Railing Pillar With a Woman Beneath a Tree


India, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura area
Kushan period, 2nd century
H. 30 3/4 in. (78.1 cm); 1979.1

Artist Comments

Five thousand years ago, archaic and amorphous beliefs crystallized into systems of symbology and iconography. The rich iconography of female figures-Shalabhanjika-reflect subterranean notions of fertility.

The worship of fertility goddesses goes back to the dim period of prehistory, to the culture of river civilizations-Mohenjodaro and Harappa.

Shalabhanjika is seen as a fecundity principle. Plants and leaves spring forth from her tree-like body.

She says:
Next ye gods I shall support the whole world. With the life sustaining vegetables- Fruits and flowers. Which will grow out of my own body.

Tribals sing of her as one who is the essence of seed:
Now as she stood Naked on the earth. Trees sprouted from her toes. And leaves Like the leaves of a wheat field.

Malavika Sarukkai
The woman has been celebrated in Indian art as a symbol of fertility. We do not know if this shalabhanjika is standing outside a Hindu, Buddhist, or Jaina shrine. This secret seems to be reflected in the mysterious smile on her face; she seems at once emerging and retreating into the tree, so that the human and vegetal seem inseparable. Heavy fruit accentuate the fullness of her hips and breasts. She draws you into her world of abundance permeated with the sap of life. She is an early echo of the many later shalabhanjikas who have entranced me in Bharhut, Sanchi, Ellora, Khajuraho. She is often reflected in my work and comes to life in Pratipsa - The Song of the Tree in my recently choreographed production Uthkanta-Longing.