Saturday, 6 July 2019

The Three Yakshis of Indian Museum

Woman of Indian Sculpture – Part II

The women of Indian sculpture have you spellbound these days. First it was the Scorpion Woman who had you enthralled for days and there were nights when you could swear she even appeared in the dreams. You are now actively seeking out the Celestial Nymphs or Apsaras, Shalabhanjikas, Madanikas, Sursundaris, Nayikas and Alaskanyas in your photo folders, while visiting temples and in museums. You have just found another femme fatale. And she is much closer home than Bundelkhand’s Scorpion Woman. Okay, she practically lived next door in Mathura, your ancestral home. She is Yakshi or Vrikshika of Mathura who has now probably moved permanently to Kolkata.

The Stupa Railing Pillar Yakshi of Mathura, 2nd Century Kushans, now in Indian Museum, Kolkata

Despite best efforts, you have still not been able to visit Mathura Government Museum which houses a rich collection of sculptures recovered from seven relic mounds or stupas in and around the city of Mathura in Western UP that is representative of the glorious Mathura Art during the Kushan and Gupta period. It is an oppressively hot and muggy afternoon. On the ground floor of Kolkata’s Indian Museum, you are making your way from the almost completely salvaged Bharhut stupa gallery (yes, you are pleasantly surprised – wish the Amaravati Stupa too had survived instead of being shipped to London) to the southern corridor of Archaeology gallery when the sight of these three incredible ladies stops you dead in your tracks. You are smitten and in love again.

The Archaeology Gallery of Indian Museum, Kolkata

On three narrow pillars are carved three amazing women in a style which is totally different from Chandels who carved the Scorpion Woman and the Gangas who carved all those amorous maithuns in Konark. The label indicates these are Yakshis who belong to Kushan period of Second Century AD and came from Bhuteswar in Mathura, UP. And Mathura is where your ancestors came from.

Torso of Yakshi that came from one of the Torans of Sanchi

Before we meet the three ladies, you need to dig up some info. Initial reports indicate that the Yakshis are carved on railing pillars that surround a stupa. You have seen them in Sanchi where the railings are much thicker but mostly uncarved. The stone used is the mottled or spotted red sandstone. Now this stone was predominantly used in the Mathura School of Art.

It was during the reign of Kushana emperor Kanishka, that the Gandhara and Mathura Schools of Arts flourished and continued till seventh century of Gupta Dynasty. While Gandhara was influenced by Greek style, Mathura art was wholly indigenous without any external influence. Mathura School of Art was influenced by all three religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. You have seen few specimens of Mathura Art in National Museum which are mostly done in spotted red sandstone.

Darpan Sundari clearly modelled on Yakshi - 10th Century Pratihars, Gwalior MP

The theme of Nayika playing with a ball will keep recurring over the centuries - 11th Century, Nagada, Rajasthan, Guhils

The treatment of the human form reached new heights in the Mathura studio and Stella Kramrisch rightly assessed that “Mathura formulated the prototypes of the Indian pantheon and raised the figure of man to sculptural supremacy.” Feminine charm was exhibited probably for the first time with a different aim. While earlier, the woman in sculptural art was shown as a deity, devotee, or a simple domestic person, the Mathura artists infused grace, delicacy, rhythm and in viting gestures in these figures. The rendering of the female beauty was the hallmark of Mathura Art.

The Archaeological Sites of Mathura

Fa Hien, the Chinese Traveller visited Mathura in 4th Century. He informs the city was largely Buddhist and had six stupas and twenty monasteries with 3000 monks. Hieun Tsang comes visiting Mathura two hundred years later. He reports that there are five temples in the town and three Stupas built by Ashoka. The third of these three Stupas is located in Bhuteshwar. 

Photo of the Five Stupa Railing Pillar Sculptures - From the left, 3rd and 5th are in Mathura Museum; 2nd and 4th are in Kolkata's Indian Museum

Reporting in his ‘Mathura, A District Memoir’ of 1883, F. S. Growse (Collector and Magistrate of Bulandshahr) says that at the back of the Bhuteshvar Mahadev temple is a high hill with a Buddhist pillar carved with a life-size woman holding an umbrella. Opposite to the temple is a ruined tank called Balbhadra Kund. On the skirting wall, several pieces of cross bars of Buddhist railings were found. There were eleven of such cross-bars. Growse says Alexander Cunningham took the most perfect four members. Some more were sent to Calcutta, leaving three here in Mathura which could be in Mathura Museum now or maybe shifted to Agra / Lucknow / Allahabad. Each cross bar is four feet tall and eleven inches wide. The front is carved with a woman and she stands on a crouching monster.

