A Vegetable Motif in Central Indian Art [Part 1]

Published: 15.05.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015

A Vegetable Motif in Central Indian Art

This essay is the fuller version of a paper read on the 24th German Oriental Conference (XXIV. Deutscher Orientalistentag) held on September 26-30, 1988 in Cologne. I should like to express my gratitude to Prof. Peter Kunsmann for giving my English its final shape.


On an earlier occasion, we had tried to establish a connection between a somewhat isolated tree motif in the Jaina art of Deogarh and certain forms of the lotus motif: Bruhn Khajurāho pp. 28-30; fig. 4 on p. 30. When we discussed the matter some time ago with Cl. Bautze-Picron, we were told that the relevant motif (fig. 4 loc. cit. = fig. 11 infra) was not connected with the lotus but with the banana plant. This was the starting point for the present study. Cl. Bautze-Picron herself will on a later occasion describe the banana plant motif in Pāla art where it is normally connected with a specific goddess: the Devī performing penance. This later article will continue earlier studies about the relevant goddess: de Mallmann Ag (p. 140), Picron Ra, Bhattacharya De.

Before starting our inquiry we view the banana plant motif against the background of three dichotomies. The first dichotomy will be “narrative vs. non-narrative”. Here we can state that there was a gradual shift of emphasis from narrative to non-narrative at the beginning of the period to be discussed by us (A.D. 500-1100). As the second dichotomy we mention the part as opposed to the whole. Primarily we shall focus attention on the part (i.e. on the banana plant as a part of larger compositions) but the part-weighty or trivial-can rarely be discussed without a consideration of the whole. Finally, we have to mention the distinction between literature and art. It does not appear that there is much literary support for the occurrences of the banana plant motif in Indian iconography. This lack of support causes problems, not because we want to establish harmony between text and image at any cost, but because experience shows thai it is easier to organize the material if there is a textual basis.

This can be demonstrated by positing a “classical relation“ between the two sides, a relation which exists mainly in theory: in the “classical“ case, the texts describe a god (etc.) with all his attributes - i.e. the god as represented in art. But although reality differs from this state of affairs to a greater or lesser extent, we can systematize the material in one way or another if we have at least a fairly broad textual basis (e.g. compare Bruhn Ic for a systematic description of the Jina). But in the case of the various figures gods etc.) shown along with banana plants, we are by and large left without any textual support. Sometimes, the figure as such cannot be identified (ācārya etc.: Bruhn Āc), sometimes identification is possible but the banana plant motif is not mentioned in the relevant descriptions (Śiva etc.). Even in the case of the Devī, the assocation with the banana plant follows from archaeological statistics (survey of the images) rather than from textual references. The almost complete absence of the “classical relation“, therefore, will have consequences in the present article. But, generally speaking, all major and minor deviations from the classical relation necessitate an increased consideration of taxonomic issues. See also § 9.

§ 1. The banana plant and other vegetable motifs

Different renderings of the banana plant differ considerably from each other, and to some extent this applies even to different renderings within one and the same period and province. Here, the terms, “polythetic“ and “monothetic“ can be employed to advantage (Needham Cl). However, we shall hardly use them, partly because they are not yet generally accepted in Indology and partly because the present article is concerned with the description of specific facts rather than with general theory. Needless to say that the artists did not follow closely the morphology of Musa sapientum but gave vent to their own imagination. It is, nevertheless, remarkable that they refrained largely from whole-sale stylization. Rather, they used the individual features of the botanical category and construed “their own“ banana plants with the help of these features. Below we give a terminological catalogue which is mainly a list of various features (elements), viewed first from the botanical and afterwards from the representational angle. In the latter case, we make use of the asterisk.

