My great-grandfather emigrated to Banaras from the district of Jessore in East Bengal. Banaras is in a Hindi-speaking region. For this reason I naturally grew up trilingual, speaking Bangla, Hindi, and English. English was the official language for two centuries of British rule in India. Before that, for about two centuries, the official language was Farsi, as the rulers were Mughals, Persians.

Bangladesh, which means “Bangla land,” is the original name of the whole region of Bengal located in the northeast of India. This region was divided in two in 1947, at the moment of Indian indpendence from British rule. There were two divisions imposed as conditions for the concession of independence: one concerned Bengal, and the other Punjab. Two regions of India where the majority of the population is of the Islamic religion. The two regions situated at the two extremes of the Indian subcontinent were named West Pakistan and East Pakistan, and put “together” under a single Islamic government, whose title was of course Pakistan. This split is known as “the partition.” It was a most painful partition. Individuals and families were devastated, their very existence threatened. Families were dispersed, friendships ruptured, and many were forced into exile from the land they profoundly loved. The partition involving Punjab was marvelously depicted by M.S. Sathyu in his film Haram Hawa, in 1973.

In Bengal the partition proceeded in a particular manner, and I will try to relate how. The Bengals are especially tied to their land, lush green fields cultivated under clear blue skies, and the waters of their immense rivers, of which their mystical poets have sung so admirably. Renowned for the abundant production of the finest rice, this land considered treasure by the Bengali was lovingly termed “Shonar Bangla,” golden Bengal. Beyond the Ganga (Ganges), in the interior of Bangladesh, other large and small rivers run, among them the Padma, considered a kind of boundary between two Bengal cultures: one to the east, and one to the west of the Padma. The land to the east of the Padma, “East Bengal,” was included in the state of Pakistan and named “East Pakistan.” The lands to the west remained in the Republic of India and from that time were called “West Bengal.” The central government of Pakistan was in Punjab, a huge distance from “East Pakistan,” and separated from it by the entire territory of India! Even if the Islamic religion was observed in the two regions of Pakistan, between the two there were only differences in culture and language, virtually nothing in common. The Bengalis chafed under the domination and administration of Pakistan, far to the west. It was like living under foreign occupation. Among the many humiliating changes wrought by the programs of the Pakistani government was that of substituting the Punjab language for Bangla. Bangla is the most important language in India, and Bengalis are proud of it. Years of resistance by the Bengalis, that is, residents of East Pakistan, ensued against the harsh repression of the Pakistani government. Many people were imprisoned and many killed. In 1971-1972, East Pakistan succeeded in separating from Pakistan, and became an independent state with the name Bangladesh.

Banaras and the train

The name Benares derives from British spelling and pronunciation. In the Hindi, on the other hand, the name of the city is Banaras. Of course, the name Banaras comes from the Sanskrit Varanasi. The Sanskrit name, although beautiful, has not been used in the spoken language for centuries. It seems that now an attempt is being made to substitute the name name Varanasi for Banaras in the spoken language. The attempt is entirely forced. Banaras is the natural choice in spoken Hindi, which is the local language. And that’s how I’ve known the place always.

The city of Varanasi, which in Hindi is called Banaras, sits on the left bank of the Ganga, as the river flows. Our mythology says that she, Ganga, originally flowed in the mythical paradise Kailash, in the Himalayas. From there she flowed downland, to bring Life to the world with her waters. The river’s descent presented a serious problem: the tremendous force of her flow would have wiped the earth away. The exceptionally vigorous current of Ganga could only be contained by Shiva, residing in the Himalayas. Shiva resides in the Himalayas, precisely upon the legendary peak called Kailash. There he sits in a kind of eternal meditation. The great mass of his hair that is tousled and matted through negligence is the greatest outward sign of his asceticism. The locks of this tangle of hair flows over his shoulders and one part is gathered in a chignon on top of his head. The flow of the Ganga was contained by Shiva in that chignon, where she was slowed before she could begin her descent to the valleys. The flow of the Ganga, before it comes down to the plain, winds inside the Himalayas for around five hundred miles. Then it begins to bathe what we know as the “Gangetic plain.” It crosses the regions of Punjab and Rajasthan, and reaches Uttar Pradesh. The city of Banaras is located on the left bank of the river and at the point where the river curves northward, in the direction opposite its normal flow, but immediately afterwards it resumes its normal southwest course toward the ocean. The city arose on this curve of the river where the Ganga is “Uttar-mukhi,” north-facing. The mythological story goes on: having arrived at this point, she, the river, turns around to face north, to greet her origins in the Himalayas, the mythical domain of Shiva. After having offered greetings to her source, she resumes her own way to merge with the ocean, in the Bay of Bengal. A point of curiosity: the curve of the Ganga at Banaras is formed like a crescent, recalling the crescent moon in the icon that stands on the chignon–on the mountain ridge–where Shiva resides. And Shiva is the patron of the city of Varanasi (Banaras).