Now that you have some background of culture scape of the time, you need to figure out who the Yakshis are.

The Iconic Didarganj Yakshi, now housed in Patna Museum. Photo:Wiki

Yakshs and Yakshis are icons of fertility, bounty and fruition which includes water, trees, forest and wilderness. The Yakshis are free-spirited tree spirits that have evolved from the Mother Goddess who have been worshipped as popular folk goddesses since the Harappan times. They are usually gentle and benevolent but are known to be malevolent too. The Yakshs are attendees of Kuber, the God of Wealth who rules the Himalayan kingdom of Alaka. Specifically, in Mathura, a large number of terracottas were found with iconographic attributes like enormous breasts and hips and suckling children. In Mathura, the Yakshs over time were incorporated as deities and attendants in the pantheon of all three religions popular – Jain, Buddhism and Hinduism. So while the stups of Bharhut and Sanchi are replete with Yakshs, here in Mathura, the romantic playground of Krishna and Radha and the gopis, the voluptuous female form of Yakshi adorns the stupas.

Yaksh from Pitalkhora Caves in Maharashtra, 2nd Century BC, Satavahans

The Yaksha standing in front of Pitalkhora Caves as the Guardian Deity

The always astonishing Ananda Coomaraswamy (is there a topic he has not written a book on?) sees the imagery of Yakshas as precursors to the life size Buddha images especially in Mathura where the later artists took inspiration from the Yakshas. There are two broad categories of Yakshas – standing or sitting figures of Yakshas, and as guardian deities as attendants to Buddha, Boddhisattvas, or Jain tirthankars. There is a third category of Yakshas which comprises of beautiful and voluptuous Yakshis as ornamental motifs primarily on railing pillars from Mathura. The figures are clearly shown with sexual parts to emphasize the source of fruitfulness and productivity. Coomaraswamy says Yakshi, Devatas or Vrikshikas, nymphs and dryads are regarded as auspicious emblems of vegetative fertility and are derived from popular beliefs.

Yaksh and Yakshi stand guard outside RBI, Sansad Marg, New Delhi

Whatever her architectural function, there is no doubt that like other such figures, which represent the hallmarks of Kushan period art in Mathura, the Yakshi symbolises the abundance of nature. The auspicious nature of the females has been long acknowledged in Indian Art and she has been placed at the entrances to the sanctuaries as Yakshis to help protect the temples from evil spirits. Buddha says in the Tantric ‘Mahacina-kramacara’ – Women are the God, women are life, women are adornment. Be ever among women in thought. And you say you are trying to do your best!

So, Are you the Yakshi type of Woman?
Our tomes and poets have described and explained the traits of Yakshis and the nature of women who are Yakshi type!

Natya Shastra describes the nature of Yakshi type of woman – A woman who sweats during sleep, loves quiet rest in bed or seat, is very intelligent, fearless and fond of wine, sweet scent and meat, takes delight on seeing the beloved one after a long time, feels gratitude for him, does not sleep for a long time.

The Yakshi of Pompeii - From the pose and the ornamentation, the figurine carved in ivory looks amazingly similar to the Three Yakshis of Indian Museum. Now is she from Gandhara or Mathura or from an earlier time period? And what are the kids doing on her sides or are they dwarf Yakshs just like the crouching Yakshs on which the Mathura yakshis stand? Venus Sri Lakshmi, Naples, Italy 

Kalidas says the Yakshis decorate themselves with flowers of different kinds and drink wine in the company of their lovers. When their lovers try to remove their clothes for making love, the shy Yakshis throw coloured powder on the lamp of jewels to dim their light.

The Amazing Yakshi from Gyaraspur now housed in Gwalior Museum. The beauty of this work finds inspiration from Mathura Art. Photo Source: Net

In his Meghadoot, Kalidas describes his Yakshi heroine: slim, youthful, with fine tooth and lips red like bimba fruit, attenuated in the waist, with eyes like those of frightened doe. With deep navel, slow of gait by the weight of the hips and slightly bent by her full breast, she is as it were the first and best in the creation of the feminine beauty by the Creator.

