Monday, April 30, 2018

Pompeii Laxmi and Twin Sister from Bhokardan

In the year 1939, Amedeo Maiuri, an Italian archaeologist was searching for artifacts in the ruins of ancient Pompeii, supposed to have been destroyed by the eruption of a volcano on Mount Vesuvius in the year 79CE. Among the ruins, in a large private house facing Via Dell Abhondanza in island IX of region I, he discovered a small ivory statuette, only about 24 Cm long. The artifact, found inside a wooden box kept in a wooden almirah, was in a bad condition. Its ivory handle was badly worn out and some parts were missing. Fortunately, it was restored nicely. It is now famous, as one of the most widely known and published ivory figure. The artifact features a female, standing cross-legged and appears to be stepping forward. She is heavily ornamented, and wears such fine gossamer and transparent clothing that, it appeared to the Italians that she was nude. A close inspection carried out later, showed a broad undecorated cloth band wrapped around her hips, which provided the hint of a lower garment, and the areas adjacent to her legs, the presence of drapery folds. She is attended by a female attendant on either side, carved in same place of ivory. From the looks, Amedeo Maiuri was immediately able to confirm that the statuette was definitely of Indian origin.

A survey of Indian ivories carried out in 1976, by National Museum of New Delhi, describes this statuette in these words.

The broad full face with wide open eyes and fleshy mouth with soft and full lips give an expression of happy sensuality. She has round chin above a soft fat throat. The hips and legs are heavy and she is wearing anklets up to her knees. Similarly, her arms are covered with heavy bracelets and then bangles almost to the elbows. A heavy necklace of three strings with big beads comes down between the breasts and ends in the form of a pendulum carved like a lotus flower. The hair is parted in the middle with ellaborate braids encircling the forehead and then descending from her shoulders up to her waist. At the back of the head, there is a small hole, perhaps for inserting a small rod to sustain a mirror”.

Under the base of the statuette, there is a clear cut sign of a trident (trishula), which could have been  the sign for the Hindu God Shiva or just a mark of the maker. Amedeo and Indian archaeologist Moti Chandra both identify the statuette  with Goddess Laxmi  because of heavy ornamentation, lotus flower pendant and the trident marking on the base. However many archaeologists such as Vogel, Rowland and S.K.Sarswati do not accept this on basis that figures of Gods and Giddesses are very rarely shown on objects of utilitarian purposes such as hand held mirrors. They believe that the figure is that of a Yakshini or a courtesan.  This view is now more or less accepted.
Though the Indian origin of the statuette was never questioned by anyone. Much speculation was done regarding the actual place in India, where this beautiful work of art might have been crafted. It was thought that the work of art came from Mathura, Ujjain or Vidisha, where an ivory craver’s guild was believed to have existed in the first century BCE.

Italians believed that this rare sculpture was part of a consignment carried on a ship from India that must have disembarked at the Italian port of Puteoli (known today as Pozzuoli). This port was built in times of emperor Augustus (27 BCE-CE 14) and from where  large volumes of goods such as spices, slaves, wine, grain, ceramics and precious objects were imported from every known destination and  sold on the Roman markets. The matter ended there and the statuette was displayed in the Secret Museum in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

“Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.” is an ancient Greek text written between 1st and 3rd centuries CE, perhaps as important a book as the journal of Marco Polo. This book describes navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports like Berenice, along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along Northeast Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Describing the nature of trade, Periplus says.

Imported into this market-town, are Wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean (from Laodicea on Syrian coast) and Arabian; copper, tin, and lead; coral and topaz; thin clothing and inferior sorts of all kinds; bright-colored girdles a cubit wide; storax, sweet clover, flint glass, realgar, antimony, gold and silver. Coin, on which there is a profit, when exchanged for the money of the country; and ointment, but not very costly and not much. Moreover, for the King there are brought into those places very costly vessels of silver, singing boys, beautiful maidens for the harem, tine wines, thin clothing of the finest weaves, and the choicest ointments. There are exported from these places spikenard, costus, bdellium, ivory, agate and carnelian, lycium, cotton cloth of all kinds, silk cloth, mallow cloth, yarn, long pepper, agate and carnelian and such other things as are brought here from the various market towns”.

