One day, a sage named Bhrigu visited Vaikuntha and saw Vishnu asleep, too distracted in the company of his wife to notice him. He got so angry that he kicked Vishnu on the chest. Vishnu apologised to keep the peace, but Lakshmi did not like her husband being so apologetic, when he had done nothing wrong.
Annoyed his pacifism, she left Vaikuntha and came down to earth and found shelter in Karvirpura, now called Kolhapur, in Maharashtra. She promised the locals that as long as she is worshipped, there would be prosperity in their lives. Vishnu followed his wife to earth, but she refused to return to Vaikuntha. So he waits on the Tirupati hills in the south, for her to calm down and change her mind. This story connects the popular Vaishnava shrine of Andhra Pradesh, with this Shakta shrine of Maharashtra. But the reality is rather complex and reveals layers of history and mystery.
The word Mahalakshmi evokes images of the Hindu goddess of wealth seated majestically on a lotus rising from the ocean of milk, holding a pot overflowing with grain and gold in her hand, flanked by white elephants with upraised trunks showering her with water. Yet, the deity in Kolhapur, seems very different. The locals refer to her as Amba-bai, or mother, and her form and worship evokes Durga, the goddess of war, patron of kings.
To find out if the deity in a temple being worshipped is the fickle goddess of fortune or the awe-inspiring goddess of power, all one has to do is to check what is the sacred animal associated with the goddess, usually placed in front of the sanctum sanctorum. If it is elephant, then the deity is Lakshmi; if it is the lion, the deity is Durga. At the Kolhapur Mahalakshmi temple, it is the lion (as it is in Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi temple incidentally), firmly establishing her as the goddess of power and war and royalty. Every year, as part of the Navaratri and Dassera celebrations, the local martial Maratha clans sacrifice a goat for her pleasure, for she is considered to be ‘hot’ and ‘fierce’. In her hands she holds a massive mace, a shield, a vessel and a citrus fruit, symbols not usually associated with Lakshmi. While most temple deities face east, she faces west, the direction associated with Varuna, god of the sea, father of Lakshmi. Twice a year, in March and September, for three days, light of the setting sun falls on the deity through a window and devotees throng to see this deity, adorned with Maharashtrian finery, especially the characteristic moon-shaped nose-ring, reminding us that, though warrior, she is also wife, hence mother.
Lakshmi or Durga? Consort of Vishnu or Shiva, or independent? Vegetarian offerings or blood sacrifice? Practical ‘living’ Hinduism defies all theoretical boundaries. Things get even more confusing when one observes the carvings on the ancient temple walls of Kolhapur. There are images of Jain sages. And historians will point out that some of the ancient kings of the region, like the Silahara dynasty who controlled the region a thousand years ago, were Jains, and that they looked upon the enshrined deity as Padmavati, their guardian goddess, viewed as a yakshini who protects the Tirthankaras. This yakshini is typically visualised seated under a multihooded serpent, just like Kolhapur’s Mahalakshmi. The name Padmavati means ‘she who sits on a lotus’ and it is also a name of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. So naturally, when Hindu kings replaced Jain kings, the Jain goddess became the Hindu goddess, still a guardian but now linked to Vishnu, not the Tirthankaras. Was the goddess offered a goat in sacrifice before? Was there a time when the goddess was linked no male deity? No one can answer this question, for the history stretches back over 1,200 years, and has survived earthquakes and invasions, with limited written records. In fact, all answers today tend to be mired in contemporary politics over vegetarianism and patriarchy.
Traditionally, every village in India had a village god and a village goddess. Many scholars — in keeping with patriarchal prejudice — assume that the male deity is the guardian and the female deity is the fertile provider. But as we find in the iconography of Mahalakshmi of Kolhapur, this is not so. The goddess here is both provider (the fruit and vessel in her hand) and protector (the mace and shield).
Tales of goddesses of war, who ride lions, and support kings in battle, is found not just in Hindu mythology, but also in faraway Mesopotamian mythology with goddess such as Ishtar who support, or battle, warrior-hero-kings. The earliest images of a goddess who rides a lion found in South Asia, in regions now known as Afghanistan and Iran, are identified with Nana, patron goddess of Kushan kings. Two thousand years ago, the Kushan Empire stretched as far Mathura and according to some scholars, they introduced the idea of the lion-riding goddess of war to India, an idea refuted by Hindu radicals.
The Kolhapur Mahalakshmi temple is closely linked with the temple of Tulja Bhavani in the Osmanabad district of Maharashtra. Legend has it that Bhavani, a local form of Durga, appeared in the dream of Shivaji, gifted him a sword and inspired him to challenge the might of the Mughals in the 17th century, and establish the Hindu Maratha kingdom. After the demise of Chattrapati Shivaji, succession issues between his two sons, Sambhaji and Rajaram, led to the creation of two branches of the Bhonsale royal family: one located in Satara that patronised the temple of Tulja Bhavani and the other located in Kolhapur that re-established the temple of Mahalakshmi in the 18th century (the image has been kept in hiding to protect it from Mughal invaders). For it is clear in Indian lore, without the grace of the lion-riding Goddess, there can be no king.