As we begin Navratri today, celebrating the nine forms of the Goddess for nine nights, I would like to share a story.
On my recent trip to Botswana, I believe, I glimpsed into the origins of one of the oldest myths and watched it unfold in front of me.
In the early hours of one morning, on a game drive, we were following a pride of lions when we came upon a herd of wild buffalo gathered under the canopy of an Acacia tree. It was that hour before dawn when the night sky was beginning to lose its edge a little but sun was still to rise, so the full extent of the herd was mostly shrouded in mist. It was only as we got closer that the buffalo began to reveal themselves, stepping out of the mist two or three at a time, inching towards us. Behind them stretched a sea of horns, barely visible in the grey haze.
‘I had seen,’ Karen Blixen writes of a similar encounter, ‘a herd of buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive iron-like animals with horizontally swung horns were not approaching but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished.’
Our guide estimated there were about 300-400 buffalo in this herd. He would rather come face to face with a lion on foot than a buffalo he told us because buffalo are by far the most dangerous animal in Africa.
The lions know that too. Hence, instead of charging at the herd they hid in the bush watching and waiting for the right moment to strike. The sentinels of the buffalo herd who were keeping watch on all sides had spotted the lions too and were watching them intently. The two camps stayed like that, sizing each other up until a lioness, desperate for a kill, decided to charge at the herd hoping for a stampede and then possibly a struggling calf who would make an easier prey. Not to be intimidated the buffalo stood their ground, fully aware that a lion would never take on an adult buffalo and certainly not in those numbers. Then to our utter astonishment, the leader of the buffalo charged back at the lioness forcing her to retreat. A few minutes later the lioness, not to be outdone, charged again. Only to be charged at by the male buffalo. It happened a few more times till the lions finally gave up and disappeared into the bush.
We watched this surreal standoff knowing we were witnessing something special. And in my mind, the battle scene between Durga and the demon Mahishasura was playing out. It suddenly made sense that if Durga was riding a lion then the demon would take the form of a buffalo to fight her. For in the entire animal kingdom only a buffalo could.But even more striking was the account of how every time Durga felled one buffalo another one stood in front of her, springing forth from the blood that had spilled from the previous one. Created one by one, and sent out of the mist like Blixen describes.
And so, the battle raged on until Durga slaughtered all the buffalos, one by one, eventually stomping onto the demon’s back and lopping his head off. The only way a lion can take actually down a buffalo.
I could see how thousands of years ago, the drama that we had just witnessed in the wild had been re-imagined and woven by the ancients into an awe-inspiring tale of feminine courage and divine power. A tale that has endured to this day. In that instant, I saw India of the past, as it might have been when lions and wild buffalo roamed its lands.
Right before my eyes, the myth had sprung out of a text and come to life. For it was now grounded in the land, giving me a rare insight into the minds of its people. Witnessing the incident made the myth strangely real to me. In the same way that the all the amazing women around me inspire my faith in Durga, make her real to me.