Women in Indian Sculpture & Their Unique Significance
If you’re anything like me and you’re a feminist interested in Indic philosophy and art, this thought has crossed your mind more than once:
Since after the Greco-Roman times, depictions of females started becoming increasingly scarce in Western sites of worship, in many places women being excluded from spiritual life altogether. Their presence in Indian temples, however, has prevailed.
I'm curious — What is the significance of women in Indian sculpture, particularly in holy sites? Surely the inclusion of women within temples must have shaped the culture’s spiritual understanding of the world, and vice versa. One would assume that therefore Indian women of the time lived empowered lives as well.
Can sculpture give us an insight into that?
Without further ado, allow me to take you on a brief journey through Indian sculpture, from ancient times up until the 10th century AD.
Let’s start with the oldest records we have. Just like so many ancient civilisations of the world, the Indus Valley folk were big fans of, that’s right, the Goddess: the Great Mother, Mama Earth, the vessel and sustainer of life.
In prehistoric times, childbirth was seen as a divine miracle. And women, as portals through which new life manifests onto Earth, were revered. Having healthy children was a big must for ensuring the tribe’s survival, not to mention childbirth was also a dangerous transition for both mother and baby. And a tribe without healthy mothers is no tribe at all.
| " In prehistoric times, childbirth was seen as a divine miracle. And women, as portals through which new life manifests onto Earth, were revered."
The Earth and her life sustaining bounty is another aspect of the Goddess, and so we find many ornamented terra-cotta figurines of voluptuous females made and possibly used in fertility rites (7000-2500 BC). Safe to say female sexuality and nurturing nature were held in high regard.
Next, let’s take a leap into the Bronze Age. One noteworthy creation of that time, found in modern-day Pakistan, is The Dancing Girl (2500 BC). Made in bronze, she stands about 10 cm high. Sporting a proud grimace, weight resting on one leg, with bends at the knee, hip and neck. This is known as Tribanga or the three bend curve that becomes a common female posture in later sculpture.
Another type of female image has been found on rare steatite seals. In birthing position, surrounded by many animals, or fighting tigers. A goddess, according to most experts. Other seals of priestesses laying beneath her have been found, indicating an active female spiritual life.
Many facts do point to an egalitarian society. Besides, at this point the bulk of found female figurines greatly surpassed the ones on males. This view is further manifested in the sculpture of early Buddhist sites of worship.
Around 100 BC a great stupa was built in Baharut. On the railings of this stupa we can see a myriad of depictions of life on Earth: men, women, plants and animals carved with exquisite detail. This motif exemplifies the ancient Indic thought, that all existence is deeply connected. Therefore the artist saw no problem in joining different life forms in a fully harmonious depiction, as equal parts of the Greater One.
| " All existence is deeply connected. Therefore the artist saw no problem in joining different life forms in a fully harmonious depiction, as equal parts of the Greater One. "
This is where yakshis (female) and yakshas (male) enter the world of sculpture — spiritual beings that represent nature’s abundance, fertility and virility. Depicted as beautiful nearly nude women and men, endowed with a generous sense of well-being. A particularly popular image is the yakshi Salabanjika holding onto a flowering branch. “The touch of a woman, according to Indian myth, could cause the sap of the tree to run, making it flower and bear fruit”. She also decorates the four gateways of the Great Stupa in Sanchi.
| " The touch of a woman, according to Indian myth, could cause the sap of the tree to run, making it flower and bear fruit. " - Sebastian Smee, Torso of a Fertility Goddess (Yakshi), Bostonglobe.com
An impressive site of 22 rock cut caves is found in Bhaja, Western India, revealing yet more sites of Buddhist worship dating back to 2nd century BC. Yakshis and yakshas that were seen individually at Bharhut, have come together here as loving couples. Their closeness to each other and natural affection symbolises the completeness of the world and the harmony of the natural order.
The period from 200 BC to 100 AD saw the emergence of artistic traditions that would remain in Indic art for all time to come. The human figure becomes central to art, however, the focus is not on individuals — instead on the eternal themes and archetypal energies they personify.
| " The human figure becomes central to art, however, the focus is not on individuals — instead on the eternal themes and archetypal energies they personify."
An artistic exaggeration of the female figure is also established, but this, in my opinion, is done to best represent divine feminine energy through human form, so as to make it accessible to the onlooker, not to objectify women.
Continuing with the tradition of yakshis are apsaras in later temples. They are stunningly beautiful women of celestial origin, commonly seen as dancers. A popular image is of the apsara Darpana looking into a hand-held mirror. Heaven is described in the Matsya Purana in terms of the sound of tinkling of the waist girdles and anklets of beautiful apsaras. Adorning temples with their presence made Heaven and Earth come together, in celebration of the beauty of life.
The last place we will visit is a particular treat. You might be familiar with Khajuraho, a UNESCO world heritage site, dating back to the 10th century AD. Most noted, perhaps, for the wide array of erotic scenes decorating some of the temple walls.
Mithunas or Loving couples had been seen in Indian art since the first century AD, though as time progressed, their depictions of coming together became more and more explicit. Their coming together represents the ecstasy of God, and hint to the underlying longing of all creation to be united within Him. The desires and forces of human love are also an aspect of that which is to be met at the temple centre.
What’s more, there is a profusion of sculptures of women in seemingly every possible posture. It is a celebration of woman in her myriad moods and daily moments, like writing a letter, applying makeup, or pulling out a thorn. To my knowledge, there are no remaining sites of worship in the West that celebrate women so gloriously as here, in Khajuraho.
The outer sculptures of Indian temples throughout history have had a very important role to play, for the temple body serves as the manifestation of the Divine Consciousness held inside. And so beauty has been an essential element in these depictions. “In Indic philosophy it is believed that our appreciation of beauty is a glimpse of the grace which underlies the world, the essence of divinity which is in all, “ -- beautifuly put in the documentary series Sculpture of India by Benoy K. Behl and Latika Gupta.
| “ Our appreciation of beauty is a glimpse of the grace which underlies the world, the essence of divinity which is in all. “ - Sculpture of India, Benoy K. Behl and Latika Gupta.
The fact that since ancient times the figure of the woman has been one of the main vehicles for the communication of this grace, is, in my opinion, a wonderful tribute to the feminine principle.
In my conclusion I would like to first note that no matter how plentiful and glorious are the depictions of women in Indian sculpture, it is entirely possible that this did not translate into empowerment for the mortal woman. The Goddess may have been widely praised for her beauty, sexuality and child-bearing, but that is still a small box for Her and for any human woman.
But I would also like to appreciate just how significant the role of women in sculpture has been: In temple structures dedicated to masculine deities, that represent an eternal reality not constricted by our body or the manifest world, feminine figures decorate the walls, representing the beauty of the ever-changing, living world. It is through the feminine that we come to know the Divine within creation, the way God reveals His infinite being in a multitude of forms. The temple becomes a revelation of the divine nature of the world, made of both masculine and feminine principles, each a different face of the One Reality.
| " It is through the feminine that we come to know the Divine within creation. "
I urge you, dear reader, to delve deeper into the magic and wisdom encoded in Indian sculpture. Mystik River currently displays a collection of hand-carved female sculptures, made in the traditional style of temples such as Khajuraho, by living Indian artisans. My favourites are “The Loving Couple” and “The Dancing Lady” by Mister R. Mani.
Head over to the Indian collection page on mystikriver.com to behold the beauty and history carried forward by these marvellous works. Or come see them in person at our gallery in Melbourne.
May the world remember women’s spiritual power and how it serves.