Who is depicted here?
This stone sculpture depicts a female figure holding on to the branches of a tree. She stands in what is known as a triple bend position. Part of her arms and one leg have broken off. She has a pleasant expression on her face. She wears heavy earrings and anklets. Her full hips, narrow waist and ample breasts are signs of beauty and abundant fertility. Covering her hips is an elaborate, jeweled girdle. She stands on a crouching, dwarflike figure. The branches of the tree, possibly an ashoka tree, spread over her head like a backdrop. On the reverse side of the pillar are shown open lotus flowers.
What is the meaning of this figure?
This is not a portrait of a real person, but a type of figure known as a yakshi a semi-divine spirit referring to a fertile woman whose touch brings certain kinds of trees to blossom. The image conveys a sense of blossoming fertility. The image of a voluptuous woman of childbearing age has a long history in India, and many such images predate Buddhism. Nature itself is considered feminine, and trees are sometimes worshiped with female spirits or local deities appearing to spring forth from their trunks.
Trees are important in Buddhism since it was under a bodhi tree that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. On the railing decorations at Sanchi stupa is a depiction of worshipers paying homage to a tree, in front of which a platform has been erected. It seems likely that this voluptuous figure would have welcomed worshipers, and imparted an auspicious element to the space enclosing the stupa. It may have also eased the transition of those worshipers who were accustomed to the worship of nature spirits and divinities to the relatively newer Buddhist practices and beliefs symbolized at this time by the stupa.
Where was this figure originally placed?
This sculpture is a piece of architecture. The figure backs on to a pillar that originally supported the railing surrounding a stupa. Thus worshipers at ancient stupas would have encountered this figure as they passed through the gates into the stupa enclosure. Enclosing a stupa with a railing helps to demarcate the sacred area of the stupa. One precedent for this may have come from the ancient practice of enclosing sacred trees and other objects, something that can still be encountered in villages and towns throughout India.