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‘What’s in a name’

To overcome the dilemma of giving a fitting name to these ethereal female figures of ancient Indian sculpture, one has to go back to the much-used quote from Shakespeare, for the names by which we identify them, any other word would find them just as beautiful.

Prasenjit Dasgupta |

That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet.

-Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 2

The thought of Junoesque female forms in Mathura, whenever they come to mind, are touched with the whiff of mystery. They are more than two centuries old. All of them are standing, mostly facing the viewer, and each of them is engaged in something or nothing, which is different from another. The mystery in them lies in their name. They are known as Yakshi.

Yakshis of Mathura are mostly found sculpted on the railings of a Buddhist Stupa in Bhuteshwar. Buddhist Stupa railings are a special feature of ancient Indian architecture. Here, in Mathura and at some other places, each pillar of the railing, which is equidistant from the next or previous one, is adorned with the figure of a standing Yakshi. They are young, sensuous with full round breasts, ample butts, long and beautiful legs. Their faces are pretty, with either a smile or enigmatic, touched by melancholy.

Some of them are holding a bunch of flowers or fruits, or a tumbler, or a birdcage. The upper part of their body is not covered, and on the lower portion, they are having a gorgeous cummerbund, but no garment can be seen hanging from it or tied to it, and that has left their private areas visible.

By the look of these Yakshis, and considering them to be related with Buddhist religious sculpture, one may start disbelieving that the Buddhist masters have always preached in favour of austerity and celibacy.

It is believed that in the Buddhist age, there was a sect called Yakshas. A female Yaksha is the Yakshi. In Hindu mythology a class of people with the same name is found. As per Hindu Puranas, Kuber is the King of the Yakshas. The Buddhist counterpart of Kuber is Jambhala. His wife is Hariti. Hariti was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha himself, and at Buddha’s wish, Hariti was promoted to the level of a Goddess.

It is also assumed that during the ages of Buddhist supremacy, the Yakshas had embraced this religion. In both Hindu and Buddhist texts Yakshas have been described as rich, contented and opulent people. Some male and female figures of similar nature have also been found in the pillars of the railings of the stupa at Bharhoot.

Bharhoot is a place near Satna in Madhya Pradesh. The specialty of the sculptures and statues here is that, most of these come with a caption or a name tag, inscribed on the pedestal or other conspicuous place. Here, most of the males and females are either a Yaksha or a Yakshi, and some others are a God or Goddess.

The most renowned amongst the statues of Bharhoot is Chandra, the Yakshi, now stationed in Indian Museum, Kolkata, with a part of the railing and gateway of the Bharhoot Stupa. She is seen in a standing posture, facing the viewer, holding a branch of a tree with one hand and the fingers of the other have formed a curious symbol in front of the centre of her body.

Probably, for the names inscribed on the Bharhoot sculptures, these statues and almost all other figures on the Buddhist Stupa Railings and on some other type of architecture have been designated as Yakshi. Some separate statues of the Buddhist period are also referred to as Yaksha or Yakshi. For example, the male figure of Maurya period found in Parkham, or the lady bearing Chamara or fly-whisk also belonging probably to Maurya period, found in Deedarganj near Patna, which are respectively known as Parkham Yaksha and the Deedarganj Yakshi. In Sanghol, various statues have been found on the Stupa railings dated from Kushana period. These sculptures have a close resemblance with those of Mathura and Bharhoot. Here also the lone females have been designated as Yakshi.

Even then, there are certain exceptions. Take the example of Sanchi. Here, the girl on the southern gateway, who is almost hanging from the branches of a flowering tree, with generous amount of ornaments on her body, but with the shortest garment on her lower body is known as Brikshika, or a Tree-girl.

A statue of single female, leaning upon a tree, or almost embracing the trunk of it, or holding a branch of a tree to support her body are not rare in Indian sculpture. It is said that Mayadevi, the mother of Gautam Buddha, clung to a Sal tree while giving birth to her illustrious son in the forest of Lumbini. This may be one of the reasons for which sculptures of female with close proximity of a tree is known as Salbhanjika.

But the Sanchi girl is someone special. She is not like the other Salbhanjikas. Her posture and other specialties are unique. Some experts are of the opinion that she is a kind of forest-goddess, at whose touch trees and plants bloom. But her appearance is more sensuous than goddess.

Commencing in the pre-Christ era, the construction of the Buddhist sculptures continued till the first half of the first millennium of the Christian era. Then came the age of Hindu temple architecture. It did not take their makers much time to start decorating the outer face of the temples with various types of sculptures, and beautiful feminine figures were quite common amongst these decorative sculptures.

Numerous art-historians and archaeologists say that the decoration of a temple with female figures and couples are for religious direction and sanction. But that is not the matter of discussion here. For we are dealing with the variety of names used to refer to the female figures sculpted in Indian art. With great surprise we find that though the figures on the walls of the Hindu temples are not quite different from the bevy of girls in Buddhist sculptures, they are not referred to as Yakshi.

