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Victorious Durga
Javanese Images of the Hindu Goddess
who Conquered the Buffalo Demon

by Krista Knirck-Bumke

June 03, 2004

Durga Figures in the Museum Nasional, Jakarta

The Museum Nasional has 32 Durga sculptures on display. They originate from various areas in Java dating from the 7th to the 15 th century, the Hindu-Buddhist period in the history of the Indonesian archipelago. The figures broadly come from three different areas of Java:

  1. West Java: 4 statues, which are the earliest found so far: Cirebon (7thto 8th century, No. 5428), Preanger (8th to 9th century, No. 139), and Bandung (9th to 10th century, No. 151 and No. 149, which has no date).

  2. Central Java: 17 statues plus 3; 9 statues dating from the 8th to the 10th century (No. 129, 153, 153a, 133a, 133b, 5547, 128, 127) and a group of 8 statues without dates but most likely from the same period. (No. 127a, 130, 133, 135, 136, 137, 140, 143, 152).
    A set of 3 figures from the 8thto 9th century the origin of which is unknown (No. 5511, 5512, 131) can be ascribed to the Central Javanese group due to their characteristics and age.

  3. East Java: 8 statues dating from the 12th to 15th century (No. 153b, 153c, 153d, 153e, 147, 146, 126d, 144 not dated).



All the images of the goddess Durga in Java exhibit the same basic features by which they can easily be identified. (No. 5512) The goddess is standing very relaxed in various poses on the back of a buffalo cowering under her feet. She is adorned with heavy jewellery and has numerous arms; 4, 6, 8 and occasionally 10. She holds various attributes (conch, fly whisk, flower a.o.) (Detail No.130) and weapons (chakra, bow and arrow, trident, sword a.o.) and controls the buffalo by his tail. Close to the buffalo’s head arises a small, dwarf-like figure; the goddess either grabs the figure by its hair or touches its head, a humiliating gesture in Javanese eyes.


Durga Mahisasuramardini; The Myth

In Hindu cosmological perception Durga is one of the manifestations of Sakti, the female cosmic force and energy that creates and supports the visible world. Sakti is worshipped in order to maintain the cycles of life and to attain enlightenment and deliverance. Sakti can take on the form of various goddesses who represent the vital and creative potency of the highest gods in the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon. So Sakti appears as goddess Lakshmi, Parvati, Durga and Tara among others. All the goddesses are endowed with a variety of characteristics, attributes and special powers. The fierce and destructive form of Sakti is Durga Mahisasuramardini, literally ‘the one who crushes Asura Mahisa’, that is the demon with a buffalo appearance. Although in Hindu perception Durga is generally understood to be the wife of the god Shiva, she never appears as his consort in pictorial representations. Whereas in India she always was and still is worshipped today in temples of her own, Durga in Java is exclusively found in candis dedicated to the god Shiva. The most famous temple in Java is the Candi Lara Jonggan of Prambanan, where one of the most outstanding Durga figures is still in place in the northern niche of the temple.

The myth of Durga Mahisasuramardini is rooted in village traditions in India in early historical times and later appears in many versions in the numerous Puranas, the narrative literature in India written during the early periods of Indian history. The most important Purana related to the stories of the great goddess is the Devi Mahatmya, which is part of the Markandeya Purana, written between the 5thand 6th century. The following is a condensed account of the myth:

The world was once conquered by the great demon Mahisa with his armies of asuras, demons who conquered the world and defeated even the great gods. Upset and at a loss the gods sent out Brahma to meet the highest gods Vishnu and Shiva, who became violently angry when they heard what had happened. Out of the flames of their anger the goddess Durga emerged. Created by the united energy of the gods, she was then equipped with weapons from them all : a trisula (trident) from Shiva; chakra from Vishnu; sword and shield from Kala, the god of time and death; noose and conch from Varuna, the god of waters; Agni, the god of fire gave his spear; Indra gave his vajra (thunderbolt); and the god of the winds, Vayu, his bow and arrow. Finally, she was dressed and adorned with jewellery from the mythical milk ocean.

