Yakshis : The Silent Guardians
Standing at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India building in New Delhi are two large imposing statues of a man and a woman holding a bag of money in their hand. These are the Yaksha and Yakshi, the deities of wealth and prosperity, apt doorkeepers for the gates of India’s Central Bank! While these statues in Delhi are of recent origin (they were installed in 1960), the tradition of worshiping these deities goes way back in ancient India. What’s more, the Yaksha and Yakshi also hark back to the time when tree spirits held sway.
The Hindu Faith is an amalgam of multiple strains that combine high philosophy, massy epics , regional god heads and local folk spirits. All these have not just co-existed but also been brought together, in a broad brushed narrative that we understand as religion today. Indians in several rural pockets still worship spirits that represent trees, waterbodies, rivers and mountains. They believe that these benevolent spirits bring them food, good harvest, health, fertility and offspring. Known as Yaksha, the male spirit and Yakshi, the female spirit, sculptures representing them can be seen in temples across India. Having said that however, we don’t know exactly when the worship of Yakshas and Yakshis began.
Dr Upinder Singh, historian and author of the book ‘A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India’ points out:
‘It is difficult to estimate the antiquity of Yakshas and Yakshis. However, during 300 BCE – 200 BCE, they were still an important part of the religious landscape. These cults are often described as minor, rural folk cults, but the evidence indicates otherwise’
A large number of stone statues of Yakshas and Yakshis have been found all over North India testifying to the widespread popularity of this cult. However, sometime after 200 BCE, the Yaksha cult began to be subsumed into the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. Yakshas were incorporated into the Hindu mythology as Kubera, the lord of Wealth. While Yakshis took different forms as attendant spirits to gods.
The famous Buddhist stupas at Sanchi, Bahrut and Mathura had several Yakshi figures, carved around them. Similarly, Yakshis were important in Jainism as well. Each of the 24 tirthankaras had a Yakshi associated with them , with the most prominent being Ambika, the Yakshi of Neminath, the 22nd tirthankara. Numerous reliefs and sculptures of Yakshis are found in Jain caves and temples.
However, as time passed, the benevolent Yakshas and Yakshis, who were worshipped also took on negative hues and were often portrayed as malevolent spirits who needed appeasement. While there were thousands of beautiful Yakshi statues, there are a few that are legendary.
The most famous is the statue of the Chauri (Fly Whisk) bearing Didarganj Yakshi housed in the Patna Museum. Life sized - the Yakshi 5 feet 2 inches tall, the statue is placed on a pedestal carved out of a single piece of Sandstone that was quarried from Chunar (now in Uttar Pradesh). What catches the eye is the gleaming mirror polish on the statue, which art historians believe is thanks to the influence of classical Greeks. The statue is dated to the late Mauryan period, around 3rd century BCE. The statue was found in 1917, in Didarganj in Old Patna city. Sadly, in 1986, the statue was at the center of a massive controversy, when its nose was damaged when the statue was being transported to Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA.
Another interesting Yakshi sculpture is that of the Gayraspur ‘Shalabhanjika’ Yakshi at the Gwalior museum. Often compared in beauty to the Venus De Milo in the Louvre, Paris, this Yakshi with a smile on her face was found in Gayraspur, 13 kms from Vidisha in 1933. Gayraspur was a Buddhist centre and excavations were carried out by the Gwalior State Archeology department. The Yakshi represents a ‘Shalabhanjika’ , or a lady holding a branch of the Shala tree (Shorea robusta), a common theme in Medieval Indian sculpture. The Gyaraspur Yakshi was exhibitied in an international exhibition in Paris in 1986, where it created a sensation. Sadly, the statue is locked behind iron bars and is not on public display. One needs to make a special request at the Gwalior Museum to see this Yakshi.
The third most famous Yakshi is the ‘Chandra’ Yakshi housed at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. This rare Yakshi relief originally decorated the famous Bharhut stupa. In 1874, Alexander Cunningham, the founder of the Archeological Survey of India, carried out excavations at Bharhut, in the Satna district of Madhya Pradesh and found a spectacular and exquisitely carved remains of a Buddhist stupa dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Among the remains was a panel of a beautiful Yakshi with an elaborate hairdo and the name ‘Chandra’ inscribed. Historians consider this to be one of the most important Yakshi images found to date.
While these yakshis have been immortalized in stone, down south in Kerala, the Yakshis however took a more malevolent form. Often portrayed as female vampires, preying on lonely travelers. It was believed that young women who died unnatural deaths became Yakshis. In the Kallara B (the unopened vault) of the famous Padamanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram, is said to be a spirit of a Yakshi, in deep meditation. In fact, “a ferocious Yakshi must not be disturbed”, was one of the arguments put forward against opening of the Kallara B at the temple when the Supreme Court of India, ordered the opening of the treasure vaults of the temple in 2011. This vault was never opened!
The evolution of Yakshas and Yakshis as a concept is also a reflection of how local deities came to be incorporated into the broader Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pantheon. When a new tribe was converted to a new religion, their gods were incorporated into the dominant faith, but in a lesser role. These deities were often given the status of attendants to mighty gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha and the Thirthankaras. They could be worshiped and grant wishes but their status was always secondary.
Today, though their origins are still shrouded in mystery, sculptures of the Yakshis are celebrated for their sheer beauty and grace. They represent some of the finest examples of Indian sculpture and art!
Cover Image: Soham Banerjee via Wikimedia Commons