Periplus also tells us the names of the ports in India where, Roman ships birthed; the northernmost being at Bharuch (Barygaza) at the mouth of river Narmada. It says that the region south of Bharuch is known as Southern Country or “Dakshinadesha” (Dachinabades). There are number of ports (market towns) in the southern country such as Sopara (Suppara), Kalyan (Celliana), Sashti (Sandares) and Chaul (Semylla). However, where were the market towns? Wherefrom, to be exported goods were dispatched and imported goods received. Periplus gives names of two important towns.

Among the market towns of Dachinabades, there are two of special importance; Paethana (Pratisthan or Paithan of today), distant about twenty day’s journey south of Barygaza (Bharuch): beyond which about ten day’s journey east, there is another very great city, Tagara. These (Goods) are brought down to Barygaza from these places by wagons and through the great tracts without roads, from Paethana, carnelian in great quantity and from Tagara much common cloth, all kinds of muslins and mallow (rough) cloth and other merchandise brought there locally from the regions along the sea coast. And the whole course to the end of Damirica (country of the Tamil people) is seven thousand stadia (about one tenth of mile): but the distance is greater to the coast country”.

Coming back to the Pompeii statuette: it would be natural to assume that in all probability, its origin was one of the towns mentioned in Perplus, located on the Roman trade route of first century CE, with Satavahana Empire. It was thought that the statuette could be truly considered as a representative of the trade relations that existed between Rome and Western India, under rule of Satavahana Kings in the first century CE.

Out of the two cities on Roman trade route, mentioned in Periplus, Pratisthan or present day Paithan was known to archaeologists since long. However, the other city of Tagara remained elusive until 1901. In that year, J.F.fleet (a British civil service officer) suggested in an article written in “Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society” (July 1901 issue) that perhaps a village of present times, known by the name of “Ter” might be identified with ancient “Tagar“. Because of the fact that this village is about 95 miles (152 Kilometers) southeast of Paithan, and agrees substantially with the distance and direction given in the Periplus text. From Bharuch to Paithan, the actual distance by road, is about 240 miles (384 Kilometers), and from Paithan to Ter it is 104 miles (166 Kilometers), being 20 and 9 days' journey of 20 Kilometers per day respectively. This identification of “Tagar” is now more or less universally accepted.

A local collector of artifacts from “Ter”, Ramlingappa Lamature, has been collecting artifacts found around this village since early decades of last century. His priceless collection also includes a pair of ivory statuettes of females. One of the statuettes, from this pair, has been dated to fifth century and therefore does not concern us here. The second statuette however, is very relevant to us for two reasons. Firstly, it has been dated as from first or 2nd century CE and secondly, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the Pompeii statuette. National Museum survey describes the “Ter” statuette in these words.

The ivory shows a female figure, with legs broken below knees, and measures 16.4 Cms. Her ovaloid face is disproportionately larger than the rest of the body. She has large attractive eyes, heavy brows, a big nose with angular nose, a large sensual mouth suggesting a faint smile, and a short chin. Her hair is parted in middle. Around the head runs a twisted band with a rosette in the centre, a little below which appears the head jewel. Seen at the back is triple plaited hair. She wears a necklace running over her breasts, armful of bangles set off with bracelets. She wears a light, delicate, and translucent sari that emphasizes her nudity”.

Ivory Statuette found at Ter

This figure, like the Pompeii statuette, has a hole in the head to serve the same purpose, besides three other holes at other places, perhaps used to fix the statuette to some other object like a box. However, the major difference between this figure and the similar one from Pompeii appears to be the way in which the females’ sculptures stand. The Pompeii figure (as we have described above) stands cross-legged and ready to step out, whereas “Ter” figure appears just standing with legs apart. The two attendants standing on sides in the Pompeii statuette are also missing in the “Ter” ivory.