  1. Musa sapientum. For taxonomic details refer to Cheesman Cl, especially p. 109 (first para). - *a. *Banana plant, *banana plant motif. Our earlier term “double plant“ (JID p. 19) is now outdated.
  2. Pseudostem. - *b. *Stem.
  3. Leaves, fully developed large-size leaves. - *c. * Leaves (fig. 1).
  4. Leaves hanging down to the left and to the right of the main rib, so that from the side only a halved leaf is visible (drawing 1). If the leaves are slightly heart-shaped, on occasion one sees heart-shaped halved leaves. - *d. *Halved leaves. - See Desai Vi 92.
  5. Not found in nature. - *e. The artists often showed stem and leaves as one compact element where the leaves seem to cover the stem: *Leaves attached to the stem (fig. 2).
  6. Angles (axils) formed by the stalks (petioles) as they emerge from the pseudostem (V). - *f. *Axils. See fig. 1 and A.S.I.A.R. 1928/29, pl. 42e.
  7. Pointed (Λ) sheaths forming the pseudostem (drawings 1-2). - *g. *Prongs. See figs. 11-12 and A.S.I.A.R. 1928/29, pl. 42e.
  8. Flowers, fruits etc. - *h. Flowers, fruits etc., are normally not shown in sculptural art but see fig. 1.
  9. The upper leaves of the full-grown M. sapientum form a palm-like tuft (drawing 1). - *i. In art, the *palm-like tuft may be represented in various ways (Vats Gu 20a). It is possible that a motif emerges which seems to be midway between a banana plant and a palm tree. Each occurrence must be considered separately.
  10. Not found in nature. - * k. The stem of the banana plant may be elongated so as to form a pillar-like element. The top portion of the motif (tuft etc.) is probably in all these cases reduced. Here, we use the expression *pillar formula (Dikshit Pa 30b).
  11. Not found in nature. - *l. *Calyx formula. The pseudostem of M. sapientum is formed by a number of superimposed whorls. Our drawings 1-2 explain how these whorls can be misrepresented as calyx-like elements. Thus the calyx formula emerged which can be described as a form of the motif where the banana plant is reduced to an elaborate whorl (abridgement of the stem). At the upper edge of this portion we see how the leaves (actually sheaths) forming this abridgement open out (figs. 9-10). Refer also to *m.
  12. Not found in nature. - *m. The banana plant may consist of two superimposed calyxes: In this connection, we use the expression *double-whorl. See Zahn/Fischer Ku p. 34.
  13. Not found in nature. - *n. The calyx can be represented with a semi-globular protuberance on its top. We call this element *bud (fig. 1).

The above list or catalogue is only tentative as far as the morphology of the art motif is concerned, However, it may pave the way for a terminology that employs 1:1 relations between terms and motifs (sub-motifs, sub-sub-motifs). Our fig. 1 (Rajshahi Museum) is not a paradigm which demonstrates the various items from the list, but in a general manner it helps to acquaint oneself with the morphology of the art motif.

As can be expected, over and over again we are faced with the problem of interferences between the different vegetable motifs found in art. It is therefore necessary to supply a rough survey of related motifs in Central Indian art, i.e. of motifs which are in their form related to the banana plant. We shall first mention three different motifs based on as many different botanical categories (I-III) and afterwards three different slots or Stellen (IV-VI). One or two relevant items have been ignored.

