An epic battle
Imagine the anguish of the gods as the end of their reign neared. A seemingly invincible buffalo demon, Mahishasura, had already conquered the world and seemed poised for victory over the heavens. Could he be stopped? It seemed unlikely — Mahishasura had, after all, received a special gift from the god Brahma — an assurance that the demon could never be killed by man or god.
Just then, when all seemed lost, a great mass of blazing energy began to radiate from the gods. It moved and coalesced until finally, shakti (“force” in sanskrit—a formless energetic entity that is feminine and divine) materialized. She was a sight to behold: beautiful, strong, and riding a fierce lion, she was endowed with the weapons and the power of each of the gods.
The buffalo demon Mahishasura was quite sure that a woman could never defeat him and promptly proposed marriage. Her cool rejection led to battle and in the end, the goddess effortlessly pierced him with a trident, decapitated him, and sent his army scurrying. With the heavens and the world saved, the goddess promised to help the gods and the earth whenever she was needed.
The story of Mahishasuramardini (in Sanskrit: “crusher of Mahishasura”) is preserved in a devotional text from c. 600 C.E. titled the Devi Mahatmya (“Glory of the Goddess”) which exalts the divine feminine force shakti, also known as Mahadevi.
This episode, which recounts the deeds of the goddess Chandika (later known as Durga), a fierce warrior, is carved in an exquisite bas-relief panel inside a rock-cut cave temple known as Mahishasuramardini mandapa (hall) in the town of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu, India. 
Mamallapuram was an important port in the medieval period in the Pallava kingdom. It is well known for its temples and rock-cut monuments that were built by the Pallava rulers and date between the sixth and the eighth centuries C.E.
From the carved walls of Hindu temples, to manuscript paintings, murals, and contemporary art, Durga’s encounter with Mahishasura has been a popular subject among artists in South Asia and Southeast Asia for centuries. In temples and religious sculpture, she is often depicted as either calmly victorious standing on a decapitated buffalo head (as in the sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art) or in the act of killing a buffalo-headed figure from whose cut neck a demon in the form of a man emerges. The seventh-century sculptors in Mamallapuram chose to portray the battle just prior to the goddess’s triumph over the demon. 
Carved from stone
The Mahishasuramardini relief is located in a rectangular granite rock-cut cave dedicated to the god Shiva. The temple is carved from an enormous boulder that also carries the constructed (as opposed to rock-cut) Olakkanesvara temple on the rock’s summit. The cave temple is open to the east with four widely spaced columns, allowing light to enter (though the windowless shrines at the rear of the temple remain dark). Like many monuments at Mamallapuram, the Mahishasuramardini mandapa was left unfinished; note, for instance, how the stairs have been outlined but not carved on the exterior of the cave. 
The relief panel is large at a little over eight feet tall and nearly fifteen feet long. It is carved in a niche on the north side of the cave (that is, to your right as you enter the temple) and is a contrast to the equally large but far less dynamic panel opposite (image below). That panel, on the south side of the cave, shows the god Vishnu resting on the giant serpent Shesha. Here, Shesha protects Vishnu from the ill-will of the two figures on the far right side of the panel who hurriedly leave the scene.
Riding to victory
In opposition, the energetic spectacle of Mahishasuramardini is clearly a scene of battle. The sculptors cleverly manipulated the depth of the relief to convey the liveliness of the clash between good and evil; the modulation of shallow and deep carving allow the goddess and her army to materialize from the background, as if by surprise, while the buffalo demon and his army — all of whom are depicted as men — hasten their retreat. Mahisha, the seated soldier at the far bottom right of the niche, and the soldier above him who is running with a shield and sword, are carved so deeply that their exit from the battle, the relief, and even the temple itself, seems imminent.
The goddess is roughly life-sized and draws her bow as she steadies an implied arrow.  The weapons in her six other arms have been identified, in clockwise order:
- a sword
- a bell
- a wheel (or discus)
- a noose to restrain her enemies
- a conch shell
- a shield 
She is shown wearing a dhoti (cloth tied at the waist) — notice the hem just above the knee that delineates the garment — and a kuca bandha (breast band). Like the kuca bandha, the dhoti may have once carried patterned details, but this is no longer visible. Durga is also adorned with a distinct crown and jewelry including large earrings, necklaces, bangles, armlets, belt, and anklets, all of which demonstrate her divinity and royalty. Even the goddess’s vahana (vehicle), a lion, is beautifully ornamented with a mane of neatly demarcated ringlets.
