This brilliant statue carved out of fine cedar wood, its natural texture and colour retained, represents Goddess Lakshmi, the patron deity of riches, prosperity, fertility, abundance and accomplishment. The statue is dually a masterpiece. While the texture of the wood – uniformity of colour, its ability to yield fine details and finish, is the wood’s distinction, realization of the highest kind of iconographic features and rare perfection in modelling is the craftsman’s distinction that the South Indian wood-carvers matured over centuries. Usually clubbed with Lord Vishnu, as his consort, or with Lord Ganesha, a combination multiplying auspiciousness, Lakshmi’s independent images occupying a sanctum or seat, as is this image, are rare. This image has obviously been conceived and chiseled for enshrining a sanctum – more so, a domestic shrine, or to sanctify and grace a house giving a feel of the goddess’s divine presence. The goddess bestows her bliss independent of Vishnu. Except one of Vishnu’s attributes, his disc, and perhaps conch, this image of Lakshmi does not record even his symbolic presence. The towering crown that the goddess is putting on, an element of Vaishnava iconography, is the characteristic feature of South Indian divine imagery. Not merely the Vaishnava even the Shaivite deities are represented wearing it.
One of the earliest female divinities Lakshmi marks her presence in scriptures as early as the Rig-Veda. With her name as Shri the Rig-Veda has devoted to her three of its independent Suktas – verses, lauding her as the epitome of beauty and as one who bestowed abundance. The Rig-Veda invokes her to bless those making offering to her in ‘yajna’ with her bounties and by her beauteous presence. However, it was later in the Atharva-Veda and Shatpatha-Brahmin that finally fix her position as the goddess of riches. Both, the Atharva-Veda and the Shatpatha-Brahmin, treat Lakshmi not only as a term synonymous to riches but also classify her like riches as good Lakshmi and bad Lakshmi, that is, riches rightfully earned and put to rightful ends and the otherwise. The Mahabharata is another early text to allude to Lakshmi. As suggest Lakshmi icons at Sanchi stupa and remains from Bharhut-like other Buddhist sites, by 3rd century BC itself Lakshmi emerges in Buddhism as one of the principal goddesses of the pantheon. These reliefs have a number of her icons portraying Lakshmi as an independent deity. Around the same time or so Lakshmi emerges in Jainism as one of its presiding goddesses.
In Hinduism also Lakshmi keeps on enjoying this status of an independent divinity till quite late. The Devi-Mahatmya part in the Markandeya Purana – one of the early Puranas, reveres her as one of the three-aspected primordial feminine energy – the generative factor of the cosmos on parallel to the Great Trinity. In the text Lakshmi as Mahalakshmi is a demon-slaying goddess of battlefield on par with Mahakali and Mahasaraswati. In the Devi-Mahatmya it is Mahalakshmi who is seen as slaying the demon Mahisha. However, in later Puranic cult parallel to the Great Trinity as Lakshmi Mahalakshmi was subordinated to Lord Vishnu as his consort assisting him in sustaining the world by her divine attributes like fertility, power to feed and bestow riches, abundance, prosperity, fulfillment … her attributes as demon-slayer being transferred to Durga. Now an humble divinity – Lord Vishnu’s consort, most of the subsequent myths portrayed her as serving Lord Vishnu. The myth of ocean churning, emergence of Lakshmi out of it and Lord Vishnu taking her as his consort greatly supported this theory.
However, the South Indian pantheon under a different set of myths saw her not only as an independent goddess but also as annoyed with Lord Vishnu and quitting him. As popular as Lord Vishnu himself she has in South a number of shrines dedicated to her besides a proliferation of her images independent and on par with Lord Vishnu. Still not in regular worship, except among some affluent sections – rich traders and business men, performing minor rituals before commencing day’s business routine, a representation of Lakshmi – a metal-cast or wood statue, or even a calendar image, almost a non-sectarian icon of prosperity, abundance and auspiciousness, is now an essential feature of most of the premises, a residence or business establishments. It hardly astonishes anyone in India if he finds hung side by side a calendar with the verses of Holy Quran, and another, with an icon of Lakshmi. The worship of goddess Lakshmi is the essence of rituals performed on Diwali, the festival of light, by almost every section of Indian society.
The wood-sculpture represents the goddess as seated on a two-tiered lotus podium of a moderate height. She is seated in ‘padmasana’ – the lotus position, with her lotus feet laid skywards. The podium consists of two wide open lotuses, an inverted one forming the podium’s base unit, while an upwards opening lotus, its top unit. The semi-circular frontal piece – the forepart of the sheet laid over the podium, is one of the most beautiful elements of the statue. Unique in modelling, plasticity, anatomical proportions and aesthetic beauty the four-armed figure of the goddess has rare divinity enshrining her face. She has held her normal right and left hands in ‘abhay’ and ‘varad’ – the gestures granting fearlessness and redemption, and holds in upper ones, disc and a conch-like attribute. Besides looking lotus-like the palms of the normal right and left hands have marks of symbolic lotuses – the essence of Lakshmi’s iconography. The figure of the goddess has been conceived with a round face, elegantly rounded chin and well-fed cheeks. She has partially open eyes as if looking beyond the manifest world and beyond time, sharp features, broad forehead, well defined ears and eyebrows and sensually modeled breasts clad in as much sensuously embellished stana-pata. Besides stana-pata the goddess is putting on an elegantly pleated antariya and a few selective ornaments that are unsurpassed in beauty and elegance. The image is unique in emotionality and mystic quality and breathes a kind of classicism as enshrines canonical literature.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.