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Mirror Idol of Mother Goddess by Balan Nambiar

Mirror Idol of Mother Goddess by Balan Nambiar

Even as a mirror stained by dust, Shines brilliantly when it has been cleansed, So the embodied one, on seeing the nature of the Self, Becomes unitary, his end attained, from sorrow, free
– Svetasvatara Upanishad

“The Mother Goddess is worshipped in the form of a polished mirror in certain shrines of Kerala. The mirror can be used to examine the soul, not only the physical body. “ states artist Pushpamala N.

Those words have haunted me for months. But what does it mean for me?

Consider this scene:

Passing storefronts as we walk down the street, we glance sideways to catch our reflection in the glass.  The urge to reconcile self-awareness and self-deception comes naturally to us, and we respond innately to the lure of the mirror.  While there is undoubtedly a measure of vanity in gazing at one’s own reflection, we look more to become oriented with the elements of our countenance.  We look to see the physical matter of our face and body and assess how we appear to the world, to confirm that our form and distribution of features are as we believe them to be in our minds, and to ensure all is as it was the last time we looked.  We look for signs of our hidden carnal nature and to see if the wicked secrets and sinful desires we harbor have emerged from deep within to belie our observable moral surface.  Subconsciously, perhaps, we look for assurance of our continuity and existence.

Artist Balan Nambiar has a tribute to the mirror symbolism in Devi worship. It is a cross cultural symbol, especially in Kerala and West Bengal where a mirror is placed behind Kali or Durga. For Bengalese looking at the goddess directly is inauspicious.  Even in Japanese Shintoism the mirror symbolises the Mother goddess.

However in Kerala, in consecration rituals for the goddess Bhagavati the kannati – bimbam , or mirror image, and the idol are identical.

Called Kannati Bimbam, Malayalam for mirror-image, Nambiar’s image of surgical grade, stainless steel explores the mother goddess rituals of Kerala.

The val-kannati or mirror with long handle is auspicious in the rituals that are part of Vishu, the day when farmers sow the first paddy of the season or when the auspicious mirror is held by girls during the coming-of-age ceremony, weddings, pregnancy, and the naming ceremony of girls.
Traditionally, cast in bronze alloy, a val-kannati is about 15 to 20 cm in diameter, with a long handle of equal length, round-edged, and a flat polished surface with mirror finish.

The most important event in Vishu is the Vishukkani, meaning “the first thing seen on the day of Vishu after waking up”. This ritual includes an arrangement of auspicious articles such as rice grains, lemon, cucumber, betel leaves, arecanut, metal mirrors, the yellow konna flowers, and a holy text and coins in a flat vessel called uruli.

Nambiar discovered that in Kerala’s ritual art — Theyyam, Bhuta, Patayani, Nagamandala and Titambu Nrittam — it is one among eight auspicious objects used in pujas. The other seven are the kuthuvilakku, ritual lamp; kindi, vessel with spout; changala vatta, oil lamp with handle; thalika, plate; dhupathattu, incense-holder; uruli and nira-para, the paddy measure.

With the passing of Diwali, again the concept of Goddess as mirror, of seeing divinity mirrored within ourselves, has become a very personal quest me. I am fascinated by the self sacrificing yet scary image of Chinamastra.

The Mother Goddess  has always been a cross cultural symbolic place where opposites could meet.  A symbol of nature she gives birth to the opposites of male and female, of birth and death, violence and protection, order and disorder, dark and light.

A symbol can be defined as something that connects any given reality to its constant representation within a certain culture.

Intimate relationships are a mirror of our shadow, or unexpressed selves. A woman finding in her man a masculinity for her own developing actualisation; a man must learn the art of surrender of his inflated need to conquest that offers sovereignty to the woman whose life he shares.

Are we to see divinity in a mirror, as if some Jungian sense that reflect back our hidden shadow, can we learn to see the God within? Relationships often mirror our shadow and religions claim sacred texts force us to see face our unpleasant truths.


Artist Kali-Maa gets ready as Lord Shiva showing her mirror during the Shri Ram

Artist Kali-Maa gets ready as Lord Shiva showing her mirror during the Shri Ram

Is the Hindu pantheon is a psychic mirror?

“The mirror allows us to see our own facial features and to apprehend its own body’s unity in a way which is different from  that which is available from interoceptive, proprioceptive and exteroceptive sources. The subject  becomes a spectator when it recognizes its mirrored image: seeing itself in the mirror is seeing itself as  others see it. Therefore, mirror self-recognition exemplifies a troubled form of self-knowledge, since the mirror facilitates the subject’s alienation into its double. The decisive and unsettling impact of mirror self-recognition is the realization that the subject exists in an intersubjective space”
– Giovanni B. Caputo  Archetypal-Imaging and Mirror-Gazing, [1]

Hinduism beautifully expresses the range of experience, even taboos, in its pantheon.

Mirrors also reveal much of our own psychic distortion.

Look at your face in a mirror at low light. After a few minutes the dysmorphic illusions may appear  explains researcher  Giovanni  Caputo.

The meaning we give these shadowy distortions  is “psychodynamic projection of the subject’s unconscious archetypal content”.

“Healthy observers usually describe huge distortions of their own faces,  monstrous beings,  prototypical faces, faces of relatives and deceased, and faces of animals.  Schizophrenics show a dramatic increase in their number, including the “perception of multiple-others that fill the mirror surface surrounding their “strange-face”. Schizophrenics are usually convinced that strange-face illusions are truly real and identify themselves with strange-face illusions.” Healthy people do not.   “Patients with major depression do not perceive strange-face illusions, or they perceive very  faint changes of their immobile faces in the mirror, like death statues.”

So, as I gaze into the face of a Kali, I experience a whole range of questioning associations.

When I first passed Bhopal, it was Diwali, and moving here I realise that we give life meaning based on our past. I was travelling by train,and new nothing of the city other than the Union Carbide disaster. My whole experience off the beautiful diyas on Bhopals train station was immediately spoiled. I realised, that from birth, perhaps a past life. Rarely do we see life as it is.

Life is always a tension between self and other, mainstream and marginal. I would suggest that the pantheon is also a mirror projection – a healthy one that allows believers to admit the taboos they hide within their shadows with harmless psychic release.

To discover themselves in the pursuit of purification.

As Nambiar. Stated of his divine art.:

“Venerating the kannati-bimbam is one of the highest forms of worship in northern Kerala. It is the visible symbol of ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ — ‘I am Brahmn’ — and this state of realisation is achieved through dedication and intense contemplation. The seeker looks at the kannati-bimbam, observes his own image reflected in the mirror, and meditates upon it.”

The artist quotes from the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

‘Even as a mirror stained by dust, Shines brilliantly when it has been cleansed, So the embodied one, on seeing the nature of the Self, Becomes unitary, his end attained, from sorrow, free’

“The Sri Chakra, for example, combines mathematical principles and symbolism, and I find it fascinating. Its meaning has universal appeal, as it is beyond religion, even. I try to recreate the symbolism associated with ritual performances of Kerala and Tulu Nadu.”

“While I was working on a 3.5 metre sculpture of the mother goddess as depicted in Theyyam, I instinctively started chanting the Devi Mahatmya stotram. It was as though I was in a trance.”


[1] Giovanni B. Caputo , 2014, Archetypal-Imaging and Mirror-Gazing, , DIPSUM, University of Urbino, via Saffi 15, 61029 Urbino, Italy; Behav. Sci. 2014, 4, 1-13; doi:10.3390/bs4010001, behavioral  sciences <www.mdpi.com/journal/behavsci/ >