“Bhokardan” is a small sleepy town today, located at about 78 Kilometers to northeast of Aurangabad city and at about 54 Kilometers to south of famous Ajanta caves, on bank of River Khelna. In the past however, it was a large settlement known as “Bhogavardhana”, where many a rich merchants dwelled. This can be ascertained from at least three inscriptions carved on the railing or arches of great Stupa of Sanchi and one inscription carved on the railing of Bharhut Stupa, all of which mention a grant given by some or other residents of town of “Bhogavardhana”. Hindu scripture Markendaya Purana mentions “Bhogavardhana” (भोगवर्द्धन) as one of the countries in the south. More specifically, a copper plate grant (found at Abhona village in Kalvan tehasil, Nashik district) given by King Shankaragana of Katachchuri dynasty of “Mahishmati” in year 597 CE, identifies “Bhogavardhana” as a province (विषय) in which a village known as vallisika was located (भोगवर्द्धनविषयान्तर्ग्गतवल्लिसिकाग्रामे).  Bhokardan also claims to have some historic caves. These Hindu (Brahmanical) caves (known today as Tukai caves, also identified as Rameshwar caves in some references) excavated in 8th century CE, were discovered in 1935.

In the year 1958-59, M.N.Deshpande of Archaeological survey of India, visited “Bhokardan”. He immediately recognized its importance as a historical site. Detailed archaeological excavations at “Bhokardan” however were only carried out between 1972 to 1974 by Prof. S.B.Deo and Dr. R.S. Gupte from Nagpur University. They observed that modern “Bhokardan” was located on a small hillock (consisting of two mounds, about 21 meters high) with undulation (waviness) because the new settlement has taken place over the debris of the old “Bhogavardhana” only without changing the location.  During excavations, Prof. S.B.Deo’s team discovered traces and ruins of a large and prosperous town that flourished in Satavahana period (300 BCE to 400CE). The town flourished due to India's trade with the Roman culture of the period. Because of this prosperity, it became a center of artistry. Many houses of artisans have been found in excavation, some of them having smooth terraces and some with roofed terraces. Many objects of daily use such as Stone grinders ( पाटा-वरवंटा, जाते),  Ladders, Plates,  spoons, Lids, earthen pots (पळ्या, थाळ्या, डाव, झाकण्या, मडकी) etc. were also found. Houses were found to have well designed wastewater drainage systems. Besides this, some coins, terracotta figurines, and ornaments were found in the excavated ruins. The coins in different shapes and made from copper, alloys, gold plated were from reigns of different kings  such as Satavahans – shakas- Kardamak and Gupta kings. Many types of beads made from glass, shell and faience (vitrified) and some semi-precious stones such as carnelian, crystal, agate, chalcedony, jasper, ivory, opal etc. were found in various types and sizes. Pieces of bangles made from ivory, conch and especially copper were found. Prof. Dev’s report also mentions about the abundance of ivory objects, both finished and unfinished, and the recovery of ivory pieces from the ruins at Bhokardan. Based on his observations he proposes that Bhokardan was most certainly a centre of ivory carving.

Also found among the ruins were a few terracotta bullae with legends in Greek; coin moulds and seals and 700 terracotta objects, of which, sculptures of humans and animals were remarkable. Other items include earrings, pots used in worshipping of idols and items of household use such as ivory coombs, Kajal  Dabas (काजळ डब्या), Game pawns (सोंग़ट्या), plates (तबक) etc. Earrings that looked like pomegranate flowers were also found. Besides this a special cup known as Kinnari Patra (किन्नरी पात्र) and a container lid with a handle that had carving, showing upper torsos of three females, was also found.

However, the most exquisite and important of the entire find was the lower half of a female figurine, carved in the round with two female attendants in ivory. National museum survey describes this figurine in these words.

Lower portion of a female figure, attended by a maid on either side, almost in the same way as noticed in the Pompeii figure. The main figure has an elaborate girdle of three stands and her feet are almost covered up to knees with anklets. The two maids are holding toilette objects in one of their hands. The three figures stand on a rectangular base. Stylistically as well as on the basis of excavation, the figure can be assigned to 2nd century BCE”.

Comparing the Bhokardan ivory statuette with one that was found in Pompeii, Prof. G.B.Deglurkar, who is also a co-author of Prof. S.B. Dev’s report,  says (also confirmed by Prof. S.B.Dev) that both Bhokardan and Pompeii ivories are not only of the same quality standard, though one from Pompeii is better preserved. They also were produced by the same Ateliar (workshop or studio used by an artist). Extending this argument further, we can say that both the statuettes were produced by the same ivory worker or in other words, Pompeii and Bhokardan beauties, carved in ivory, can be called as twin sisters.

