Skip to main content

Goddess Lakshmi in decorations of temples of West Bengal

Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.

Goddess Lakshmi with her mount (Vahana) the Owl; terracotta relief work; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi with her mount (Vahana) the Owl; terracotta relief work; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap, district Hooghly.

Introduction

Decorations in temples of Bengal is a fascinating subject. These decorations are mostly in terracotta plaques,but other media like cut-brick terracotta, stucco, stone work, wood carvings and paintings (murals and frescos) are also found. The subjects of these decorations show a spectacular range, starting from gods and goddesses with or without their mounts (Vahana), epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, mythological stories like Krishna Leela, Chaitanya Leela; social scenes, animals, birds, floral, vegetative and geometric designs etc.

The arrangement of these different pictures is not haphazard, but follows a clear cut pattern. The placement of a particular group of pictures is fixed. Though there are occasional disruption of the rules, but in general all artists did follow the laid down rules very cautiously and diligently.
No doubt the study of these is highly fascinating and rewarding too.

In the present article, we'll deal with a particular subject -- that of Goddess Lakshmi in the decorations of Bengal temples.

Goiddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. Goddess Laksmi (considered here as the daughter of Durga) is standing on Durga's right. Terracotta; Shiva temple, Supur, district Birbhum

Goiddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. Goddess Laksmi (considered here as the daughter of Durga) is standing on Durga's right. Terracotta; Shiva temple, Supur, district Birbhum

Goddess Lakshmi as the consort of Lord Vishnu. Terracotta; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi as the consort of Lord Vishnu. Terracotta; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap, district Hooghly.

Why Goddess Lakshmi?

Goddess Lakshmi is an important goddess in Hinduism. She is regarded as the owner and regulator of all wealth. Billions of Hindus worship Goddess Lakshmi daily at their homes to get her blessings which will be translated as wealth.She is regarded as the divine consort of Lord Vishnu, one of the three Supreme Gods of Hinduism, viz. Lord Brahma The Creator, Lord Vishnu The Sustainer and Lord Shiva The Destroyer.

Besides this, Goddess Lakshmi is considered especially by Bengali Hindus as the daughter of Goddess Durga and is worshipped along with Goddess Durga.

Hence it is interesting to note the presence of Goddess Lakshmi in the decorations of Bengal temples.

Goddess Lakshmi as the consort of Lord Vishnu who is seen lying on Shesha Naga, the Celestial Serpent, while Lord Bramha is seen emerging from the navel of Lord Vishnu. Terracotta; Sridhar temple, Sonamukhi, district Bankura.

Goddess Lakshmi as the consort of Lord Vishnu who is seen lying on Shesha Naga, the Celestial Serpent, while Lord Bramha is seen emerging from the navel of Lord Vishnu. Terracotta; Sridhar temple, Sonamukhi, district Bankura.

Different forms of Goddess Lakshmi

There are eight forms of Goddess Lakshmi as described in the scriptures. It is to be noted that most of these forms are not present in the temple decorations in Bengal. These eight forms of Goddess Lakshmi are :

1. Adi Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi is the consort of Lord Vishnu in this form. Her other names in this form are Shree, Shree Devi, Ramaa and Indira. She is 4-armed in this form. Two hands hold Lotus and white flag, the two other hands are in the postures (Mudra) of "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada Mudra".

Adi Lakshmi is the chief driving force of Lord Vishnu. It is interesting to note that in the decorations of many temples of West Bengal, the goddess is shown with Lord Vishnu lying on the Celestial serpent Ananta Naga as His consort, i.e. as Adi Lakshmi, but she is shown as 2-armed and not 4-armed as described in the scriptures.


2. Dhana Lakshmi : In this form Goddess Lakshmi wears red dress and is 6-armed. Five hands carry Chakra (Disc), Shankha (Conch), Kalash (Pot), Dhanurbaan (bow and arrow) and Padma (lotus), the 6th hand is in the posture of "Abhoya Mudra", though sometimes it is shown as delivering a shower of gold coins.

