Women in Kushan History

Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Ancient India

Quick Jump

The Object of Study

Historical Antecedents

Proportions

Nudity and Holiness

Gandharan Challenges

Literary Images

Conclusion

Bibliography

'Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder' is an old cliche: That beauty is a subjective matter which depends on individual prejudices. If beauty were truly subjective, if it depended entirely on our perception it could not be studied. For academic analysis some objective reality needs to at least be assumed. Without that sense of an external reality beyond individual caprice (which modern, trendy philosophers often call a referant) there is no basis for preferring on opinion or interpretation over another.

Such an objective reality can be found in the ideals of beauty. Those complex set of rules each individual carries in their head, which allows them to distinguish what is attractive to them from what is not ("I don't know much about art but I know what I like" as it is often expressed), the personal aesthetic, is not formed in a vacuum. Society, culture, past experience, all have a role to play in determining what an individual considers beautiful. And this personal aesthetic does have some coherence, an objective reality, as it is not (though it appears to be) an entirely personal choice. Instead it is conditioned by those around you, your education, the art to which you are exposed, and most importantly the opinion of others. The exchange of opinion on art allows people to both influence and be influenced so that a personal aesthetic is inevitably a result of a negotiation within someone's community. And so many personal aesthetics invariably tend towards a communal aesthetic, a fashion or a trend, a common ideal of what beauty is, or should be.

This is the topic under consideration here. In Kushan India what was considered to make a woman beautiful, had that changed from earlier times, did it change after the Kushan period? What were the conceptions of beauty? What alternative ideals or concepts of beauty existed? And how did this affect the lives of women and their perceptions of themselves?

The Object of Study

Obviously it is impossible at this distance in time to get into people's heads: to ask them what they found attractive or conduct psychological experiments. We cannot, for example, ask women to describe their bodies and contrast their perception of themselves with the reality. This sort of study has revealed a huge amount about the relationship between public images and individual perceptions of beauty in modern Europe. In ancient India only the public image survives - statues, paintings, and carvings. And thought there is some relevant literature a lot of the types of literature that might be interesting, such as diaries or personal letters, do not survive (if given fairly low levels of literacy they ever existed at all). So it is the artistic images which must be the principal object of study.

With a few exceptions there are no marked differences in the image presented between different sorts of art, as long as we remain in the same cultural zone. The Kushan Empire is a political unit, and thus very useful to historians because most evidence for chronology (coins, inscriptions, chronicles) is political in nature. However the Kushan Empire was not a single cultural unit, but straddled at least three different cultural zones. In the north of the Empire, Bactria, those parts of modern Afghanistan, the inscriptions are usually found in Greek script and in the Bactrian language and the art shows strong influences from Parthia and the Steppe. It is this artistic idiom that primarily informs the royal art of the Kushan dynasty. In the middle section of the Empire, the north of the Indus, Pakistan, and Kashmir, the dominant cultural element is Gandharan (though there is much local vairation - this area is heteregenous) with inscriptions being written in Kharoshti and its famous Greek and Roman influences on its art. The third zone is politically peripheral to the Empire and includeds its territories, from Sanghol to Mathura, in the vicinity of the Ganges river and its tributaries. It is fair to call this region Indian because it shares a script, Brahmi, and an artistic style with the regions to the east and south that form the modern state of India. It is this last region that will be considered (and so the term 'Indian' will be used to describe this cultural area)

There is a plentiful supply of evidence as many depictions of women survive from the Kushan period. However, those images that survive are not a representative sample of what was actually produced. There are no paintings on perishable materials, mobile images in wood, or illustrations for manuscripts - all of which existed. And of the images that do survive larger images in stone tend to predominate because as they are more durable.

The sources available can be divided into three broad categories, based upon the media used. The first sort is painting, of which almost none survive despite what literary sources indicate must have been a lively production. This is because fragile media require dry, secluded shelters for their preservation. The two places that paintings do survive are Kalchayan, a possibly Yu-chi palace in Central Asia, and in a series of rock shelters in the passes that connect Kashmir to the Tarim Basin. Both are peripheral to Indian artistic tradition, in terms of geography and style. For painted images in the same artistic idiom as Mathura and Sanghol it is necessary to look outside the Kushan Empire to the remarkable rock cut caves of Ajanta. The earliest of these, caves 9 and 10, were painted in about the first century BC, shortly before the rise of Kushan power in North India.

