Article of the Month - Jan 2002

This article by Nitin Kumar Editor

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In India a woman with a fiery temperament is often nicknamed Durga in recognition of the divine spark within her. She is the fervent autonomous goddess who knows how to stand for herself.

The Placid Devi Durga (Framed)

The living traditions of India have always identified the female of the species with all that is sacred in nature. But it is not always the warrior woman who is identified with the goddess, but also woman as playful, lovable, and of course as the Mother. In a delightful vein it is conjectured that the kick of a woman is sufficient and necessary for blossoms to spring from the sacred Ashoka tree. An entire ceremony has developed around this theme. Women dance around this tree and gently kick it to bring it to bloom. Ancient Sanskrit poetry describes this happening through the eyes of a jealous lover, who wishes that it were him, rather than the tree which benefited from the touch of her foot:

'She plucked its buds for her ear,
then repaid it with a gentle kick
I might have been the one she struck,
She might have taken the bud from me,
but I'm cheated by a tree!'

The idea being that by their mere touch, the fertilizing power of a woman was transferred to the tree, which then burst into flowers. All things that arise from the earth in the form of vegetative life mirror the great generative function of the Goddess. The process of transformation that is possible in mortal woman mirrors the miracle of growth that occurs in nature. Such figures emphasize the importance of fertility and its associated elements of bearing and nourishing children. The female figure is an obvious emblem of fertility because of its association with growth, abundance, and prosperity.

There is also the suggestion that a tree is vulnerable to careless handling like a woman. A tree that has come to flower or fruit will not be cut down; it is treated as a mother, a woman who has given birth. Thus the metaphoric connections between a tree and a woman are many and varied. A relevant one here is that the word for "flowering" and menstruation is the same in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit a menstruating woman is called a 'pushpavati', "a woman in flower". Menstruation itself is a form and a metaphor for a woman' s special creativity. Thus a woman's biological and other kinds of creativity are symbolized by flowering. It is interesting to note here that decoctions made from the bark of the same Ashoka tree are used to soothe menstrual cramps and excessive blood loss during menstruation. The bark decoction also relieves the pain and tension related to menopause.

Super Large Size Goddess Lakshmi on Lotus

It comes as no surprise that prosperity and abundance too is visualized in the form of a female, namely the Great Goddess Lakshmi. She is often shown holding a pitcher. This pitcher or pot in addition to being likened to a womb, is said to be the pot of bounty, or the harbinger of prosperity.

In extension of this conception, Indian aesthetic principles cutting across all schools, sects, and traditions, state in a universal voice that all female forms should be endowed with abundantly full breasts, a narrow waist and ample hips, symbolizing their child bearing capacities and also the power to nourish and sustain their creations, a la Mother Nature.

Indeed Nilakantha Dikshita, an ancient aesthetician, lays stress on the milk of the woman as goddess, sustaining the babies of the earth, her children. He fancies that he pearl necklace on the breast of a goddess creates the illusion of drops of milk dripping and overflowing in fast succession from her moist bosom, in her great and surging affection of motherhood, as she fondles us like babies. This has a parallel to the Great Greek Goddess of fertility, Gaia, the Earth Mother, who is visualized with the mountains as her breasts, the caves her womb, and the earth's waters her female fluids. Thus the body of a woman is nothing but the microcosm of the Earth, embodying in itself all the mysteries of creation, and their solution.

The Buddhist art of India too displays these same symptoms. In the important Buddhist stupa of Bharhut, belonging to around 100 BC, there can be observed an interesting phenomenon. On the railing that encircles the main monument there are numerous sensuous female images. It would be easy to assume that these images were created in order to satisfy the viewing pleasure of male devotees. But a study of the stupa's numerous inscriptions enables us to set aside any such facile assumption. The railing was constructed as a result of community patronage in which the different parts of the railing; pillars, crossbars etc., were donated by various individuals. The inscriptions reveal that many of these sensuous figures were commissioned by women, including Buddhist nuns and monks, often identified by their names. Clearly there was a higher purpose behind the exercise.

Large Size Yakshi, The Celestial Dancer

The Bharhut stupa was a sacred building built to enshrine a casket that contained a portion of the relics of the Buddha after his cremation. Buddhist pilgrims visited the site to gain proximity to the relics and to experience the unseen presence of the Buddha. Hence it was a ritual space and public domain. Male and female, young and old would have made the pilgrimage and, in the course of repeated ritual circumambulating of the stupa, they would have been exposed to these images. We find, then, that these images were not intended to be viewed as solely sensual objects.

