This piece of marble delicately chiseled into a lively female form and as brilliantly painted is a representation of goddess Yamuna, one of the two main Nadi-matrikas – river-mothers, the goddesses in their personalized forms as mothers – an expression of people’s reverence for their universal attribute of feeding and sustaining. In Indian mythology Ganga is the other mother goddess with divine attribution and a personalized image-form. Yamuna is also known as Yami, Yamini and Jamuna or Jamunaji. In Indian religious culture all rivers have been revered as enshrining divinity; however, these two rivers Ganga and Yamuna with their common origin from Himalayas were revered as the holiest among them and elevated to the status of goddesses classified in texts as Nadi-matrikas. Not mere personification into deities forms and realization into anthropomorphic images, Ganga and Yamuna were attributed independent shrines, set of rites to include holy hymns, festivals, legends and spiritual roles, such as Ganga granted salvation, and Yamuna, release from material bonds and blessed with a painless death. Death is the essential stage of life – its extinction; however, when commemorated during the moments preceding death the goddess Yamuna accomplishes it painless.
Despite a common origin – the snow-clad peaks of Himalayas, the two rivers had widely different characters, Ganga being sportive and sometimes even flirting, Yamuna, the witness of Krishna’s love-lilas, always serious, abounding in meditative calm and mystic depth. Alike, the two rivers had widely different appearances : Ganga has been endowed with bright blue waters with gold like lustre, Yamuna with its deep blue – almost black waters, though in complete deviation in this marble statue the river-goddess has been personified as one with pinkish pearl-like translucent figure. An essential reflection of the colour of its water, one among the river’s many names is Yamini which means night suggestive of darkness. Thus, the name of the river might also be a mere eponymous term.
The myths related to Yamuna’s origin offer yet another reason as to why Yamuna has dark waters. As is the universally accepted position in regard to the river’s lineage, Yamuna was the daughter of the sun-god Surya. She also had two brothers – twins, by Surya. Like her the name of one of her brothers was Yama; the other was Manu. All three were born of Saranya, the goddess of dawn and clouds. Finding it impossible to pass her days under the Surya’s intense heat Saranya divorced Surya leaving Chhaya, her shadow, in her place for taking care of her children. Though after Chhaya had by Surya a son of her own she began ignoring Saranya’s children but despite her changed attitude she deeply influenced Yamuna. As Chhaya was dark Yamuna’s being – her waters, also turned black. The legend has further expansion. Chhaya’s neglect of them deeply annoyed Yama and in annoyance he threatened Chhaya who in turn cursed him to become the god of death and banished him from heaven. Aggrieved by her brother’s separation Yamuna day and night shed tears which being born of her pain were black. Thus Yamuna had black water.
As attest Kushana sculptures and architecture the worship of Yamuna along Ganga as the protector of temples and securer of temple doors had begun by the third-fourth century itself. In fifth-sixth century Gupta temples the crocodile riding images of Ganga, and tortoise riding images of Yamuna were essential components of door-imagery. Even in initial Gupta temples that did not have sculpted façade and were without a ‘shikhara’ – tower, the door-frames’ as a rule, were adorned with different kinds of images, the images on the base being essentially the crocodile and tortoise riding river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. In this sculpture the goddess does not have the traditional tortoise under her feet but has instead a flat stone base painted in blue suggestive of the colour of the river over which the divine form of the goddess emerges. The ring comprising the halo behind her face consisting of the sun-rays like spikes is suggestive of her lineage from the sun. A Vaishnava deity the goddess is clad in ‘pitambara’ and is wearing a garland of fresh flowers. While with her left hand she is gesticulating that extinction is ultimate, with her right hand she is imparting ‘abhay’ – freedom from death’s fear. A balanced anatomy, fine facial features with a rounded face, large eyes and well-fed cheeks and well defined neck, perfect in modelling and plasticity, the image of the river goddess shall be the distinction of any shrine, domestic or public.
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.