On Tour with the Goddess

A feature in which pilgrims who have been on Goddess tours and retreats write about their experiences. This contribution is by Batya Weinbaum about visits to discover Goddess in India.

Batya

Here I am in Khahajaro, India, where many temples were built in the period of 950-1050 CE. Most were destroyed by Muslim invaders, so only 22 of the original temples remain of the original 85. India, a land where the female divine is both acknowledged and honored, offers museums and shrines, ancient and contemporary. Religious followers pay homage to the Goddess in many manifestations. Varanasi, a sacred city on the banks of the Ganges, holds temples of nine devis (goddesses) which Hindu pilgrims seeking the darkshan (divine vision) of the Goddess visit regularly.

Goddess Durga at Shastri Nagar puja pandal in Varanasi

I started making my treks to India in 2005. I started to plan a worldschooling trip with my daughter. We were going to visit the Daram Sala, and also to meet with suppliers to start a wearable arts import business. We arrived in Delhi, and decided to go to Bihar where the Buddhist community was celebrating the day that the Buddha reached enlightenment. On the way back, we stopped in Varanasi, where I had planned to study palmistry. After several days of visiting Goddess temples (there are many) I had a revelation on the roof top for a new career. I would lead Goddess study tours to India, and help other women get in touch with the Goddess, as my contact had been so beneficial to me.

The temple I had visited which gave me such an inspiration that day was the Golden temple of Annapurna. It was difficult to get to her temple in the first place, requiring much perseverance. We had to follow a labyrinth of little streets with vendors hawking little statues of Durga, the first Goddess in the Hindu pantheon, and Annapurna, to whom one prays for food.

Once there, having arrived at the interior, we stood in awe of the ceremony knowing that everyone who came would be fed. I realized, feeding one’s offspring should be natural, as natural as Annapurna filling her honey pot by a river in front of a tree. The images and the ritual spoke to me, restoring my self-confidence. Yes I would be able to go forward feeding myself and my child, even though the patriarchy had thrown me out, depicting me in numerous attack documents as simply too powerful. I would succeed.

Durga Temple in Varanasi

From there the trips to the Durga temple were next, where I was equally inspired by the image of a fighting woman on a large feline moving forward, armed, never looking back.

We also wandered down alleys and found the little Kali shrine, on the first visit. There I could see that women could be strong and ferocious and fight, and that keeping demons whether it was considered ladylike or not, was often right. Kali wears a string of heads of demons she has decapitated, as her duty having been created out of the third eye of Durga to help with the process of clearing negativity from the world, is to protect the gods in the Land of Bliss.

In spring of 2008, I succeeded in leading my first pilot trip, starting in Delhi with shopping in the bazaar. Here you can find Durga and Kali hangings, and Lakshmi bags. These are commercially produced, but other stalls sell art of goddesses from ancient periods.

I decided I wanted to return and visit the women of Madhubani who painted these Goddesses. In Varanasi on that second trip I had begun to collect paintings of Kali and Durga at the Benares Cultural Arts Center. I was increasingly interested in uncovering the powers of these Goddesses, since I sold out that first stock I had imported entirely in one women’s studies conference. I wanted to research if there was any congruence between what the women painting those images experienced when they made the goddesses, and what the women buying the images were experiencing as they consumed them, as well as what I experienced when I painted the images myself.

Madhubani Goddesses -Durga on left, Kali on right

Back in India by February of 2012, after announcing the second tour, first I went south from Delhi to the Ellora Caves. First I photographed them, and then I began to draw in their presence. One of the images I painted was of Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth. If you knew how dry and hot it was there, you would understand why a goddess whose upper hands are being watered by the elephants would produce wealth or gold coming out of her second layer of hands.

I was so fascinated with the serene power and strength of these Goddesses who had lasted so many years that I drew them, and then painted them, in small watercolors. Then I took the paintings into wooden toy manufacturers whose Goddess icons I have been importing and selling for wear as necklaces and earrings. I gave them my art and they designed pendants and earrings for me for my River Goddess Series that I will begin to sell when the shipment gets to me. I have been selling and exhibiting art I made in the temples, called the Temple Goddess Series, and have been selling the imported Goddess images at festivals to be worn as earrings or pendants.

Traditional Hindu image of Lakshmi

Once in Varanasi, I was overjoyed to walk along the Ganges and very much inspired again by all the popular goddess art. I started my first walk at Assi Ghat where many backpacking foreigners stay. Among the Goddess images that I found along the way were ones of Ganga, Goddess of the River, and of Ma Parvati. Then there were several images of what must be a new, local Goddess, but no one I asked could tell me her name.

River Goddess guarding caves at Ellora

I successfully booked a car and a driver and embarked upon a three day trip in search of Goddess sites and artists. I was introduced to a series of women artists who make their own paints from locally grown flowers. Amongst the images they painted were of Durga, and of Kali (whom Durga produced out of her third eye to help her in her battle to preserve the gods in the Land of Bliss). I also met and photographed some of the women with their art, including Ashadevi, who is a well known artist in India. I also found some feminist art, such as one where women painted in the black and white tradition of the village of Roti. The painting depicted women marching together holding signs about wanting their rights and an end to the dowry. After interviewing the women artists about their craft, traditions and experience, the guide and the driver took us to two Kali temples, one in Madhubani and the other in Darabunga.

Kali temple in Madhubani

The Goddess tours of India that I set up and facilitated in 2008 and 2012 were centered in Varanasi on the rooftop of the Temple Hotel, overlooking the Ganges river. Here we tapped into the sacred Hindu female pantheon that still remains, and studied the deities through chant, drumming, painting and poetry. We visited Mother India and Durga temples, and took a boat trip up the Ganges to the Golden Temple of Annapurna. We also visited the Goddess of Smallpox, where people come from all over for healing. We discussed questions such as – who was the original Mother Goddess of India? At what point did she break down into various discrete manifestations? Was this good or bad for women? And who are we, in search of this female divine?

I continue to work and visit in India. I have been invited to have a show of my artwork in a gallery there, as well as in the Benares Hindu University. I also have an invitation to study the Madhubani style of painting from the Head of the Institute that teaches the craft to women. If any of this interests you, please contact me at batyawein@aol.com or Batya.Weinbaum@esc.edu.