Thus equipped , the goddess laughed so terrifically that the whole world started trembling. The earth bent under her feet, her crown touched the sky, the underworld vibrated with the sound of her bow and her arms extended in all directions throughout the world. The battle began against the army of asuras, and when they had been defeated the great demon Mahisa himself entered the scene in the form of a buffalo.

He overcame the army of the goddess, he crushed the earth, toppled over the mountains and rent the clouds with his horns. With his tail he whipped the ocean so that it flooded the earth. Durga used the noose to finally catch the buffalo, whereupon he adopted human form, then during the battle transformed himself into one animal after another, until in the end he became a buffalo again. Durga, delirious from a narcotic drink, knocked the buffalo down with the trisula, and finally decapitated it. Mahisa then emerged from the severed neck of the buffalo in human form once more.


Durga Statues in Java

The very dramatic story of Durga’s battle with the demons has been retold in many versions. Looking at the depiction of the story in the statues of Java the question is, which version backs the form of these images.

There are basically two different renderings (of five existing in the Indian art tradition) in which the Javanese Durgas are shown. The earlier one is a dramatic depiction of the helpless buffalo who has his haunches raised high as his tail is pulled up by the goddess, and the demon is controlled by the lower hand on her other side. (No. 139)The later rendition depicts Durga standing calmly in various postures on the quietly reclining buffalo with the asura placed either beside or above his head. She holds up the buffalo’s tail , while pulling the asura by his hair or just touching his head. Although in both cases the trio of goddess, buffalo and small demon points to the story of the dramatic events, hardly any traces of the cosmic battle can be recognised in the Javanese sculptures. None of them shows signs of the fight from which the goddess emerges so triumphantly. In some of the sculptures (No. 139, 131, 127) she sticks the trisula into the animal’s back ; this is a slightly more aggressive gesture, but is more reminiscent of an act of domestication of cattle than of war. The majority of Durga statues show a very relaxed and serene figure without any traits of violence. Durga often smiles and has her eyes half closed as in meditation. (No. 133)




The first type of Durga scene, in which the bufalo’s haunches are held dramatically high, appeared in India around the 4th to 5th century, although without the human form of the demon. The oldest example that has been found is in Udayagiri where the buffalo is held up by his leg. In South India the buffalo is hoisted up by the tail instead of the leg, and this seems to be the model for the West Javanese examples of this type (No. 139: Preanger 8th 9thcentury and No. 151: Bandung 9th-10th century). The convention of holding the buffalo up by the tail has been maintained in almost all the statues in Java, but without any dramatic aspect in the later versions.

The second type of Durga scene, showing the buffalo lying under the feet of the goddess, follows the story from the Devi Mahatmya Purana and became popular in India around the 8th century. The transformation of Mahisa into human form is an important new aspect of the story. Indian images depict the scene with a decapitated buffalo from whose neck the demon emerges. Whereas in the various early narrations the Mahisasura is seen as the threatening enemy, later on, especially in the Kalika Purana he is also understood as a devotee of Shiva with a Shivlinggam around his neck. Although in principle Durga was thought to be right to kill him, in some later stories she has to undergo ritual repentance for having done this to a devotee of Shiva. The images tend to show the buffalo in a less harmful way since he is now also seen as being related to Shiva’s riding mount, the bull Nandi. The asura in this context is turned into a little gnome who quietly sits on the buffalo’s neck.

The Durga sculptures at the Museum Nasional are fully based on this peaceful rendition, those from Central Java as well as the early figures from East Java. In the later East Javanese iconography a significant change takes place where Durga is turned into a fierce and demon-like threatening image.


Historical Perspective

Hinduism and Buddhism were adopted by Javanese leaders and rulers during the 6th to 8th century (Sanjaya and Sailendra dynasties). The Borobudur temple (7th to 8th century) is mostly Buddhist and the slightly later Prambanan temple complex (8th to 9th century) returns to the Hindu realm of gods. Throughout these four centuries the two religions from India existed in parallel in Java, partly as separate cults and partly as a very specific syncretic combination, which incorporated indigenous beliefs about ancestors, demons and spiritual powers as well. The main reason for the adoption of Hinduism and Buddhism in South East Asia was to enhance and secure the power of the local rulers. In Java this was achieved with the intensive practice of tantric rituals where both Shivaite and Buddhist images were used together as an even more powerful instrument between opponents battling for power and control.