The second sort of image are portable images, produced in ivory, metal, stone, but especially terracotta. As such items were light weight and easily moved it is likely that they were intended mostly as private images and it also seems they were mass-produced. Terracotta images survive in quite substantial numbers from many sites, despite its lack of durability simply because the production was on such a large scale.

The third sort of image are those, mostly carved in sandstone, of more substantial size, intended primarily for public display. Many images of this sort have been recovered from stupas, temples, and monasteries. Originally they must have been supplemented by a substantial number of wooden images but only those in stone have survived. These are the most interesting because they are public images and therefore represent public ideas of what was, or was not, an appropriate way to represent women (ideas of both male and female patrons).

"... it is quite evident that the Mathura School of Sculpture contains virtually nothing but fully developed image conventions. In spite of some examples of crude carving, there is a sureness of form and stable iconographic vocabulary that demonstrates with great certainty that the experimentation with various conventions had been carried out before any stone was ever carved in the name of Buddhism. Thus we are examining 'the first surviving examples' rather than the 'the first images.' (Huntingdon, 1989: 86)

It is a mistaken belief that historians are concerned with what the past was like, when in most cases they are actually concerned with why, or how, the past became what it was; the periods of volatility and change. Unfortunately art tends to be preserved from periods of stability, the point in the tradition when it became established, and experimentation had ceased. So our analysis moves from a well established tradition at Bharhut, to another at Sanchi, to another at Mathura, and on again to Nagarjunikonda, each one a snap shot in which the intervening course of change must be guessed at. 

Historical Antecedents of Kushan Images of Women

 

The earliest images of women in India (excluding those of the Indus valley civilization) are a set of Mauryan period figurines (Dhavalikar, 1999: 178-9). These figures are not the first art objects to represent the feminine. Leaving aside the figures of the Harappan civilization which appear to be stylistically and culturally unconnected with anything in the historic period, there are terracotta images, believed to represent fertility or mother goddess figures. These are not images, they are symbols. They do not pretend to represent the physical impression of the female form.

The Mauryan figures are directly linked to these early fertility figures. The idea of producing an image of women in plastic arts clearly arose during the fourth and third centuries. Our only evidence for it comes from the region of Patna at the heart of the Mauryan Empire so it is assumed that the impetus probably came from the court artists of that period and locality, but we lack evidence to say for certain. The artists had several options in these early figures (fateful choices, as they would set the pattern for Indian female images for a millenia); they could copy the image of some other society, such as China, Greece or Iran; they could produce a naturalistic image from life; of they could modify a local tradition. They choose the third. The Mauryan terracotta girls are the ancient fertility figures transformed from symbol to image. Large breasts, wide hips, tapering legs, are all retained but now the artists no longer symbolize the feminine, they now attempt to represent it.

"Sunga-Kanva art, formally and spiritually, is opposed to all that Mauryan art stands for, and is different in motive and direction, technique and significance" (Saraswati, 1951: 510)

The stylistic break between the Mauryan and Sunga art is an illusion created by a lack of material. For the Mauryan period there are a few figures of dancing girls and more recently some sculpted panels from Bihar, all belonging to the third century BC. The next images belong to the late first century BC, a gap of a hundred years or more. If the images at Bharhut were compared with those of the Guptas without the benefit of Sanchi, Mathura and Ajanta a similar break in style would be apparent. In fact it is a story of gradual evolution and it is reasonable to assume that the transition from Mauryan to Sunga art was  similar.

Three important sites help to show the development of female images between the Sunga and Kushan period; Bharhut, Sanchi, and Ajanta. Each of these sites lies outside the borders of the Kushan Empire but they form a part of the same artistic tradition as Mathura.

Bharhut is situated in the Mahiyar valley in central India. it had been an important Buddhist religious site since the time of Asoka when a large brick stupa had been built. This stupa was not decorated with sculpture but may have had a wooden railing around it. In the second century BC work began on a stone railing to surround the stupa which was covered extensively in carving, both scenes from Buddhist legend and stand along figures. Many of these sculptures are accompanied by very short inscriptions some of which identify the scene and some of which identify the donor. From this it is clear that the railing was funded by donations from across the Buddhist community, both worshippers and monastic orders, and both men and women. No pattern has ever been established to the presentation of women on the basis of either the donors gender or occupation (Dehejia, 1997b:107-9).