We can thus be fairly certain that the function of such imagery was spiritual, and relevant to the sacred structure to which it belonged. Even then their sensuous portrayal raises questions and requires reiteration of the positive association of woman with fertility, growth, abundance, prosperity and hence, the auspicious.

Ancient art texts known as the 'Shilpa Shastras' confirm that the potency of women's fertility and its equation with growth, abundance and prosperity led to women becoming a sign of the auspicious. In fact, women served an apotropaic function whereby their auspiciousness was magically transferred to the monument upon which they were sculpted or painted. A royal palace, a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu shrine, gained in auspiciousness and fortune when adorned with the figure of a woman. A text of the tenth century, the 'Shilpa Prakasha', that provides guidelines for practicing temples architects and sculptors, categorically states that figures of women are a prerequisite on the walls of temples. Its choice of phrase underscores the significance of the theme. "As a house without a wife, as frolic (play) without a woman, so without (the figure of woman) the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit." Thus by the mere addition of feminine images it was believed that a whole complex could become sacred and auspicious. In fact the same text lists the different types of women who best sanctify a monument, and instructs the sculptor on how to exactly carve these figures. The most important of these feminine images are:

  • A Woman Dancing
  • A Woman Adjusting her Anklets
  • A Woman Drummer
  • A Mother with her infant in her arms
  • A Woman Smelling a Lotus
  • A Woman Playing with a Parrot

A Woman Dancing

Dance has been defined as a motion that arises from emotion. The human body has a natural appetite for rhythm, and while dancing, not only does the dancer's body vibrate, but by its rhythmic character, also spurs the viewers to a vibrating response. A primitive or a child emotionally aroused, say by some pleasurable observation, will break into a dance of glee. Repeating that particular dance action can recapture the emotion, and thus in dance, motion and emotion are interchangeable. The capacity for such interchange and build-up of feeling is at the root of the identification of dance as a sacred overture.

The Dancer’s Homage to Krishna

Dance is an ancient and instinctive expression of the life force, and probably predates drawing and painting as a form of creative activity. It is a form of magic: the dancer becomes amplified into a being endowed with supra-normal powers, and her personality is transformed. Dance is also an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and summons into the dancer a new and higher personality.

Underlying this celebration of dance is the distinct Indian attitude to the body and the senses. Neither is a temptation nor snare. The relationship of the body, senses, mind, intellect and soul is articulated in the Upanishads and is seminal to the world-view where the body is regarded as the abode of the divine and the divine descends in the body. Logically, the body beautiful is the temple of god and dance is a medium of invoking the divine within. Each form of dance - the stance, the movement and the context - is imbued with deep spiritual and symbolic significance. Dance reflects a state of being at the highest order of spiritual discipline (sadhana) and is hence considered a yoga. Its performance is a ritual act, a sacrifice of the personal self to a higher transcendental order. It is the medium which evokes the supreme state of bliss (ananda) and also the vehicle of release (moksha).

The metaphor of dance also lies at the heart of many creation myths. The life force expressed in the act of movement becomes a symbol of creation. Through the medium of dance, a woman embodies the progenitive powers of cosmic energy, through whom, according to an ancient dance treatise 'the entire phenomenal world is kindled into life.'

It does not come as a surprise therefore that in ancient times, a woman dancer was considered an inseparable part of any ritual worship in temples. Every temple of consequence had attached to it one or more dancers. Such women were known as Devadasis. These sacred dancers were symbolically married off to the presiding deity of the temple. Thus an 'ordinary' human woman was found holy enough to be married off to a god, the Lord of the temple. The transformation of an ordinary girl into a Devadasi was marked by important rituals, after the completion of which the woman was considered 'an ever auspicious woman' (nityasumangali). The traditional view holds that all women, by their very nature, share the power of the goddess. The devadasi initiation rites celebrate the merger of her individual female powers with those of the goddess. It is this quality of 'eternal auspiciousness' in a woman that brought into existence this tradition since the earliest times.