Durga in her fierce form as Mahisasuramardini arose as part of the Shivaite religion. In the Lara Jonggan complex at Prambanan, which is dedicated to Shiva, she is situated in the northern niche as in Indian temple sites.

In the Indian tradition Saktism -although embedded in the cults of gods- has always kept an independent role with its own places of worship. In Java however there is no hint that Durga has been associated with a more independent cult as a goddess. No temple dedicated to Durga has been found so far. Although Durga came in the company of the Shiva cult to Java she has never been depicted as consort of Shiva nor was she used as an idol representing a deceased queen, as was often the case with Parvathi or Prajnaparamita.

Unfortunately there are no early written sources on the mythology and worship of Durga in Java. An inscription from the 11th century mentions the story of King Airlangga (1019-1045) who went into the forest to worship Durga in order to win her support in an upcoming battle. Therefore the numerous statues of Durga are the only testimony to her importance for worshippers of Hindu gods in Central and East Java.

Later, whereas Parvathi remained the ideal wife and donor of fertility and worldly well-being, Durga as fierce protector of the world underwent a transformation of character into an image that expresses mainly the fearsome aspects of divine forces. This metamorphosis took place gradually during the height of Majapahit power in East Java and became stronger during the decline of Hindu influence in Java (15th-16th century), when by the end of the Majapahit period the remains of Shivaite Hinduism were driven eastward through Java and on to Bali, while the centre of political power in Java shifted to the Muslim Sultanates on the north coast. Durga finally became the guardian of the cremation grounds and cemeteries, where she continues to dwell as a dreadful demoness in the realm of death.


Durga Sculptures in the Museum Nasional

Group 1: West Java and North coast
(No. 5428, 139, 148, 151, 153)

Each of these goddesses has a slender figure, with 8 arms; legs are slightly bent and in one case placed apart (No.153). The sculptures depict a lively scene.

The arms in No. 139 (see picture above), each holding a weapon, fan out around a tall, short-waisted figure. The small head with conical headgear is severely weathered. The buffalo is just about to be defeated, the trisula piercing his haunches, and his head already touching the ground. The demon turns away from the goddess.

No.151 is similarly dramatic as the goddess holds up the buffalo by his tail with her left lower hand, and his head is crushed at her feet. She is smiling cheerfully while somehow comfortingly touching the head of the little dwarf under her right hand. The dwarf is gazing down at the defeated buffalo.

The figure from Brebes/Tegal (no 153), one of the few Javanese sculptures with 10 arms, has an interesting, very high headdress with several tiers, similar to that in No. 143 and 133b. All these statues are severely weathered, and some are damaged.

Group 2: Central Java, North Coast/Semarang
(No. 127a, 133, 129, 5511(without record.), 5512 (without record)






The three figures from Semarang (No. 127a, 133, 129) illustrate the transition from the west and coastal Javanese style to the central Javanese style. Whereas in No. 127a the arrangement of arms almost in a circle shows similarities to Group 1, the static posture of the goddess and undramatic rendering of the buffalo and the little demon express an altogether different view. The high headgear of this figure, the beautiful long hair and jewellery, together with a totally serene facial expression, transmit an overall sense of confidence of victory. This characteristic is further brought out in the other figures from Semarang which show the goddess very much at ease, standing with a slightly bent leg (tribhangga) on the buffalo’s back (No. 133 and 129). The raised right arm and the bent body posture convey the gracefulness of a dancer. The plentiful ornamentation with crown, necklaces, armlets, bracelets and anklets, many heavy girdles and a richly decorated sacred cord running between her breasts (channavira) reveal her power as a goddess. In contrast to the statues in Group 1, the outline of the body is stout and well-built, her feet are broad. With a rather short skirt ending above her ankles, the figure reverberates an altogether rural background. Two more statues of this same style (No. 5511 and 5512), differ slightly from the other figures from coastal central Java, exhibiting a much more lively posture.

