Museum Treasure: The 3 Saraswatis

The Padmanabhapuram Palace Complex, which is situated about 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram, has a heritage museum with exhibits that range from household articles to coins to sculptures and paintings to object d’ arts. The museum is located in the 400-year-old Thekee Kottaram (or Southern palace).

I visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace Complex in November 1998 and spent a very happy afternoon exploring it and pottering among the museum exhibits. This collection of 3 Saraswati figurines at the museum caught my eye.

About 12″ in height, these exquisitely carved wooden sculptures stood out for their craftsmanship. As I gazed into the calm and serene features of the figurines, I couldn’t help wondering as to why one rarely comes across Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning, knowledge and wisdom. There are hardly any temples dedicated to Saraswati and even in art she is not a favourite subject for painters and sculptors alike.

Is it because we know that learning, knowledge and wisdom do not really come easy and even the Goddess cannot help if one is not willing to work hard for it? Or is it because material benefits are preferred over the intellect?

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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40 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The 3 Saraswatis

  1. There are shrines in big temples dedicated to Gnana Saraswati in the south and there is a Sharada temple in Maihar in MP. there are festivals dedicated to the goddess too.

    As you say the reason why Saraswati is not so ‘popular’ could be because wealth is more attractive than knowledge though we bleat ourselves hoarse about knowledge being wealth. But being of the abstract kind, it does not sound attractive, I guess. btw, you will not find anyone even praying to Saraswati north of the Vindhyas.

    • There may be shrines in larger temples, but the number of temples dedicated to Saraswati are a handful. Mumbai has a Sharada temple in Chembur, there is another at Sringeri — both as the main deity of the Shakara maths.

      The Saraswati namastubhyam prayer is perhaps the first prayer taught to most Tamil kids and it is a little strange to believe that people to not pray to her north of the Vindhyas (with the exception of the Bengalis, of course) :-)

  2. thats a very interesting observation. is it because saraswati is more associated with book knowledge which was limited to certain castes? just thinking aloud.

    • Maybe you have a point, Sumanya. More than castes, perhaps communities which were associated with book knowledge/intellectual activity pray to Saraswati in a big way. For instance. the TamBrahm and Bengali communities (across caste) both revere Saraswati and the Saraswati Pujas are a big thing in both the communities. You’ve given me something to think about too :-)

  3. Beautiful, Sudha. Thank you for putting this up.
    About your observation, come to think of it, you are right. I wonder why it is though. Is there some back story, some reason for the same? Or perhaps, Goddess Saraswati just belies too much representation and celebration. She prefers to be there, subtly in the backdrop and in our hearts and minds, telling us to be good at the task at hand.

    • You’re welcome, Deboshree. I wish I knew. Knowledge is esoteric and immeasurable and something that is limitless and vast and unfettered. Perhaps, the goddess to prefers to be that way, unencumbered by temples and organised places of worship.

  4. My father had inculcated awe and respect towards the Goddess in the family. We wouldn’t allow our books and notebooks to have dog’s ears or blemishes. If the books would fall accidentally on the floor or come into contact of feet, we would immediately bring it back to our bowed head. And swearing by Goddess Saraswati would be the most terrifying thing to do, to be resorted to in seriously desperate moments.

    Maybe that is why none of us is doing well financially!

    • The first prayer I learnt a Saraswati vandana. And the essence of the prayer was not explained in words but in actions. Like your father, my parents were very particular about the way books were treated. One of the reasons I do not lend my books is because I am not sure how the books will be treated—will the pages be turned lovingly like I do or will it be flicked with a finger moistened with saliva? Will a book mark be used or will the page be marked with a dog’s ears? Whatever else I may believe or not believe, books to me are a living reminder of the presence of the Goddess around me.

      You have made an important point about our financial status. It is rather difficult to pursue Lakshmi and Saraswati simultaneously, though the holy books say that wherever Saraswati goes, Lakshmi follows. I’m still waiting for Lakshmi :-)

  5. Sharadambal in Chembur, I haven’t seen another Saraswati temple that attracts so many visitors… I have been to the Padmanabhapuram Palace over 2 decades ago, and I loved all the wood carving. Haven’t seen or heard of another palace complex in India that is built out of wood alone.

    • I like going to the Chembur Sharadambal temple too. Have you been to the Sharadambal kovil in Sringeri? That place is divine.

      As for Padmanabhapuram palace, I went there so many years back that I need to go there again. Maybe in July when I visit Trivandrum with Amma…

  6. Growing up in Calcutta (I do not like the new name -Kolkatai; it is alright to refer to Kolkata in Bengali
    ), Saraswati was part and parcel of every student’s life and cut across all communities/caste/religion. We had a holiday,sometime in February. All students offered their books to Saraswati for blessings and prayed to her for wisdom and knowledge. Every para(locality) had designated pandals erected for worship.
    The next time we saw Saraswati was during the Durga Puja. As far as I know she is part of every Bengali household. However, I am not too sure if there is any temple dedicated only to her.
    Thank you for reminding me of her. It sure brings back nostalgic memories of abundant sweets, fruit and fun, and ofcourse, no studies.

    • You’ve actually brought out an interesting observation, Neena — Saraswati is a household goddess revered and worshipped at home. Mass worship or followers are not for her. The Tamilians celebrate Saraswati Puja one day before Dusshera, when all books, pens, musical instruments etc. are placed before the goddess for her blessings. :-)

  7. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is passe’ these days. Thus, the worship of Saraswati on a regular basis is not a must in our prayer priorities. Lakshmi figures much higher in the pecking order! Come to think of it, isn’t the “Kolam”, the attractive geometric designs at our doorstep, an invitation to Lakshmi? Is there any way-other than prayers- we can invoke the blessings of the Goddess of Learning and Wisdom on a daily basis?

