The Goddesses Nanda and Sunanda of Kumaon

Some of the earliest mentions of divine Nanda and Sunanda are found in ancient Sanskrit texts. It cannot be confirmed if these references have any connection with more recent worship of these goddesses in Kumaon region but they deserve mention for the probable origin of these glorious goddesses. The Bhāgavata Purāna also known as Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, is one of the Puranic texts of Sanskrit literature. It includes  many stories well known in Vedic tradition. The text credits Veda Vyasa, the revered ancient sage, with its authorship. Here is a verse from this text,

 “Also, Srutadeva, Uddhava and others, Nanda, Sunanda and other leaders of liberated souls who are constant companions of the Lord” Canto 1 Chapter 14

According to this verse, Nanda and Sunanda are close to the eternal lord with the same position as the highest of Angels of the Lord and amongst the leaders of liberated souls that are constantly engaged in serving God. A story in chapter 12 of the same text about King Dhruva tells more about one ancient mission of Nanda and Sunanda while also describing them. Following is an extract From Canto 4, Chapter 12 about King Dhruva,

King Dhruva realized that this universe consisting of God’s external energy was just like a dream. He considered everything created comprising his body, his wives, children, friends, his influence, riches, the pleasure grounds, the facilities for his women and the beauty of the earth with its oceans, as something transient and for that reason he left for the Himalayan forest. There he purified his body, bathing in pure water and in yoga postures, controlled the breathing process by withdrawing the mind from his physical senses. Concentrating on the Lord he constantly kept in mind, he thus became fully absorbed in the Lord. Constantly engaged in his devotion for Lord, the Supreme Personality he attained everlasting bliss and again and again overcome by a stream of tears that made his heart melt and all the hairs of his body stand on end. He no longer remembered that he had a body and was thus liberated being materially bound. 

Dhruva then saw a very beautiful heavenly vehicle descending from the sky that illumined him and the ten directions as if the full moon itself had appeared. Therein he discerned two beautiful demigods with four arms, a blackish skin, being quite young and with eyes as pink as a lotus flower. They held clubs and were attractively dressed and decorated with helmets, bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Understanding them to be two Angels of the Lord, he stood up, respectfully joined his hands offering his respects while Nanda and Sunanda, the two angels of the One smilingly approached and addressed him. Nanda and Sunanda said, “Oh best of kings! All good fortune to you! Listen attentively to our words. You are the one who greatly satisfied God by doing penance.  You have achieved the world of the Lord that is so difficult to achieve that not even the greatest of enlightenment could reach there. Come and see the supreme abode around the moon, the  sun, the other planets and the stars are rotating. Then in having paid his obeisance to the two associates, whose form shone with golden effulgence Dhruva got on board”

It may be noted here that Nanda and Sunanda are not described clearly as male or female. This is explained in another Sanskrit  text about the Maha Devi and it may be the case here too as regards the highest angels of the Lord. It refers to Shakti, an entity without body, who is neither male nor female, and whose energy can give life to any divine representations. Her definition is given in the Devi Bhagavata Purana as follows,

“I am Manifest Divinity, Unmanifest Divinity, and Transcendent Divinity. I am Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Lakshmi and Parvati. I am the Sun and I am the Stars, and I am also the Moon.  I am all animals and birds, and I am the outcaste as well, and the thief. I am the low person of dreadful deeds, and the great person of excellent deeds. I am female. I am male. I am neuter.”

Aside from such references in Sanskrit texts we have historical evidence from other parts of World where the Great Goddess was worshiped under the names that could be variations of the name Nanda - Nana, Naini, Naina, Nainia etc. She was widely worshipped  in  the ancient area corresponding to Afghanistan, Ninevah, Turkmenistan, and Northwest India. She can  be seen on seals of the Bactria-Margiana Complex, dating to 2500-1500 BC. She was typically depicted as a seated martial goddess, escorted by a lion. The Kushanas to India apparently introduced her as apparent from their coinage samples that still survive. Depictions of her are known from Afghanistan as late as the 5-6th century and it appears that she is worshiped even today in Baluchistan and Afghanistan under the name "Bibi Nani" 


