94 • Two Pillars Each Carved with a Yakshi

Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, 2nd century AD
Size: 94 cm high
Mottled red sandstone

This Yakshi is known as salabhanjika, holding a branch of the ashoka tree with a raised arm, causing the tree to blossom with her touch and transmitting the power of nature through her gesture.  She stand in the triple-bend pose known as tribhanga, emphasising the voluptuousness of her narrow waist and swelling hips, and her full breasts of which the nipples are sensitively delineated.

She is adorned with sumptuous jewellery: bracelets and anklets, earrings, necklaces and a provocative bejewelled hip-belt fastened by a buckle.  Apart from jewellery she wears a transparent skirt that is only apparent from the waist-band, the hem at the ankle and the folds gathered to one side. She stands on a crouching lion, both a symbol of power and the emblem of the nomadic Sakas from whom the Kushans descended.

The reverse of the pillar is carved with three columned windows.  A Stupa fills the uppermost window with streams of blessings flowing down each side.  In the middle a standing Yakshi beautifies herself from a cosmetic bowl held by her elderly servant while looking at herself in a mirror.  Below two bejewelled Yakshis relax on a low bed with a pot of cosmetics, and behind them a stand displays the Buddha’s turban.

The pillars with their angular cut were originally part of a staircase railing leading up to the circumambulatory platform around a Stupa.  On each side they have three slots for railing bars.

The second Yakshi is Vastantasena, a beautiful courtesan from Ujjayini.  Her calling as a courtesan, one to which every beautiful woman should aspire, was compromised by her love for a young man to whom she pledged her faithfulness.  Pursued one night by a foolish youth called Sakara, she hitched up her anklets and drew over her veil the better to escape through the forest.  The best known image of Vastantasena is in the National Museum in Delhi.


Yakshis represent spirits of nature, in this case tree-spirits, adopted from early animistic cults and recast in the Kushan era to embody the ideals of feminine beauty.  The celestial feminine has seldom been represented with such seductive joy and playfulness, and numerous surviving examples show a great variety of poses, moods and intimacies.  Creating Yakshis evidently allowed sculptors to display their inventiveness and talent in a way that the more rigid rules that applied to representing major deities did not allow.

They usually wear elaborate jewellery, varied and so carefully delineated that the different bracelets, earrings and necklaces can be matched by archaeological finds.  The softness of their flesh is subtly emphasised by the contrasting crispness of their ornaments.