First Things First
My growing years in India were spent in the company of some wonderful women—my mother, sisters, sisters-in-law, nieces and aunts. But eternally present at the periphery were Hindu goddesses—Durga, Lakshmi, Parvati, Sita, Radha, Kali, Sarasvati and many others. Religious or not, we found ourselves dyed in the hues and tones of the goddesses, their colors unbleachable.
How did the full-fledged Hindu goddesses emerge? Why, about five thousand years ago, were thousands of female figurines modeled in clay? Why did Indian artisans start to sculpt voluptuous dryads and nymphs by 300 CE and distinct symbolic images of the goddesses by 500 CE? And finally why are these goddesses highly cherished deities of modern India?
The earliest female figurines were unearthed on the banks of the Indus River during the early twentieth century. They were modeled in red and black clay circa 2600-1900 BCE. These figurines are nude with clearly modeled reproductive organs done in a matter-of-fact manner. Some carry infants on their hips. They seem to suggest the fecundity and fruitfulness of female body.
Indus Valley (now in Pakistan) figurines are embellished with abundant jewelry and elaborate headgear. They are adorned with earrings, necklaces, waistbands, armbands and rings of various designs. Such adornments express opulence and leisure that reflect the economic surplus of the culture. They are also pictured on steatite seals shown in the company of tigers and trees or both.
What we know about the female figurines during this period is visual. No written records have been deciphered. What we surmise about the figurines is based on visual observation and interpretations based on later hymns (circa 2600-900 BCE).
The hymns praise the connectedness of the female body with the earth’s fertility. They sing of the powers hidden in the earth, human females, and the atmospheric and celestial regions.
I marveled at the power of the female body when my nephews and nieces were born; the waxing and waning of mother’s body and its inherent powers. It took me some years to realize that I too was blessed with that power.
Giving birth to my daughters made me experience a sense of power inherent within the female body. But the goddesses on the periphery of my consciousness made me aware of the powers of unconditional love, courage, generosity, compassion, determination, love, and rebelliousness and logical/creative abilities.