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Durga Battling the Buffalo Demon


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In this sandstone sculpture from around 900 AD, the Hindu goddess Durga, from the Sanskrit word meaning “invincible,” is pictured at the very moment that she defeats Mahisha , a demon who thinks he has outsmarted the gods.

Mahisha had been a faithful devotee of Shiva , and from him had received a special boon — a promise that he could not be killed by man or god. But he became greedy and intoxicated with power, terrorizing people all across the land. The gods realized that he must stopped. Brahma , Vishnu , and Shiva concentrated their individual cosmic energies to create a new force, the goddess Durga. Being neither god nor man, she alone could defeat Mahisha. Many gods contributed weapons to assist Durga in her task.

When Mahisha heard news of this newly formed, radiant goddess, he wanted to marry her, but she refused. She told him that she could only marry someone who was strong enough to defeat her, and so the two prepared for battle. As they fought, Mahisha kept changing form, from lion to elephant, and finally to buffalo. Durga realized that the weapons the gods had given her were useless, and that she must use her own power to defeat the demon. She pounced upon Mahisha’s back, and the mere touch of her feet paralyzed the demon. Only then was she able to grab him by the throat and sink Shiva’s trident into his heart, the moment pictured here.

Click on highlighted areas of the sculpture to learn more.

Durga’s triumph over Mahisha, representing the triumph of good over evil, is celebrated annually in India, particularly in the West Bengal city of Kolkata, but also by Bengali communities in the United States. The Bengali Association of Greater Atlanta holds the largest Durga Puja , literally “the worship of Durga,” in the Southeast.

Click here or on the sidebar to learn about Durga Puja.


In her upper left hand, she holds a disc, a gift from Vishnu.


In her middle left hand, she holds a bow, a gift from Vayu.


In her upper right hand, lost in this sculpture, she holds a trident, a gift from Shiva, which can still be seen.


Images of Durga may have as many eighteen arms! The Carlos sculpture has six. Each would have held a weapon, a gift from one of the gods. Though some of the statue’s arms are lost, they might have held a conch shell from Varuna, a thunderbolt from Indra, and a lotus from Brahma.


With her lower right hand Durga reaches for an arrow in a quiver full of them, a gift from from Vayu.


Hindu gods are often pictured with animals called vahanas , from a Sanskrit word that means “that which carries.” Deities ride their vahanas throughout the cosmos. Ganesha’s vahana, or mount, is a rat; Shiva’s, a bull. Durga’s vahana is a lion. Here, the lion helps to defeat the demon Mahisha with a well-placed chomp!


Mahisha represents natural human desire that has become excessive and distorted into greed, as well as the illusion that having “more” will bring happiness.

Durga Puja

One of the largest and liveliest of Hindu religious festivals, Durga Puja is celebrated each fall, its exact dates determined by the lunar calendar. Traditionally in India, sculptures of the goddess, called murti , are constructed from bamboo, straw, and clay from the Ganges River and set up in temporary shrines called pandals in parks and other public places. For five days, Durga’s vanquishing of the buffalo demon is celebrated with fasting, feasting, prayers, and performances.

Every fall a high school gymnasium just north of Atlanta is transformed as the city’s large Bengali community celebrates Durga Puja. A beautiful pandal is constructed with a murti of the goddess vanquishing the demon. She is surrounded by murtis of four other gods. Click on each figure to find out more.

The elephant-headed god Ganesha is shown with his vahana, a rat. Ganesh is known as the “lord of new beginnings” and the “remover of obstacles” and, as such, is worshipped at the beginning of any puja.


Lakshmi , the goddess of wealth and good fortune, shown with her vahana, an owl.


Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, and art. She is shown dressed in white and standing on a lotus, both symbols of purity. She holds a stringed instrument called a veena. Notice the book and inkwell near her feet. She is accompanied by her vahana, a white swan.

A traditional hymn to Saraswati reads: May Goddess Saraswati, who is fair like the jasmine-colored moon, and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops, who is adorned in radiant white attire, on whose beautiful arm rests the veena, and whose throne is a white lotus, who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect me. May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance.


Kartikeya , the Hindu god of war and commander of the devas (gods), wields his bow and arrow and is accompanied by his vahana, a peacock.


The image of Durga in the Carlos Museum galleries, which probably came from the exterior of a temple, is bare stone, allowing viewers to appreciate the material and the artistry of the carving. In Hindu worship, however, the goddess is adorned with clothing, jewelry, and flower garlands.

But look closely and you will see that she is in exactly the same position as in the Carlos sculpture, her right knee raised as she holds the demon down with her foot. How many arms does she raise? What weapons does she hold?


The demon Mahisha, a shape-shifter, is shown in both his human and buffalo forms. Notice that Durga’s vahana, the lion, makes the same helpful chomp to the backside of buffalo demon here.

  • The beginning of worship is signaled by the blowing of the conch shell, drumming, and the ringing of bells.
  • A priest draws on the eyes of the deities, inviting them to inhabit the pandal.
  • Thousands of Bengalis in the Atlanta area, of all ages, dress in new clothes and gather to welcome the goddess
  • Over three days, they celebrate with communal meals, performances of music and dance, prayer, and ritual.
  • A priest leads the prayers and conducts the rituals, including Arthi , the offering of fire in the form of an oil lamp, to the deities.
  • Fresh flower petals are distributed to devotees who hold them in their hands as they recite prayers asking the goddess for blessings in the coming year.
  • The petals are then gathered together and placed on the pandal as an offering to the goddess.
  • In addition to flowers, fresh fruits and traditional Indian sweets are offered to the deities and blessed.
  • The blessed ritual offerings, called Prasad, are then distributed to devotees who accept and consume them as blessings from the gods.

In India, at the end of the festival, the sculptures of the deities are submerged in the waters of sacred rivers (visarjan). In Atlanta, the murtis, which have been created by artists in India and shipped to the US, are carefully stored and reused the next year.

Site Credits

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University
571 South Kilgo Circle