Queen or goddess?

Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati, Chola Dynasty (reign of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi), 10th century, bronze, 107.3 x 33.4 x 25.7 cm (Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, F1929.84) Speakers: Dr. Emma Natalya Stein, Curatorial Fellow for Southeast Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re standing in the Freer Gallery of Art, in a room that features a fabulously beautiful sculpture of the Hindu goddess Uma.

Dr. Emma Natalya Stein: [0:15] In India, gods all have bodies. They have a formless form, but they also have what’s known as a manifestation, a kind of embodied presence that’s represented like a beautiful, perfected human being.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] It makes sense to show a divine figure as ideally beautiful, as perfect.

Dr. Stein: [0:37] Look at her slender waist, the way that her clothing clings around her legs and gives her this intensely physical form. It’s also a royal image in that she has all of this jewelry. She wears a necklace, a sacred thread around her torso, armlets, bangles, rings on fingers and toes.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] She stands in a position that seems relaxed and confident. There’s something very serene about her expression.

Dr. Stein: [1:13] She’s standing in this gently swayed position known as a tribhangha or three-bend pose.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] Here we are in the Chola period in the south of India.

Dr. Stein: [1:25] During this time, this kind of idealization of the human form to depict a deity in bronze reached an incredible level of expertise and popularity.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] The Chola dynasty is known for commissioning these bronze images of deities. We find them prominently placed in their temples.

Dr. Stein: [1:46] Just before the year 1000, one queen, Sembiyan Mahadevi, was responsible for converting many temples from brick and wood into the more durable and more costly material of stone.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] So Sembiyan’s very pious, very devout, and commissioning and endowing temples at a scale which was unprecedented. We know from written sources that Sembiyan’s birthday was celebrated in the village that was named for her.

Dr. Stein: [2:21] There is an inscription in Sembiyan Mahadevi on a beautiful temple that was sponsored by the queen herself that mentions provisions for using a portrait sculpture of the queen donated to the temple by Rajaraja I.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] There’s some interesting recent scholarship about the figure that we’re looking at that suggests there may be a blurring of lines here between the goddess and the queen.

Dr. Stein: [2:51] Mahadevi means “great goddess,” so already in her name, there’s a conflation between this queen and the divine.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] The label on the base that the sculpture stands on says “Goddess or Queen;” in a way she’s both.

Dr. Stein: [3:07] There are certain features in this particular image of Uma that are atypical and that suggest that this might in fact be that very bronze portrait of Sembiyan.

[3:20] Indian gods and goddesses typically have more square shoulders. The way that her torso tips forward with that sense of presence and liveliness is also unusual.

[3:34] She has a relative restraint that sets her apart from other figures of Uma. Even her jewelry is relatively limited.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] So here we seem to have a blurring of the lines between the divine Uma and this beloved, very pious, very devout, very generous queen.

Dr. Stein: [3:58] Some of the reason that she was so loved comes from her patronage of temples, which created jobs for people in the villages.

[4:08] She also sponsored irrigation networks that helped to water the rice paddy fields that were people’s livelihoods.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] We can see that she was likely carried, because we’ve got these apertures on the base where poles would have been inserted for her to have been carried and processed, and dressed with silks, with jewelry, with flowers.

[4:33] So we have to imagine her very different than the way that we’re seeing her today in the museum. This was a sculpture that had a life in the community that is very different than the way that we see her reverentially isolated in the museum galleries.

Dr. Stein: [4:47] The inscription that describes the festivities for her birthday talk about this practice of dressing her, ornamenting her with gold jewelry and gems and pearls. Her earlobes would have been decorated with real earrings.

[5:04] Everything that’s cast on her body as an ornament would also be overlaid with a real ornament. The purpose of this kind of a procession is so that the maximum number of people can receive the blessings of the divine.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] It was incredibly important to see and be seen.

Dr. Stein: [5:22] In Hindu belief, the mutual exchange of gazes between the human and the divine is the way that blessing is conferred. There’s a word for that. It’s “darshan.” And this is a practice that’s still very much in play in India today.

[5:36] The experience of a procession was multisensory. There are flower offerings. There’s incense burning. There’s song. There’s music.

Dr. Harris: [5:45] So although we’re not seeing her the way that she would have been seen at around the year 1000, we do get to have this really close-up view.

Dr. Stein: [5:54] We’re lucky that we get to see this bronze in such a remarkable condition, preserved here in the Freer. Though it’s not serving the same kind of purpose that she once did, she is here as a remarkable testament to the sophistication of bronze casting, artistic creation, and beauty that was valued in the Chola period.

[6:19] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Emma Natalya Stein, Freer Gallery of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Queen or goddess?," in Smarthistory, December 18, 2019, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/queen-or-goddess/.