Starting from the entrance and beginning the ritual ambulation clockwise around the temple, the devotee would first reach the northern side of the temple. In the small northern room, which would originally have had wooden doors, would have stood the image of the goddess Durga. At a certain point in the history of this goddess, she became associated with Shiva. Hence, in medieval Indian texts, she is sometimes said to be an aspect of Parvati, Shiva’s wife. She clearly has this function in the context of a Javanese temple.

Statue of Durga

The Singosari Durga does not stand alone: she is accompanied by a dwarf-like figure and a reclining buffalo. This representation is the most common iconographic form of the goddess. In this form she is known as Mahishasuramardini, ‘the one who killed the buffalo demon’. Many texts relate the birth of Durga and her fight with Mahisha. A well-known version is related in the Devimahatmyam, an Indian text thought to date from the sixth century.

The Singosari Durga is shown with eight arms. She must have held the weapons given to her by Shiva and the other gods, as in this text, but unfortunately her hands are badly damaged. Only three are relatively well preserved: one is holding the tail of the buffalo, the second Yama’s shield and the third is placed on the dwarf’s head. Both given the position of her arm and through a comparison with other Javanese sculptures of Durga, one can speculate that her upper right hand was holding Vishnu’s discus (cakra).

Two images of Durga – one from Candi Jawi, housed in the Museum Mpu Tantular (Surabaya) and another from Singosari, now at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta – appear quite similar to our Durga in terms of style, geographical placement and age. The three sculptures share unusual features, rarely found on earlier or later representations of Durga, such as the widely spread knees and the hand delicately placed on the dwarf’s head. Based on a comparison of these sculptures we may conclude that the Singosari Durga was presumably holding a sword (khadga), an arrow (bana), a conch shell (shankha) and a bow (dhanus) in her missing hands.

Statue of Durga (RMV)Statue of Durga (MNI)Statue of Durga from Candi Jawi
From left to right: statues of Durga from the collections of RMV, MNI and Museum Mpu Tantular

The Singosari sculpture clearly represents the last episode of Durga’s great battle with Mahisha, the buffalo demon. She has climbed in victory onto the back of the buffalo and is holding its tail. The bleeding wound on the buffalo’s neck shows that he has already been pierced by the goddess’s spear. He is depicted with a hanging tongue, taking his last breath. The dwarf figure can be identified as Mahisha regaining his true form.

Here, the Javanese sculpture differs from the text: Mahisha is not half-emerged, as described in the Devimahatmyam, but has regained his full human form. Instead of fighting and trying to behead the asura, Durga appears to be gently caressing his head. This gesture seems typical of the Singosari period. The depiction of Mahisha is also unusual. He is not the enraged asura still fighting the goddess, as described by the Devimahatmyam. There are no traces of the sword and the shield that he is often holding in other Javanese representations. With his right hand he is even making the gesture known as the abhayamudra (the gesture of the absence of fear).

Durga is also not depicted as the laughing goddess with her eyes reddened by the divine potion described in the Devimahatmyam. Her face seems serene, her eyes half closed, as if meditating. The expression of the goddess and the asura may indicate that the story should not be taken literally, but metaphorically. The goddess does not fight a frightening, non-human creature; she is the truth, while the buffalo is a metaphor for ignorance and men’s over-dimensioned ego. She is the path towards redemption. She has killed Mahisha’s inner demon so that he can be at peace.

Her serene facial expression contrasts with the richness of her dress. Her clothes, just like those of Nandishvara and Mahakala, are delicately patterned and carved with great care and in minute detail. They are similar to those of the door guardians: she wears a long loincloth, a short loincloth around this, and a short sleeveless jacket, as is typical of the sculptures at Candi Singosari.

The patterns on her clothes are similar – but not identical – to those on Nandishvara’s jacket: a succession of flowers with diamond-shaped floral designs in between. The flowers on the short loincloth are inscribed in circles, while those on the jacket are loose. The long loincloth, only the lower part of which is visible, is covered with a pattern of diamonds. Within the diamonds flowers alternate with what look like floral bulbs. The loincloth is held on the hips by a sash. A second sash hangs loosely down to the goddess’s knees.

Despite the apparent minuteness of the carving of the garments, not all details are exact. The central fold of the loincloth, for example, which should logically pass behind the upper loincloth, is partly carved above it. In addition, one of the floral motifs on the long loincloth (at the bottom, near Durga’s left leg) is not inscribed within a diamond-shaped frame as the others are.

Great care was also taken with the jewellery which resembles gold jewellery discovered in Central and East Java. The goddess wears an elaborate tiered headdress, on which one can see a skull and a crescent moon, symbols of Shiva. In addition to the heavy ear pendants, the armlets, the bracelets, the necklace, the belt buckle and the foot straps, she also wears a waist band, two chains, anklets and a belt.

Her waist band is adorned with human heads, a detail quite unusual in representations of Durga, which foreshadows the goddess’s demonization as seen in later East Javanese art and described in contemporaneous literature. Her necklace also includes this motif of severed heads and, if one looks closely at her dress, the floral motifs sometimes alternate with the skull motif. The thick cord hanging from her left shoulder and her double anklets are also covered by a motif imitating snakeskin, another detail pointing to the same development.