Group 3: Central Java, Borobudur area
(No. 135, 140, 143 (all Magelang); No. 128, 131 and 5547; No. 130, 133a, 127, 133b)


The first group of six statues is close in style to the preceding one. One of the three Durgas from Magelang (No. 135) and figure 128, both very compact sculptures, show the demon coming out of the severed neck of the buffalo, as in some Indian representations. The dwarf-like demon in sculpture No. 140 (Magelang) has an outsized hair bun, and No. 143 (Magelang) like No. 5547 shows the goddess without sacred cord but with a very elaborate hairdo (see Group 1). Also remarkable in this group is No. 131 (see above), which has a back plate decorated with arabesques. For all the figures it can be observed that the proportions between buffalo and goddess are not realistic; the animal is modelled within the width of the goddess’ outstretched arms. The sculptors worked each figure out of a single stone, which most likely had to fit into a specific place within the temple architecture.

The second group of four Durgas includes a Durga from Kedu (No. 130) holding a demon with remarkable curly hair which is more often found as typical of temple guardian figures at that time. The other one is from Banyumas (No. 133a) with similar characteristics, but the little demon protects his head with a shield.





Very different from the preceding figures, and dating one or two centuries later than most of the others , are the Durga from Borobudur dating from the 9th-10th century (No. 127) and the one from Klaten (No. 133b). The depiction of these Durgas is much more slender, their appearance is in every way much more noble and refined. In No. 127 the jewellery is not as opulent, and she stands straight but at ease with a face as in meditation. The buffalo under her small feet is not so cramped, but is larger and more realistically depicted. The arms of the goddess are kept rather close to her body and spread out from the elbows like two fans. The demon is comparatively much smaller, looking like a naughty child trying to step out from the picture.

Group 4: Central Java, Dieng Plateau
No. 136, 137, 152



These three statues originate from the Dieng Plateau, a very fertile area in central Java which is 2000m high. The oldest temple relicts give testimony of the earliest Hindu cults in Java, although it is not clear which ritual function they had in this very remote and most of the time misty place. None of the three statues are dated. The stout and rather short figures stand in a very straight and stiff (abhangga) position, one with 10 and the others with 8 arms. Each demon is placed under the left arm on top of the buffalo’s head and is turned outward. The goddess wears the usual high hairdo and lots of jewellery, the channavira parting to both sides and the girdles falling down symmetrically over a short loincloth. The additional pairs of arms unfold from behind the elbow, and all the arms are arranged in the same way on both sides. The very delicately carved statue No. 136 and the much more weathered No. 137 have decorated halos. The proportions in these sturdy, compact statues are rather unbalanced, the body of the goddess being rather small in relation to her head and the buffalo reduced to a very small crouched animal.

Group 5: East Java
No. 144, 146, 147, 153a, 153b, 153c, 153d, 153e





The rigid posture of the statues from the Dieng Plateau is taken up by some of the East Javanese figures which are even more sturdy (153a, 153b, 153e, 144). The hairdo is different in style, not as high and rather round, and on both sides of the face the hair and earrings fall decoratively down over the shoulder (No. 153b). Two statues have only 4 arms and one only 6.

Two other statues have a distinctly different style. One (No. 144) shows a very basic level of craftsmanship, the garments and decoration being very minimalist and rough. The other one (No. 146) on the contrary is very refined and intricate, similar to the Durga in Leiden, and likewise originates from Singasari. Unfortunately the head and upper back plate is cut off. But the rest shows a female figure in a long garment, held by several long girdles and a large chastity plate covering her abdomen. The skirt falls in regular folds over her ankles while her legs are slightly bent and stand apart, one on the back and one on the head of the buffalo. The mahisa (buffalo) is decorated as well, with flowered bands across its body, a decorated plate on its forehead and rings around its horns. The little demon squats behind the buffalo’s head; he too is adorned and his head covered with thick curly hair, while his right hand shows the gesture of fearlessness (abhaya mudra). The proportions of the sculpture are much more balanced and the whole setting much wider than in the other statues.


