early-mid 12th century, Hoysala dynasty. Karnataka, India. Collection National Gallery of Australia. Purchased with the assistance of Pauline and John Gandel, 2011. On display, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
ONE of the most remarkable characteristics of the Hindu religion is the importance and popularity of goddess worship. The Hindus believe there are millions of goddesses, each with her own origin myth, iconography and style of worship.
There are wild, destructive goddesses and there are regal, calm, beautiful goddesses. One of the most significant of the latter is Sarasvati, the beloved goddess of arts, wisdom and learning, whose beginnings can be traced to the Vedic period.
Sarasvati is a serene and ancient form of the great Mother Goddess or Devi. She is also the consort of Brahma, the powerful Hindu god of creation. Sarasvati is more popular than her husband, and there is even a story that explains why he is out of favour thanks to his wife. Proving that the gods in Hinduism sometimes have strangely human qualities, a Hindu legend holds that Sarasvati was supposed to go to a special event with Brahma, but she was late and so he took someone else. In response, she cursed him with unpopularity.
Sarasvati’s name, which means ‘‘ the watery’’ or the ‘‘ flowing one’’, refers to her origins as a sacred river. The Sarasvati River no longer exists but Hindus believe it still flows underground. The goddess is also revered in the Jain and Buddhist traditions of India.
A sculpture of Sarasvati is one of the highlights of the Asian collection at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia. It was acquired in 2011 with the support of Melbourne couple Pauline and John Gandel, who also gave the gallery a gift of $7.5 million in 2010.
Looking at the sculpture with the gallery’s curator of Asian art, Melanie Eastburn, it is evident that Sarasvati’s imposing beauty and multiple arms represent her divine nature. She is adorned with lavish jewellery and seated cross-legged on an elaborate throne. She has four hands and each holds a symbolic feature: an elephant goad to nudge humankind towards virtuous living, a garland of beads for devotion, a noose showing that earthly desires are destructive and holding us back, and a palm-leaf manuscript signifying wisdom and knowledge.
The sculpture was created in south India for the Hoysala dynasty during the 12th century, a period renowned for its rich and intricate ornamentation. The Hoysala style was very different from any other in India, explains Eastburn, because of the intricacy made possible by the type of stone used.
The elaborate carving of Hoysala sculptures was achieved through the use of chloritic schist, a fine-grained stone that is moderately pliant when freshly quarried. Thanks to the nature of the stone, more detail is achievable than with most other types of stone, and then, across time, the stone hardens and becomes darker.
The Sarasvati sculpture would probably have been placed in a niche on the outside of a Hoysala temple along with other figures of goddesses and gods. The Hoysala temples, more than 100 of which still stand, are, like their sculptures, extraordinarily detailed and opulent, further evidence of how the Hoysala were great supporters of the visual arts.
Eastburn says Hindu goddesses are really interesting and significant, and that it is important to realise that images of goddesses in Hindu art are not a representation, or a stone depiction; they are the real goddess. So if you ask Sarasvati for assistance, you are asking her directly.
‘‘ This sculpture of Sarasvati is really overtly beautiful and I really fell in love with it; it is a great contribution to our collection,’’ Eastburn says. ‘‘ The Hoysala style is so perfect for a really beautiful goddess to have this fine, intricate gorgeousness around her.’’
Chloritic schist stone, 91cm x 58cm x 27.3cm