Bharhut provides a base point from which to characterize femaile images in the Sunga period. The women are posed frontally facing the viewer, in a fairly 'stiff' manner (this is true for both male and female figures). Their jewelery includes ankle rings, bracelets, necklaces, and large hanging earings. The hair is elaborately platted, and a drape of material is hung over the girdle and between the legs. The women wear nothing but jewelery above the waist and their physical form, large round breasts, thin waist, wide hips has not changed much from the Mauryan period. There is no attempt to differentiate individual women on the basis of their physical appearance (for example, Queen Maya is recognizable only in scenes of the conception of the Buddha by the presence of a white elephant).

Sanchi is located some 200 miles southwest of Bharhut. It was like Bharhut on the border of the Kushan Empire, in fact so close that in the third century AD a donative inscription at the site names a Kushan king in its dating formula (inscription 227). Sanchi had been the site of a Buddhist Stupa for a considerable period and in the first century AD it received a large number of popular donations which enabled the construction of a railing with four gateways around the Stupa. To give a sense of just how popular the work at Sanchi was consider that the inscriptions at the site are more numerous than all the inscriptions recovered from the entire Kushan Empire over about four centuries. Dating for Bharhut and Sanchi is not precise but it is generally assumed that work at Sanchi follows that at Bharhut by about half a century. 

 

"An outstanding feature of the narratives of the Great Stupa is its expression of joyful participation in all of life's activities. Sculptors did not present viewers with sermons in stone but with the vibrant everyday world of the first century BC to which they could relate with ease, and which would give a sense of immediacy to their viewing of otherwise distant events" (Dehejia, 1997a: 58)

The images at Sanchi are important because they take us a step closer to the images of Mathura and Sanghol, and also because they are repeated in ivory images found at both Begram and Pompey. With the addition of just one more element from the South the Kushan Empire is about to recieve the fully fledged female form that will endure throughout the period.

Two things change with the Sanchi figures. First the contortion of the body into an 'S' shaped curve, sometimes referred to as the tribangha or 'pose of the three bends' (by art historians, there is no evidence what, or even if, it was called by contemporary artists). Secondly the drape of material intended to preserve modesty in the Sunga period is now parted so that it hands down the outside of the legs and gives an image of full frontal nudity. The images now need only a simplicity in the couture to develop into the Kushan form, the impetus for which comes from somewhere else entirely.

In 1819 a group of Army officers hunting for tigers chanced upon a crescent shaped valley in the Deccan. Along its rocky side were the entrances to a series of artificial caves, each one a miniature Buddhist temple literally carved out of the hill. Within, aside from sculpture and inscriptions, were incredibly well preserved paintings of incidences from the life of the Buddha. The majority of these (and there are some 30 caves at the site) belong to the fifth and sixth centuries AD, but a few are considerably older. Caves 9 and 10 are probably the oldest and were excavated in the first century BC about the same time as the sculptures at Bharhut were being undertaken. In these caves there are a number of images which depict women, and one long section showing a raja with his retinue which is particularly informative. The women while conforming to the general rules of Indian art have a relaxed pose and are devoid of the exuberant ornamentation favored in the north. Madanjeet Singh (1965:59-60) has this to say regarding a group of women depicted in the earliest paintings at Ajanta.

"Although created at about the same time, the flow of line portraying feminine grace, tenderness and animation of the group of women on their way to worship the bodhi tree in The Raja with his Retinue is years in advance of the earliest Yakshas and Yakshis carved on the stupa of Bharhut. Even the famous wood nymphs of the archaic sculpture on the railing of the stupa, which belong to first century BC and are known for their charm as they entwine themselves around the trunks of trees do not attain the elegance of the dancers... The Ajanta figures were already moving away from certain features of archaic art, such as complete frontality and symmetrical immobility, at a time when sculpture in relief was still struggling to get out of the static mould... They were perhaps in the vanguard of the aesthetic movement and therefore in advance of their time."

