Published on 22nd November, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror.
Every Indian village is personified as a grama-devi. So, we have Chandigarh associated with the goddess Chandi. Calcutta is associated with the goddess, Kali. Mumbai is associated with the goddess, Mumba Devi. The idea of Bharat-mata, the goddess of the Indian nation state, has roots in this idea, but it emerged only after the 1857 Uprising when the idea of India as a ‘single nation state’ — rather than a collection of states — became prominent. This is when people of different kingdoms and different strata of society came together, in whatever disorganised manner, to challenge the East India Company. This eventually gave rise to the idea of Bharat Mata, but after Bongo Mata.
Delhi became the capital of British India only in 1911. Until then, it was Kolkata, which is why Bengal was also the centre of fervent nationalistic politics. In 1816, Raja Rammohan Roy used the word ‘Hinduism’ and spearheaded the Hindu reform movement in Bengal. This led to an orthodox backlash and in 1894, Chandranath Basu used the word ‘Hindutva’ for orthodox Hinduism, which was later used by Savarkar in 1923 for political Hinduism. In 1872, when the first systematic census of India took place, people realised that contrary to popular beliefs, Bengal had a significant Muslim population.
The first time we hear of a national mother goddess is in a Bengali play written by Kiran Chandra Banerjee in 1873. It deals with the Bengal famine in the 18th Century and how people are motivated by a goddess to rise in rebellion against the Company. In 1882, the theme of the sanyasi rebellion against the British emerges once again in the novel Anand Mutt by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. He introduces the concept of Vande Mataram or salutation to the Mother. The Mother is personification of the nation, and the nation is Bengal, not Bharat.
In 1905, another Bengali gentleman called Abanindranath Tagore painted the image of Bango Mata. She is visualised as a wandering minstrel. In her hands is a sheaf of grain, a book, a cloth and memory beads. The idea of Bongo Mata inspired many. In 1912, the concept of Utkala Janani emerged through patriotic songs in Odisha.
By 1930s, Bongo Mata becomes Bharat Mata. As the map of India was unveiled by the British rulers of the land, the image was personified as a woman —Bharat Mata. She was a goddess — a woman dressed in red, with her hair unbound. More and more images appeared as part of the Indian national independence movement. In 1934, the Bharat Mata Mandir opens in Varanasi. But here there is no anthropomorphic image; only the map of India is celebrated.
In Roman times, the Roman province of Briton was visualised as Britannia: a woman wearing a Roman helmet, carrying a trident in her hand. She rode a chariot pulled by lions. This image became popular in the 1600s with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, almost 1,000 years later. With the French Revolution came the idea of Lady Liberty, visualised as Marianne, wearing a Phrygian cap. With the American War of Independence came the image of Lady Colombia, which later transformed into the Statue of Liberty built in the 1920s. Some believe this has roots in the ancient cult of the Mother Goddess; some have equated it to the concept of Notre Dame or Our Lady, Mother Mary of Christianity, to whom knights in shining armour owed their loyalty as they went forth on the Crusades.
Many Indian freedom fighters saw themselves as children of the goddess who fought for her. There are songs where the goddess Kali is visualised in chains, stripped naked by the British. The children restore her dignity and her jewels and transform her to Annapurna, the kitchen-goddess. They took inspiration from her warrior form of Durga. This is why Bharat Mata is not associated with the mythological cow, the Bhudevi of nourishment, the embodiment of the kingdom protected by Vishnu-Gopala, caretaker-king.
Instead, she is associated with the tiger or lion riding Sherawali, who goes into the battlefield, ready to fight the enemy. But unlike old grama-devis, who were protectors as well as providers, Bharat Mata images rarely hold symbols of food or knowledge.