ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Symbolic Animals:The Lion in the Shaping of the Warrior Goddess in Kuṣāṇa and Early Gupta India


Policardi Chiara - University of Milan, Dipartimento di Studi letterari, filologici e linguistici, Milano, Italy


17 – More Than Human: Animal-Human Relations in Pre-Modern South Asia


 Textual and iconographic sources indicate that the people of the ancient Indian world lived against a narrative and visual backdrop in which human and animal elements were constantly interrelated in the representations of deities.

This paper attempts to provide deeper insights into the peculiar Hindu religious convention of the animal vāhanas of the deities – whose genesis still represents an unsolved knot for Indological studies – by focusing on a specific case: the genesis of the association of the Hindu warrior goddess with the lion.

As is known, her kaleidoscopic identity evokes at once imperial grandeur and village cult practices. This figure cannot be identified as Mahiṣāsuramardinī or Durgā in any Pre-Kuṣāṇa and Kuṣāṇa text or inscription. Considerable influence was probably exercised by Nanā, a Hellenistic goddess, who takes on characteristics of the Mesopotamian Innana-Ištar, typically associated with lions. In the early centuries CE, India was losing familiarity with living lions, but the feline had already become fixed as the fiercest wild predator, informing long-lasting lion-warrior imagery.

While the background and the rise of Durgā have been the object of several studies, the role of the lion attribute should be re-examined in light of recent research paradigms. This paper, analysing the earliest iconographic and textual representations, seeks to trace the shaping of this divine figure from the key perspective of the symbolic association with the feline.