Varanasi, the Sanskrit name of the city, derives from the name of the two rivers Varuna and Assi: Varuna + Assi = Varanasi. The city is located in the area between the two rivers; each merges with the Ganga at the extreme points of the curve, as though to demarcate the two borders of the city. On the east side of the crescent, close to the Varuna river, there is an imposing construction made of iron over the Ganga, the Dufferin Bridge, named in honor of the English Viceroy in India from 1884 to 1888. The bridge connects what are at that point the north and the south banks of the river. After independence, the name of the bridge was changed to Malaviya Bridge in memory of the founder of the University of Banaras, Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya. The bridge has two levels. Automobiles and pedestrians transit above, railway lines below. From Banaras, to go to the other side of the river, traveling east, the trains and automobiles must cross this bridge. I have crossed it innumerable times when traveling to Calcutta or Burdwan to take the commuter train to Bolpur, Santiniketan, to my university. One of the lines toward the east was the EIR: the East Indian Railway, of which the Punjab Mail was the most important link and of the farthest extent between east and west, between Punjab and Bengal. The other was the GIP, the Great Indian Peninsular. The train, which was then a steam train but extremely fast, traveled all night from Banaras to reach Calcutta. We woke in the morning in the territory of Bengal; the landscape had become endlessly green. From the windows on each side of the train we saw rice fields, irrigation canals, palms, great mango trees, and plantations of the paan vine, known for producing betel. For the return trip to Banaras we woke at dawn to the familiar shouts of the tea vendors at the station of Mughalsarai: “Chai garam, garam chai,” hot tea. From a metal container perched atop a cart, he would pour steaming hot, intensely perfumed tea into the kulhar, terra cotta cups, which we would throw away once they had been used. One never drinks from the same cup used by someone else. At home everyone had their own glass, embossed with their name. A traditional gift for a newborn is a silver cup engraved with the baby’s name. After a night aboard, to wake at dawn to the puffing of the platformed train and the song of the tea vendor meant that we were at the station of Mughalsarai, quite close to Banaras, on the other bank of the river. So we were almost home: awaiting us was only the bridge crossing, merely steps away. After that, the brief stop at the little station of Kashi, then the main station of Banaras, in those days called “Benares Cantonment.” Kashi is the other ancient Sanskrit name for Banaras. In my language, Bangla, we call the city Kashi, never Benares or Banaras.

Traveling on, once the train reached a station, I would watch our entry from the window: the “Station Master” would be on the platform, waving the green flag. Then the flag would change to red to tell the conductor where he had to stop the train. Every so often he would blow a whistle, which he always kept in his mouth. He was the most important person there, the one who watched over the station and the coming and going of the trains; he made sure to put his authority on display. I have an amusing memory of an anecdote of my father’s. Once, a British high official was to visit a town. His train arrived at the little station. The proud Station Master waited in his impeccable uniform, trembling with anxiety, ready to receive him. The official, descending from the train, looked right and left, searching for whoever was in charge. The following conversation between the two ensued.

Official: “Where is the Station Master?”
The response: “Sir, I is the Station Master.”
“Oh, are you the Station Master?”
“Yes Sir, I are the Station Master.”

For those who know English, it is an amusing dialogue.

The steam train, apart from having so many beautiful fixings, could speak. It spoke not just with its wheels, but also by sounding its powerful whistle. And its stack exhaled a great trail of smoke, like a garland flying over the train. To me it seemed the happy shout of someone overjoyed to speak with the four winds. Women and men in the fields, and children, who knew its daily schedule, would wait for it and stop their activity to stand and watch it go by. Sometimes they would wave. They were waving at the train, not at its “luggage” of passengers.

