Bharat Mata: A 150-Year-Old Concept That Came to Represent 5000 Years of Civilisation
History is the most dangerous discipline, simply because it can be used as a tool to brainwash people into believing things that further the agenda of some. In our own country, history has been rewritten a few times, and each of these times, it has invariably come with a change in the government. Attempts have been made to paint the medieval period of Indian history, which saw Islamic rulers reign over most of the subcontinent, as a period of slavery, a dark time when 'we' were oppressed by 'invaders.'
In recent times, there have been claims of a glorious past with 5,000 years of continuity, as well as cultural unity and a national identity that dates back to ancient times. Terms like 'Bharatavarsha' and 'Bharat Mata' are products of such claims.
The chanting of the slogan 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' has become an extremely controversial topic. Members of Parliament are being required to chant the slogan, and even schoolchildren are being required to write it on their admission forms. Bharat Mata is seen as a deity that personifies India, which can be problematic for people of other religions such as Islam and Sikhism, which prohibit idol worship.
So, if Bharat Mata is a symbol that represents India, and chanting slogans involving her goes against the religious belief of crores of people in the country, then it stands to reason that a national identity is being built based on a particular religious identity. And since Bharat Mata is a symbol of national identity, it is important to trace its origins.
The first documented mention of the term was not in ancient India. By some accounts, it was in 1866, in a satirical piece called the Unabimsa Purana. Most accounts refer to a play titled Bharat Mata, written by Kiran Chandra Banerjee, which was first performed in 1873, as the first mention of the deity. The first known visual portrayal of Bharat Mata, the deity, was in Abanindrinath Tagore's painting in 1905, in the backdrop of the partitioning of Bengal by Lord Curzon. The following is the original painting.
If this does not seem like the Bharat Mata you've seen, then this is why: it does not feature a mapped image of the territory of British India. According to The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, this is because this deity was not meant to represent a nation. Referring to the painting, this is what the book says:
Goddess though she may be, nothing indicates that she is a new deity of a country, even if the artist apparently first named her Banga Mata (Mother Bengal), and only later called her Bharat Mata. The tricolor banner and mapped form of India that most obviously signal her pictorial appearance as novel goddess of a nation and country are nowhere present.
The book says that Tagore's visualisation of the goddess had very little to do with the subsequent portrayals of Bharat Mata, which invariably feature her with the tricolour in the foreground of a map of British India.
The idea of personification of a nation has existed in Europe for centuries. Britannia, the female personification of the British Isles, dates back to the Roman Empire, where it was a symbol used on coins. The symbol evolved over time, and continued to be used as a representation of Britain as a nation when the idea of nation-states and national identity emerged in Europe during the Renaissance. This is what it looks like.
While a link between the two cannot be confirmed beyond any doubt, the resemblance is uncanny. Given that Bharat Mata as a visual symbol came into being in the early 20th century, when the British still ruled India, and educated Indians might have been aware of the existence of Britannia, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that the symbol of Bharat Mata was inspired by Britannia, and does not have its origins in ancient India.