Bhokardan site needs to be investigated further to bring to light, the past of this once wealthy city. It would also solve many unanswered questions about the Roman trade route and more importantly, why a large monastery was located at Ajanta, a remote place- identified by Xuan Zang in seventh century as a frontier town. The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Ajanta valley is located about 54 Kilometers to north of Bhokardan and the major chunk of the goods traded at Bhokardan, would pass through Ajanta, either going to north towards Ujjain or to west  towards Bharuch for export, sustaining the monastery.  Whatever may be the truth, it is certain that twin sister of Pompeii ivory girl, found at Bhokardan, has opened a new vista for research in India’s glorious past.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

History and Us

Normally, I should have been the last person to say anything about history. It is true that like any other small kid, I also had learned stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, and above all, the glorious achievements of the great Maratha king Shivaji, revered like a God by most people in Maharashtra, from my mother and grandmother. During my school days, I had also watched number of excellent films in Marathi on silver screen, about this great king. However, that was about everything I ever did with studies of humanities, particularly History and Geography. From eighth grade, I opted for the technical subjects and never even opened any history book. I managed to keep myself away from historical dates, years, births, deaths, battles, treaties, and armistices, so plentifully mentioned in all books on history. Later, I opted for Engineering as my career and after passing out, launched myself in the real world of manufacturing things. I never really repented my choice of my career. Subjects like history and geography were simply forgotten, only to be remembered occasionally, while reading an odd column in Sunday newspapers over a cup of tea. 

After a long span of many decades, when I finally exited the world of elevations, plans, raw materials, and quality controls. I had plenty of time on my hand. I started reading books on many assorted subjects. I read Hawking’s and Weinberg’s treatises on Nuclear Physics, travelogues of Herodotus and Ibn Battuta, Philosophical books like Dnyaneshwari (Where I must admit to have failed miserably to understand anything of substance), books on Genealogy and migrations. It was then that I hit upon some book finally, name of which I do not recollect now, on ancient history of India. It was a great revelation to learn about India of the past, its unimaginable wealth, great Kings, who ruled here, and the series of murderous invasions from northwest by some of the most barbarous and cold-blooded tyrants, India had to face. Along with history, came its natural partner, Geography. I soon realized that one could never really understand history, if he does not know enough of Geography, of which I was again very ignorant. Luckily, I found my salvation through Google earth, and from then on, I was oversold to history.

Yet I had my choices. I loved the history of people from Sindhu-Saraswati Civilizations. I read about their subsequent migrations to Gangetic plains, central India and eventually to northern Maharashtra, where they interacted with indigenous people coming from north and east. The Buddha, Buddhism, and its slow demise in India were the next. I read about Satvahana, Vakataka, Chalukya and Yadava kings of Maharashtra. I must admit that I somehow never felt interested in medieval history of India, though an interest for a brief period, made me read a few books about kingdom of ‘Vijayanagara’ in south. Jumping a century or so, I came to Marathas and finally to Peshavas. They obviously remain my all-time favourites. I tried my hand at writing a few articles that dealt with bits of this glorious history. I also managed to travel to many historical places of interest in India.

I think readers are likely to question my intent in giving above a long list of topics, in which I have managed to read a few books. However, relax! I have no wishes to claim to be a historian. I accept that reading a few books on history, does not make one a historian. As I see it, it needs decades of study and research, field trips, and some original work, before anyone could even hope to achieve some credit in this direction. Yet I feel that, whatever efforts I have put in, give me some credentials to express my thoughts about  a dangerous new trend that is emerging out in India or particularly in Maharashtra. With the advent of social media, we suddenly have multitudes of young historians, who have very little knowledge of historical facts, yet claim to be in knowledge of everything. This by itself is harmless. Problem comes when these people start integrating their  sentimentality with historical facts and start believing that historical facts believed so far are incorrect and history actually was, the way they think it is. They forget that no historical fact can be accepted, unless it is backed by solid archaeological evidence or a manuscript.

