Lajja Gauri: Fertility cult & mother goddess worship

The images are found in seated posture and may be considered as provocative in appearance.

Published: 29th April 2021 07:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th April 2021 07:01 PM   |  A+A-

A terracota Lajja Gauri sculpture from Sannati in Gulbarga district in Karnataka; a fractured image of the Goddess in the Mahakuta temple in the state’s Bagalkot district

Female fertility worship was a universally accepted practice in ancient cultures. Almost all such cultures have yielded a good number of female figurines identified as the Mother Goddess. With society and culture developing in prehistoric times, such practices came into existence as part of social and ritualistic beliefs. Fertility worship as Mother Goddess worship became one of the important practices in the Neolithic and post-Neolithic cultures in India.

The Indus Valley cities have also contributed a good number of figurines that have been identified as Mother Goddess images. These have varied forms and types. The figurine appears with voluptuous or slender physique, wide pelvis and prominent breast portions. The head portions have decorative forms like flowery headgear along with dotted ear ornaments and necklaces, all done in coiled clay. These figurines are quite small in size and perhaps initiated the worship of Yoni in ancient periods. 

The headless figure that is depicted with lotus and stupa-like form with a pot-like belly has been popularly identified by the scholars as Lajja Gauri. However, the actual name of the headless deity is not known so far. It has been identified by various names in different regions. In Karnataka, several such examples have been found in sizes ranging from two-three inches to life-size figures carved in stone. Usually small images are made out of terracotta, while the large sculptures are in stone.

The earliest examples have been found in Sannati, a prominent Buddhist site in Gulbarga District of Karnataka. Perhaps the best example of Lajja Gauri was found at the Badami Chalukya site of Naganathakolla near Mahakuta, which is now preserved in the ASI Museum in Badami. The Lajja Gauri figures form a unique genre in fertility worship. The images are also called Kamalamma, Kamalamukhi, Kabandhamma, Ellamma, Renuka, etc. 

The figures of Lajja Gauri have interesting features. Usually, the image has not been represented with a head; instead a lotus is depicted in its place. This has been given the name Kamalamukhi or Kamalamma. The images are found in seated posture and may be considered as provocative in appearance. The legs are bent up and spread apart. The posture is associated with giving birth. It is also identified as the kabandha posture. In some examples, the belly portion appears like a pot (kumbha). Kumbha with a lotus directly associates the figure with purna ghata, which symbolises fertility and auspiciousness. 

Karnataka has a very rich tradition of Lajja Gauri worship. A good number of such images dating from 2nd-3rd century CE to 10th-12th century CE are found here. The earliest figures, found at Sannati, are very simple in modulation and the features, and possibly impressed from mould. The very purposes of these figures goes beyond Buddhist beliefs. Fertility was a common issue then and now too. To get better offspring, people would pray to the goddess and also submit votive objects. Even Buddha as Siddhartha was a very late issue to his parents.

Lajja Gauri has been identified as Aditi Uttanapada—a Vedic Goddess—by art historian Stella Kramrisch. No doubt, the legs are in Uttanapada (spread apart) posture, while the lotus with the auspicious meaning of prosperity symbolises life. Early examples found at Sannati and other contemporary sites like Ter in Maharashtra form a common genre. The tradition of Lajja Gauri continued even during medieval and later periods. 

The Badami Chalukya period was very rich in the worship of Lajja Gauri. It appears by this time the cultic practices merged with tantric practices. Aihole, Mahakuta, Naganathakolla, Huligemmanakolla and Siddhanakolla—all places in close proximity and quite away from regular habitation in valleys of small hills—have contributed images of Lajja Gauri. In places like Siddhanakolla and Huligemmanakolla, the images are carved right on the boulders and under worship even today. Local beliefs and myths are closely connected with tantric practices of yoni puja.

The Badami Chalukya period had seen various new religious and faiths percolating into the mainstream of the religious practices. The Naganathakolla Lajja Gauri, now at the Badami ASI Museum, has very sensuous features with a fine lotus in place of the head. Her legs are spread apart; her hands are raised up to the shoulders and both hold the lotus, reminding us of Surya sculptures. The images of Lajja Gauri found in the Badami Chalukya region have almost identical features with variation only in size. 

In the post-Badami Chalukya period, the Lajja Gauri cult appears to have mixed with the mainstream religious practices. A plaque from Majati (Hukkeri Taluk, Belgaum) has seated figures with the head of Narasimha, Siva Linga, Nandi and conch appearing on the upper space of the plaque, while a Lajja Gauri image accompanied by a devotee on her left hand side is on its centre. The plaque form was quite popular in that period as it has been found in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, etc. The Goddess Lajja Gauri has become a timeless divinity with her unique features directly associating her with the fertility cult and worship. 

R H Kulkarni

Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath



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