It has been common assumption of art historians that Mathura was a centre of innovation. This is a difficult thesis to hold to. Those intent on it have had to engage in all sorts of perverse chronologies and have been amongst the strongest advocates of 78AD for the date of Kanishka. Given our present evidence it seems that the heretical view should be taken that while Mathura was a major centre of production it was part of a network of centres in which Mathura enjoyed no special place in innovation, instead drawing heavily on developments from Ajanta, Nagarjunikonda, Sanchi and other sites. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions and our interpretations depend upon many assumptions. For example, the idea of a transition from Bharhut to Sanchi to Mathura driven by the simplicity and elegance of the Southern Ajanta style assumes that Bharhut represents the norm in the north and is not itself an abberation caused by a move to sculpting in stone which is gradually corrected to better represent painted representations. The explanation is unlikely as terracotta images reflect the sculpted images of Bharhut, but we just don't know because paintings don't survive to make the comparison and because the images that do survive tend to represent brief snapshots rather than a continuous image tradition.

Proportions

Proportions are central to a formally trained artists view of the body. They serve to standardize, break-up and simplify an image, ultimately reuniting it in the artists representation what is almost an infinite variety of 'real' body forms. In other words, they are a conceptual tool, that prevents an artist from being overwhelmed by the variety of choices but does so at the expense of stifling innovation. Later Indian texts on art make it explicit that formal schools of art (such as are presumed to have existed at Sanghol, Mathura, Sanchi, Ajanta, Nagarjunikonda, etc) included rules of proportion amongst there training (the Kama Sutra lists it amongst the six limbs of painting). Not only can rules of proportion help us to identify different schools and styles but they help give us some appreciation of the ideals the artist followed.

In the Kushan period the majority of evidence comes from Mathura, both from the Jain site of Kankali Tila, and from Buddhist sites in the city. There are also images from Ahichhhatra to the north-east and the northern-most example of the Indian style Sanghol. All of these sites shared a common set of proportions. The face was round (rather than oval) in shape. Not as round as the faces at Nagurjunikonda, but noticeably more so than in contemporary Gandharan images. The eyes were placed two-thirds of the way up the face (an interesting position, because it is unnatural and shows that the artists were not working from life models, but from an ideal). Using the head as a measure, the bottom of the breasts were placed one heads height below the chin. The top of the girdle was placed one heads length beneath that, and the whole figure stood seven heads high. The crotch was placed midway between the top and bottom of the figure. These basic proportions are obeyed throughout the formal sculptures of Mathure, regardless of whether they are Jain or Buddhist. In addition the female figures assume a particular posture called the tribangha or 'pose of the three bends'., bent at the hips, waist, and breasts (sometimes with the head cocked), to provide an S like shape.

These proportions are interesting, because of their clear repetition at different sites in the second and third century, and also because they are formalised and unrealistic. Not only that, they are unrealistic in a very particular way. They are similar in several respects to the proportions used by American artists for comic book heroines in the seventies and eighties. They are in short an idealisation of the female form. A form that is instantly recognisable to its viewer as being an image (rather merely a symbol) of femininity while at the same time being utterly unattainable by any real woman.

Proportions are also important because they indicated formal artistic training. They indicate this in two ways. Firstly, the proportions are very consistend from site to site, both at Mathura and in other Indian parts of the Empire, and secondly because they are not drawn from life. For the images to maintain the same set of unrealistic proportions it is necessary that artists would have to be formally trained; it is not enough to simply be told, actually producing an image to a set of proportions requires practice, and anyone who has played the children's game 'chinese whispers' will understand why it could not be achieved by simply copying other images.

John F Mosteller (1987) has gone further than this and shown that for male figures at least these proportions can be explained in the terms used by later sources implying that those sources contain a genuine record of an older artistic practice. It is worth noting that this is not the case for terracotta figures, even a small sample of which is enough to show that they did not obey any rules regarding proportions (see for examples Srinivasan, 1996). If this is because proportions were not considered important or because production was less controlled and centralised is unclear. 

Of course proportions are not sufficient to describe Kushan images of women. There are many other aspects, such as the ornaments they wear (necklaces, earings, bangles about the legs and wrists), the tied back hair, the girdles and the nudity, which combine to give these figures their sensual quality. We shall now turn to one of those qualities, the one which is most striking to a modern audience.

Nudity and Holiness: Reconciling the Erotic

Opinions on Erotic Elements

Long before the modern viewer thinks about proportions or couture one feature of Kushan images of women leaps out: nudity. Not just the occasional glimpse of female flesh, but a complete full frontal nudity which leaves nothing to the imagination. Scholarly responses and explanations have varied, partly because the images are so curious. Partly because full frontal nudity is comparatively rare in the ancient period (contrary to the usual perception of Indian art), with figures of the Sunga and Gupta period generally being covered beneath the waist. Even within the Kushan period the artists of Gandhara and central Asia did not produce this sort of abundant female nudity.