Iconography of the three Yakshis of Indian Museum, Kolkata

The exhibit at Kolkata’s Indian Museum has three sculptures of Yakshis carved on stupa’s railings with a lintel on top. The three yakshis are equally lovely with fetching and mysterious smiles, they are voluptuous with ample breasts, have narrow waists and wide hips; their legs are long shapely and lithe, they are adorned with elaborate jewellery and beautiful coiffures; all complemented with their pleasant and playful tribhanga poses.

Pillar 1 - Yakshis love to drink wine with their lovers

Pillar 2 - Women Love Flowers, a guy can never go wrong with flowers!

Pillar 3 - Yakshi with her maid

On each pillar, there is a separate upper compartment which shows loving and playful couples going all lovey-dovey. One panel shows the man offering a glass of wine with his hand lovingly over her shoulder. In another panel, the lover offers flowers to his sweetheart as the petals caress her bountiful breast. The third panel shows a woman with her maid who seems to have a wicker basket. The heroine is seen stretching languidly and maybe trying on an ear ring. It is possible her lover sent her the gift through the maid.

All the Yakshis are shown standing on the man lying at their feet. These small pudgy male figures are identified as ‘Avangamukha Guhyaka’ or Yakshas. Their presence indicates the women as Yakshis. The Yakshis standing on the Yaksh probably carries the faint suggestion of erotic posture of love-making – purushayita – in which woman is on top of man.

In Meghdoot, the Nayak of the poem expresses his desire to fall at the feet of his Yakshi beloved and even enjoy the touch of her feet. He says: As I am pining for the touch of the left foot of my beloved (maya vampadabhilashi), the Ashoka tree also must have been eagerly awaiting to get a kick of her left foot and the tree of Maulisari sweet wine from her mouth.

The common element of the three Yakshis are that they are all nude and disrobed except that they are adorned with the most unusual piece of jewellery you have seen on female sculptures. All three yakshis are wearing the most elaborate and beautiful girdles or kamarbandhs low on their waist. The girdles called Mekhala ooze sensuality as they ride the slender waist and broad hips dropping tantalizing on the mons veneris.  Kalidas speaks of courtesans whose musical girdle-bells used to tinkle delightfully with their dance movements.

The Three Mathura Yakshis in Indian Museum, Kolkata

The exhibiting of genitalia is a ritual act, often referred to as the epiphany of the goddess. An early example of this motif appears on the railing pillar of the Stupa Two at Sanchi where Lakshmi pulls her garment to expose her yoni. Coomaraswamy thinks this motif is mentioned in Buddhist literature in connection with the Temptation by the daughters of Mara. Thomas Donaldson writing in his masterly paper about the yakshis of Odisha, says a similar pose appears in Mathura. Here the yakshis are already disrobed and only wearing these elaborate girdles. He was apparently pointing to these set of railing Yakshis.

Let us look at the individual Yakshis now starting from the left:

Yakshi 1

The Yakshi stands in a languid pose with a smile to kill for playing on her beautiful face. She has a parrot (is the parrot picking the flowers in her hair) on her right arm and she holds a bunch of grapes in her left hand. The fingers of her right hand holds a single berry tantalizingly poised against her girdle. Peculiar looking ornaments called Kundals and Karn-phuls adorn her ears.

Just looking at her pose will make you fall in love with her

The off-shoulder dress - What is today in Paris was ancient in India

All Yakshis love their elaborate Girdles or Kamabandhs and just look at the way she holds the fruit with her fingers

The languid poses, the sensuality, and the scarf hangs from the belt carefree

Is she wearing a diaphanous upper garment? Then this is an unique element because most of the Kushan Yakshis are shown disrobed. The almost invisible garment has a beaded hem which comes down to her left arm. It seems the ramps of Paris today were inspired by ancient India’s fashion.

Yakshi 2

Look at those chunky karanphuls and mala. Is she playing with her earrings? A sign she is ready for her lover

The Yakshi wears has bracelets over the bangles, armlets as she holds the scarf hanging from her girdle

The Yakshi is seen adorning herself as she puts on this chunky necklace. She looks pleased with the necklace which is probably a gift from her lover and a smile plays on her face. The pendant of the necklace rests between her ample breasts. The left hand holds her drapery.

Yakshi 3

She is absolutely bewitching and displays a playful and mischievous smile as she tilts her head listening to her pet parrot. You are sure the parrot or Sarika perched on her left arm has just spoken something dirty to his mistress that makes the Yakshi break into this million-dollar conspiring smile. A Yakshi with parrot is called Shukasarika.