Early warnings of this new malignance, had appeared a decade ago, when one of the well-known and famous historian, Late. Ninad Bedekar had openly declared that neither he shall write a line or utter a word in future about history of Marathas, even though; it was always his favourite subject. I still remember that I had listened spellbound to a lecture of this knowledgeable historian sometimes in late seventies, about unknown historical spots in city of Pune.  However, he had sensed the new danger and preferred to keep himself away. Today, the problems are becoming even more alarming with advent of social media.

As I have mentioned above, history of Buddhism remains one of my favourite topics. I have managed to write a few lines about Early Rock cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra and the iconography found therein, after visiting some of them and the museums, which display many of the beautiful icons and murals from these places. Other day, after reading my comments (all based on museum legends and well known books written in nineteenth or twentieth centuries) on one such mural displayed in a museum, one of my facebook friends, commented that he had started getting doubts, whether I was really a Buddhist or not? This absolutely alarmed me. I could not understand how my young friend had assumed that I was a Buddhist. Perhaps, this young man had already this preconceived notion in his mind that the people, who can write about rock-cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra, have to be Buddhists. After receiving his comment, I simply posted a paragraph from the famous book ‘Cave temple of India’ by Fergusson and Burgess, in support of what was my contention. My friend’s reaction was even more deadly. He promptly told me that Fergusson and Burgess were foreigners and did not know anything about India. Sorry! M/S Fergusson and Burgess, your research is no longer valid in twenty-first century India, because you were foreigners and not even Buddhists. I was however,  not going to take this lightly, so I posted a photo of the Legend, displayed by the museum, where this controversial  art object was displayed and told my young friend that this legend exactly supports, what I am saying. A prompt reply came that he does not care about, what museum says. After this, it became too much for me and I felt that there was no point in continuing my conversation. I simple removed the particular photograph, on which the whole conversation in facebook was based and unfriended this young man to end the matter.

I have given details of my conversations with this young friend solely to make my readers aware of bringing in sentimentality, while reading or studying history. For such readers, there are many reasons for such an absurd point of view.  The most important reason perhaps is the prides these people possess in belonging to a particular religion or community. Off course, they are perfectly free to enjoy their pride, but that does not mean that they should lead themselves in historical theories that cannot be backed up by any evidence.

Remember George Orwell’s famous book 1984. In this book, the leading character of the novel, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, who works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in Newspeak. Minitrue is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. Smith's job is to rewrite past newspaper articles, so the historical record always supports the Party's agenda. The workers are told they are correcting misquotations, when they are actually writing false information in the place of fact. Minitrue also destroys all previous editions of revised work. This method ensures there is no proof of government interference.

I am afraid that present attitude of the young budding Historians from social media almost borders the diktats or decrees of the Inner Party from Orwell’s 1984. To hell, with your evidence! Whatever we say is the truth, because it suits, greatness of our religion or community. If the trend continues, I am afraid that study of history, instead of being an occupation of a few scholarly aspirants, would then turn into a hazardous field, where facing abuses or even rioting mobs would soon become an order of the day and we might as well close the museums, as Afghans did in Kabul during Taliban regime.

Study of history (with accompanying geographical factors) can be quite rewarding. It gives a rare insight into a country’s past. History is not a list of dates and wars. History can tell us why Sindhu-Sarswati Civilizations collapsed, not because of any invasions but because of the successive failures of monsoon rains over years and years. History can tell us why India could never emerge in the past as a united country, except for reigns of a couple of Emperors (separated by eight centuries apart). History can tell us why India always fell before a powerful invader, as fractured small kingdoms were no match for the might of Greeks, eastern Scythians (Shakas), Yui-zhi (Kushans), Kidarites (Huns), Hephthalites (White Huns), Mongols, Islamic Iconoclasts from Arabia and Persia, and finally Moghuls. History can tell us why land of India, so rich in resources, always ailed as it was divided on basis of castes, communities, and religions. However, to understand all this and much more, a reader has to have an open mind, free of prejudices, injected in him by the false prides in religions and communities. The reader should have enough sense not to look at history under terms of reference of present day world and condemn every tradition and belief of our ancestors. I would be last person to suggest ever that we should adopt ancient traditions and customs. They are no longer relevant. However, to label them as anti-social, casteist or chauvinistic would be equally wrong as people had adopted these operating under totally different factors such as abysmally low (by today’s standards) average age to which men or women survived, fear of foreign invasions, rule of tyrants, draughts, floods  etc. The list can be endless. With an objective and curious mind, history rewards you; no other subject can ever match. 