To some degree historians seem to have shown a blindspot to nudity in the period. This for example is a quote from Richard Salamon:

"The basic garment of the Indian women of Mathura in the Kusana era was a sort of Sari which usually hung from the waist down. Many women also wore a long shawl of scarf over both shoulders. Around the hips was a broad and elaborate girdle with beadwork and decorative clasp in front. The breasts were usually uncovered (there is some controversy as to whether this was the actual practice, or merely an artistic convention)" (Salamon, 1989:40)

Some controversy! The idea is absurd, to even make it sound vaguely plausible Salomon has had to grossly mis-represent the nature of the images, they are not simply showing uncovered breasts but are completely naked. Importantly where the context strongly indicates the depiction of a donor, she is shown fully clothed, much as women are in Gandharan art (for some examples see Rosenfield, plates 28, 32, 35, 36, 37 and as a possible exception 33). The girdle is almost always absent fro the obvious reason that it is underwear and so obscured by the clothing, and the clothing seems to have hung from the shoulders not the waist.

Historians concerned with costume usually ignore this because the abundant large scale sculptures are the majority of the evidence, and to admit they bear as much resemblance to everyday fashion as the photographs in Hustler or Playboy would largely invalidate the exercise.

It is important to emphasise two things about these images. Firstly, they were publicly displayed at religious sites. They were seen by all members of the community and cannot have possessed the same sexual overtones that nudity has in our society (in fact nudity was completely out of the question in contemporary Indian society). Secondly, these were not real women, In almost every case it is reasonably certain that the figure in question represents a spirit or goddess (a divine figure of some sort). The only depictions that represent mortal women (the Harem images amongst the Begram ivories) were private images, not public displays. What Buddhist or Jain worshippers (male or female) perceived in these images was not the sexual, sensual, or erotic which our modern aesthetic picks out. Rather they perceived symbols of fertility or abstract notions of paradise.

Sometimes the nude goddess is seen as an image of fertility, often it is assumed that nudity bestows some sense of power on the goddess or Yakshi by showing her unfettered by the constraints on female sexuality that were the reality of most women. In that second sense the goddess shares a lot in common with the rich courtesan of Buddhist literature, both a powerful female figure and at the same time distant from ordinary women. Another notion often assumed in academic literature is that the Yakshis are promises of paradise - the reward that the devoted Buddhist or Jain might expect during their rebirth in heaven. Another possibility is that the audience might actually have been discomforted or repulsed by the images. Odd though it seems a stories to this effect survive in Buddhist literature. For example, in the Mula-Sarvastivada Vinayavastu the Buddha's visit to Mathura is recounted and various people try to block his entry. One, the goddess of the city, succeeds in doing so by appearing naked to which the Buddha responds 'A woman looks bad enough when poorly dressed, what to speak of without clothing!' (Jaini,  ,218).

Probably all of these elements play a part in people's reactions, and the importance of each will have varied depending upon the viewer. For example the 'reward' imagery will strike a chord only with men, but equally the tradition of meditating on the ephemeral nature of beauty requires the viewer to have been primed by exposure to certain doctrines - and there is no reason to suppose that all viewers were so conversant in Buddhist scripture (Brown 2001: 357)

Gandhara: A Western Challenge to the Eastern Aesthetic

 

There is an example in the Ashmolean Museum of a female figurine in primitive style from the Peshawar region of Pakistan (the site of a lot of Gandharan work). The production of this figure is dated between 200 BC and 200 AD by archaeological excavation. The figure is clearly the same sort of fertility symbol that is found in India both before and after the images appear it has lost both the wide hips and large breasts (the breasts are reduced to small stylised bumps (Harle, 1987: 6). It is still the same sort of symbolic representation but is is informed by a different ideal of what is bueatiful; the willowy girl, an ideal which remains curiously restricted to Gandhara.

