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Shame and Sexuality: Examining Lajja Gauri Through the Eyes of the Contemporary

Lajja Gauri: A Symbol Shrouded in Mystery

An icon, an image, a deity, a woman. Today we explore the existence of a woman whose purpose and being are shrouded in mystery. Lajja Gauri, the woman without shame, is also a woman who has been the subject of close scrutiny from scholars, art historians, anthropologists, and those interested in the customs of past generations.

Meet the Lajja Gauri

Lajja Gauri’s image is iconic: it is closely linked to foreign goddesses like Shila na Gig and Baubo. Represented by a woman’s body with a blooming lotus head, her legs are spread out on either side, exposing the slit of her genitalia. While the passage of time would cause many alterations to her image, her exposed vagina and legs are her defining characteristics.

Lajja Gauri
Terracotta image of Lajja Gauri from the 3rd century. Image credit: Hindu Heritage via Facebook

Lajja Gauri sits in the uttanapad pose, also known as malasana or the birthing position. The art historian Stella Kramrisch describes the uttanapad position thus, “It lies in the birth position. The broadly spread-out legs are bent at the knees. The soles of the feet are turned upwards. Their modelling and the contraction of the toes show the tension and struggle which attend the process of giving birth.” In certain images, the goddess’s right foot is placed upon a platform, which helped with dilation during childbirth.

Fertility or Farce

Some imagery of Lajja Gauri shows her without a swollen belly. Since she is not (visibly) pregnant, it cements the thought that Lajja Gauri may be a fertility symbol. This is further proved by the fact that her head is a blooming lotus: a Tantric symbol often associated with fertility. The symbolic presentation of her naked body may be associated with the womb, or yoni.

Her head, represented by a blooming lotus, may symbolise the blossoming of youth or sometimes even considered a stylised allusion to the vulva. In Indian art and iconography, the female body came to represent the embodiment of life-affirming forces. The uttanapad pose signifies creation, since it is a birthing position. Thus, Lajja Gauri may also represent women as the sacred source of all life.

The image of Lajja Gauri is present in several forms like carvings, sculpture, and folk art. The earliest allusions to her final form were small and crudely carved images that were found in south India. These stone and terracotta relics imply that she was a local goddess associated with the folklore of the villages. Initially, she had no arms or legs; she wasn’t even a woman. She closely resembled the ‘purna kumba’ or a pot brimming with plenty. 

This primordial symbol can be likened to the Greek cornucopia: a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Researcher Stuti Gandhi found that many images of Lajja Gauri were found near sources of water, perhaps an invocation for greater agricultural prosperity.

Lajja Gauri’s Evolution Throughout History

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lajja Gauri has a long history; researcher R.C. Dhere has stated that her likeness was used as early as 3000 B.C.

The images of this goddess that were made between the second and eleventh centuries ranged from two inch figurines to life-sized carvings, and from crude renditions to skilled masterpieces. These were almost always hand-carved from molded terracotta or stone. Such images were most likely made for veneration: larger idols would be made of stone and placed in temples, while smaller images were molded from terracotta and kept in altars at home.

In the third century, she evolved from a pot overflowing with plenty into a feminine form. She grew breasts, legs, arms, and a lotus head. She became associated with Shaivism, as Gauri, an avatar of the goddess Parvati. The goddess Parvati is demure and virtuous, which begs the question: Is Gauri truly without shame?

In the middle of the sixth century, Lajja Gauri found favour with the Kalachuri dynasty and a place in cave 12 of Ellora. By the eleventh century, her widespread worship seems to have mysteriously disappeared. She was never revered the way many deities were; she is almost completely absent from the religious texts of Buddhism, Hinduism, and others.

Her Many Versions

Researcher Carol. Bolon discerned four main ‘versions’ of Lajja Gauri. She observed that the goddess originated from a non-anthropomorphised form to a fully anthropomorphised goddess. This evolution spanned about four generations and may have taken place due to various reasons including the rise in royal patronage.

Lajja Gauri
Image credit: Regents of the University of Michigan, Department of the History of Art, Visual Resources Collections

The Purna kumbha version features no breasts, arms, head, or upper torso. It was popular in the third and fourth centuries in South India.

Another version of the goddess dates from the fourth to the tenth century. Here, she develops an upper torso and breasts, as well as a lotus that blooms in place of a human head. This image is similar to figurines found in Maharashtra.

During the same time period, a different version of the goddess was popular in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. She raises her arms and holds a lotus bud in each hand. She has breasts and a full torso and sits in the classic uttanapad pose. This avatar was skillfully created in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the early Chalukya period and up until the ninth century.

What Does She Represent?

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Lajja Gauri sits with her legs spread wide, a display that is inherently natural yet invites shame on others’ behalf. 