9 April 2018

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Pitalkhora Yaksha

The three main religions from India, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, believe in an order, where, besides human beings, creatures of Sentient (having an ability to experience feelings) existence also inhabit our world. Common examples of such sentient creatures are in form of Devas, Gandharvas and Yakshas. Out of these creatures, Yakshas are of special interest, as they are found in abundance in religious scriptures and stories of all the religions that have originated in India. R. Spence Hardy in his book, ‘Manual of Buddhism’ describes Yakshas as.
Yakshas are not to be classed with devils, though this is their popular designation. They are beings whose karma has placed them in the situation they now occupy in the scale of existence; but many of their acts might be attributed to the Dewas, as many of the acts of the Dewas might be attributed to them, without any appearance of impropriety. The dwelling-place of the Yakshas is not in the Hell (Narakas); so that they are not spirits condemned to ceaseless torments like the devils of revelation; they are found in the earth, and in the waters, and form one section of the guards round the mansion of Sekra. They marry (to Yakshinis), and delight in dances, songs, and other amusements; their strength is great; and some of them are represented as possessing splendour and dignity”.

In Buddhist literature, the Yakṣhas are the attendants of Vaishravaṇa, the guardian of the northern direction and quarter, a beneficent god who protects the righteous and rules from Capital ‘Alaka’ or ‘Alakananda’. In Buddhist art forms,  Yakshas are always represented in a Human form.  The Buddhist rock-cut temples of India invariably display Yakshas, standing on both sides of the entrance of a monastery or Chaitya. They are commonly known as ‘Dwarapala’. Reason for their inclusion can be found in the Tibetan scripture “Dul-va” (part of Ka-gyur). In this book, Shakyamuni Buddha is believed to have instructed to Anathapindika about decoration of Buddhist Viharas by placing a Yaksha figure on the outside door.

However, besides being displayed as ‘Dwarapalas’ on the sides of entrances, we also find Yaksha figures at other places such as plinth surfaces of Buddhist monasteries and Chaityas and on balusters.Yakshas are picturised as bringing stability to heavy structures by holding them in their hands. Common examples of such Yaksha figures can be found in Rock cut caves at Nashik and Pitalkhora in Maharashtra state of India.

A popular Buddhist scripture from Nepal is known as ‘Pancharaksha’ (Five-fold-protection). It  is a collection of ‘Mantras’ (religious rhymes that are supposed to have magical powers) that offers protection against sin, malady and other evils. Each of the ‘mantra’ is known as a ‘Dharani’. One of the ‘Darani’ from this collection is called as ‘Maha-mayuri’ sutra (Sermon of great peacock) and it is believed to offer a protection from snake poison.

It is believed by Nepali Buddhists that ‘Maha-mayuri’ Sutra was first delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha himself to his senior most disciples, Ananda. The original Sanskrit (or Prakrit) Sutra was translated by ‘Amoghavajra’, a monk born in Samarkand of an Indian father and Sogdian mother, in Chinese in 7th century. It is known as ‘Fu-mu-da-kong-que-ming-wang-jing’ (佛母大孔雀明王經).

In this Sutra, Shakyamuni tells Ananda. “Furthermore there are these great Yaksha kings and Yaksha generals who live along seashores, reside on high mountains and other mountains, dwell in the wilderness, live in rivers, streams, marshes, ponds, burial grounds, caves, villages, alleys, at four-way crossroads, parks, trees and other dwelling places, including a great Yaksha,  who resides in the palace of Apadakavati”.

Continuing, The Buddha tells Ananda in this Sutra to recite the names of the great Yaksha king and all the major Yaksha generals, which he names subsequently. The list covers almost all the major towns that existed in India at that time. However, the particular Yakshas, which are of our  interest here, are listed by Buddha in verses (श्लोक) 41-43. 

