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Kanhadasa’s Yaksha of Pitalkhora - Kubera

A unique exception to this common phenomena of the artist unknown is the so-called ‘Yaksha from Pitalkhora’, now in New Delhi’s National Museum.

Published: 13th November 2021 01:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th November 2021 01:30 AM   |  A+A-

Kanhada's signature

In ancient India, the name of the artist who had created works of art, say a sculpture, usually remained unknown; for, often the sculpture contained no signature, and no other source provided any information about the sculptor. A unique exception to this common phenomena is the so-called ‘Yaksha from Pitalkhora’, now in New Delhi’s National Museum. Like many other yaksha sculptures, this was also named after the place, Pitalkhora, in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, where it was found in c. 1953 by archaeologist M N Deshpande in front of a Buddhist chaitya (shrine), now known as Cave No. 3.

The sculpture from Maharashtra’s
Pitalkhora

What is unique about the sculpture is that it bears an inscription in Brahmi script of c. 2nd century BCE on the back of the palm of the right hand of the work. It reads, “kanhadaasena hiramkaarena kataa” or ‘made by Kanhadasa, a goldsmith’. This text is unanimously considered as the artist’s signature and so, all scholars had agreed that the work was carved by Kanhadasa. But the precise identification of the yaksha of Kanhadasa remains unresolved so far. Deshpande wrote that “the… yaksha sculpture… is almost intact from the knees upwards except the missing left forearm. The sculpture represents a standing corpulent male yaksha with its hands raised upwards to hold a shallow bowl”.

Further, a vihara (monastery) at Pitalkhora contains a badly damaged relief, which shows a horse along with a few other figures. It contains an inscription that reads, “Done by Kanha, the son of Samasa of Dhenukaakata.” Another Buddhist chaitya at Kondane in Raigad district, Maharashtra, contains a large male figure with an inscription that reads, “Made by Balaka, the pupil of Kanha”. These three works make it clear that Kanha was a great master sculptor and trained many students, including Kanhadasa and Balaka. Since making sculptures was a family profession in ancient times, Samasa of Dhenukaataka might have been a sculptor as well.

Soon after Kanhadasa’s work came to light, art historian Pramod Chandra had written that a Buddhist tantric text by name Mahamayuri mentions a yaksha named Sankarin as residing at Pitangalya, the ancient name of Pitalkhora. Deshpande said that the sculpture of Kanhadasa happens to be “the most prominent of its kind in Pitalkhora”, and hence it may represent Sankarin. But in the mid-1960s, M S Mate had said, “The Pitalkhora Yaksha, highly artistic creation though it is, is a motif and symbol common in the Sunga-Kushan-Andhra art and has little to do with any Sankarin.” Later, Pramod Chandra wrote a detailed note on the sculpture under the title, ‘A Dwarf Yaksha by Artist Kanhadasa’. As he had omitted Sankarin in the note, I presume that the art historian had put aside his own earlier identification of the sculpture. In ‘Yaksha Cult and Iconography’, R N Misra had also rejected the identification of the sculpture as Sankarin, and suggested tentatively that the work may represent Nalakubara, one of the two sons of Kubera, the god of wealth.

The name, Kubera, has been interpreted etymologically in different ways by many previous scholars. Way back in 1912, L A Waddell had considered Kubera as a compound word made of ku and pito, which mean respectively ‘the earth’ and ‘a grain basket’ (from pit or ‘to collect’). Thus apparently, Kubera means ‘the heaper of (the product of) the earth’; and, the same meaning in turn goes well with the divinity’s chief role as ‘the God of riches’. Since Kanhadasa’s sculpture is shown holding with both the hands a basket on the head, the work in my opinion seems to be representing Kubera. Many scholars had also said that Kubera is shown as having only eight teeth. Further, as Deshpande had described, “The expression of the face” of Kanhadasa’s sculpture “is full of wild joy resulting in a chuckle which exposes the teeth”. In case Kanhadasa had only carved eight teeth in the open mouth of the yaksha, it would also strengthen the identification of the work as Kubera. Kanhadasa had also designed and carved in his sculpture a unique necklace, which contains two male figures. Incidentally, many ancient Indian texts mention a pair of male nidhis (hidden treasures) by name Padma Nidhi and Sankha Nidhi as the chief subordinates of Kubera. In the well-known Besnagar Kalpavriksha sculpture (3rd century BCE), now in the Indian Museum at Kolkata, the two nidhis were shown in the form of a lotus and a conch respectively. In case Kanhadasa, being a goldsmith, had carved the two chief nidhis as personified figures in the necklace, the same would further confirm the identification of the sculpture as Kubera. But either to agree with or refute the new identification, which has been proposed here by me, the work needs to be re-examined further closely, sooner than later.

Srinivas Sistla

Associate professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam

(sistlasrini@gmail.com)



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