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

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