Benares or Bengal? Durga or Parvati? Paan Daan or a Trophy Necklace?

8 minute read

A recent post on the Digital Lab made me reflect on the complexities of museum objects, embodying multiple identities, originating from a variety of places, and being used in a plethora of ways. All of this impresses upon the biographies of these objects before they enter the museum. Once they enter the museum, they are defined, re-defined, and used in ways which characterise yet another aspect of their lives. The complex lives of museum objects never fail to fascinate me. On reading Xintian Ma’s post, I went down my own rabbit hole of research, exploring the lives of two brass boxes at MAA that caught my attention a few months ago.

Two brass, golden coloured boxes. Both depict a human face, possibly of a woman. The face has distinct almond-shaped eyes, a sharp, pointed nose, and thin lips. The box on the right also has a dot (a bindi in Hindi) between her eyes. Possibly from Benares.

Figures 1 and 2. Two brass boxes, with their lids fashioned in the shape of a woman’s head. Benares (now Varanasi), India. Acquired and donated by Friedrich Oscar Lechmere-Oertel. MAA 1930.1491.1.1-2 and 1930.1491.2.1-2.

Both of these boxes were donated to MAA by Frederick Oscar Lechmere-Oertel, an engineer, architect, archaeologist, and amateur photographer who worked for the Public Works Department in British India. He is most renowned for excavating the Buddhist site at Sarnath, and it was here, in March 1905, that he also unearthed the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which later became the national emblem of independent India (see MAA P.44599.ORT and P.44648.ORT for photographs of this excavation and the capital).

In MAA’s catalogue records, the origins of both boxes have been identified as Benares. Perhaps because on one of them, the name of this city is inscribed on the back, and since both boxes look identical, it seemed reasonable to attribute the other to Benares too. But apart from their origins, not much is known about these boxes. Naturally, I was led to seeking answers for a series of some very simple questions: what were the boxes used for, whose face is modelled on their lids, and why did Oertel acquire them. However, the more time I spent in resolving these questions, the more multifaceted the story of these boxes became.

Benares or Bengal?

I began first with the question of origins. For some reason, as museum workers we are always curious to discover whether other institutions look after similar objects like we do and vice versa. To find out if this was the case with the boxes above, I searched Google using an image of one of them. Not the pages of other museums or institutions, but I landed on a series of websites by antiquarian sellers, which were selling or had sold similar boxes.

Figure 3. A brass paan box from Dinajpur, North Bengal. Source: Indigo Oriental Antiques.

One of these had sold a box exactly like 1930.1491.2.1-2; perhaps, the only difference between the two is in the design of the nose, but that too only marginal. The seller, Indigo Oriental Antiques, describes the box as such:

‘An old early 20th century oval shaped Indian Gauri head brass paan box used for storing betelnut – circa 1910 from Dinajpur, North Bengal. Gauri is an incarnation of Parvati, a benevolent Hindu goddess, and consort to Shiva. She is beautiful, nurturing, and the embodiment of motherhood.

Traditionally, Gauri is depicted with a fair complexion. Parvati became Gauri when she was blessed by Lord Brahma with a lustrous golden complexion. She is most often worshipped by unmarried women looking for a suitable partner, and her mount is the Godhika, an Iguana.’

The seller identifies the origin of their box as Dinajpur in North Bengal. Yet, one that looks very much like it and is at MAA has been noted to be from Benares – so, which one is it?

In the same description, the seller cites a book, Ilay Cooper and John Gillow’s Arts and Crafts of India (1996), for buyers who might want to refer to an example of a similar box.

Figure 4. A spread from Cooper and Gillow’s book Arts and Crafts of India (1996), showing a brass box similar to the ones at MAA.

Cooper and Gillow describe this box as:

‘a brass box with its lid fashioned in the shape of a woman’s head, from Dinajpur, north Bengal.’

Clearly, the antique seller defined the origins of the box they were selling based on this description. And indeed, there is something typically Bengali about it, as was also pointed out to me by one of my colleagues, who spent a lot of time in the region during his doctorate. The almond-shaped eyes of the depicted face, its sharp, pointed noise, thin lips, and a centre hair parting evoke representations of the goddess Durga, a greatly revered deity in Bengal.