For female figures of the Hindu temples, the two foremost instances that come to mind to most people are Khajuraho and Konarak. Here the statues of sole females are abundant. females are also profuse as partners in couples. In Khajuraho, and in many other temples of north, central and eastern India, these women figures are usually known as Kanya, i.e. damsel, and also as indolent damsels, or Alasakanya. Alasa or indolent, i.e. idle or sluggish means ‘doingnothing’, as they are in some cases.

Though all the sole girls have been named such, a viewer will find that most of these Alasakanyas are doing something or other. Some are fiddling with the pet bird or animal, some of these girls are doing their make up or combing their hair, some seem to be waiting for a dear one, some have babies in their laps, many of them are seen playing musical instruments, some are in the process of getting dressed, some can be seen in dancing postures, etc. Yet many experts and researchers have designated all and sundry single females carved in sculptures to be ‘indolent damsels’.

In the Sun Temple of Konarak there is no lack of feminine beauties and the walls of this temple is filled with such figures. Bigger statues of dancing and female musicians embellish the roofs of the temple. These statues are shown busy playing musical instruments. They are called Surasundari. Here Sura is the rhythm of music and Sundari stands for pretty woman.

Once, in this connection, artist and art critic OC Gangooly, in a personal letter asked Nirmal Kumar Basu, eminent anthropologist-cum-archaeologist as to whether their name is Surasundari or Soura-sundari, because Soura means something related with Sun i.e. Solar. The question was raised because this particular temple was dedicated to the Sun God. It is unfortunate that Mr Basu’s answer could not be retrieved.

In the sixties of the last century, two historians, Sadashivnath Rath and Ms. Alice Boner, unearthed a text titled ‘Shilpa Prakash’ belonging to the eighteenth century. This text was compiled by one Ram Chandra Kaulachar, admittedly on the basis of an older text of eleventh century, titled ‘Soudhikagama Kaulachar’, in his text, has designated any sculpture of a single female as Alasakanya. He has also stated firmly that temple architecture is incomplete without the decoration of Alasakanya on it. He has termed this type of decoration ‘Naribandha’ or ‘Alasabandha’ in his text.

In ‘Shilpa Prakash’, Alasabandha has been divided into 16 classes or types, on the basis of their expressions. For example, a girl holding a flower is Padmagandha, a lady playing a drum is Mardala, the one holding a mirror is Darpana while with fly-whisk is Chamara, the one with her anklet is Nupurapadika, etc.

However, many experts and scholars have criticized this division, as it does not take into account a number of other activities of the Kanyas sculpted on the ancient temples.

For example, the flautist from Lakshmana Temple at Khajuraho, is one of the rare specimens of female forms in India art because she has been sculpted with the back-view. The visitor sees her rear side, and finds that all the minute curves of her body have been chiselled in a manner that depicts her natural form while she is blowing the flute with bodily force. But the Shilpa Prakash is silent about her type.

Apart from the names for the females derived from the art and architecture related texts, there is another source that provides a base of their nomenclature.

In ancient Sanskrit literature authored by Kalidas, Bhas, Magh, Banbhatta, Bhababhuti, and many others, some names are found which are believed to be the adjectives for those girls, based on their respective nature and character. Nipunika, Chaturika, Madanika, Madhulika, Harinika, and other such names may be examples of such adjectives.

Some persons prefer to name these single females of Indian sculpture in that category. This is mainly observed in the temples of South India, particularly in the temples of Hoysala architecture, in Belur, Halebidu and Somnathpur.

The musicians and dancing girls seen in the decorations of Chenna Keshava Temple or Hoysalaeswara Temple are referred to as Madanika, the amorous one; or Nipunika, the smart one; or Chaturika, the clever one; based on their facial and bodily expressions.

The oldest figure of a single female in Indian art is perhaps the Dancing Girl made of bronze from Mohenjodaro. Starting with her, Indian Art has witnessed a sea of development, variation and revolution. There were the Yakshis of Mathura, Bharhoot, Sanghol, and Deedarganj; then there was the Brikshika of Sanchi; and then came the age of Alasakanyas or ‘Indolent Damsels’.

At different areas of the subcontinent and in different ages of history, these single girls in ancient Indian sculpture have been known in different names. Sometime and somewhere they are Surasundari; in some ages they were Darpana, or Nupurpadika, or Chamara; once upon a time they were either Nipunika, or Chaturika, or Madanika; and then again, to some they are always just a female figure or Kanya-murti.

To overcome the dilemma of giving a fitting name to these ethereal figures of ancient Indian sculpture, one has go back to the much-used quote from Shakespeare, for the names by which we identify them, any other word would find them just as beautiful.