Practicing with sacred art is a fundamental and ubiquitous component of dharmic culture. We are used to seeing sacred art – icons, yantras, or other symbolic creations – made by skilled artisans in a temple shrine or even on our altars at home. These beautiful, precise, and powerful artworks guide and inspire our practice.
However, there is a subcategory of sacred art that can be made by anyone, regardless of skill or training. Homemade devotional art is a common offering on spiritual celebration days. The primary requirements are love and enthusiasm!
Making devotional art is a common practice that we often make together with family and friends. It’s a wonderful way for all generations of a family to come together and engage with the teachings and practices.
Devotional art is often made with natural everyday materials that most people have in their house already. Once finished, people use the pieces for worship and then generally dissolve them when the celebration is complete.
Benefits of Devotional Art:
Besides being a great way to connect with family and culture, here are some other reasons why making devotional art is good for you:
1) The various celebration days are linked to the cycles of nature. Making relevant devotional art connects us with these rhythms, and also the movement of space and time.
2) By making sacred art, we allow the transcendent power of each deity to reach us in a tangible, personal, and intimate way. The divine becomes real for us rather than an abstract concept.
3) Making sacred art is a multi-sensory whole-body experience. We work with our entire body: eyes, ears, lips, speech, scent, hands, posture… as well as our mind: attention, creativity, and intellect. And of course, with deep feeling and love, awakening our heart.
4) The deities embody powers of divine grace. By bringing them to life in our own homes, we invoke that grace and blessing power. We receive protection from the forces of darkness and suffering, and attain wisdom and love.
5) Making sacred art yourself – rather than hiring someone to do it for you – opens a direct channel between you and the divine. There is no intermediary and you can actually have the experience that the divine is yours and you are divine.
6) Because the process engages your entire being, its impact is exponentially greater. Many of us get into the habit of doing our daily mantras or other practices by rote, without attention or thought.
Setting aside time for a devotional art practice at various points throughout the year will ensure that you break up your regular routine and give your full attention and energy to the divine. This heightened engagement will shift your personal karma much faster! And, it will jumpstart and re-infuse life into your routine practice.
7) It’s really fun! With homemade devotional art, there’s no pressure to make it perfect. We want to offer our best, but there’s freedom to play and be creative. It is something we can do with even a few materials and just a little bit of time!
Today, we will be making an icon of the goddess of trees and plants, Śākambharī-devī. She is an ecological goddess and an incarnation of Mā Durgā. You can learn more about her here. We have chosen to create her in a specific style of iconography, but you are free to add your own regional variations and adornments if you wish.
Estimated time: 1-2 hours
Before we begin making sacred art, we need to do some basic preparations. The first step is to prepare the space in which we will be working.
1) Find a clean, quiet area to work in. It should not be a bathroom or near/facing a trash can. You can assemble Mā on a table or on the floor, or outside on earth or grass. Generally speaking, we don’t place our deities in the southern direction but if you have no other choice that’s fine.
2) If you are assembling her on the floor, we recommend using a tray or cloth to place under her. Also, make sure she is not in a location where she is likely to get stepped on or people need to cross over her to get by. (If you have pets, you really need to keep this in mind!)
3) Tidy up the area you are working in. You can sanctify the space by lighting a flame or burning some incense. Turn off the TV or other noise sources. While working, you can chant or repeat mantras to her.
The next step is to prepare yourself.
1) If you haven’t already, take a shower or bathe. (You should smell nice). Wash your hands before you begin.
2) Wear clean, modest clothes, covering shoulders and legs. Your feet can be bare or with socks, but no shoes. Avoid wearing leather if possible.
Next, we need to prepare our materials.
1) You will also need about a half-cup of turmeric and 1-2 teaspoons of kumkum powder. Natural and organic (not dyed) is optimal.
2) Gather a range of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and leaves. This can be things you have in your house, garden, or are otherwise readily available. Everything is fine except garlic and onions. Grains and legumes are fine as well, but since Śākambharī is the goddess of trees and plants we encourage you to choose fresh, juicy, and moist ingredients!
3) Avoid damaged, bruised, or rotting ingredients. Also, avoid smelling or tasting any of the ingredients you are offering. (It’s not nice to give your seconds to someone else!) However, if this happens by accident, don’t worry – it is your intention that matters most here!
You can use whole fruits or veggies or sliced, depending on what size and shape you prefer. (For example, cucumber is more interesting when sliced). Don’t slice if you want to make a huge artwork or have it last longer than a day.