On their arrival in India, the Kushanas  realized that the goddess they worshiped as Nana was being worshiped under the name of Goddess Durga. According to a narrative in Devi Mahatmya story of Markandeya Purana, Durga was created as a warrior goddess to fight an asura (an inhuman force/demon) named Mahishasura. Brahma had given Mahishasura the power not to be defeated by a male. Mahishasura had unleashed a reign of terror on Earth, heavens and the nether worlds. Any man or god, anywhere could not defeat him. The gods were helpless. Shiva, realizing that no man or male god can defeat Mahishasura, made a request to his wife Parvati to take the role of a female goddess warrior in order to slay the demon. All of the gods emitted beams of fierce light from their bodies. The blinding sea of light reached Parvati at the Ashram of the priest Katyayannd. Durga emerged from this pool of light. She introduced herself in the language of the Rig-Veda, saying she was a form of the supreme female aspect of Brahman (the male aspect being Shiva) who had created all gods. Now she had come to fight the demon to save the gods. When Mahishasur the demon had half emerged into his buffalo form, extreme light emitting from the goddess’s body paralyzed him. The goddess then resounded with laughter before cutting Mahishasur's head down with her sword. Thus Durga slew Mahishasur hence, Mata Durga is also known as the slayer of Mahishasur.

When reading ancient literature some mystics believe that the stories are metaphorical but contain deep mystical truths that cannot be described in ordinary language. If this is so or not is left to the reader.

If  Goddess Durga is a supreme aspect of Brahma and goddesses Nanda and Sunanda  leading associates of Brahma as per Veda Vyasa, some spiritualists may draw a subtle distinction between the two goddesses. However for ordinary mortals as well as mystics who see everything as a facet (one of the infinite faces of the Ultimate Reality) of  Ultimate Reality,  this distinction may not be meaningful or influence their worship in any manner. However, this point has been mentioned  by this author in his novel "Nude besides the Lake" ( can be found easily by search tool at or Google search; use ‘besides’ in search keywords not ‘beside’) while speculating on the hypothesis of Queen Victoria too being regarded as an avatar of the goddess Nanda.

It seems, Kanishka I the Kushana King who arrived in India from Persia and who was devoted to the Persian goddess Nana recognized both Nana and Durga as the same goddess with two different names merged in the same image of the goddess with lion. It was the ancient Kushanas or Kassites who appear to have established the worship of  Goddess first in the Kumaon region as per archeological evidence. The goddess Nana worshiped by them appears to have been referred to as Nanda Devi as well as Kassar Devi i.e. the Goddess of the Kassars or Kassites.

Nanda and Sunanda

It appears that the Katyuri kings of Kumaon and later the Chand Dynasty that came to rule the region adopted worship of the goddess and made her their Patron Goddess. They called her by the name Nanda. Nanda was considered to be the daughter of Himalaya and Nanda Devi Peak as her residence as goddess goddess Parvati (of the mountains). Nanda is worshiped both in her warrior form as Durga as well as her benign compassionate form.  In Kumaon, temples of Nanda Devi are situated in Nainital, Almora, Ranikhet, Ranchoola, Malla Danpur and at many places in Garhwal.

During the period of Chand Kings, Nanda Devi worship took the shape of a Fair. Prior to this Nanda Devi was being worshiped, but at that time only an idol of Nanda Devi used to be worshiped. The custom to make two idols started from period of Baj Bahadur Chand. Even today only one idol is prepared in remote villages. The reason for this addition appears to because it appears that the goddesses Nanda and Sunanda took birth together as princesses in the royal family and to mark this new reincarnation, the practice of celebrating a festival for both sisters together was introduced.  A story from their life is enacted - while walking in the forest a bull chased them. They hid themselves behind a banana tree and some bushes. A goat came there and ate away the banana leaves with the result Nanda and Sunanda became visible to the bull, which killed both the sisters. This is the reason that a goat and bull are sacrificed during the celebrations. Some say that this departure due to a buffalo was necessary to complete the earlier karmic debt when Ma Durga had slain the demon as a buffalo.