3. Dhaanya Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi is 8-armed in this form and is adorned with yellow dress. She holds Lotus in her two hands and in other 4 hands she carries Gadaa (mace), a sheaf of paddy plants (Dhaanya-guchcha), sugar cane and banana. The remaining two hands are in the postures of "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada Mudra".

4. Gaja Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi in this form is red-dressed and 4-armed. In this form she appeared during "Samudra Manthana" (the churning of the ocean by the gods and the demons).

She sits on a lotus. Her two hands carry lotus, and the other two hands are in the postures of "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada Mudra". But the most striking feature of this form is that two elephants are shown showering the goddess with water from their trunks.

It is interesting to note that though we find Gaja Lakshmi in the decorations of some of the temples of West Bengal, the goddess is shown with 2 arms, instead of 4 as described in the scriptures.

5. Santaan Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi is 6-armed in this form. She blesses her devotees with wealth and child ("Santaan"). She carries two Kalash-es (pots) in two hands and a Shield, a sword and a human baby in other hands. Sometimes the baby is is shown holding a lotus in its hand. In her 6th hand, the goddess shows the posture of "Abhoy Mudra".

Scroll to Continue

6. Veera Lakshmi or Dhairya Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi in this form is red-dressed and 8-armed. Two of her hands are in "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada Mudra". The remaining 6 hands carry Shankha (conch), Chakra (the disc), bow, arrow, a sword or a trident, and a book or a chunk of gold. The goddess in this form bestows power, strength and courage to her devotees.

7. Vidya Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi in this form is dressed in white, is 4-armed and carries two lotuses in her two hands. The other two hands are in "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada" Mudra. She sits on a lotus and bestows Vidya (knowledge) to her devotees. It is interesting to note that in this form Goddess Lakshmi has some similarities with Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of Learning and Knowledge.

8. Vijay Lakshmi : Goddess Lakshmi in this form is red-dressed and 8-armed. She carries Shankha (the conch), Chakra (the disc), sword, shield, Pash (the noose), Padma (lotus) in her six hands. The other two hands are in "Abhoya Mudra" and "Varada Mudra". The goddess in this form bestows "Vijay" (victory) in all spheres of life to her devotees.

The common form of Goddess Lakshmi

Though there are eight classical forms of Goddess Lakshmi, the common form in which She is worshipped is slightly different. In this form She is 2 or 4-armed, She is red-dressed and her complexion is golden yellow. She stands or sits on a fully bloomed lotus and holds a lotus bud in her hand. Her four arms bestows Dharma (The social Rules), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Desires) and Moksha (Salvation).

Gaja Lakshmi; terracotta; Charbangla temple, Baronagar; district Murshidabad.

Gaja Lakshmi; terracotta; Charbangla temple, Baronagar; district Murshidabad.

The Vahana or the Mount of Goddess Lakshmi

The gods and goddesses in Hinduism are described with their Vahana (vehicle or mounts) which are either an animal or a bird. There are all sorts of animals and birds which are ascribed the roles of Vahana to the gods. For example, Lord Shiva has Nandi, a bull as his Vahana; Lord Vishnu has Garuda, a half bird-half man creature, Lord Brahma has a swan as his Vahana, Goddess Durga has her lion, Goddess Saraswati has either a white swan or a peacock (very rarely a lion), Lord Ganesha a mouse, Lord Kartikeya a peacock, Lord Shani a vulture or crow etc.

Likewise, Goddess Laksmi has an owl as her Vahana, though outside Bengal in many areas of India the owl is not considered as the Vahana of Goddess Lakshmi, but a mere companion.

Again there is a controversy in this regard. Many say that the Owl is not the Vahana of Lakshmi, but rather of "Alakshmi", the reverse or dark side of the goddess Lakshmi.

The reason behind this is probably the fact that in many cultures around the world the owl is considered evil or unholy. In the Western culture the owl is often considered as the harbinger of Death. In Bengal, one particular owl (Brown Fish Owl, Bubo zeylonensis; "Bhutum Pyancha" in Bengali) is considered as the messenger of Death. The reason behind such beliefs is probably the peculiar habits of the bird. It is nocturnal, has a peculiar looking head and humanoid eyes and it has an almost extra-ordinary capacity of turning its head to a seemingly impossible angle of 270 degrees.