4) Wash and clean all your ingredients and arrange them neatly in a tray. Out of respect, avoid putting them directly on the floor or touching them with your feet.
Lastly, we prepare spiritually before beginning sacred art. You can repeat your mantra or other invocation. It is traditonal to ask for Śrī Gaṇeśa and Sarasvatī’s blessings (for auspiciousness and creative inspiration), and also the deity who you are working on (in this case, invoke Durgā). You can do formal nyāsa (purificatory breathwork) or simply take a few deep centering breaths. Let your mind and body settle and connect with the space of your heart.
Connect with your love and longing for the divine. With humility and sweetness, ask Mā to bless you by coming into form in your home, through your hands. Ask her for her grace and guidance.
Right attitude is the foundation when it comes to this type of practice, and also protects us from the consequences of any unintentional mistakes. We must be sincere in our prayers!
This whole process of spiritual preparation might only take a few minutes, but it is essential for creating the ritual container that separates ordinary art from sacred practice.
Building the Face:
1) Get a small flat plate or surface (make sure it is clean).
2) In a small bowl, slowly mix 3-4 tbsp of turmeric with small amounts of water. It will make a paste, and you want enough to cover the plate with a thick layer, like frosting.
3) As you mix the turmeric and water, it will start to become spongy. When it starts to become sticky, it is ready. It should hold its shape like soft clay, but not be liquidy. It needs to be more like soft dough than batter.
4) Place a large gob of turmeric into the center, and then start slowly pressing it down to the sides working in a clockwise direction. It should now look kind of like a paste tortilla.
5) Take a flat-edged spatula or similar implement and hold it at an acute angle close to the surface. Spread it from the center to the edges on the first go so that the thickness is relatively even.
As gently as possible, slide the spatula towards you from top to bottom in parallel strokes, trying not to create lines.
6) Turn the plate 90 degrees and repeat. Be sure not to use any force so there’s no indentation. Allow the weight of the spatula to do the work. Be sure to lift the spatula a little before you finish the stroke so you don’t pull the turmeric off the plate. It’s a very gentle motion!
7) Turn the plate 45 degrees and repeat.
8) Turn the plate 90 degrees for the final smoothing process.
Assembling Her Face and Hair:
1) Take a toothpick or bamboo skewer and mark the center of the circle very, very lightly.
2) Draw the eyes exactly halfway from the top – so the center of the eye is directly on the horizontal middle line.
The eyes are large, wide and almond-shaped. They are traditionally drawn with a little upturned tail on the outer corner. There is only a small gap between them – they aren’t meant to be anatomically correct!
Also, we do not draw the pupils at this time. If we draw them in now, the goddess is looking at us AS we are building her, which can be an intense experience, especially if you make a mistake!
3) Draw the eyebrows long and parallel to the top edge of the eyes. They should be longer than the top of the eyes. In fact, you can even draw them all the way to the edge of the circle.
4) Draw the bottom of the nose in a small and wide “u” shape. It should be halfway from the center diameter of the circle and the bottom of the circle (i.e. a quarter of the way up).
5) Split the distance again between the nose and the chin, and draw the mouth at the halfway point. The bow of the upper lip is above this point and the lower lip curves below. The mouth should curve gracefully upwards to make a pleasant smile.
6) Lastly, make a small marking for her bindi. This is the circle just above and between her eyebrows. Depending on the region, it can be large and round or a smaller circle with a thin crescent moon underneath.
7) Use kumkum, pomegranate, coriander, flax, or other seeds, lentils, or grains to fill in the lines of her facial features. We chose pomegranate, but anything is fine as long as it is not black.
Assembling Her Body:
1) Start building rows of fruit and vegetable necklaces directly under her chin. Use your creativity to build and contrast different textures, shapes, and colors. This is entirely up to you! If you are unsure, check in with Mā in your heart to see what feels right.
There is no limit on how many garlands or necklaces you can adorn her with. You can also mix and match fruits, flowers, leaves and vegetables to make patterned necklaces.
You may want to trim one side flat to keep them from rolling away. Using honey or some other edible adhesive is also fine. Some people prefer to pre-string the garlands, which is also an option!
2) You can use cilantro, parsley, or other leaves or sprouts to make hair. Tiny strands of flowers or leaves is ok as well. The hair should be loose and lay over the ends of the smaller necklaces under her chin.
Building Her Crown:
Now it’s time to ornament her face and head.
1) Create earrings on top of her hair on either side of her cheeks.