Finally, three statues from this group indicate a change in the perception of the goddess in Java. Unfortunately there are no written sources to underline, describe and explain this change. In figure 153d from Kediri, the same features as in the above mentioned statues from Kediri and elsewhere in East Java can be identified, but unexpectedly the hairdo looks rather wild and the facial expression is no longer graceful or serene. Another Durga from Kediri from about the same time ( No. 153c) has even wilder, more untidy hair; unfortunately her face has been damaged, although one might suspect a more angry face from the remaining traces. The symmetrically spread out four arms are almost fully covered with heavy armlets. The oval back plate has floral decorations on both sides, which provide the sculpture with a very strong and powerful aura.

Finally, the characteristics of a fierce, threatening goddess are clearly visible in the Durga from Bojonegoro (No. 147). This densely packed sculpture is very different from the rest. Durga is dressed in layers of tightly wrapped sarongs kept in place with several belts, one ending on two sides of the folded seam. A sacred cord (uphavita) in the form of intertwined snakes falls down to the knee. Heavy armlets enhance the powerful impression, as does the wild hairstyle. The whole background is filled with fluttering cloths, and the edges of the back plate are decorated with a ray-like cornice, typical of the Majapahit style. Above all, Durga’s facial expression is characterized by fangs which mark her clearly as a demonic goddess. Compared to the powerful appearance of the goddess the buffalo under her feet is very tiny and rather meek and the demon looks like a harmless little gnome, a remarkable contrast with the potent image of the goddess.


The “Javanisation” of Durga Mahisasuramardini

Detail 152

The general outline of the Javanese Durga figures shows a certain uniformity, despite the great diversity in details. As a goddess, Durga has always been associated with Shiva in the Javanese context, but nothing is known of how the story was handed down within the community of worshippers. Since the variety of depictions of Durga in the Indian context is much greater one can assume that only very few examples were available to the Javanese artists. They applied certain iconographic prescriptions for images of divine nature in general (high headdresses, lots of jewellery, multiple arms, sacred cord) to the Durga figures. In one case (Detail No. 152 oben) a lion, the the riding mount of Durga, has been included on top of the buffalo, a very unusual feature which has been found in only one other statue in Java. However, the number of arms and the array of attributes in her hands, as well as the addition of the buffalo and demon, are typical only of Durga images. But nothing is known of how the story was received and further passed on within the tradition of the time. We can see only the adaptation that takes place on the iconographic level. We can however assume that the specific power and function which has been ascribed to the goddess and for which she was venerated, finds its local expression in this type of serene, superior and relaxed figure. The mostly half closed eyes, a feature that is never found in Indian images where the worshipper always comes to see and be seen (darshan), may also support this assumption.

The emergence of the fierce (kroda) form of Durga in East Java in the 13th century indicates another kind of adaptation within the Hindu-Buddhist context of the time. Various tantric cults are known to have been popular within the leadership and royal families. In order to gain or preserve power and control over their subjects, tantric rituals were used to enhance the charisma of kings and leaders. These included the use of magic rituals and ritual slaughter, narcotic drinks and nightly performances in graveyards. Shiva in his dreadful form, called Bhairava, presided over these rituals and his female companion was Durga; even Ganesh, believed to be his son, had a role to play in them. Durga in her dreadful form in India is Kali, with a sacred cord made from skulls, wild hair and canine teeth, among other characteristics. Within the tantric form of Hinduism in Java, Durga has been transformed into this fearful goddess which statue No. 147 demonstrates so powerfully.

The final act in this story, which places Durga as a frightening demoness in graveyards and cremation grounds takes place from the 15th century onwards. And for this period, evidence from relief carvings and written sources in literature tells us more about Durga’s appearance and interaction with her worshippers, and the immense power she has over the life and death of humans and the world.

The research on the Durga Statues was a Museum Project of the Indonesian Heritage Society, Jakarta from January until May, 2003. Gillian Clough and Laraine Nelson took part with great enthusiasm and dedication. I specially want to thank them for their support in writing this article.

all text and images © Krista Knirck-Bumke


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