The Shukasarika Yakshi has her pet parrot with her. Parrot is the Vahan of Kama, God of Love

Is that a bird cage for her parrot or is the Yakshi going to picnic to the Yamuna with her lover

There is something to her standing pose that you just want to stare at her fascinated. She is carrying a birdcage in her right hand or is it a wicker basket - Is she going to a picnic to the banks of Yamuna with her lover?

In the Meghdoot, the Yakshi separated from her lover, asks the sweet talking parrot or Sarika if he remembers their Lord whose favourite she was.

She has huge kundals in her ears. A bunch of necklaces crowd around her neck. Bangles reach her elbows. Oversized and heavy anklets that flop over her feet make her long legs look endless. Her left hand rests on her kamarbandh while her drapery hangs from her wrist. The girdle has floral patterns carved stylistically.

Fandom of the Mathura Yakshis

Scholars and experts and historians and archaeologists and random people like you have gone gaga over the Yakshis over the years.
Benjamin Rowland in his “Art and Architecture of India’ says of the Yakshi beauties of Mathura: At Mathura, the relic mounds (Stupas) were surrounded with the usual railing, the uprights of which were generally carved in high relief with representation of Yakshis of a flamboyance and sensuality of expression surpassing anything known in the art of the earlier periods. In their provocative and frank display of the beauties and delights of the courtesan’s art, these reliefs mark the culmination of a tendency already noted in the carvings at Sanchi & Bharhut.

Growse writing in his Mathura memoirs does a wonderful job describing the Yakshis: “In an upper compartment, divided off by a band of Buddhist railing, are two demi-figures, male and female, in amorous attitudes of very superior execution. On one pillar the principal figure is represented as gathering up her drapery, in another as painting her face with the aid of a mirror, and in third as supporting with one hand a wine-jar and in the other, which hangs by her side, holding a bunch of grapes. Each of these figures is entirely devoid of clothing: the drapery mentioned as belonging to one of them is simply being gathered up from behind. They have, however a profusion of ornaments – karas on the ankles, a belt around the waist, a mohan mala on the neck, karn-phuls in the ears, and baju-bund, churi, and pahunchi on the arms and the wrists. There are also three bas-reliefs at the back of each pillar; the subject of one is most grossly indecent.”


Sri Lakshmi, 1st Century AD, Mathura, Red Sandstone. Photo Credit: National Museum Treasures

The always amazing Alexander Cunningham describes the most remarkable sculpture he found in Mathura and which was one of the best specimens of unaided Indian Art he had met with. He presumed that she was a Dancing Girl adorning the gate of a stupa.

Just like Growse, you love his description of the Dancing Girl – The figure is naked save a girdle of beads around the waist, the same as is seen in the Bhilsa sculptures and Ajanta paintings. The attitude and the position of the hands are similar to those of the famous statue of Venus of the Capitol. But in the Mathura statue the left hand is brought across the right breast, while the right hand holds up a small portion of drapery. The head is slightly inclined towards the right shoulder, and the hair is dressed in a new and peculiar manner with long curls on each side of the face, which fall from a large circular ornament on the top of the head.

New material keeps popping up. All this gushing stuff on Yakshis is bewildering. It’s just not you who is smitten with these voluptuous beauties. Yakshis seem to have besotted a legion of poets historians and archaeologists over the centuries. You just happen to be the latest victim of their charms. You have never wanted to visit the city of Mathura. Maybe the Yakshis of Mathura will call you to the place of your ancestors and the birthplace of the beautiful Yakshi and Indian sculpture. 

Author’s Note
The first sight of the Yakshis and you were dazzled and literally floored (with a still healing ankle you cannot crouch to take photos!) The feeling is of Deja Vu when you first saw the Scorpion Woman. You had no idea who Yakshis were. You were a little familiar with the Sanchi’s Shalabhanjikas though. Yakshis just happened to be there first. This story is just an attempt to understand the yakshis who are icons of Indian sculpture and of Mathura School of Art that rendered the female form in a work of beauty. While hardly any information or literature existed for celestial nymphs with scorpion riding on their thighs, it afforded you a right to make certain conjectures and float your own hypotheses just like you did for the Bijamandal, one of the largest temples that still stand, though in a different form, which again surprisingly has next to zero information in the archaeology universe. 

But as you delved deeper looking for the Mathura Yakshis, to your pleasant surprise the knowledge universe just exploded with almost everyone writing on them from Kalidas to Coomaraswamy. So here in this story you have just shared a little of everything that you found, content in the knowledge that Yakshis will do just fine without you taking up their cause! Researching for this story has been rewarding and you realise that studying sculpture is as exciting as climbing forts in the peak summer heat. 

