HARSHA V DEHEJIA narrates the story of how yakshis, semi-celestials, came to symbolise fertility and prakriti, nature
In one of the Indus Valley seals, dated to approximately 5,000 years ago, a woman is shown standing within a stylised pipal tree. This is one of the first visual statements of the Indian worldview of the celebration of prakriti, materiality and woman as the paradigm of that. Prakriti is the fecund and luxuriant world of nature, the most evocative representation of which is woman. Prakriti is sensuous and beautiful, charged with colours, resonating with emotion. The rasa that animates a woman is infused into the sap that flows through trees. This establishes the connection between woman and tree in Indian thought and art since millennia.
Prakriti is garbha, womb of life, where creation begins and thrives. For when we plant a seed in the earth, it grows into a tree. But prakriti does not exist in isolation, it is interconnected in all its varied manifestations; it creates a web of life where there are no loose ends.
Even though some systems of philosophy, and Advaita Vedanta in particular, do not grant prakriti any ultimate reality, the world of nature frames and embraces our life and remains central to our living.
It is significant that one of the first deities to be represented visually is the yakshi. Yakshis are semi-divine beings whose work was to guard over Kubera’s treasures and gardens in heaven. One of the duties of the yaksha was to bring fresh flowers to Kubera for the worship of Shiva. One day, unwilling to leave the company of his wife early in the morning, he brought lotus buds instead the previous night. While Kubera was offering this to Shiva the next morning, a bee lurking in one of the buds stung his fingers. Angered at this Kubera cursed the yaksha. Yakshas are, therefore, separated from their wives and yakshis reside in trees on earth.
Yakshis are considered tree nymphs and confer their fertility to the vegetative world. It is believed that it is because of them that trees bear fruits and vegetables, flowers get their colour and fragrance, and the world of nature its verdant qualities. In a tropical country like India where agriculture defined the worldview, yakshis were worshipped. One of the oldest Indian sculptures is the Didarganj yakshi, dating to the pre-Christian era. As early as the 2nd century BCE, sensuous female figures in the form of yakshis and shalabhanjikas were depicted on Buddhist and Jain monuments at Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodh Gaya, Mathura and elsewhere. These yakshis are beautiful but equally, they confer auspiciousness by their very presence. It is said that when a yakshi touches an Ashoka tree with her left foot, the tree comes into bloom, which again, underscores the living connection between woman and tree and in a larger sense, ensures oneness of the human world with the world of nature. It also makes the yakshi a living symbol of longing.
A tree grows from a seed and longs to touch the sky; the petals of a lotus yearn to be opened by the touch of sunlight, both of which are manifestations of primal longing . Kalidas ’ Meghadutam is the story of the longing of the yaksha for his beloved yakshi. It also points to human longing for the divine. Yakshis as deities were worshipped in ancient India. They are not just emblems of feminine beauty or the longing that throbs in human beings and nature alike, but are symbols of the connection between everything that lives and loves and which aspires fulfilment in a higher cause. ■