Some artistic elements do flow from Gandhara to India but it is not always direct or obvious. For example, in the Kushan period images of Sun Gods often appear in dress that appears central Asian, which some authors believe shows the influence of a central Asian cult - a direct cultural connection. However, Frenger (2003) has shown that the images are in fact subordinate parts of other works, not cult images at all. Their apparent copying of central Asian dress is in fact indirect and comes from an association between the Sun God and royal power. As the Kushans based their rule in the Northwest of the Empire (Bactria and Greater Gandhara) Kushan royal images were produced in a Central Asian style, so when artists used contemporary royal images as models they copied the Central Asian clothing. 

Can this example of the Sun God help us to explain why for hundreds of years Gandhara artists were able to produce Greco-Roman ideals of the female body without Indian artists ever adopting, or even experimenting with this challenge to their established iconography. Does Gandharan art fail to influence India because the two are trying to represent radically different things? Gandhara artists represent far more often actual women (lay donors, nuns, female figures from Jataka stories, Maya) while Indian artists are usually representing not a particular woman but an image intended to represent women in general, and often fertility or divine femininity in particular. (Ajanta could be seen as an exception to that but even there particular women are rarely differentiated). The 'Indian' ideal is certainly found in Gandhara (Cribb & Errington, 1992:110-11) though this may be an example of divergent local trends rather than Gandharan adoption of external ideas. And plenty of Gandharan influence is found in Indian sculpture. Yet India remains (even in the border regions of the Kushan empire) remarkably resistant to alternative ideals of beauty and the form which evolved from early fertility in the Mauryan period remains a homogenous single ideal.

Literary Images of Beauty

Literature supplements the sculptural images of women. Though it is comparatively rare to find detailed descriptions of beauty, short epithets provide consistent images over a long period of Indian history. Large hips, thin waists, breasts of large size and globular in shape, and lotus petal eyes. Many of these are simply stock phrases (especially in the epic literature which derives from an oral tradition) but the rarer lengthy descriptions confirm that they do form part of a constant literary ideal.

 

The literary sources also provide colour to the artistic remains that survive. Ancient statues would would have been painted (Kumar, 1984) and ancient viewers would have been used to a formal set of colours in their artistic appreciation. In fact the ancient aesthetic would have found our monochrome view of the past rather odd. To the people who lived it the past was a vibrant, colorful, even gaudy, place. It is only the passage of time that robs it of hue and gives the austere look we associate with antiquity.  The Sangam poets of South India (who are roughly contemporary with the Kushan period) help us to restore some of the details, 'skin like gold', and 'the darkness of black full tresses', as well as the make up that produced 'black-rimmed eyes' and a 'mouth red as coral' (Varma, 2004: 96-99). The same colours appear in later sources and, muted by time, in the cave paintings of sites like Ajanta.

The similarity between the literary descriptions and the images, found in sculpture and terracotta, is remarkable. It is possible that both were drawing on a common ideal of female beauty which was current in Indian society, but it is also possible that the literary texts are drawing their imagery from earlier artist's conceptions. Even the earliest texts are far later in date than the artistic images (even the epics only received their final form in the Kushan and Gupta periods). Importantly, the image presented in literature is absurdly unrealistic, in much the same way as artists conceptions which are themselves drawn from fertility symbolism of the historic period. If the writers and poets did not draw their inspiration from artists it is hard to imagine where else they could have looked.

 

Literary images of women make no mention of the willowy figure that is found in Roman and Greek images. The authors of many of the texts must have been familiar with this sort of image, either through Gandharan images which circulated as far south as Mathura, or through direct Roman trade with Southern India, but like the sculpture of Mathura it seems to go un-noticed, a challenge which clearly never concerned then. 

What difference does it make?

"It is naive to think that the mere presence of a symbol of the feminine in a tradition is derived from a conception of gender that is affirming to the status of women or that the presence of such a symbol is sufficient to guarantee that a positive attitude toward the feminine is going to be conveyed to women, or more generally to society, through that symbol" (Cabezon, 1985, 188)

Having traced the evolution of the ideal, outlined its characteristics, and established its monotonous resistant nature the question becomes what difference did it make. It is perhaps a good idea to turn to a modern theorist. Naomi Wolf believes that beauty is used as a tool to sustain a male dominated society, she believes that the modern singular, and unattainable standard of beauty (which she calls the 'Iron Maiden') is employed as a method of diminishing women's self esteem, physical and mental energy, and sense of worth. Thus rendering women more pliable and exploit their economic potential. Wolf sees this as a response to women's greater independence following second wave feminism. Following increasing demands amongst western women for equality, especially in the work place, during the 1970s and 80s , Wolf traces an ever increasing beauty industry which promotes an unattainably thin body and ties this to a sense of inadequacy amongst young women. Her analysis of the problem has some resonance in the study of Indian art, if for example, you compare the monotonous depiction of globe shaped breasts in Indian art with Wolf's thoughts: 