Durga is surrounded by an entourage of several gana (small, male attendants) and a singularly remarkable female warrior at the bottom center who is raising her sword (see detail below). In addition to gana who support the goddess in battle, see for instance the moustached gana who stands beneath her foot and takes aim at the villains, again, with an implied arrow, and the others that appear at the ready with sword and shield, there are gana who underscore the goddess’s identity as both divine and royal. Two gana carry attributes signifying royalty (i.e., a parasol and a fly-whisk) above the goddess and another (at the top-left) flies into the scene holding a plate with offerings for Durga.
The scene is cleverly rendered; ganas sculpted in varying states of relief and sizes with their accessories, limbs, and torsos carefully angled, contribute to a sense that the attendants and Durga’s lion are in the process of emerging in force from the background. This exquisite engineering of space and volume has done much to convey the excitement of the scene—the lion appears to burst into battle and we can almost hear a ferocious roar escape his open mouth. The forward thrust of the winning side is facilitated by an arc at roughly the center of the panel.
Follow the curve of Durga’s bow to the torso of the falling figure with a shaven head to the pose of the kneeling warrior whose sword that falling figure is about to meet.
Dressed like the goddess in a dhoti and kucha bandha and with some jewelry, the warrior mirrors the calm and confident expression of the goddess. Individuality and strength in battle is portrayed in her magnificently rendered stomach.
The battle turns
The left knee of the kneeling warrior disappears behind the enormous foot of Mahishasura, which remains firmly pointed in the direction of the goddess’s camp; in the mind of the buffalo demon, the fight may yet be won. This hope is represented vividly: affected by the onslaught, Mahishasura’s left leg bends to flee, but he remains steady, holding his heavy club with both hands to continue the fight. He is dressed in princely attire with a dhoti and jewelry and his sharp buffalo horns sit beneath a crown. Mahishasura’s status is further emphasized with a parasol, although it is unclear which of his attendants carries that attribute over his head.
Just as the artists angled, foreshortened, and positioned the goddess’s entourage to convey the impression that the army was rushing into battle, the same devices are employed to foreshadow the failure of the demon army. Mahishasura’s bent knee, the elbow of the fallen figure behind him, and the seated pose of the collapsed soldier, angle away from the panel and, indeed, the temple. The expression of abject horror recorded on the face of the foreshortened figure of a fallen soldier as he lies dangerously close to his master’s giant foot similarly signals that the end of the battle nears.
In the devotional text Devi Mahatmya referred to above, the goddess manifests from within male gods and destroys demons with the weapons that she receives from those gods. By virtue of her gender and her beauty, she catches Mahishasura by surprise, for he does not believe that she is capable of his destruction. At Mamallapuram, the sculptors followed the standard formulae of artistic treatises in their depiction of the goddess as a model of perfect womanhood. And in Durga’s modest size, relative to that of the buffalo demon, they signaled the apparent impossibility of Mahishasura’s defeat.
But the masterful storytellers at Mamallapuram also made certain that there was not a doubt that the mighty Mahishasura would fall. In the assured attitude of the goddess and the ease with which she overwhelms Mahishasura and his army, we are reminded that without the goddess, all would have been lost.
- For more on shakti and Chandika see Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), pp. 387 – 392.
- While this penultimate moment is better described according to the scholars Vidya Dehejia and Gary Tratakov as Mahishasurasainyavadha (“the slaying of the armies of Mahishasura”), we follow the popular designation of Mahishasuramardini here. See Vidya Dehejia and Gary Tratakov, “Sharing, Intrusion, and Influence: The Mahiṣāsuramardinī Imagery of the Calukyas and the Pallavas,” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 45, No. 4 (1984), p. 291.
- The unfinished state did not affect the religious function of this site. A study of the phenomenon of unfinished shrines and an examination of the difference between usable and unusable unfinished monuments was recently published by art historian Vidya Dehejia and sculptor Peter Rockwell. See: The Unfinished: Stone Carvers at Work on the Indian Subcontinent (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2016).
- If depicted, the arrow would have crossed Durga’s face as she took aim at Mahishasura. It is left uncarved in an effort, on the part of the sculptor, not to obscure the face of the goddess.
- Dehejia and Tratakov, “Sharing,” p. 289.