पौंड्रेशू मेघमालि च I
प्रतिष्ठाने च खन्डकः
पितङ्‌गल्येशु सङकारि
तरङ्‌गवत्यामं सुखावहाः
नासिकये सुन्दरो यक्षा
असाङ्‌गो भरुकच्छके 

(Yaksha named Meghamali from Paundravardhana, Khandaka from Pratishthana, Sankari from  Pitangalya, Sukhavaha from Tarangavati, Sundara from Nashik and Asanga from Bharukachchha)

More specifically, from this list, three Yakshas(Yaksha named Sundara, who resides in Nasikya (Nashik), the Yaksha named as Sankari, who resides in Pitangalya (Pitalkhora) and Khandaka from Pratishthana) are of our immediate concern

A visit to Nashik caves would show up several Yaksha figures standing as ‘Dwarapala” in cave nos. 3, 9 and 18 and also on the front plinth of caves 3 and 9, shown as lifting the burden of the cave structure. These appear to be just decorations sculptured as instructed by Buddha and cannot be considered that of any important Yaksha general, named in ‘Maha mayuri’ sutra as Yaksha Sundara, who can be revered.

Chaitya Hall at Pitalkhora circa 1880

Pitalkhora caves, discovered by Henry Cousens in 1880, are located near the head of a narrow ravine at a distance of 2.4 Kilometers to the southeast of the ruined village, known as ‘Patan’. This village is mentioned by the great Indian mathematician ‘Bhaskaracharya’ in his work and his grandson had established a school here in year 1206 to teach his grandfather’s works. ‘Patan’ is located about 18 or 19 Kilometers from ‘Chalisgaon’ railway station. The ‘Pitalkhora’ caves, consisting of a Chaitya and eight monasteries, when compared with other caves at Nashik, Karle or Bhaje, are in ruinous condition, because of the inferior quality of the Basalt rock there.

Fergusson and Burgess describe these caves in these words. “Were it not for this (the ruinous condition) they (Pitalkhora caves) present features that would render them as one of the most interesting of the minor groups of caves in west. They have a strangely foreign look, as if copied from some Persian or Assyrian examples, of course executed in colour”.

Pitalkhora caves were thoroughly investigated by M.N.Deshpande, an archaeologist from Archaeological Survey of India. In the heaps of rubble, he found a great storehouse of sculptures and bas-reliefs that today adorn the Museums at Delhi and Mumbai. A visit to the caves is still quite interesting, as the exquisite figures on capitals of pillars and pilasters are still intact.

Coming back to Yaksha figures, Deshpande found twelve of them in all, at Pitalkhora, besides carved figures of two female 'Yakshis'.  Two bas-reliefs of Yaksha ‘Dwarapalas’ were found sculptured on the either side of the staircase entrance to the main monastery hall of cave no. 4. (The figure on right still stands at the site, whereas the figure on left seems to have been moved to some unknown place). Two more  'Dwarapala' figures were found in the debris found in the forecourt of Cave No. 3 or Chaitya Hall. One of this is still in good shape and has been since moved to museum at Mumbai. The other figure was found to be too much weather-worn and almost beyond re construction. There is nothing extra-ordinary about these four figures, as they are very similar to ‘Dwarapala’ figures at Nashik caves. One Yaksha figure was discovered on a mutilated portion of a Pilaster that depicted a female chauri-bearer and a small Yaksha. On either side (baluster) of the flight of  twelve steps in two stages, cut in rock that lead to Chaitya or cave no. 3, Deshpande discovered two Yaksha figures ( on either side) engraved  in a sculptured panel, making the total of Yaksha figures as 9. Another loose panel from cave no. 4 shows  two Yaksha figures  sitting with legs folded backwards from knee and hands upraised. They have been shown bearing the weight of the broken panel. This takes the total of Yaksha figures to 11.  Even a cursory look would confirm that all these ‘Yaksha’ figures are just decarations, sculptured as instructed by Buddha to Anathapindika and are like those found at Nashik.