The Gurkhas and British

In early 1790, Gurkhas invaded Kumaon hills and Almora, under their powerful chief Prithvi Narayan. The Chand Raja, was driven to the Bhabhar and finally expelled. The Nepalese rule lasted for a ruthless twenty-four years and the end came because of their repeated intrusion into the British territories in the Tarai since early 1800. Lord Moira, the Governor-General of India, decided to attack Almora in December 1814. This marked the beginning of the Anglo-Nepalese War. After the British won the war, the region came under British rule.

During British rule many British too became devotees of the goddess. Some believe that the Goddess Nanda then took birth as the British Queen Victoria in order to ensure that British ruled her Kumaon subjects with justice and fairness while also developing the region with the help of their technical skills. There is a story that during British period the then Kumaon Commissioner, Mr. Trail lost his eyes during Nanda Kot Yatra. After reaching Almora, he shifted the Nanda Idol from Malla Mahal to Udyot Chandeshwar Temple and arranged worshipping of the Nanda Devi. With the blessings of Nanda Devi, he got back his eyes.

The graceful peak of Nanda Devi  along with her companion Sunanda Devi, is visible from almost everywhere in Kumaon. Nanda Devi who is believed  to be the reincarnation of Parvati is said to represent the icy, unmoving form of Parvati in endless meditation on her spiritual consort, Lord Shiva. 

Nanda Devi and Sunanda Devi: Main and East Summits (photo: Alex Moran) From

Nanda Devi is a two-peaked massif oriented east-west. The west summit is higher, and the eastern summit is called Nanda Devi East. Together the peaks are referred to as the twin peaks of the goddess Nanda. However, this author in his novel, ‘Nude besides the lake” that has the Nainital region as its backdrop first revealed the name of  Nanda Devi East as Sunanda Devi  in published literature and since then that usage has widely replaced the European nomenclature of Nanda Devi East in several recent published sources. There is a seperate detailed post on that in this blog - The rightful recognition of Nanda Devi east as Sunanda Devi - at this link (

Willi Unsoeld, one of the most accomplished American climbers of his generation, first set eyes on Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India and a peak of legendary beauty, he so fell in love with it that he vowed that should he ever have a daughter, he would name her after it. A few years later, he was indeed blessed with a baby girl and named her Nanda Devi. In 1976, he returned to the mountain along with his daughter when a tragedy took place. In his words,

Andy and Devi had now been at 24,000 feet for nearly five days. We packed for departure when at 11:45 Devi was suddenly stricken. She had time only to say with great calm, “I am going to die,” when she lapsed into unconsciousness. We tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, but with no sign of success. Within fifteen minutes I felt her lips growing cold against mine and I knew that we had lost her. As our faculties gradually returned to us, we discussed what was to be done. We agreed that it would be most fitting for Devi’s body to be committed to the snows of the mountain for which she had come to feel such a deep attachment. Andy, Peter and I knelt in a circle in the snow and grasped hands while each chanted a broken farewell to the comrade who had so recently filled such a vivid place in our lives. My final prayer was one of thanksgiving for a world filled with the sublimity of the high places, for the sheer beauty of the mountains and for the surpassing miracle that we should be so formed as to respond with ecstasy to such beauty, and for the constant element of danger without which the mountain experience would not exercise such a grip on our sensibilities. We then laid the body to rest in its icy tomb, at rest on the breast of the Bliss Giving Goddess Nanda.”

Much more about the lovely goddesses full of love and blessings can be found in a book by the author:
Naini Mata, Goddess of Nainital
The book can be found at Amazon 

Photo adapted from Mt Nanda Devi 23rd Highest peak by Anirban C8 taken from


This note on Bibi Nani is worth reading
Although much has been lost through time and many different stories of the Mother Goddess exist in different parts of the world, all agree that she is the Supreme form of the universal mother goddess and although her forms and names may not be fully known her love can be sensed in the heart with devotion.

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