Vines, Creepers and Trees
Female Creepers, Male Trees
Portrayal of a virgin entwined around a blossoming tree is a characteristic motif of the early Indian art (c. 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE).
Such voluptuous females with abundant jewelry, elaborate headdresses and coiffures are reminiscent of Indus Valley terracotta figurines. These figures are believed to be charged with potent sexual energy. The trees are their male counterparts in vegetal form. Such leaning females are called Yakshinis and the trees they lean against, when in human form, Yakshas.
Yakshini is a vessel of fertility, capable of bringing forth new life. Yaksha is a water deity. When both figures are in human form they are known as Mithuna. All these images, Yakshini, Yaksha and Mithuna are fundamental symbols of water, fertility and vegetative growth.
Yakshinis and Mithunas, the harbingers of fertility and prosperity, are positioned near excavated cave entrances or carved on elaborate Buddhist doorways as good luck charms. Passing through or under them is considered efficacious. The figures are believed to bless the passing devotees with fertility, fecundity and fruitfulness. Didarganj Yakshini, a pillar like image is a remarkable example of such female images.
Fleshy and voluptuous, Didargunj Yakshini (in the picture) conveys a great sense of power. It’s stone pedestal is untouched, giving the image an appearance of emerging from the earth itself. The emphasis on breasts and hips express her maternity as well as sexuality. Similar to the Indus Valley terracotta figurines, it is decked with elaborate ornaments including a beaded girdle, heavy anklets, armbands, necklaces and earrings. Precious metals were regarded as stores of creative energy of nature.
Sometimes Yakshinis stand on animals called vahanas such as a fish tailed elephant, a sea horse or mythical makara. The vahanas are aquatic symbols of water, a necessity for vegetative growth.
The carvings of Yakshinis and Mithunas are full figured and firmly fleshed. Their waists are small and their limbs tapered. The female figures have wide hips, full thighs and heavy breasts. The early couples show affectionate gestures, later they are shown in erotic postures. These symbols are in harmony with the robust fertility of the great mother earth.
Sensuous female forms suggest two-pronged love, erotic and maternal. They preserve the feelings of sexuality as well as maternity at the same time. (More on this later)
Simultaneously with voluptuous virgins and sensuous couples is carved a cluster of goddesses known as Matrikas. The impetus to their depiction is the Balagraha tradition that includes the worship of the infant god Skanda along with these ominous goddesses. They are personifications of calamities related to childbirth in which joy and horror are intermingled. Matrikas are gratified and supplicated to protect birthing mothers, newborns and small children from diseases and death. The ambiguity also embodied in pregnancy and childbirth is expressed in this cluster of female deities. Their maternal as well as destructive characteristics are emphasized through their weapons and emblems.
Excerpted (and revised) from my book, Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2003.