Figure 5. A fibre glass pratima (likeness) of the Goddess Durga, slaying Mahishasura. Made by Mintu Paul. 2007. Donated by the Indian Cultural Society. MAA 2017.27.

The face also seems to evoke an ideal of femininity in Bengali society, modelled again after the Goddess; in representations of women in Bengali art and film, an ideal woman is depicted with almond-shaped eyes, made more prominent with black kohl, a centre hair parting, and a red bindi.

Figures 6 and 7. Left – A Kalighat painting of a seated woman, either Devaki or Yashoda, with little Krishna in her lap. Kolkata, India. Collected and donated by Walter Sibbald Adie. MAA 1947.680.16. Right – Poster for renowned Bengali film director Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960). Source: Cinema Adrift.

And yet, despite these similarities with Bengal and Bengali culture, the seller notes that the face on the box is that of Gauri, an incarnation of the goddess Parvati, not Durga. So, which one is it? And are boxes like these from Bengal or from Benares, as MAA’s catalogue suggests?

The answer to this latter question, most plausibly, is both. In their discussion of bronze, brass, and iron crafts in India, Cooper and Gillow point out that ideas and technical knowledge of different casting processes constantly travelled with artisans between different states in India. This led to specialist centres being established in different regions. For instance, both Bengal and Uttar Pradesh were at one point, major centres for the lost-wax casting process, employed in making objects using an alloy of copper and tin. Both states have also been important in creating figurative sculptures for Hindu worship, albeit as Cooper and Gillow write, only small figures (the bigger ones were created in centres like Swamimalai near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India). It is, therefore, highly likely that such brass boxes were made in both Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, and by extension, that the ones at MAA are truly from Benares, whereas the one sold by Indigo Oriental Antiques from Bengal.

Durga or Parvati?

According to the Devi Mahatmya, a Hindu philosophical text on the Goddess, two asura (demon) brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha had sought to conquer the three worlds, i.e., heaven, hell, and earth, by subjecting themselves to severe penance and purification rituals in order that no man or asura could destroy them. They travelled to Pushkara, a sacred site, and remained there in prayer for 10,000 years. Pleased by their penance, Brahma, the creator, granted them the boon they had requested.

But Shumbha and Nishumbha soon began causing a raucous, and Brahma began regretting his decision. He thus tried to convince Parvati to kill the two brothers. Although Brahma’s boon had granted the brothers protection against men and asuras, no such protection existed against goddesses. In order to convince Parvati, Brahma advised Shiva, her husband, to repeatedly call her ‘Kali’ (meaning black or dark-skinned in Hindi) in a mocking way. Agitated by this, Parvati sought to get a golden complexion by performing severe penance to Brahma. Brahma explained that he was unable to grant her this boon, and instead requested her to stop her penance and slay Shumbha and Nishumbha. Parvati agreed and went to bathe in the river Ganga in the Himalaya. As she entered the river, her dark skin washed off and she came back out as a beautiful golden woman in white garments, gaining the epithet ‘Mahagauri’.

She then appeared in front of the gods, who were praying at the Himalaya for the destruction of Shumbha and Nishumbha, after being defeated by them. On realising this, she turned black out of pity for the gods, gaining the epithet ‘Kalika’. She then transformed into Chandi or Chandika, and killed several asuras serving under Shumbha and Nishumbha, beginning with Dhumralochana and his army of 60,000 asuras. Appearing from the third eye of Chandi, the goddess Chamunda then killed Chanda and Munda. Chandi then killed Raktabīja and his clones, while Chamunda drank their blood. Finally, Parvati turned into Kaushiki to kill Shumbha and Nishumbha. After this, she transformed back into the golden-complexioned Mahagauri, who is embodied on the paan boxes at MAA.

There may be several versions of this story [1], but each indicates that Durga, Kali, and Gauri, are all incarnations of the same goddess, Parvati. In each of her various forms, she adopts a different vahana or mount. As Durga, she is seen to be riding a lion or a tiger, as Kali her vahana is a wolf or a fox, and as Gauri it is a godhika or iguana [2].

Paan Daan or a Trophy Necklace?

Figures 1 and 2. Two brass boxes, with their lids fashioned in the shape of a woman’s head. Benares (now Varanasi), India. Acquired and donated by Friedrich Oscar Lechmere-Oertel. MAA 1930.1491.1.1-2 and 1930.1491.2.1-2.

