The symbolism of the drum operates at many levels. Firstly there are its materials - wood and hide. The hide being a symbol of regeneration. Since ancient times, the skin of a sacrificial animal, such as the bull or horse, represents the fat of the animal and, by extension, all life-sustaining produce; also progeny. Indeed all qualities associated with the natural functions of a woman.
The wood of the drum is symbolic of a tree itself, which expresses maternal nourishment and support. It is wood that gives shelter at birth as a cradle and in death as the coffin. It is noteworthy here that in China wood is also an emblem of spring, the season of fertility and ripe blossoms.
That the drum is hollow from the inside is also not without spiritual significance. It is a receptive void, to be entered as a woman is, protective, cavernous, a furrow, a shelter and hence a symbol of the womb and therefore birth.
Finally the oval shape of the drum is a symbol of fertility, the feminine creative principle.
A Mother with Her Infant in Her Arms
A child's first master is always his/her mother, whence the crucial role she plays and the particular regard in which she is held by both child and man. It is not merely that she has given him life, which is often a fortuitous accident, nor only because she has nourished him with her milk, but because she is the one who initiates the child into the society of man and who teaches the first rudiments of language and behavior on which his whole future development depends.
All women have two natures, two distinct characters, as both lover and mother. As lover she represents the strength and creative power of the male principle, which without her is sterile. She is his inspiration, the instrument of his realization, the source of his pleasure. She is the image of Shakti, the power and joy of the gods, who without her would have no existence. It is as mother, however, that woman represents the transcendent aspect of the divine. She is the supreme refuge in which the male plays no role. The goddess mother is the sole source of being, the supreme state of consciousness, the principle of life itself.
Woman is the image of the calm of primordial night for which man yearns, tossed on the waves of life, seeking the state of perfection, the total peace from which he came forth. The universal mother thus appears to man as the supreme state of the divine. All creation, all thought, all form, all existence come from the mysterious energy that appears in the substratum, this matrix of the great goddess, the universal mother, from whom all forms and beings come.
As mother, woman is divine and is worshipped. A mother is bereft of artifice. She is man's comfort, wandering through the deserts of the world. She is forgiveness, charity, and limitless compassion. The woman who realizes the perfection of her maternal role is the very gate of heaven.
The respect and duty owed to this first of all masters and the authority she retains make the mother an essential and symbolic figure throughout life. This is woman's double nature: passive in her relationship with men, active as mother of her children. It is well known, moreover, that the most coquettish and timid woman, when her child is in danger, becomes courageous and enterprising, heedless of her makeup, her weakness, her hair, or the injuries she mighty receive.
In visual representations, the mother is most often shown suckling her baby. Indeed the grace and sweetness of vegetal life pervade and enliven the lovely bodies of both mother and child. Here fertility and maternity, the grand old themes of the archetypal figures of the mother goddesses are relieved of their ancient abstractness and diagrammatic monumentality, achieving a composition of refined and intimate realism. Brought down to the terrestrial plane from the sphere of ideals, such an image is both contemporary and eternal.
To the Indian imagination this beautiful flower is associated with divinity. An early medieval text describes the goddess as being:
as the lotus-fiber,
In the lotus posture,
Pollen dusting her lotus-feet,
In the pendant lotus of the heart.
Indian literature classifies women into four types of which the highest is Padmini, the Lotus Lady whose very breath contains the fragrance of the lotus. Because of its entrancing fragrance, the sweet and pervasive freshness of the lotus is captivating. The honey produced in the calyx is so sweet and maddening that it is believed that the bee forgets to get out of it and prefers to remain veiled inside the lotus through the night.
Ancient mythmakers used the lotus as a common symbol of fertility. The plant was native to many areas of the world, so it occurred frequently in myths and was highly revered by people of many cultures, including the Egyptians and the Persians. It is the very behavior of the flower that gives rise to this symbolism. Sinking to the bottom of the water at night, it rises to the surface in the morning, and spreads its petals on the surface. This awakening and blooming of the lotus at the first rays of the morning sun is a recurrent theme in Indian literature also.
