Histories and Acquired Meanings

by Jayati Sen

The Didarganj Yakshi, dated approximately to the 3rd century B.C.E, makes it one of the earliest available specimens of Indian art and can be taken as a classic representative case for demonstrating how objects, images or places acquire multiple, layered meanings over time. These new meanings are often quite removed, if not entirely different, from its initially conceived purpose and flow from the difference in perspective of the viewers. Their purpose as conceived during creation is as significant as the meanings that come to be associated with them with the passage of time. To this extent, all such objects cannot be said to possess a singular history, but rather ‘histories’ that are added over time.

The trajectory that the Yakshi assumed, since its chance find in 1917, was rather eventful. It went on to gain significance both within the country and outside it, owing to its unique style and indigenous theme. It came to be regarded as a marker of a high point in Indian art and sculptural excellence. Importantly, it was a specimen that could and would be employed by advocates of the indigenous/local roots of Indian art, to oppose the dominant Eurocentric understanding of art of the subcontinent in the colonial era: wherein specimens that received attention or qualified as ‘great’ art were largely the images of Buddha belonging to the Gandhara School of Art, which bore stylistic resemblance to Hellenic artistic values, the prime of which was naturalism. In Ananda Coomaraswamy’s theorization, the form and depiction of the Buddha (1st-2nd centuries C.E. onwards) was the carrying forward of the pre- Buddhist traditions associated with Yaksha and Yakshi cults rather than a result of the introduction of Hellenistic ideals to the north western zones of the subcontinent.

The fact that it was identified as a Yakshi — traditionally associated with elements of nature such as water, trees, forests and fertility — was not free from contestations. Holders of opposing points of view accorded to it the role of a courtesan or attendant, citing its ‘Indo-Aryan’ facial features (Yakshis are usually depicted with stocky gaits and protruding/bulging eyes).

The Yakshi was a subject of contestation across various levels; not the least of which is its place and purpose post its reappearance in the early 20th century. For a brief period after it resurfaced, it came to be worshipped by locals of the region, indicating the ritual/religious realm into which it had been inducted, in all probability, as a mother goddess. The intervention of colonial officials, who viewed the object in its aesthetic, archaeological and historical terms, is what led to it being placed within the confines of the then newly established Patna museum. Thus, different vantage points from which the object was interpreted resulted in differing understanding of its value and purpose: the ‘cult value’ on one hand and the ‘exhibition value’ on the other. Some looked at the transfer of the Didarganj Yakshi by the British from the locals’ area of worship post its find as a manifestation of the larger scheme of the exercise of colonial control across all realms of native life.

Such images are considered to be ‘social beings’ with fluid and dynamic identities, with people’s response to them being culturally constructed. The theory (or theories) of knowledge that a particular interpretive community possesses has a significant bearing on comprehension and interpretation.

The Yakshi’s transfer to the Patna museum and positioning among other antiquities of the region resulted in its role as an element in the larger picture of national history. It came to be categorized systematically under labels of dynasty and chronology, which gave to it an identity beyond itself. It thus became a representative of the development in the aesthetic depictions and techniques of the Mauryan period. Its identification as a unique sample of Mauryan art lay in the specificities of its theme and treatment. It was reflective of a transitory period, if it may be called as such, between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘refined’; the subject (Yakshi) being the ‘primitive’ component, while the execution and naturalistic rendering, coupled with the characteristic Mauryan glossed appearance of the sandstone, constituting the ‘refined’.

The identification of this piece as Mauryan added strength to the argument of indigenous roots of Indian art. In the colonial context, where imaginings and understanding of dominions were shaped by a general perception of the native cultures being stagnant, ‘lesser’ or devoid of markers of ‘greatness’ of civilizations when compared with the west, the find of the Didarganj Yakshi could serve as a significant element in changing ideas about the past, which could be seen as being eventful, owing in part, to the presence of such specimens of high quality artistic production that had evolved from an entirely indigenous base, independent of Achaemenid or Hellenic influence.

In the interpretation of Indian art as growing out of grossly different aesthetic sensibilities as compared to Western (specifically Greek) ideals, a distinction of purpose of its production was stressed. Coomaraswamy points to the inherently abstract nature of all Indian art, ascribing to it a quality of spiritualism. It was into such a larger, and more generalized framework formulated for Indian art that the Yakshi had to be fitted. At this juncture, yet another set of layers of meaning came to be attached to the Didarganj Yakshi. Scholarly endeavours sought to delve into the realms of symbolism and style. There was a convergence and interaction amongst the layers and levels — sexual, ritual and aesthetic.

The Didarganj Yakshi, post Coomaraswamy’s first of two volumes on Yakshas and Yakshis, was to become a specimen of the larger pool of similar images that could be found across regions and contexts like Sanchi, Bharhut, Mathura and Sarnath. The antiquity of the yaksha/yakshi theme in itself was established. Also, the manner in which these beings were portrayed — with minimal clothing — was an important marker of the ‘primitive’ element. These were depictions of figures of cult-based worship that predated Buddhist religious traditions but came to be integrated and incorporated into their fold (also in Brahmanical religion) where they were endowed with somewhat altered meanings and ascribed newer roles. For instance, they became subordinate to the central deities in temples, or were often depicted supporting roofs, or as dvarapalas. Associations with fertility and wealth, however, endured.

The depiction of the female body in art in a manner of heightened sensuality also assumed the position of a metaphor for abundance and productivity. In the process of integrating the Didarganj Yakshi, specifically, into the domain of Indian art — the spiritual character of which was increasingly emphasized — the Didarganj Yakshi’s sensual elements came to be viewed as allusions to fertility, growth, abundance and wealth.

Once the Didarganj Yakshi secured its place as a definitive representation of ancient Indian art, worthy of recognition the world over, its stint as a coveted museum piece began. The Patna Museum, where it is currently placed was not its only home. It stayed for intermittent periods in Kolkata’s Indian Museum, New Delhi’s National Museum, and also travelled across the world as part of the ‘Festivals of India’ series where it served to communicate a part of what is (or, was at the time of the Yakshi’s modelling) the ‘quintessential Indian ethos’. Given the post-colonial background of the formation of the nation of India, its crystallization as a state raised the challenge of active nation building. In addition to being an imagined community like all other nations, the specificity of India lay in the diverse social, religious and cultural groups it subsumed. Thus certain common factors that transcended these identities were logically required to forge a singular identity for this diverse collective. Museums provided the concrete dimension in the variety of means assumed to attain the otherwise abstract end of nation building.

The Didarganj Yakshi, owing to its credentials of being one of the oldest available samples of Indian art, is an important object in the formulation of a ‘national collection’ of any sort. National collections serve to provide concrete points of reference, thereby aiding the creation of concepts and interpretations regarding a given civilization in the minds of its people — in Krzysztof Pomian’s words, “…facilitating and promoting certain narratives, such as those about origins and heroes, while stifling others.” Here, the ability of antiquities in shaping political discourse of the present, which is of immense significance, is made clear.

The trajectories of objects like the Didarganj Yakshi illustrate how they go on to acquire myriad meanings and values with the passage of time, irrespective of their archaeological context of find.



Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. (1923). Introduction to Indian Art. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House.

Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. (2004). Monuments, Objects, Histories. New York: Columbia University Press.


Jayati Sen is a final-year student. She is pursuing History from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.

Image Source: DNA India.


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