"Culture screens breasts with impeccable thoroughness, almost never representing those that are soft, or asymmetrical, or mature, or that have gone through the changes of pregnancy. Looking at breasts in culture, one would have little idea that real breasts come in as many shapes and variations as there are women. Since most women rarely if ever see or touch other women's breasts, they have no idea what they feel like, or of the way they move and shift with the body, or of how they really look during lovemaking. Women of all ages have a fixation - sad, in the light of how varied women's breasts really are in texture - on 'pertness' and 'firmness'" (Wolf, 1995:246-7)

The sort of detailed social study of women's responses to beauty that Wolf does with modern society cannot be undertaken in ancient India. An educated guess could be taken that it was not a good thing for women. Even in literature where women are given alternative definitions of their worth (fidelity, learnedness, devout faith), the fact remains painfully simple, that all the heroines are beautiful.

I am indebted to an article by Nitin Kumar (2007) which encapsulates the key point here. In discussing a passage in the Ramayana in which the beauty of the heroine Sita is said to exhibit remarkable beauty despite her desperate condition he remarks 'This description however, puts focus only on the physical, and rightly so, for the physical sphere is the locus of the manifestation of internal qualities'. This is a central point in understanding not just the aesthetic but how it must have impacted upon women in ancient India. Piety, fidelity, learning, spiritual achievement were valued, but unlike the modern world which sees their attainment as quite independent from physical beauty people (or at least poets) in India expected inner achievements to be expressed in physical forms, and likewise physical form was taken to be a sign of inner achievement.

Some caution should be taken in trying to apply a model from the modern world to the ancient. That sort of determinism, that one set of circumstances will produce one outcome, does not apply in history. In the Kushan period, the exact point in time when Indian art adopted the fully nude image as its representation of the female form, which modern examples tell us is degrading to women is also the moment at which women achieve their greatest authority (at Mathura) in religious activity, judged by the inscriptions from Mathura women form nearly a third of Buddhist donors, and probably nearly half of Jain donors. By contrast in Gandhara, to the north, and in the same period, when the images are more modest, apparently less dangerous to women, they are absent from public religious activity.

What is beyond doubt is that in the Indian domains of the Kushan Empire in the second and third century AD women were playing a vital part in the public religious lives (no-one has any doubt they have always played a vital part in private) of their communities. And there is no doubt that in texts whose origins lie in the period (whether debates on Jain salvation, or Buddhist concerns over the priority of Monks and Nuns, or the Dharmasutras insistence on women's subordination) their is a strong tone of ambiguity, of concern, of contest over gender roles. Art, and ideals of beauty are a part of that time, and if it still isn't clear what it is telling, it is certain it is telling us something.

It is hard to say if frank expressions of female sexuality were driven by an assertive group of monastic and lay women keen to assert the importance of 'feminine' attributes in religious practice, or if they show a cultural attitude that fertility and other characteristics made religion a 'separate sphere' more receptive to women's participation, or if they are a means of controlling women's image by a patriarchal society deeply worried by the idea of women. Probably the images result from all of these factors, and some others.

There is a danger that attempts to interpret an 'Indian' experience from these sources will over-simplify and universalize the experience of women. Women did not have a singular, universal experience of life. The experience of prostitutes (with their  greater financial independence) was not the same as that of house wives (who exchanged independence for social respectability) or of nuns. It varied with their wealth, their education, between rural and urban environments. And so their experience of art, and the ways in which they were affected by artistic stereotypes of women must have varied. For example, Sanchi and Bharhut may have helped shape the minds of the richer urban patroness for whom it was a regular part of their life, but may rural, Hindu women of low income probably went their entire lives without visiting a site like that. Their experience through smaller, locally produced terracottas will have been very different. Whatever the experience, it will have mattered very much because for all these women art shaped the ideas of beauty, ideas which constituted an important part of what it was to be female in ancient India.


Contents Page Buddhamitra  Women in Inscription Faces of the Feminine Bibliography

Robert Bracey.