THE EARTH MOTHER: Legends, Ritual Arts, and Goddesses of India

THE EARTH MOTHER: Legends, Ritual Arts, and Goddesses of India

by Pupul Jayakar
Harper and Row, 1990; paper.

Pupul Jayakar is one of India's most highly respected citizens for the outstanding contributions she has made to Indian life and culture . For many years a close associate of the late Indira Gandhi, she has continued to be an adviser on heritage and cultural resources to the prime minister of India. She is also the president of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India.

Author of many books on Indian culture, she here takes us on a journey to the realm of the goddess as revealed in India's rural and tribal art. For anyone at all familiar with India, the book will awaken memories of entering villages where huge statues stand guard to protect the people and where the creative energy of the Earth Mother, the primordial goddess, is still potent.

She writes: “Two vast anonymous rivers of the creative flow in parallel streams over the landmass of India .” The first is the well-known “male-oriented artisan tradition” which traces its origin to Viswakarma, the first creator. The other, less well known, “is based on the recognition of woman as the original creator.” This heritage “traces its origin to Adi Sakti, the first woman, who spins the threads of creation.”

In India, time is cyclic, and ritual recreates the past, bringing its power into the present and ensuring the future . Pupul Jayakar 's description of the reenactment of the legend of the goddess in south India stirs the imagination:

On a dark moonless night in the light of flickering oil lamps, an image of Bhagavati Kali is drawn on the earth with colored powder. In her is the power and glory, the abundance of the earth, its savage ferocity, its tranquility. In one hand she holds a flame. To the thunder of chanting and drumbeats, the magician-priest dances the destruction of the goddess. With his feet he wipes away her limbs, her breasts, her belly, her face, her eyes, till only the fire held in one hand remains. For fire is eternal and primeval female energy has no end. When the form of the goddess finally disappears in the dust from which she has emerged, in the distant darkness, an oil lamp is lit. The fire from the hand of the goddess leaps across space, to light the oil lamp held by a human hand, and then her victory over the demon is reenacted. Drums reach a crescendo; creation, destruction, the cycle of birth and death are transformed in the hands of the village painter…; in that instant the eternal dance begins.

Mrs. Jayakar draws us deep into the roots of Indian culture and village life. The book is profusely illustrated. It is well documented and referenced, and scholarly, but never pedantic and academic. A delight to read, The Earth Mother reveals the contemporaneity of the ancient goddess legends, reminding us all that within each of us the past is still alive and powerful, even though we may have forgotten our own heritage.


Winter 1991