This brilliant wood-statue, a delightful blend of carving and colouring one giving it its anatomy, and the other, its lustre, beauty and charm, a most accomplished example of iconographic idiom that the South Indian sculptors practiced for centuries now, represents Goddess Lakshmi, the patron deity of riches, prosperity, fertility, abundance and accomplishment. Slightly different from her form as Padmavati but exactly in Padmavati’s idiom, the image of goddess Lakshmi has been conceived and sculpted to enshrine a sanctum or sanctify and grace a house independent of Vishnu. Unlike the North where Lakshmi icons are invariably subordinated to Vishnu this image of Lakshmi does not record even the symbolic presence of Vishnu, not carrying even any of his attributes. The towering crown of the goddess, an element of Vaishnava iconography, is typical of South Indian divine imagery worn not merely by Vaishnava deities but also by the Shaivite. Not sculptors’ innovation, a large body of myths defines this form of the lotus goddess, her independence, lotus contexts and entire being. As the mythical tradition has it, once sage Bhragu was nominated by gods, sages and others to decide who among Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was superior of the other two. For determining each one’s merit Bhragu decided to meet them individually. He first went to Shiva; however, indulged in love with Parvati he even did not notice him. Brahma treated him rudely, but Bhragu’s patience failed when he found Vishnu asleep. The enraged sage kicked him on his chest leaving a scar there. Vishnu awoke and apologized for being asleep. Even he adopted as his distinction the mark that the sage had made by his foot on his chest.
Lakshmi who was with him felt insulted, particularly by the conduct of Vishnu who instead of punishing the sage was apologetic. She hence abandoned him and Vaikuntha, his seat. Unable to live without her Vishnu also left Vaikuntha and in her search reached Tirumala hill of the Eastern Ghats in the South. After ages of repentance and yearning, one day he realised Lakshmi sprouting within him like a lotus and thus the two were re-united. Now Vishnu had Lakshmi in him but she was independent of him. This form of Lakshmi, often named Padmavati, was Vishnu’s spiritual realisation, within but as much beyond him.
The statue represents the four-armed Lakshmi carrying in each of her upper hands a lotus. Her lower hands are held in abhaya and varada, gestures granting fearlessness and redemption. This form is in exact adherence to Lakshmi’s classical iconography, which the abundance of lotuses characterizes. Not merely the lotuses in hands she has a large lotus as her seat and the pedestal that houses this lotus seat too comprises conventionalised lotus motifs. Such abundance of lotuses distinguishes her form from that in prevalence in north. Lakshmi in her every manifestation bestows prosperity, growth and abundance but her form with abundance of lotuses is dually auspicious for lotus, symbolising creativity, multiplication and purity, multiplies the divinity of the goddess.
The statue of the goddess is unique in its modeling, plasticity, anatomical proportion and aesthetic beauty. A rounded face charged with divine aura, eyes in deep meditation, sharp features, sensually modeled breasts clad in as much sensuous stana-patta, narrow waist, a well-defined anatomy and her seating posture reveal great beauty of form. She is clad just in an antariya and stana-patta but their grace and lustre is rare. The ornaments that she is putting on are a few but their elegance is unsurpassed. Though broadly a sanctum image, it is as great a masterpiece of woodcraft. The divine aura that the image enshrines is not born of its sectarian links, but of the unique emotionality and mystic quality that its face breathes. The image inspires the sacredness of a sanctum and classicism of an ancient art.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.