    Good post-short and though provoking.

    • I don’t think knowledge for knowledge’s sake is passe. It’s just that Saraswati is no longer the flavour century or millennium. Who has the time to seek out the Goddess when Lakshmi has to be sought and sustained?

      • An interesting aside-Saraswati is also regarded as Brahma’s consort. There are hardly any temples dedicated to Brahma. Should we take it that, both Brahma and Saraswati decided to remain low-profile and allow Shiva and Vishnu hog the limelight( and the prayers)? :)

  8. Quite possibly because Brahma is supposed to have been cursed by Lord Shiva that he would not be worshiped…and, even in temples with the deity being the Goddess, Her consort would also feature somewhere prominent in the premises!

    • Hmmm… that’s an interesting observation, Suresh. As Brahma’s consort, Saraswati would have faced the ban on worship too. The temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, always have shrines dedicated to consorts/wives. Of course they have their own temples too.

      Thanks, Suresh for this insight.

  9. very interesting observation, sudha… we were talking about something similar recently at home in connection with the mookambika temple and sringeri sharadamba temple…. some legends refer to sringeri as the site which adi shankara chose for his ashram, and installed saraswati there since she was the goddess of learning and he wanted her to bless all those who came there with learning and knowledge. another legend related to him states that he asked saraswati to come with him from kashmir, and she agreed, but stipulated that she would follow him and that he should not look back, in which case she would stop…. while in our house, the temple associated with this story is the kollur mookambika temple,… where he turned back to make sure that the goddess was following him….. there are others who say that this is the sringeri temple, which does not make sense since he did not stop there and turn back by chance, but stopped there when he saw the snake helping the frog. in any case, after that rather confused sounding story, our discussion was based on the fact that today mookambika is associated more for her association with killing the demon mooka than the association with adi shankara or that the word also comes from the word for mouth or speech…. somewhere down the years, the focus seems to have changed from learning to strength, so the goddess seems to have changed too….. catering to the times, so to speak! maybe the importance of saraswati changed with the times in other places too!

    • Thanks, Anu, I was not aware of these fascinating stories. And while I have visited the Sringeri temple, I haven’t seen the Mookambika temple (in Kollur?), something that needs to be remedied. :-)

      Maybe the focus has changed, maybe not. But one thing I am glad that Saraswati Puja has not become commercialised or kitschy the way the Ganesh festival is fast turning into.

  10. I was travelling in Assam some time ago and I saw so many temples of Sheetala mata and a few temples of Kali, and I asked myself the same question, why no temples for Saraswati?

    • I have seen only temples dedicated to Saraswati and that too in the form of Sharada—the Shankara Math temples in Chembur (Mumbai) and Sringeri (Karnataka). Both the temples are beautiful and give out a lot of positive vibes, if you know what I mean.

      Do read the previous comments to see the interesting discussion generated and suggestions given.

    • Which part did you find interesting, Ranjana? The figurines? The write-up or the fact that there are very few temples dedicated to Saraswati? Or all three? Or something else altogether? :-)

  11. Interesting point you have, Sudha ji! Padhmanabhapuram has been in the limelight for different reasons off late! I wonder how many of such unknown facts would come up if the treasure is studied!

  12. Important question–one that I have not reflected on–perhaps because right from my childhood, my parents had bought me a huge white idol of Saraswati and perhaps celebrating Saraswati puja at school in Kolkata was my favorite time of the year and perhaps all through my life I have received Saraswati figurines and pendants. But isn’t that interesting that I have never visited a Saraswati temple in my life! Why? You have made me think…feel like doing some research here or may you can share some!

    • We too have a Saraswati idol at home. And prayers celebrations to the Goddess have always been routine. Perhaps, that is the reason the absence of Saraswati temples does not really come up.

  13. The most ancient temple of Goddess Saraswati is in Kashmir. There are very few temples. Notable temples dedicated to Goddess Saraswati are:
    Saraswati temple at Pushkar, Rajasthan
    Saraswati Ambal Temple at Koothanur, near Tanjavur in Tamilnadu
    Basar Saraswati Temple in Adilabad District of Andhrapradesh
    Panachikkadu Saraswathi Temple, popularly known as Dakshina Mookambika Temple situated in Panachikadu village around 11 km from Kottayam in Kerala

    We have a temple in my hometown too and I guess there must be temples in W.B. ..just dont know about it. She is also worshipped in her form Gayatri.

  14. Aww… yet another interesting post, Sudha! I have been to one Saraswathi temple in Koothanur near Mayiladuthurai, Tanjore district in TamilNadu… This temple was near my grandma’s house and this is the only ancient temple I know of for the Goddess of Knowledge… :)

  15. Try asking folks how many want to do a PhD -in top research schools in US, for example- or to teach, when they have an option of getting into IT. You wouldn’t be surprised by the lack of enthu.

    • I am in full agreement. Pure research, along the lines of “The Worship of Saraswati..” is not going to find any takers. And more so, considering that the preferred route to Nirvana is an engineering degree followed by an MBA and a job in a private bank. The saddest part is that there is deeper interest in the West for Indian traditions than amongst us.

  16. Pingback: Saraswati — Body Painting at FABAIC 2012 with Kryolan Aquacolors « the story behind the faces

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