The word shalabhanjika in Sanskrit means breaking of a branch of a shala tree (botanically, Shorea robusta) by a woman. The image is usually of a woman in sculpture standing near the tree and having stylised feminine features, holding a branch. The word madanika or shilabalika is also used.
The Shalabhanjikas have been depicted in Indian sculpture in various poses. She can be seen grooming herself, playing a musical instrument or dancing. She is seen wearing jewellery and her feminine features are very distinct and sometimes exaggerated. Her hairdos are elaborate and sometimes in plaits.
Initially it was believed that a young maiden on coming in contact with a tree could cause it to bloom by kicking the trunk and breaking off a branch. The name of the ritual was dohada.
As time passed the shalabhanjika came to be used as a decorative element in Indian sculpture. They started being used near the area of pradakshinapatha (circumambulatory path)of a temple leading to the inner sanctum, the garbagriha. Their figures were also used as brackets in temples and stupas. Shalabhanjikas represent the eternal procreative forces of nature and are considered auspicious.
The shala tree is a symbol of Lord Vishnu. The image of tree and woman is found in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu art. According to some belief systems the woman at the foot of the tree refers to a goddess relating to fertility. The shalabhanjika is usually depicted in a tribhanga pose in which the body bends at the neck, waist and knee. Queen Maya of sakya kingdom in the Himalayas, Buddha’s mother is believed to have grasped a branch of a Ashoka tree when she gave birth to him at a garden in Lumbini(in present day Nepal).
Some noteworthy Shalabhanjika depictions in sculpture of India :
The Great Stupa at Sanchi, built between 3rd century B. C. and 12th century A.D. contains the relics of Lord Buddha. The stupa has four large thoranas or gateways in the four cardinal directions. Devotees entered through these gateways and went around the stupa. The thorana has sandstone beams held by bracket figures. Shalabhanjikas can be seen as bracket figures on the gateways. The Shalabhanjika from the eastern thorana is depicted below.
She serves as a fertility symbol and considered auspicious for the site where the stupa is built. She has a bare torso with a stringed necklace between her breasts and a girdle holds her lower garment in place across broad hips. Her hair is tied in plaits and she wears anklets and bracelets.
Shalabhanjika, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh
By Vu2sga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21451215
The Hoysala temples at Belur built in 12th and 13th centuries depict Shalabhanjikas in different poses. Built on star shaped platforms these temples have high domed towers with many shrines in the temple complex. Temples were important social centres in the past. The Hoysala temples housed courts of justice and were centres for dance and music too. The outside of the temples were covered with friezes of sculpture. The lower friezes include animals and plants. And episodes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The figures of Gods and Goddesses are seen along the upper walls. The sculptures are made from chloritic schist stone, which are grey-green in colour. The Shalabhanjikas or madanikas or nymphs are at the Chennakesava temple as bracket sculptures, with 38 on the outside and four on pillars inside totalling to 42 in different activities and poses. The maidens depicted here are wearing heavy jewellery around their neck which fall over their moon-shaped breasts. Ear-ornaments, bracelets,armlets,anklets and head jewellery complete the picture. Some attendants are also seen in the sculpture.
Shalabhanjika or shilabalika, Belur, Karnataka
By G41rn8 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41395395
Shalabhanjika (as a huntress) or shilabalika, Belur, Karnataka
By Nithin bolar k – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44030072
An image at Rajarani temple from the 11th century in Odisha depicts a shalabhanjika in tribhanga pose.Her face has a happy smiling expression and she wears jewellery like a mekhala(girdle), bangles , armlets, anklets etc.The temple has deul and jagamohana as in most Odishan temples and built in Kalingan pancharatha style. Other sculptures in the temple include the marriage of Lord Shiva, Shiva and Parvati dancing and nayikas. On its uparajangha there are some erotic sculptures too.
Shalabhanjika, Rajarani temple, Bhubaneshwar
Von Benjamín Preciado – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24599346
M.L.Varadpande/Woman in Indian sculpture,Abhinav Publications:New Delhi,2006.
In praise of Hoysala art, Marg, Vol XXXI, No: 1, Marg Publications : Mumbai.
Posted by : Soma Ghosh