The locomotives were of cast iron, with beautiful brass decorations, real masterworks of metal working. The train was completely different from those of today; in its appearance, its outfitting, its accessories and finishings. In the carriages the first-class seats were covered in leather of the finest quality. The leather was stamped in evenly spaced little circles with phrases like “Stolen from GIP Railway,” to discourage potential theft of the leather. In recent years in India the steam trains, including the locomotives, have been reduced to ruins. Neither the historical value nor the beauty of the trains has been taken into account, to say nothing of their usefulness in the present. These trains, sitting still, could play host to exhibits, conventions, and similar things. Some parts of the train could be put to use as children’s parks. It’s important to preserve historic and beautiful things rather than destroy them. Apart from all this, to make them functional, presented in the right way, would certainly be attractive for tourism. Yet only one brief line from Siliguri to Darjeeling has been maintained, on which a little steam train continues its run. The line, from virtual flatland to its destination at an altitude of over 2000 meters, is an always-curving, steady climb.

I was in Darjeeling a long time ago. It is one of the most beautiful and evocative places in the Himalayas, from which the vista of the northern horizon is dominated by the astonishing mass of Everest. The commuter train for Darjeeling, which leaves from Siliguri, has two locomotives, one in front and one in back. This is because when it arrives in Darjeeling there is no place for it to turn around. So one locomotive is used for the ascent and one for the descent. It is a very small train, almost a toy. One thing that I remember, which made rather an impression on me, was its brake system. A man sat on the roof, right over the locomotive in use, and operated the brake by hand, by pulling a cable or chain. The accompanying view from the windows was, to one side, of the mountain wall with its moss-covered cliffs, occasional flowering trees, and climbing jasmine, and to the other side, of the fringe of enormous trees rising from the depths of the abyss. In between, there were magisterial magnolias. Nowhere else have I seen them so high and so vigorous. They were absolutely full of flowers. I would have liked to see them right up close. Something that I was able to do many years later in my own garden. Those garden trees could never rise to the level of the magnolias in the Himalayas, but in recompense their flowers were within a hand’s reach. They were a great source of joy for me.

One sound that the train made left a particularly deep impression: when the train crossed the Dufferin Bridge over the Ganga in Banaras. The sound of the train was so magnified and resonant against the iron of the bridge that it seemed a continuous repartee between the two of them. It was a marvelous strong sound, with an exciting rhythm and a regular cadence that I would call nearly dramatic, and which lasted for more than a little while. It is a long bridge, as the river is quite wide. Heading in the direction of Calcutta, now called Kolkata, from the windows on the right side one looks back at the city on the river and the Ghats, the many stairs. Beyond the stairs are the houses, the peaks of temples and minarets of the mosques constructed by the last Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. He destroyed the Hindu temple of Vishwanath, the principal temple of Banaras, and constructed the mosque in its place. With the train in motion, your hearing fills with a kind of percussion. The sound still echoes in my ears. We would greet Gangamai, “Mother Ganga,” and throw coins into the water. Some sank, some struck the sides of the bridge, adding cymbal tones to the drumming of wheels and tracks. While we shot forth like an arrow in between, the view of the city from the windows on the right and of the riverbank toward Rajghat with the Varuna river on the left receded rapidly. When the echo-concert diminished, the solo of the train’s wheels on the tracks resumed; that change from one rhythm to another was a wonderful sound I loved so that it still rings in my head. At that point we had ended our rendezvous, our transit of the Dufferin Bridge, and had therefore arrived on the opposite shore.

