Written by Dr. Katherine Anne Paul, The Virginia and William M. Spencer III Curator of Asian Art
In preparation for the upcoming Eivor and Alston Callahan Asian Art Lecture on Saturday, February 29, I have been reviewing the Museum’s Indian art collection for depictions of plants and flowers. Looking at this exquisite sandstone carving I first noticed a bird perched in a tree sheltering a goddess. This goddess stands on one straight leg and one bent leg. In Indian art, this posture indicates she is a Yakshi (nature spirit) or even a Salabhanjika (tree spirit). For more than 2,000 years, Indian folklore describes trees that will not fruit unless the Salabhanjika kicks the tree’s trunk. Upon closer look, a bird is also perched on her hands. The bird in the tree and the bird in her hands signal that she is the tree personified. Additionally, the leaves of this front tree are not those of the tree behind it.
The back tree displays not only differently shaped leaves, but also fruit so heavy it weights down the branches. These are mango fruits.
A goddess sits under this fruiting mango tree. She holds a mango branch in her right hand, the mango fruit rests on her knee. Her left arm cradles a child who also holds a fruit in his left hand while reaching higher with his right. Woman and child are both above a reclining lion. The lion’s tail is curved over his back, his mane falls in thick curls around his neck and he appears to be licking his front paws.
The presence of the mangoes, child, and lion indicate this is the Jain goddess Ambika. She is the protector of Neminatha the 22nd Tirthankara (Jain savior-saint). According to legend, the human woman Agnila was transformed into the wish-granting tree goddess Ambika following acts of generosity and purity that were misunderstood by her husband. The pierced triangles framed in necklaces of beads are the gems hanging from the mango tree that distinguish this as a wish-granting tree—more than an ordinary mango tree. To atone for his misunderstanding, her husband was reborn as her ever-faithful lion companion.
Close looking at the flora of this sculpture proved to be the key that unlocked the identities of these goddesses and now confirms this architectural fragment once belonged to a Jain temple. The Jain religion of India dates to the sixth century BC and preaches non-violence. All Jains are vegetarian, even refusing to eat many root vegetables as eating the root kills the plant. Mangoes, however, are enthusiastically consumed!
This work is currently on view in the Eivor and Alston Callahan Gallery.