  1. Naturally we have to consider the ubiquitous lotus. The element which is here under consideration has been described as “lotus bud“ (Lohuizen He pp. 120b and 122b in connection with the illustrations on pp. 119 and 123), but also as “lotus node“ (Asher Ea pp. 49b-50a in connection with pl. 76-77). We shall call the old motif (Asher Ea) “node in context“ and the new motif (Lohuizen He) “isolated node“. The distance in time is considerable, and we do not know the precise connection between the isolated node and the node in context. It is probably not difficult to explain the transition in abstracio, but it is difficult to trace the actual historical development, the decisive step being the leap from the full lotus with node to the node alone. Here we mention only examples of the isolated node: Russek Hi 158 (to be compared with the two illustrations in Lohuizen He); Bruhn Kh p. 30 (fig. 2= lower portion of a late Jina image in Baroda); JID 250; Trivedi Jh 50, 51, 85, 89, and 97; Singh Br 50; Zannas Kh 47, 65, 93, and 163. The treatment in Bruhn Kh and in JID (p. 20 “Lotus-Node”) is a pre-functory one and does not do full justice to the motif. The relevance of the isolated node for the study of the banana plant will become evident in the course of our study. Here we merely add that there are unexpected similarities between the isolated node and a non-vegetable motif, the agnikunda or flaming vessel (pan with live coals). See Trivedi Pa 3 and 22 for agnikundas.
  2. If we use the term “corner motifs“ for elements appearing in or near the corners of the quadrangular or rectangular composition, we can assign the banana plant and the isolated node to the lower corners. The motif to be treated presently belongs to the upper corners. Obviously, there were different vegetable motifs in the upper corners in different periods/provinces of Indian art. We shall concentrate on what we have designated in JID (p. 18) as “double-leaf“. It would appear that the history of the double-leaf starts in the later Gupta period (Harle Gu 97-99; Vats Gu 8a.b). In the early medieval period, we can distinguish between more decorative employment for capitals (TIC 48, 100 etc; JID 283,285 etc.) and door-jamb panels (Viennot Fl 33b) on the one hand and employment in iconoplastic contexts (steles) on the other. In the latter case, we are mainly concerned with Jina images (Williams Gu 230; Meister Gw 3-4; JID 321; JID 7A, 8. 8A and passim), although the motif occurs also in the case of a non-narrative or iconoplastic representation of Kṛṣṇa Govardhana (Williams Gu 227, see also Bruhn Di p. 231, figs. 15-16). There are finally images where the relevant element occurs but once. In these cases we use the paradoxical expression “single double-leaf“. We now connect the double-leaf with both Acanthus and Aśoka (perhaps Acanthus leaves and Aśoka ambels) instead of connecting it with the “palmyra capital“ (JID 314). Refer also to the Pārśva image Pal As 18 where the hood-circle is surrounded by Aśoka motifs.
  3. As observed by A. Gail, there is some similarity between the calyx formula of the banana plant motif and the blue lotus flower (utpala). In order to demonstrate the formal relationship we mention only two early representations: Asher Ea 145 (Mañjuśrī) and Lohuizen He pp. 50-51 (fragment of a Bodhisattva image).
  4. Our last three items are mere “slots“ (refer for this term to Bruhn An § 6). Ignoring other goddesses-with-trees we refer first of all to river-goddesses on door-frames. In one way or another, these goddesses have attracted various tree motifs as well as minor vegetable motifs. Here we mention only the instructive examples found on one single page of the plate section of Viennot Fl: pl. 12a, b, d.
  5. In Jaina art, we frequently find images of a couple without textual basis (“parents of the Jinas“, “sacred couple“). This couple appears almost invariably below a tree. Some of these trees are not very imaginative (JID 180-180A) but, on the whole, we observe here a great variety of different tree motifs (Shah Pa, Pal Le 39, et alia).
  6. Worthy of note is the variation of the tree motif in the Yamalārjunabhaga scene. We mention an example from Wadhwan (Meister Wa pl. II, fig. 2) and two mutually related examples from Khajuraho (AIB 15, pl. 39A; Tiwari/Giri Di 1).

As indicated already, there is no end to the various interferences between different vegetable motifs. Explicit and implicit evidence of such developments can be studied throughout the present article. We also notice certain irregularities in the course of the development. As emphasized by Cl. Bautze-Picron, we get fully developed forms of the banana plant mainly in the later art of Eastern India (fig. I et alia). It is likewise surprising that a medieval Jaina goddess (JID 250) has a more complex rendering of the isolated node than contemporary or even earlier images. Useful terms which can be applied to a large number of motifs are “de-vegetabilization“ and “vegetabilization“. A systematic consideration of these two processes is hardly necessary, but it is worthwhile to remember that there is a certain osmosis between vegetable and non-vegetable motifs (cf. Bruhn Di, figs. 76-79 and figs. 82, 87 etc).


Makaranda - Essays in honour of Dr. James C. Harle

Compiled by PK

Revised online edition by HN4U 2012

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