We had left the Ganga and the city, with the disk of the setting sun at our back. The train sped on briskly toward the east, where darkness was falling, its ultimate destination Kolkata. It took all night to cover the seven hundred plus kilometers. I have many memories of traveling by train. Voyages were long–as expected, considering the distances in India. The wagons were of first, second, “inter,” and third class. Our “leaders” traveled in third class, with the farmers and the poor. The British traveled in first class. One could reserve entire wagons of the first and second class. Each wagon-carriage was devoted to one sleeping compartment, so families would normally reserve them. My father usually reserved a second-class wagon because frequently we were all on our trips, we three sisters, mom and dad. Later on, our little brother came along too. But on our trips between home, school, and university, we sisters always traveled by inter class. In every second-class wagon, for example, there were five benches, or sleeping berths, and a toilet. We traveled very comfortably. To eat, one could order from the wagon-restaurant Kellners, and the waiters would bring us our food on trays. In any case, we always brought our own food from home in tiffin carriers, containers that are still much in use in India. One night on the train, after dinner, my father, who had peeled and sliced the mangoes for us with his Swiss knife, absent-mindedly threw it out the window along with the mango peels wrapped in paper. We were very upset; my father always took the greatest care of even the least significant things. He had owned the jackknife for quite a long time, since he had been in the military service during the first war. In the dark of night the great speed of the Punjab Mail left the knife behind somewhere, lost in the countryside, and who knows what became of it.

From the windows of the train as it went along you really weren’t to face forward, toward the engine, because along with the smoke, little flying pieces of burning carbon could get into your eye. This happened to me enough times, and it was quite painful. If a splinter of coal got into your cornea it was worse still, because it was difficult to get it out. I didn’t always remember the risk, I so enjoyed standing at the window with my head sticking out, breathing in the odor of burning coal. I looked at the countryside, which cycled by: the electric poles, bushes, trees, and all the nearby things traveled in the direction opposite ours and at the same velocity, while everything distant and on the horizon followed us, at a slower speed! They were two vast cycles of landscape in motion which accompanied us on each side of the train. I can’t quite explain how the distance appeared to travel along with us. The country landscape presented a variety of different types of vegetation, cultivated fields, livestock, and people. During the summer the flowering “forests” of Palash were spectacular. This flower is called “flame of the forest” in English. It loves dry areas and its leafless branches flower at the height of summer. In the countryside they can be seen growing together in large groups. I would look at the distant villages beyond the broad red of the Palash and try to imagine who lived there and what they did from morning to evening. How many clouds of varying shapes, how many birds flying and still on the electrical cables, the grand sunset and the slow, gradual passage into darkness, with the canopy of starry sky emerging. There was an infinity of things to see, each provoking wonder. What a cinema, with musical accompaniment by the talking train! Many years later, I found the enchantment of that rhythm again in an actual film, Le Bête Humaine by Jean Renoir; for many minutes at the opening of the film, a talking train rushes along at great speed, with exceptional emotional and dramatic power.

As a girl, from adolescence all through my youth, I traveled quite a lot, from one part of India to another, taking railways large and small. I am left with marvelous memories of these journeys. Nostalgia for the steam train brings the odor of burning coal again to my nose. Remembering the rhythmic song of wheels on rails, especially the sound of switching between tracks and the whistle on the smoke stack, time rewinds, and I find myself in the India of my past, with everything become present again.

The course of Dufferin Bridge (out of habit, that is what I still call it), with the music of the train, the view of the city and the beloved Ganga, grandiose but tranquil, all at the same moment, has for me remained unforgettable. Many, many years later, one night I dreamt of sitting happily in a carriage of the train traveling across Dufferin Bridge. I was listening to the familiar, rhythmic sound with so much pleasure. When I awoke, it took me some time to become aware that I was not aboard the Punjab Mail on Dufferin Bridge above the Ganga. But what I had been living in the dream was so intensely vivid, and so like lived, real experience, that I remained under its spell. And I felt such a powerful, painfully beautiful sense of nostalgia.


Devi Priya

Devi Priya was born and educated in India. She completed her degree in Fine Arts at the university founded by Tagore two years after India won its independence. She went on to study Languages and Art History in France and Italy. Her work has focused on recording and preserving the role of the artisan in India.

Nicholas Benson

Nicholas Benson is the translator of Attilio Bertolucci's Winter Journey (Viaggio d'inverno, 1971), published in 2005 by Free Verse Editions of Parlor Press, and Aldo Palazzeschi's The Arsonist (L'incendiario, 1911), published in 2013 by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions.

The Great Mother Mandala and More Than One Life. Copyright (c) Devi Priya, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Nicholas Benson, 2014.