Dancing Apsara

The importance of the devadasis can be gauged from the fact that their presence was deemed necessary at the slightest event of importance taking place in the temple, for example bathing the deity in the morning, or waving the sacred fire lamp in front of him. An important ritual was the participation in the twilight worship held at sunset. The 'junction' of twilight, when the day slips into the night, is considered extremely dangerous, and so the gods need all the support and attendance they can get. The ritual waving of the lighted lamp by a devadasi was considered the most effective method of warding off an inauspicious state of the divine. Thus their participation in the affairs of the temple was not restricted to dancing on important religious festivals and events, without which the celebrations were thought of as incomplete, but also managing the day-to-day activities along with the officiating priest. But dance of course remained their most accomplished contribution; indeed the life of a devadasi required a strict adherence to dancing schedules and practice. Dance is potentially both sensual and hypnotic. Its passioned performance helped to evoke the atmosphere of the temple as a place removed from the mundane world, the temple as a celestial abode of the deity.

A Woman Adjusting her Anklets

The Indian tradition thinks of feet as impure. Even then the feet of a woman are worthy of adornment, no less than any other part of her body. In fact the image of a woman adjusting her anklets was considered sacred enough to be carved out in temple walls. A woman has no associated impurity, anything and everything connected with her acquires a status over and above its material existence.

Sterling Gold Plated Anklets

Wearing jewelry and adorning themselves with ornaments comes naturally to a woman. Ancient texts identify sixteen different embellishments (solah-shringar), which acknowledge and celebrate the beauty and divinity of the female form. Sixteen, a significant number, corresponds to the sixteen phases of the moon, which in turn is connected with a woman's menstrual cycle. A woman of sixteen is considered to be at the peak of physical perfection in her life. This is another pointer to the identification of the female with the spiritual. The anklet is mentioned as the last of these sixteen ornaments.

It is not that women do not realize the spiritual potential of ornamentation. By adorning their visible, material body, they also satisfy a universal longing for the embellishment of its intangible counterpart: the human spirit. If this were not so, the desire for ornamentation could not have survived, nay thrived during the continuing course of history.

A Woman Drummer

In India music was linked with the origin of life itself, where sound is regarded as the primordial vibration of divine energy.

Five Sisters Making Music By The Riverbank

Human mind has resorted to music, the language of symbols, achieving in the process an inner unification of the mind by means of an outer integration of musical principles. Music at the summit of its perfection has striven to symbolize the highest and innermost realities of the mind: a spring of self-expression which eventually flows into the ocean of spiritual experiences. It aspires to be an art guided by knowledge and motivated by inspiration to bring to man a sense of eternity and a state of ecstasy, which is all that he in his mortal frame can taste of immortality. The purpose of music is to enable the mind to comprehend eternity and to enjoy ecstasy. On a practical level, music has a high educational value, it ennobles the mind and awakens and feeds the aesthetic sense.

A lady playing a drum is a representation soaked in symbolism and rich in metaphorical imagery. A drum represents thunder, the voice of cosmic energy. Of all musical instruments, the drum is the most primeval means of communication, its percussive sound traveling to the heart and, by extension, suggesting the ability to communicate with supernatural forces.

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  • I agree with all the comments.It also explains how our previous generations(Males)utilized other's (i.e other than his family) girls or women as sex machine
    Venkat April 10, 2013
  • nice and informative article. this world indeed is feminine
    krishna December 28, 2007
  • Beautiful images, wonderful, informative article. It will come in usual for my sacred dance class. Thank you!
    Deb January 21, 2007
  • great stuff.
    nick October 18, 2005
  • Thank you SOOOOOOOOOOO much for this article. I have been searching the internet for info on Indian art for a school project, but couldn't find anything, until I came accross this site! I love the pictures and the article itself is of great use. Thanks again.
    Sophie October 02, 2005
  • A beautiful article, which I have read with great interest. Your website teaches me a lot about the interaction between religion and art and vice versa. That is an universal event. Thank you very much. Kindest regards, Elisheva Loots, the Netherlands
    Elisheva Loots June 06, 2005
  • Thank you for the review this article and this whole site will im sure help me with my art project on indian art
    JAMES March 27, 2005
  • Great articles, all of these. They are easy to read and at the same time academic. Good job!
    Scarlet S March 25, 2004
  • Thank you for your very beautiful article and images. I enjoy all the articles of the website exioticIndiaArt. It is fascinating to find so much information about the buddisme. Thank you very much. Theresa (Netherlands)
    theresa March 17, 2003
  • I have been an avid student of Indian culture these past few years and am amazed at not only the wealth of information in your articles but also the very beautiful illustrations. Overall I am just simply impressed with your website and am enjoying my salwaar kameez. I am grateful. Namaste
    Glo (Shakti) Brunk January 14, 2003