Written by Angela May, Assistant Curator of Education
How do you depict a goddess so loved and revered that she is worshipped by Hindus, Jains, and even some Buddhist sects? Her image would have to transcend the ideals held by any one specific group to become an icon recognized by all.
So who is this incredible goddess? She is Saraswati (pronounced sar-ahs-vah-tee), the goddess of knowledge, learning, and music. And yes, she’s a total rock star! When she isn’t buried in a book or inspiring great minds, she is playing the veena (ancient Indian instrument) into the late hours of the night. She is the symbol of the intelligent, independent woman.
The BMA has a very intriguing 12th c. Jain marble sculpture of Saraswati from Gujarat, India. Why is it so intriguing? With sculptures from India, we often identify a deity by what they hold in their hands. Unfortunately, the hands of this sculpture are missing. So how did we come to the conclusion that this is a Jain Saraswati? By using the powers of deduction and a little help from the goddess of knowledge herself!
What are some common identifying traits of Saraswati?
Saraswati can either be depicted sitting and playing the veena, or she can be standing up on a platform with various figures surrounding her. Although she can be depicted with two hands, she is often depicted with four. In her hands she may hold any of the following: a book (putaka), a lotus (padma), her instrument (veena), a pot of water, present the varada mudra (bestowing of gifts gesture), or a rosary of white pearls (aksamala). Speaking of white, Saraswati is associated with the color white and is often depicted with fair skin and adorned with elegant jewelry. Her constant companion is a swan and she can either be depicted with a swan by her side or sitting on top of one.
What can we identify on the BMA’s sculpture?
The sculpture is carved from white marble. This not only correlates to Saraswati’s association with the color white, but we also know that Jain temples and sculptures were carved from white marble during the Chaulukya dynasty (940-1244 CE). There are multiple figures flanking both sides of Saraswati. On either side of her head and just outside of her halo are two small, flying figures facing each other and holding garlands. On both sides of her hips are two figures, the one on the left is playing the flute and the one on the right is playing the veena. On both sides of her knees are two attendant figures, holding fly whisks to keep Saraswati comfortable. Finally, at the base of this sculpture are two figures on their knees. These two figures are most likely the donors who commissioned this sculpture of Saraswati. This white marble, and the inclusion of the veena are a couple of ways to identify this sculpture as a Saraswati.
What do other Jain Saraswati sculptures from roughly this period look like?
There are quite a few surviving 11th and 12th c. Jain Saraswati sculptures that can provide examples of what the BMA’s Saraswati may have held in her hands. However, there is one in particular that is considered a prime example, and it is in the Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum in India. This sculpture was carved about 100 years before the BMA sculpture and is from Pallu in present day Rajasthan. Despite the difference in age and region, this sculpture serves as an example of a popular way to depict a standing figure of Saraswati. This sculpture is white marble and has a similar composition as the BMA’s, with ornate jewelry, musicians, attendant figures, and donors at the base. And low and behold, this sculpture still has four hands! She holds a book, a lotus, a water pot, and a rosary. This gives a good idea of what the BMA’s Saraswati may have held. What is most interesting about the sculpture in the Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum is the sculpture’s exterior structure (prabhatorana) covered in carvings of additional deities. This indicates that the BMA sculpture may have once been displayed with an additional sculptural element that could have depicted additional Jain figures. This possibility is exciting because having Saraswati in the center indicates that she is a high ranking deity.
No matter whether the BMA’s sculpture had additional sculptures surrounding her or not, we know that she is a high ranking goddess to us! She is a favorite in our South and Southeast Asian gallery and the next time you visit the BMA, please stop by the gallery and tell her to turn the music up!