In Bengal, a particular type of owl is considered as the Vahana of Goddess Lakshmi. It is the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and called "Lakshmi Pyancha" in the vernacular.

A Barn Owl

A Barn Owl

The "Unholy" owl as the Vahana of Goddess Lakshmi

Those who accept the owl as the Vahana of Goddess Lakshmi say that :

1) If someone can adopt the qualities of the owl like being always alert, moving swiftly and silently, working at night while others sleep etc., one can have the blessing of the goddess.
2) The presence of an unholy bird with the goddess of Wealth means that it reminds all that along with wealth, some vices also come, and all should be careful and alert about those vices.

Ancient Western goddesses and the owl

The owl accompanies Athena, the ancient Greek goddess and Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess. Both Athena and Minerva were considered as the goddess of Knowledge and Intellect, just like our own goddess Vidya Lakshmi.

Goddess Lakshmi in Bengal temple decorations

In a small study involving about 60 temples of different districts of West Bengal, the presence of Goddess Lakshmi is analyzed.

The temples with Goddess Lakshmi in some form (alone, with Lord Vishnu or with Goddess Durga) under this study are from the following districts :

1. Bankura - 7 temples
2. Birbhum - 5 temples.
3. Hooghly - 6 temples.
4. Murshidabad - 2 temples
5. Paschim Bardhaman - 1 temple.
6. Purva Bardhaman - 2 temples.

Total - 23 temples (~ 38%)

Media

In the present study :

1) 2 cases are in stone work (Radha Krishna temple of Jagadanandapur, Purva Bardhaman district and a Shiva temple in Ganpur, district Birbhum).
2) 2 case are in stucco (Radheshyam temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura and a Shiva temple, Rajbalhat, district Hooghly).
3) 1 case is in Mural (Krishna Chandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly)
4) 23 cases are in terracotta plaque.

Goddess Lakshmi in a Durga panel standing on the right side of Goddess Durga; stone work; Radha krishna temple; Jagadanandapur, Purva Bardhaman district.

Goddess Lakshmi in a Durga panel standing on the right side of Goddess Durga; stone work; Radha krishna temple; Jagadanandapur, Purva Bardhaman district.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; stone work; Ganpur, district Birbhum.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; stone work; Ganpur, district Birbhum.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; stucco work; Radheshyam temple, Vishnupur, district Bankura.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; stucco work; Radheshyam temple, Vishnupur, district Bankura.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu on Garuda, the Vahana of Lord Vishnu; stucco work; Shiva temple; Rajbalhat, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi as a consort of Lord Vishnu on Garuda, the Vahana of Lord Vishnu; stucco work; Shiva temple; Rajbalhat, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi in mural; Krishna Chandra temple; Guptipara; district Hooghly

Goddess Lakshmi in mural; Krishna Chandra temple; Guptipara; district Hooghly

Goddess Lakshmi in different presentation

Goddess Lakshmi is depicted in the decorations of temples in Bengal chiefly in 3 forms :

A. With Lord Vishnu (8 cases with Lord Vishnu on Shesha Naga and in 1 case with Lord Vishnu on Garuda in this study).
B. With Goddess Durga (9 cases in this study)
C. Alone (6 in common form and 3 cases as Gaja Lakshmi in this study).

Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu

Goddess Lakshmi is the divine consort of Lord Vishnu. As Adi Lakshmi She is the chief driving Energy of Lord Vishnu.

In the decorations of temples in Bengal, Goddess Lakshmi is depicted with Lord Vishnu in 2 situations :

1. At the feet of Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga (Adi Shesha). Many temples have this scene in terracotta, stucco or stone work.

2. On the shoulder of Garuda, the half-man half-bird Vahana of Lord Vishnu accompanying the Lord. In the present study we have only 1 example of this, in a Shiva temple from Rajbalhat, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; Terracotta; Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura.

Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu who is lying on Shesha Naga; Terracotta; Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura.

Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu on Garuda; stucco; Rajbalhat, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu on Garuda; stucco; Rajbalhat, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi with Goddess Durga :

In Bengali culture, Goddess Lakshmi is considered as the daughter of Goddess Durga, and is seen accompanying Durga in different temples, in temple decorations and during Durga Puja, the biggest religious festival of Bengal.

Different temples display the image of Goddess Durga with Her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartikeya and Ganesha) in the wall decorations. These are mostly in terracotta plaques, but can be seen in other media too.
The largest terracotta panel of Goddess Durga with her children of Bengal can be seen in the Shiva-Durga temple of Bali-Dewangunj village of Hooghly district of West Bengal.

In these Durga panels, the owl is generally absent with Goddess Lakshmi. One notable exception is the terracotta Durga panel in the decoration of Gopinath temple of Dashghara, district Hooghly.

Largest terracotta Durga panel of West Bengal; Shiva-Durga temple; Bali-Dewangunj, district Hooghly

Largest terracotta Durga panel of West Bengal; Shiva-Durga temple; Bali-Dewangunj, district Hooghly

Goddess Lakshmi with her owl; terracotta Durga poanel; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi with her owl; terracotta Durga poanel; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Is Goddess Lakshmi the daughter of Goddess Durga?

Though Bengalis do believe that Goddess Lakshmi is the daughter of Goddess Durga, following facts negate this idea :

1. Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati are considered as three different aspects of the Primal Feminine Power and Goddess Durga is also a form of the same Primal Feminine Energy. So, Goddess Lakshmi cannot be the daughter of Goddess Durga, rather, they are the same.
2. Sometimes Goddess Maha Lakshmi is considered as a form of Goddess Durga. For example, the temple of Maha Lakshmi at Kolhapur, Maharashtra is a "Satipeetha", and as all "Satipeetha"-s are associated with legends of Goddess Durga, this is a proof that Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Durga are the same.
3. In Vishnu Purana, Goddess Lakshmi is said to be the daughter of the sage Bhrigu and his wife Khyati.
4. In the legend of "Samudra Manthana" (Churning of the Ocean) Goddess Lakshmi appeared from the depth of the ocean. For this reason She is often called "Sindhujaa' or "the Daughter of the Sea".

So, it appears that considering Goddess Lakshmi as the daughter of Goddess Durga is purely a Bengali tradition and belief.

Mahalakshmi of Kolhapur, Maharashtra, India

Mahalakshmi of Kolhapur, Maharashtra, India

Goddess Lakshmi alone in temple decorations

These are rather rare.

a) Goddess Lakshmi in her traditional or common form is seen alone in a few temples like :
1. In a mural in the Krishna Chandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly.
2. In a terracotta panel in the Raghunath Shiva temple in Ghurisha, district Birbhum (here the owl is absent).
3. In a terracotta panel in the Nandadulaljiu temple of Gurap, district Hooghly (here the owl is present).

b) As Gaja Lakshmi the goddess can be seen in the Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad; in a Shiva temple of Dubrajpur, district Birbhum and a slightly modified Gaja Lakshmi is seen in the Lakshmi-Janardan temple of Debipur, district Purva Bardhaman. All of these are in terracotta and without the owl.

Goddess Lakshmi alone with her owl; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Goddess Lakshmi alone with her owl; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Gaja Lakshmi; terracotta; Dubrajpur, district Birbhum

Gaja Lakshmi; terracotta; Dubrajpur, district Birbhum

Goddess Lakshmi with the owl

In the present study, only in 2 cases the owl is seen accompanying the goddess. Of these, one is in a Durga panel (Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly) and in the other Goddess Lakshmi is depicted alone with the owl (Nandadulaljiu temple of Gurap, district Hooghly).

Conclusion

Goddess Lakshmi in the decorations of temples in Bengal is a fascinating subject.

The number of temples analyzed in this study is rather small (about 60), so this study can be said a Pilot Study. A detailed study with more temples will definitely bring out more interesting findings.

* All photos are by the author.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

Related Articles