Dwarapala Yaksha standing at the entrance of Chaitya hall, Mumbai museum

Deshpande found that the twelfth Yaksha figure however, was a very different proposition, as it was not a bas-relief but a free standing, round sculpture. It was also discovered in a heap of rubble, lying in the forecourt of Chaitya or cave no. 3. Deshpande describes the Yaksha figure as unique and admits that he has not been able to get anything parallel to it anywhere else. The surviving portion of the statue sculptured in buff stone (harder than the sandstone but softer to than granite) is about a meter high with legs below knees broken off and missing left forearm. The figure is of a chubby or plump male with arms raised upwards to hold a shallow bowl. Because of this, this figure is known as ‘Patravahak Yaksha’ (Yaksha carrying a pot). The figure has been dated by Archaeologists to second century BCE.

The legend at Delhi museum, where Yaksha figure is now displayed reads. “A corpulent male, dwarfish in stature, conceived with bold, robust, and distinctive features. As reveals the expression on his face and eyes, he is full of wild joy. This zest for life also reflects in his lavish adornment rendered with several unusual types of ornaments. His lotus flower-like dressed hair with twisted hair rolls is exceptionally attractive. He is putting on a beautifully designed 'antariya' - lower garment, conceived with vertical linear courses and other styles of folds, descending down to the mid-thigh height. It has been held on the waist with a decorative thick one-stranded cord with two ends lying loose around the left thigh. Friendly, benign, and eager to share his mirth with all, his devotees, and others, the figure of the Yaksha has been conceived with large bulbous eyes, chubby face, and wide-open mouth with rows of teeth well revealed as when laughing and in jubilation, expressing delight. The image has two notable features, one curious, and other, historically significant. On the right and left sides of his belly the Yaksha has a pair of human icons and on the outer side of the right palm the image has a 2nd century BCE  inscription in Brahmi scipt  that reads as,

कन्हदासेन हिरमं
नकारेन कटो

(Kanhadasena Hiram-nakarena kato),

revealing the name of the sculptor as Kanhadasa, a goldsmith”.

Perhaps because of the uniqueness of the image and the fact that it was found in the Chaitya itself, Deshpande proposes that the image may be that of ‘Yaksha Sankarin’ mentioned in ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra. There has been some criticism of this proposal. (See the article by M. S. Mate in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, [ Vol. 26, No. 3-4, 1965-66] or Pitalkhora: Art  and Archaeology By S.K. Mittra, thesis submitted for PhD). I however feel that the criticism appears quite unjustified for two reasons. Firstly, as Deshpande suggests, the Yaksha image is unique, and unlikely to have been carved as decoration, like other 11 figures. 

There is an old belief in Maharashtra villages that a person bitten by a snake is revived, even when all other ways to revive him fail, if he is brought and kept in a Shiva temple. It is possible to imagine a similar belief in Buddhists to bring a snake bitten person to a Chaitya where an image of a Yaksha was kept especially for this purpose. Considering the antiquity of the image, it seems quite possible that the Pitalkhora monastery monks got the image cut by a goldsmith later, especially for worshipping or revering in case of snakebites, as has been suggested in the ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra. 
Extrapolating from Pitalkhora Yaksha- it can be presumed that in all major towns of that time and monasteries nearby, a Yaksha figure might have been installed to cure the snake bitten. It is no surprise therefore that ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra mentions more than hundred names of Yakshas, from places not only from India, but also from ‘Kapishi’ (present day Begram in Afghanistan), ‘Tukhara’ (Bactria, present-day northern Afghanistan), and ‘Suvastu’ from Xinjiang China (presently known as Subashi ruins) installed in Buddhist temples for reverence in case of snakebites.

Mention of the names of monasteries from far off places in ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra, would also indicate their inclusion in the Sutra at a later period, when Ashoka’s emissaries had spread Buddhism to central Asia and China (after 3rd century BCE). I do not mean by this that the places like ‘Tukhara’ were not known in the earlier periods in India, as we can find their mention  even in Rigveda and Mahabharata. However, mention of places like ‘Suvastu’ monastery,   built around first century, would definitely confirm their inclusion in the Sutra, only at a much later period. There is also a possibility that the Sutra itself originated at a later period, but we shall never know for sure.
5th April 2018