The lotus is the symbol of absolute purity; it grows from the dark watery mire but it is untainted or unstained by it. As the seed of the lotus grows from the waters and from the earth's soil, it is a symbol of divine or spontaneous generation. Birth such as that of the lotus implies an immaculate and uncontaminated conception. Thus the lotus, as divine womb, becomes a potent sexual metaphor. Padma or kamala, meaning lotus in Sanskrit, is a synonym for the female generative organ - it is both soft and open.
Thus by signifying the relation of the sensual to the spiritual, beauty to purity, and the physical to the divine, the potent metaphor of the lotus again emphasizes the inherent sacredness in women.
Woman Playing with a Parrot
The parrot is the vehicle of the god of desire Kama, the impeller of creation. Kama is the god of beauty and youth. Creation is always preceded by desire, there can be no creation without desire. Indeed the symbol of the parrot is another pointer to the fundamental association of the feminine with the creative principle in nature.
Thus the Indian aesthetic tradition regards woman as an aspect of the Great Mother of all life, a vessel of fertility, and life in full sap. She embodies mystery through her fruitfulness. She is associated with nature and the earth. Indeed men in a number of primitive societies refuse to interfere with agriculture, believing it to be magically dependent on women. Because of her unique physiological experiences, like menstruation, defloration, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation, she is responsive to the mysterious periodicities connected with the phases of the moon, the cycles of the months, the seasons of the years and the rhythms of nature.
She lives separate existences as virgin, wife, mother, widow or spinster, each with its own experience and power. As a mother she is one of the great primordial archetypes of humanity. From her womb a new creature is born, at her breasts it is nourished, by her hands it is guided.
Indeed woman is superior to man in many ways. She has greater vitality; her resistance to disease, physical injury and major shocks is better than man's; girls, as a rule, are more precocious in their development than boys, and do not succumb so easily to illness. Women are more practical and down to earth, and some anthropologists think that rule by women preceded rule by men, and that the patriarchal system developed only when men settled down to a civilized life so as to leave women free to bring up the family.
Woman is the originator of families, the preserver of the established order and the perpetuator of traditions, which she imparts to her children. Through her the past is continued, not only in the physical life of her children, but in the respect for traditional heritage that she instills into them. As the Great Goddess rules the heavens, her earthly counterpart, the woman, rules the home.
It is the presence of women that lies at the source of most forms of totemism, exogamy, taboo, initiations, blood-rites, fertility rites and the mysteries. With women are associated the ideas of the unconscious, for some instinctive and intuitive process seems to put her in touch, through some secret sympathy, with the very heart of things.
She symbolizes the wisdom of the community, and the old woman and sage-femme is the keeper of the tribal lore and often the source of tribal strength. She is priestess, prophetess, sibyl, medium, oracle, pythoness, and witch. Skilled in herbs and balms she is the natural healer and nurse, first of her children, then of her hunter and warrior husband. Man penetrates into her interior, and deep within her body the child is created. She therefore stands for the innerness of things, the place where secret and hidden things happen. Indeed it is in her womb that the great magical transformation takes place that changes sperm into men.
Thus Manu, the first law-giver, said:
"The gods are satisfied
wherever women are honored, but where they are
not respected, rites and prayers are ineffectual."
(Manu Smriti 3.62)
References and Further Reading
- Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
- Danielou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation; The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India: Vermont, 1993.
- Dehejia, Vidya (ed.) Representing the Body (Gender Issues in Indian Art): New Delhi, 1999.
- Dehejia, Vidya (ed.). Devi The Great Goddess (Female Divinity in South Asian Art): Washington, 1999.
- Leslie, Julia. Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women: Delhi, 1992.
- Pal, Pratapaditya (ed). Dancing to the Flute (Music and Dance in Indian Art): Sydney, 1997.
- Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
- Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997.
- Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
- Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia; Its Mythology and Transformation (two vols.): Delhi, 2001.