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Kali as the Supreme Deity
India (Himachal Pradesh, Chamba?)
Ca. 1800
Pigments on paper
6 7/8 x 10 7/8 in (17.4 x 27.6 cm)

This is a remarkable picture in that it not only unambiguously demonstrates the supremacy of the goddess Kali but gives an unusual form of the deity. She is seated on a throne in a flowering green meadow. In the foreground flows the river Ganga, which descends from the hair of Shiva, who forms one leg of the golden throne. Wearing a snake as a necklace, Shiva sits on an elephant skin. The other three legs of the throne are formed by the figures of Vishnu with his usual attributes, the four-headed Brahma, and Indra, with multiple eyes on his body. Thus there is no doubt about who is in control.

The goddess herself shows some unusual features. She is, of course, black like Kali but not beautiful. Her large, pendulous breasts, her distinctive Afro hairdo, the tiny eyes, and the white crescent moon outlining her face distinguish her from standard forms of Kali. She also wears a yellow dhoti.

However, like Kali she wears a garland of severed heads and has four arms with the same attributes, although they are disposed in the reverse order. The severed head is in the upper right and the sword in the lower, while the upper left hand exhibits the gesture of charity and the lower that of assurance. At first sight, the posture of the goddess seems unusual, but, in fact, it is the classic position for giving birth and is encountered in early Indian art in images of other iconographic forms of goddesses both in India and Nepal (see Pal 1986A, p.141, no. 520, for a first-century B.C. example). It is also the posture in which Kali sometimes straddles Shiva, when he is supposed to be a corpse (sava), the appropriate seat (asana) in heroic (virachara) tantric praxis (Rawson 1971, no. 204).

all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

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