In Focus

Pillar Figure

This figure of a female mounted on a monsterlike creature is very much like the females appearing on the pillar uprights of a railing from the site at Mathura known as Bhutesar. Those females also stand on monster-like figures, albeit ones more clearly human than this. Those, too, have observers peering out from a veranda at the top of the pillar, though in the case of the Bhutesar figures, it is always a playful pair. This figure also shares in common the large, heavy anklets; long, low necklace; and hourglass-shaped earrings, as well as the beaded belt around the hips, often described as a girdle (mekhala in Sanskrit). Unlike the Bhutesar figures, however, this female is clothed, apparent largely from the flaring lower hem of a tight-fitting skirt seen at her ankles; the Bhutesar figures are clearly nude. And those figures, unlike this one, have Buddhist scenes carved on the reverse side- that is, either scenes from the life of the Buddha or scenes from his previous lives, the jatakas. Such an arrangement would be appropriate for a railing demarcating a path for circumambulation, the voluptuous figures facing outward toward the mundane world, the more explicitly Buddhist narrative reliefs facing the sacred monument that is circumambulated, probably a stupa. It is somewhat more difficult to understand how this pillar functioned.

The Bhutesar female figures are often identified as yakshis, a specific group of nature divinities frequently depicted on the railings of early Indian monuments and in many cases identified by inscription. They are not, however, the only female divinities depicted on such railings, so there is no certainty that this is a yakshi. Nonetheless, she is almost certainly a divinity rather than a mortal since she stands on a mount or vehicle, as Indian deities customarily do.

The Bhutesar railing figures, with which this pillar shares so much in common, can be ascribed to the Kushan period, probably to the 2nd century, suggesting a possible date for this figure as well. The spotted red sandstone from which it is carved was almost the exclusive medium for sculptures carved at Mathura, including those dating to even before the Kushan period and continuing right up to the present. It is often identified as Sikri sandstone, suggesting quarries at Fatehpur Sikri, though, in fact, it is quarried in an area to the south and west of both Mathura and Fatehpur Sikri. Sculptures carved from this stone were widely exported from Mathura during the Kushan period—for example, to Sanghol in Punjab state, some 280 miles from Mathura, where a railing with figures similar to this one has been excavated.

Excerpt from

Frederick M. Asher, "Pillar figure," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 35.

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