Continuity and Change in a Nineteenth Century Illustrated Devi Mahatmya Manuscript
In the Hindu tradition of the Indian subcontinent, worship of the goddess has long been practiced as supreme embodiment of the divine. Around the second century, a Sanskrit Purana (ancient Hindu text that extols deities) titled the Markandeya Purana details the battles of the supreme Goddess Durga against the illusions and negative energy in the universe. This textual version of the Devi Mahatmya “Praise of the Goddess” serves as the foundation for the nineteenth century Nepalese illustrated Devi Mahatmya, commissioned by Tej Bahadur Rana from Pokhara district in Nepal. Because the folios closely follow the textual Devi Mahatmya, the illustrations’ amalgamation of styles demonstrates a double entendre of religious and political frameworks represented through Indian religious iconography with localized motifs and styles from Nepal. In this study, I argue that the illustrated Nepalese Devi Mahatmya indicates a shift in power from the Shah aristocracy to Rana oligarchy. This Devi Mahatmya contextualizes the social, religious, and historical events of nineteenth century Nepal, as a unique extension to the current scholarship about the Devi Mahatmya since it is dated and has a known patron. The intentional amalgamation of previous Newar styles, localized elements, and European décor reveals the mythical being contemporized, that is, drawing from English modernism to empower the Rana family, adding a unique flair to this manuscript as opposed to previous Devi Mahatmyas of Indian Guler or Newar style. Within the nineteenth century Nepali Devi Mahatmya, the background of this Devi Mahatmya is Guler-inspired, utilizing lightly hued backgrounds and landscapes, suggesting that the artist(s) had observed Guler compositions prior to this commission. The Nepali and Newar motifs contextualizes the Devi Mahatmyas commissioning in Pokhara, as these elements comment on the clan patriarch Jung Bahadur Rana and uncle of the patron usurping power from the Shah king, asserting a new Rana oligarchy that would last until 1951. As a result, this Devi Mahatmya is used as an offering to the goddess to legitimize Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana and the nephews that would follow his legacy.