According to the description by Indigo Antiques Seller, brass boxes like these are used for storing paan, a combination of chopped betel nut, slaked lime, and a variety of ingredients ranging from candied fruit and raisins to cardamom, saffron, roasted coconut and even edible silver leaf, rolled into a betel leaf. Gauri aka Durga aka Parvati’s face on the box is significant because Hindus believe that Shiva and Parvati planted the first seeds of betel nut in the Himalayan Ranges. It is for this reason too that betel nut seeds and leaves are used in most Hindu rituals and pujas. Some paan daans are used to store paan as well as containers containing the different ingredients involved in preparing it (Ayesha Fuentes looks at some of these containers in the collections at MAA). However, judging from the size of the boxes above, it is likely that they were used only for the purpose of storing already prepared paans.

Yet, it seems that boxes like these (or possibly even these boxes!) served another purpose. A look into the photographic collections at MAA reveals that boxes like these were also used as head-hunting trophies by Konyak Naga communities. Louis Clarke, curator of MAA from 1922–1937, donated at least four photographs from Assam in 1938, of Konyak Naga men wearing necklaces using such brass boxes as pendants.

Figure 10. A collage of photographs of Konyak Naga warriors in full dress. Photographs made by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, c. 1937-1937, and donated by Louis Colville Gray Clarke From top left to bottom right – MAA P.6540.ACH1, P.6575.ACH1, P.6528.ACH1, P.6550.ACH1.

Up until the 1960s, headhunting was a crucial social practice for Konyak Naga communities. As a mark of honorarium, a young Konyak warrior would receive a facial tattoo when bringing the head of an enemy to the king. It was also common for warriors to wear a necklace with bronze faces, indicating the number of heads the warrior had ‘hunted’. According to Runway India, which spoke to elders of the Hongphoi Village in the Mon District of Nagaland, these necklaces were called yanshang, meaning ‘enemies trophies’. Originally, the pendants for these necklaces were carved using wood, but this material was at some point replaced by brass.

Figure 11. Necklace with a brass human head hanging from a triple strand of cylindrical blue and red glass beads. Worn to indicate head-taking status. The brass head, made by cire-perdue, is actually the lid of a box traded to the Nagas. Collected and donated to MAA by Sir Charles Ridley Pawsey. MAA 1953.442.

The necklaces carved by the Konyak Naga community seem very different in style to the ones worn by the warriors in the photographs above. They lack the features – the almond-shaped eyes, pointed nose, and centre hair parting – of pendants of those necklaces, which makes one wonder: were these brass pendants perhaps borrowed, or traded in return for something else, in order to be made into trophy necklaces? Were these indeed, lids of paan daans at some point? Or were the Konyak Naga makers of these brass pendants borrowing from artistic styles floating around in craft communities in eastern India?

Multiple Lives of Objects, or Object Incarnations

If, indeed, these pendants at one time functioned as lids for paan daans, then they seem to have lived multiple lives, taking on different meanings and properties with each. Like the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, objects like the two brass boxes at MAA, or more particularly their lids, seem to incarnate multifariously. At some point lids of paan daans, at some point pendants of trophy necklaces, and today museum objects, dormant in the collections at MAA, but activated by multiple research engagements with them.


[1] In a different version, possibly appearing in the Devi Mahatmya or the Shiva Purana, Chanda and Munda, encountered the goddess Durga, and were overwhelmed by her beauty. They reported this to Shumbha, who immediately sought to possess her. He sent the asura Sugriva to court Parvati, but she rejected his advances. Shumbha and Nishumbha thus decided to abduct her. First they sent the asura Dhumralochana and his army of 60,000 asuras, who were defeated by various goddesses who had assumed the nine forms of Durga. Then, they sent Chanda and Munda, who were also destroyed by the goddess. Finally, they sent Raktabīja, who was slain by the goddess Kali.

[2] Tribedy, Elora (2023) Small Lives Mattered: Relocating and Reassessing Godha, the Indian Monitor Lizard, in Indian Art and Literature. In Animals in Archaeology: Integrating Landscapes, Environment and Humans in South Asia (A Festschrift for Prof. P.P. Joglekar) Volume 2 (Pankaj Goyal, Abhayan G.S., and Sharada Channarayapatna Eds.), pp. 545-568. Thiruvananthapuram: Department of Archaeology, University of Kerala.


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