Shalabhanjika: The Tree Deity

The Śālabhañjikā (शालभंजिका) is a recurring sculptural motif in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist sacred spaces. The Shalabhanjika is a stylised sculpture that usually exaggerates feminine features, of a standing woman, holding a branch of a tree.

Shalabhanjika sculptures often adorn the pillars of a temple, or are placed along the circumambulation path (pradakshina path) of the deity, or in the temple’s architecture as bracket figures. It is assumed to be a symbol of fertility and auspiciousness.

Shalabhanjika: Etymology

Literally, the word Shala-bhanjika means, “the breaking/bending of a branch of the Shala tree” (Shorea robusta).  The word has been in use in ancient Indian literature since the 5th century BCE. The earliest carvings of this sculpture form emerged during the Maurya period (4th Century BCE) and continued to appear in various places during the Sunga and Satavahana periods. (2nd Century BCE to 1st Century AD).

Origin: Shalabhanjika

Shalabhanjika: Lepakshi (Image Copyright: The Custodians)
Shalabhanjika: Lepakshi (Image Copyright: The Custodians)

A “pastime” or a “garden game” in folk tradition is suggested in the Ashtdhyayi of Panini, and is limited to the eastern parts of the country where Shala trees were in abundance. The connotation of the terms Shalabhanjika is such a game, where ladies used bend branches of the Shala tree, pluck the flowers and throw them on each other.

According to Buddhist texts, when Mayadevi, the mother of Lord Buddha, was on her way to her father’s city, she stopped on the way when she saw the Lumbini grove, full of Shala trees, in full bloom. She, with her escorts entered the grove to entertain themselves. At the time, Lord Buddha was in her womb. As the Queen gracefully stood along a Shala tree, her labour pains commenced, and Lord Buddha was born there. The Queen stood in the classical tribhanga pose, and this scene, therefore is considered auspicious by the Buddhists.

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Birth of Buddha. Mayadevi, in the Shalabhanjika pose. Via, The Freer Indian Sculptures, by Aschwin Lippe (Smithsonian Institute)

Over time, the motif took on two forms, one representing the “nativity” scene, which was essentially sacred, and the other in which a charming beauty was depicted with the branch clasped in her hands, which was secular.

Shalabhanjika: In Sculpture

A typical Shalabhanjika sculpture depicts a woman standing in a tribhanga pose (the body is ‘broken’ at two points to give three bends in the body — one at the neck and the other at the hip) holding a branch of a tree. More often than not, the sculpture is adorned with heavy jewellery and complex hairstyles. In later sculptures, other trees found their way as a part of this motif — the Ashok tree, the Mango tree also feature in some Shalabhanjika sculptures.

Shalabhanjika: Lepakshi (Image Copyright: The Custodians)
Shalabhanjika: Lepakshi (Image Copyright: The Custodians)

Shalabhanjika in Literature

The term Shalabhanjika has been used in many literary works including:

  • Harshacharita and Kadambari, by Bana
  • Viddha-shalabhanjika by Rajashekhara
  • Arya-saptashati, by Givardhanacharya
  • Naishadhiyacharita, by Sriharsha

Locations well-known for beautiful Shalabhanjika sculptures between the 2nd Century BCE to the 1st Century CE) include the art at Sanchi (see featured image), Bharhut, Kaushambi, Mehrauli, and Amravati. Mathura has a few masterpieces from the Kushana period (1st – 3rd Century CE). Later masterpieces include the 12th century Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebidu.

Featured image: Shalabhanjika at Sanchi Stupa (Image Copyright: The Custodians)

References

  1. Karnataka’s Rich Heritage – Temple Sculptures & Dancing Apsaras: An Amalgam of Hindu Mythology, Natyasastra and Silpasastra, by Lalit Chugh
  2. Salabhanjika Motif in Sanskrit Literature, by U. N. Roy
  3. Woman in Indian sculpture, by M. L. Varadpande
  4. Sacred Plants of India, by Nanditha Krishna
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Gyaraspur Galleries | Chaukhamba & Hindola Torana

The Kachchhapaghata dynasty ruled the north-western parts of Madhya Pradesh during the 10th and 12th CE. They are assumed to be the progeny of the Nāgas and were the vassals of the Gurjara-Pratiharas and later, of the Chandelas of Central India.

Hindola Toran & Chaukhamba, Gyaraspur

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This dynasty contributed much to art and architecture and many temples were built under their patronage. Their early work follows the Gurjara-Pratihara style, and later developed unique and new trends in temple construction.

The Vishnu Temple (some sources refer to it as a Trimurti temple) at Gyaraspur is one example of the Kachchhapaghata style of architecture. Not much remains of this temple except the four pillars (Chaukhamba) of the central sanctum and a gateway (Hindola Torana).

Monument Details

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There are ornate carvings on the two sandstone pillars of the Hindola Torana depicting the ten incarnations of Vishnu; these beams carry two horizontal beams, with two ornamental arches between the two beams. This gateway is the southern entrance to the east-facing temple, which is believed to have been 150 ft east to west and about 85 ft north to south. The four pillars, Chaukhamba, are the central pillars of the hall, which are equally adorned by ornate carvings on all sides.

Gallery | Dashavataar, Hindola Toran

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References

  1. Gyaraspur – A Heritage of Excellence. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from http://puratattva.in/2010/04/27/gyaraspur-a-heritage-of-excellence-54
    Jain, K. C. (1972). Malwa through the ages, from the earliest times to 1305 A.D. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 432-433
  2. Journal of History & Social Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from http://jhss.org/archivearticleview.php?artid=145
  3. Kachchhapaghata dynasty. (2017, February 23). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kachchhapaghata_dynasty
  4. Vishnu Temple (Chaukhambha and Hindola-Torana). (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2017, from http://www.tspasibhopal.nic.in/project/expl_Khadwaha_Ashok_nagar_mp_2009_10/temple/project11_12_vishnu_temple_vidisha.html

Link | Buddhist Sculptures Discovered in Ruins of Ancient Shrine

 

Sculptures and carvings dating back more than 1,700 years have been discovered in the remains of a shrine and its courtyard in the ancient city of Bazira. The sculptures illustrate the religious life of the city, telling tales from Buddhism and other ancient religions. Also called Vajirasthana, Bazira is located the in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. It was first constructed as a small town, during the second century B.C., and eventually developed into a city located within the Kushan Empire. At its peak, this empire ruled territory extending from modern-day India to central Asia.

Source: Buddhist Sculptures Discovered in Ruins of Ancient Shrine