Trying to discover Goddess Vasundhara with Ritesh Shahi’s and Lok Chitrakar’s paintings at the Museum of Nepali Arts (MoNA) is a challenging task. Ritesh’s painting reminds you of a rich and royally clad Aishwarya Rai in one of the historical Bollywood movies. Her golden hues shine through the frame just like the movie filters that make the actress’s face glow through the screens. Elaborate and intricately carved jewelry, detailed printed brocade blouse, and her soft regal demeanor with a composed smile attracts the visitors instantly. The reflection of the yellow hue represents grain and gold as she is the goddess of earth and wealth, and you simply admire the dedication of the artist’s paint strokes to give her the shine that she radiates.
Lok Chitrakar, being the master paubha artist, follows the protocol from ancient texts and is precise in his portrayal of how Vasundhara should be. The earth goddess is painted with water flowing below her as earth and water should always be two elements in congruence with each other. All her elements are in place and she is surrounded by her consort, Jambala (God of wealth) and other members of her deity family. Her crown holds Ratnasambhav, the Pancha Buddha symbolising Earth. Many more motifs and elements are placed to explain the overall belief of the Vajrayana sect.
Vasundhara is a relatively minor figure in the Buddhist pantheon, but yet again an artistic delight as she can be decorated and elaborated endlessly. She is worshipped both in the Theravada and Mahayana/Vajrayana sect of Buddhism. Her role is highlighted as the sole witness to Buddha’s enlightenment in the Maravijaya (victory over temptations) episode where Buddha resisted all desires and did not succumb to the four main temptations – Klesamara (emotions like greed, lust, hate, delusions); Mrtyumara (fear of death); Skandamara (defilements of past life); Devaputramara (natural disasters). Being the sole witness to Buddha’s resistance to earthly temptations and disturbances is noted in the Pali texts of Cambodia and Siam. However, it is nowhere to be found in India or Burma and in Nepal, she is considered to be the Vajrayana version of the highly worshipped Hindu Goddess Laxmi.
Legend says and as conveyed by Lok Chitrakar, the Maravijaya episode is an incident when a person named Namochi Mara tried to claim the space where Buddha was meditating as his own personal area. Vasundhara sensed this and came to Buddha’s rescue by springing up from the Earth, wringing her hair to crack the ground open and bring out a deluge of water to stop Namochi Mara from disturbing Lord Buddha. If the legend was such, what could Vasundhara have been in a realistic sense? Was she a woman fetching water from a nearby river, and upon sensing Namochi’s intent to disturb Buddha, detracted him by splashing water from her pot? A figment of imagination for sure, and we can conjure many such explanations. But in the absence of evidence; legends and fables persist over years with philosophies added to make the story sanctimonious.
It is ironic that Vasundhara who actually represents the “resistance of temptation” became a symbol of bountiful harvest and wealth in the Vajrayana sect. There is already a Goddess of Harvest, Annapurna Devi in the Vajrayana sect, who preceded the worship of Vasundhara. However, Vasundhara took upon the more popular form of Lakshmi symbolizing material and spiritual wealth. There is no clear explanation of how Vasundhara, a prominent figure in one of Buddha’s life events, became the representation of Lakshmi in Nepal – but assumptions can be made that her representation of mother earth in turn symbolises wealth.
In trying to understand religion and art, one stumbles upon so many questions that do not have logical answers, as they are coated in elaborate mythical explanations. The artist is submerged in their aesthetic fervor, the priests in their ritualistic zeal, and the devotees blind in prayer. The questions of a curious, rational mind rarely find easy answers. How should one go about appreciating our millennia old religion, art and heritage in that case – especially a generation of educated individuals with rational and critical minds?
At a recent exhibition, I saw a make-up artist completely enamored by Ritesh Shahi’s Vasundhara. The glow in her eyes while observing the painting in absolute rapture was a sight to behold. She said she is totally inspired to create this exquisite beauty with her own make up skills. I assume, the next bride will be inspired by Vasundhara? Such will be one of the uses for our art as each generation relates to it in their own ways.
There is no easy answer, though a quote from the celebrated American poet TS Eliot provides a good thought:
“No generation is interested in art in quite the same way as any other; each generation, like each individual, brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demand upon art and has its own uses for art.”
This quote perhaps applies to our quest to appreciate Paubha art too, and in embracing the mysteries of figures such as Goddess Vasundhara.
• The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and IrelandNo. 1 (Jan., 1925), Reviewed Work: EpigraphiaBirmanica. Vol. I, Pt. I by Taw Sein Ko, Chas. Duroisellepp. 145-148 (4 pages)
• Earth Goddess in the Art and Culture of Burma, Thailand and Laos. Joseph De Sarum, MA Thesis, Graduate School of the Ohio State University.
• Huntington, John C. & Dina Bangdel. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, “125| Vasundhara“.