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जल देवी (Water Goddess): The Trinity

Some years ago, while rummaging through hundreds of miniature paintings in an antique store, we came across an image which immediately caught our attention. It must have been the protagonist, a water-goddess, in her glorious flaring skirt, that drew us to this work. The जल देवी immediately came home, and gradually we fell in love with her. Until that point in our collecting history, we did not have any images of water goddesses in our stash. The water goddess’s homecoming started a new chapter in our collection : we started researching the iconography of this theme; of which so little is known, said & researched. 

Over the years, we collected many more images of water goddesses, and hence, it seemed natural that she would become one of our main thematic anchors for The Monsoon Festival 16. We feel tremendously excited to shower the spotlight on her divine bounty: to showcase a very intimate section of our new collection and to foreground this theme that has not been in public circulation in curatorial circles yet. We hope that this capsule collection can generate significant interest in the Water Goddess; and afford her a place in the new art pantheon. We launch this curation with passionate thoughts of continuing our romance and research around the  जल देवी over the years to come. 

Water deities are to be found in cultures across time and space; be it Greek, Egyptian, Indian or Japanese civilisations. In the Indian context, Varun, the god of oceans; is the precursor of all water deities, having been venerated since Vedic times. 

More research is required to delve into the history of the evolution of iconography of the Water Goddess; but for the purpose of this introductory curation, we start with images of the trinity of River goddesses: Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati; three of the most popular from the vedic idea of Sapta-sindhu (seven holy rivers). We then explore the idea of the generic water goddesses - who represented the element of water per se, and not a specific river or water body. The selection spans different styles, from Pahadi school miniatures to Jaipur school paintings; and a series of interpretations by two of our favourite contemporary artists: Debarchan Rout and Bibhu Patnaik.


The opening set of three works give us a darshan of the holy trinity of river goddesses in miniature styles. We start with an image of Ganga painted in the Alwar school style (a recent reproduction), a style closely affiliated with the Jaipur school. Ganga ji is seated on a golden throne, dressed in white and gold with elaborate embellishments. In her four-handed avatar, she holds a lotus in one hand  and a kalash (a water pot, typical of all water goddesses) in the other hand. Her impeccable personage is further enhanced by a छत्र (overhead canopy) and आभा (halo). She is seated on a Makara (composite mythical animal), subscribing to classical Gangetic iconography. Note how the river is imaged, flowing between two hills; and how the image of Ganga is placed at the water-horizon-source, to give an impression of her emanating from the source. 

We then encounter Yamuna and Saraswati, again both recent reproductions of Pahadi school miniatures. Yamuna ji, also in white, is seen seated on her typical vahana: मत्स्य (Fish). The original painting, in the collection of Israel Museum attributes this to be Ganga but this is probably an incorrect attribution, since Ganga is typically seated on a Makara and not a fish. Again, note the placement of the goddess in the river here; and the relationship of the river to the landscape: here we see the water horizon-source clearly, as the river emerges out of the hilly, forested horizon into the foreground. Four handed Yamuna ji, holds a lotus in one hand, and the kalash in her other hand holds an efflorescence of lotuses, perhaps highlighting her flower arrangement skills!

Deified in the Vedas, today the river Saraswati is extinct, but continues to live metaphysically alluding to the powerful creative imagination that religious practice can trigger and enhance. Transcending her origins as a river goddess, Saraswati has another venerable realm to herself: she is the goddess of learning, wisdom and the arts. That she can be a personification of both water and creativity; further validates the nourishing power of the essential element. Unlike the other two Devis, this goddess is set against a largely dry landscape (perhaps to align with the fact that the river has now gone dry); though there is a hint of water in the foreground. Clothed classically in white, she is seated on her regular vahana: the swan; and holds the Vina and the Vedas in her painted hands. 

River goddesses are more than water goddesses, they have a cult of personality of their own, and an entire world of lived culture around them. So if Ganga is white, connected with Shiva, and represents मोक्ष  (liberation); the more playful blue Yamuna ji is connected with Krishna, representing श्रृंगार (romance, beauty). The Water Goddess, which we explore in the next module; is on the other hand, more expansive in portraying the general benevolent, nourishing and life supporting properties of water. 

After that introduction to the grand trinity of river goddesses from perspectives of classical miniature styles, we delve into contemporary artist Debarchan Rout’s interpretation of the trinity, specially created for The Monsoon Festival 16. Hailing from Odisha, Rout harnesses the powerful visual vocabulary of the Pattachitra style to narrate the story of the three classical water goddesses; layering them with abstract backgrounds, very typical of his style now. Depictions of water goddesses are rare to come by in Pattachitra and hence this series of work by a contemporary artist using the Pattachitra style are pioneering in that respect. Series 1 and Series 2 

Our next series of water goddesses looks at an eclectic collection of works from many more styles; in celebration of water this Monsoon of 2021!

जय गंगे ! जय यमुने ! जय सरस्वत्ये !

Water nourishes the world around us, an essential element that makes life and beauty possible. 

Listen in : Our Water Goddess playlist on Spotify!