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Worship of the Goddess in South Asia

A Hindu woman gives offerings and performs prayers to Lakshmi at her home shrine

A Hindu woman gives offerings and performs prayers to Lakshmi at her home shrine, from Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion by Stephen P. Huyler. Photograph copyright Stephen P. Huyler, 1999.

An image of the goddess Lakshmi, in the form of a silver mask made in the 1100s, is bedecked with multiple adornments. Lakshmi has received numerous offerings as part of an annual ritual welcoming her as the Goddess of Abundance and Prosperity. In the state of Tamil Nadu, this festival occurs on a designated day that falls between mid-August in mid-September.

This photo illustrates manifestations of the ritual that has taken place over the course of several days. The worshiper, the matriarch of the family, has purified herself with oils and recited special prayers. She and family members have procured special fruits and flowers in the early-morning markets. The house was then decorated with auspicious diagrams made of rice powder called kolams.

The Goddess shrine has been decorated with an abundant arrangement of banana leaves and fresh flowers. The Goddess has been offered many special foods including unhusked rice, turmeric, betel leaves, palm leaves, areca nuts, a small comb, a mirror, and glass bangles. The image itself is decorated with a red vermilion dot on its forehead and black kohl under its eyes. The image is further adorned with earrings that are inserted into its ear holes, and various necklaces belonging to the worshiper herself. Numerous garlands complete the image’s voluptuous adornment. Various rituals will be conducted with the image, performed by the family in its home. The lighting of the flame brings the real presence of the Goddess herself into the image. She is welcomed with song and a succession of many offerings. Ceremonial lamps and incense are lighted. A complex ritual involving the recitation of the 1,008 names of the Goddess is performed, each name punctuated with the offering of an individual blossom upon the Goddess image. The family later invites neighbors and friends to their home to celebrate the Goddess, continue in song, and partake of the blessed food.

The images found in museums today were part of a rich and vibrant ritual context, and we can assume many of them were once adorned with varied offerings, including fruits, flowers, powder, other auspicious substances, jewelry, and garments, among others. Textual sources provide great detail about the proper worship ceremonies to be performed by priests in the temple context. In domestic spaces, individual worshipers and families follow prescribed ceremonies as well as creating their own rituals and expressions of adoration. It is customary for families and individuals to have a personal god to whom they are especially devoted.

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