Last Words

You are Beautiful, it’s True

In the 2nd Century Mathura, the pretty and voluptuous Yakshi was the most popular icon on Instagram. She had millions of followers who increased over the centuries. Every day, her followers in cities across India - Mathura, Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, Sanghol, Gandhar – would breathlessly look forward to her posts. Her posts would be discussed and shared extensively. Her dressing style, the way she stood and smiled, the sensuality she exuded would make her male followers sigh while her female followers headed to the nearest jewellery store to order that armlet, the neighbourhood salon for that coiffure and to the gym for pilate classes to get those perfect hips. The sculptors enthusiastically began to carve her on the temples. Over the entire period of Indian Sculpture, the beautiful Yakshi has been an enduring symbol of love, protection, fertility and abundance.  

And now that the post is almost finished you are wondering that you really do not blame all those experts having their fanboy moments writing about the Yakshis. Of the entire female pantheon, Yakshis are the prettiest and almost human in their looks. Yes, they do seem to be so like us; someone so approachable and un-godlike. And when she tilts her head, bending at the waist displaying her sharp curves, letting that smile play on her face, the mottled red sandstone seems to turn into flesh. You can smell her sweet scent as she holds your gaze, the necklace that dangles in the deep crevice seem to quiver with every heavy breath of hers. She offers you the tumbler of ratiphal, the wine produced by the wish-fulfilling Kalpavrishk tree in the abode of yakshs. You hesitate for a moment. Her smile widens. The floral girdle shimmers catching the light. You drink the sweet wine deeply. You are in love with the Yakshis.  

Author’s Cut!
Finding the Perfect Jat Girl (Yakshi)

Buddha says in the Tantric ‘Mahacina-kramacara’ – Women are the God, women are life, women are adornment. Be ever among women in thought. And you say you are trying to do your best!

According to John M Rosefield, the Harvard Art Historian, this Yakshi figure reaches a higher level of refinement than any of the dozens of known Kushan period figures of the type and that it may have been created by a sculptor uniquely gifted for his time.

Here the mottled red sandstone seems to turn into flesh. The faint hem etched on top of the breasts is clearly visible here

The Tantalizing Torso of Yakshi from Mathura, 2nd Century AD, Kushan Period, Red Sandstone, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection. Here the mottled red sandstone seems to turn into flesh. 

Her natural, teardrop shaped breasts, slightly rounded lower abdomen, the deep pit of navel, proportionally slender waist, broad pelvis and lithe legs. One can almost see the delineation of bones and muscles under her soft skin. 

A perfect fertility icon!

The interplay of slack and taut muscles, the sculptor's familiarity with a woman's voluptuous lines and sexual curves and his ability to evoke natural form in carved stone.

Call it real or natural where the breasts and hips are not that full. This is a rare exception in the world of Yakshis with exaggerated curves. Another uncommon element along with her deftly covered nudity is the almost invisible, diaphanous upper garment containing her voluptuous breasts. The faint hem is etched on top of the breasts with a clasp. Few Kushan females are known to be draped in this upper garment.

The sculptor was indeed inventive.


Mathura, A District Memoir of 1883 by F. S. Growse

Woman in Indian Sculpture by M. L. Varadpande (preview available in google books)
The Yakshas, Nagas and Other Religious Cults of Mathura -

ASI – Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-1865 Volume I by Alexander Cunningham

Yakshi – The Journey of the ‘Mother Goddess’ in Indian Art Tradition in Journal of Advances and Scholarly Researches in Allied Education, Vol IX, Issue No XVII, Jan 2015 by Aditi Mann and Akanksha Singh

A Comparative Study of Stylistics Features of Didarganj yakshi and Bhutesar yaksis in Indian art - Jain, Aditi (2019). Internat. J. Appl. Soc. Sci., 6 (2) : 314-320

Indian Sculpture, Vol 1, Circa 500 BC – AD 700 by Pratapaditya Pal – A Catalogue of the LA County Museum of Art Collection, Page 192

Yaksh Cult and Iconography by Ram Nath Misra – pages 122 to 125 - story of erecting the Yaksh and Yakshi at the entrance of RBI New Delhi

Art and Architecture of India by Benjamin Rowland – explains the Schools of Art of Gandhara, Mathura and Amaravati - A fascinating article by Shoba Narayanan as she beautifully articulates the role of trees in iconography and poetry

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