2) Use a beautiful vegetable or fruit to create the bottom edge of her crown (typically this would be pearls or gold on the bottom edge). We chose cauliflower florets, but you can use whatever contrasts in color and looks beautiful. It needs to be relatively small and it goes over the edge of the top of the circle.
3) Create an ornamental band above the small row on her forehead.
4) Keep adding materials to build a tall and high crown, in a loosely conical shape. The crown should be taller than the height of her face.
5) There should be something representing a lotus bud or large gem on top. We chose a small lime for this.
6) Fill in any gaps with smaller seeds, grains, flowers, berries, or whatever brings delight to your heart.
7) Above both ears, and next to the crown, you can place a large flower or flower-like round arrangement. (N.B. Not every region has this exact configuration, but generally speaking, the more ornamentation the better). We placed two pink camellias above her ears for this.
8) Build an aura around her head with contrasting color material that helps to showcase the face and crown. We chose peppers and leaves for this.
9) Now, go back and build around the entire goddess as large as you would like. You can add extra garlands, repeat patterns, or simply add to the “canvas” overall.
10) Also, scan her form and fill in any holes or empty spaces. We used berries for this.
Remember, the whole thing should feel like it is overflowing with power and beauty. It needs to feel abundant and generous. Make sure nothing is too sparse or spread-out, with no gaps. Your devotional art should delight your senses and feel uplifting when you look at it. You may start to experience a childlike sense of wonder – that means you are on the right track and it is working!
Bringing Art to Life:
There are two more steps for this art to be complete. At this point, make any last minute changes or corrections that you want to make.
Once we put her eyes in and invoke her, we do not alter her body or form!
Placing the Eyes:
As discussed earlier, we wait until the end to put in her eyes. We wait to do this because we don’t want her to arrive in an incomplete body.
If she’s incomplete, she might not be able to do her job properly or it might manifest in an inauspicious way.
For the eyes, you can use any of the materials you used for the rest of her face. We chose cranberries. When you place the eyes, take a moment to pause and see her, and let her see you.
The Sacred Mark:
Marking the third eye is to acknowledge and honor the living, divine consciousness within someone. So we now place her bindi with kumkum powder. You can gently place it with your ring finger or pinch some dry powder with your ring finger and thumb and slowly drop it into place.
Practicing with the Goddess!
Now, it is time for the magical experience called darśan. It is deeply meaningful – in this space, the veil between you and divinity is lifted. You are seeing Her and She is seeing you.
She is alive and embodied now, so you can make your prayers to her and also make offerings. Be sure to bow with respect and do not point your feet at her!
Traditionally, you can wave a flame, offer incense, fruits, flowers, nuts, milk, or a meal… you can sing mantras or hymns, offer sacred dance, meditate… or, just spend time in her presence and let her blessings and wisdom permeate your being.
She has come into being out of love for you – so even if you are in a rush, just make one simple offering. A mantra, a deep bow, a quick prayer – too often, we rush when it is time to receive. So enjoy your time with her!
And, because traditionally this is done in community, feel free to invite others to have darśan or make offerings. You can also share your art with the global community by posting to social media with the hashtags #livingsanskrit and #ecogoddess.
Dissolution and Next Steps:
When it is time to dissolve the artwork, make a final bow to Śākambharī-mā (Mother Śākambharī) and thank her for her presence and blessings. Ask her to stay with you and guide you even as you dissolve this particular form.
Start at the base and gently remove all of her ornamentation. The edible portions can be cooked into prasāda and shared if you wish.
Alternatively, everything can be placed in a body of water (make sure it will not cause ecological damage) or under a tree or buried in the earth. It does not go into the trash, however!
The plate that made the base for her face can be washed and used again normally (unless you really want to set it aside). Because we are householders and this is our own personal devotional art, there is a little more flexibility in terms of differentiating between “worldly” objects and sacred ones.
In the days and weeks to come, take time to notice the trees, forests, plants, fruits, and vegetables in our world. Recognize the nourishment and protection they offer to all beings. Learn to see the Mother’s face and love in each of these things.
-Eat mindfully and with awareness and gratitude. Commit to eating nourishing, sustainable, loving food. The food you are eating is the living form of the Supreme Goddess – it is prāna-śakti, the power of breath, the power of life.
-Reflect on the relationship between sacred wisdom and ecology. Become present to the interconnected flow of all life. Dedicate yourself and your practice to protecting nature and all creation.
May Śakambharī-devī’s blessings and love flow upon this planet. May we remember our responsibility to protect our ecology. May the rivers flow clean. May the forests be restored. May all beings be nourished.
ॐ शांति: शांति: शांति: ।