I asked a few women what they believed Lajja Gauri embodied. Since opinions on the goddess seem to be heavily divided, the implications of her image are up to personal interpretation. Perhaps that resonates with the contemporary woman: an existence that is constantly up for debate, and frequently invites the opinions and criticism of others.

Digital media executive Aditi Chauhan’s first impression was that the woman represented prostitution. “This is perhaps a warning, an indication of what a woman shouldn’t be.”

Content writer Freya Bulsara believes that Lajja Gauri is rebelling against the restrictions imposed on women. She fearlessly embraces her femininity and sexuality, despite society considering it vulgar or shameful.

Art researcher Neeraja says otherwise. “I think I rea this when I was reading the kamasutra, that there are four to five “types” of beautiful women, differentiated by the shape of their vulva. The most beautiful woman is “padmini” or the one with a vulva shaped like a lotus. I think Lajja Gauri (seen seated like a fully bloomed lotus) is a symbol for the same; she is the “patriarchally ideal” Indian woman; shame is her only personality trait. She is delicate like a flower, and childbirth is her only forte.”

Content writer Soumya Kotiyan says that perhaps Lajja Gauri represents the miracle of childbirth and the significance of a woman’s role in the act of creation. This sacred significance may have led to the veneration of women as goddesses. Thus, to her, Lajja Gauri is a symbol of femininity and divinity.

My Eyes Are Up Here

Lajja Gauri
Sangameswara temple, Kunrnool, Andhra Pradesh. Image credit: Virtual Museum of Images and Sounds

‘Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it.’ -Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

Many scholars argue that the presence of the tantric symbols and her status as a goddess, relieve Lajja Gauri of any erotic symbolism. But how can a woman be free of the male gaze?

In a patriarchal society, women are made to feel like their bodies are inherently sexual. It’s no wonder that the Britishers found imagery of this goddess ‘vulgar’ and ‘shameless’. The British already treated Indians as sub-human, and believed them to be inferior in intellect and understanding. So they viewed female nudity through the European lens, and ‘fertility’ became ‘indecent’ and ‘shameless’. ‘Lajja’ means shame, so the name ‘Lajja Gauri’ may also translate to ‘one with shame’ rather than ‘one without’. But she is now known as ‘the shameless goddess’ because people perceive her as one who needs to be ashamed.

However, how can one know for certain that the Lajja Gauri is not erotic? Some people find the image of pregnant women arousing. In pregnancy fetishism, some individuals are sexually attracted to pregnant women, and pregnancy is seen as an erotic phenomenon. Women who are helpless and dependent, are relentlessly pursued as the epitome of femininity: since they are perceived as weak, they appeal to those who prefer women to be meek and subservient.

A Woman With No Face

Red Marble, Chalukya period, 600-701 CE. Image credit: Virtual Museum of Images and Sounds

In art and life, a woman’s body can be sexualised in any context.

Stand-up comedian Marcia Belsky began a social media project in 2016 to document a phenomenon that displays the blatant dehumanisation of women in Hollywood. She noticed that many movie posters include the image of ‘headless’ women, or just women’s body parts as an accessory or decoration. This deliberately reduces the woman to a supporting role, and makes her body the focal point of the narrative. Men are rarely treated this way: but women, even as protagonists, aren’t important enough for their faces to be the focus. 

Lajja Gauri is ‘headless’. Her head is a blooming lotus, and while this symbolises her inherent fertility, it takes away from her being a woman. By hiding the woman’s head, it reduces womanhood to a woman’s body, erasing her personhood. 

Most fertility goddesses have no face, and their genitalia are the point of focus. A woman with a face has an identity, and when a woman is the ideal of fertility, she is no longer a woman but a goddess. A woman with a face cannot act in ‘shameful’ ways, but a woman without a face is blameless. Since her only role is to procreate, the only aspect of being fertility, she is the epitome of what a woman ought to be: a body with a purpose to serve others and no thoughts of her own.

It is worth noting that some images of Lajja Gauri did have a human head. These were found only in northern India, and mark the goddess’s evolution from the purna kumbha to a completely anthropomorphised form. 

The Spiritual Significance of Lajja Gauri

It is only natural to assume that Lajja Gauri is sexual. But this assumption (because nothing has ever been proved for certain) stands in the way of more nuanced conversations concerning the goddess. Misconceptions and first impressions have led to the motif being associated with false narratives. Often, Lajja Gauri’s image is not displayed in museums simply due to the divided opinions of the masses.

By analysing Lajja Gauri in a contemporary context, we risk diluting the meanings associated with her image.

Many still believe that she embodies a spiritual message. Her figure is not erotic but auspicious, providing blessings to worshippers. Stella Kramrisch says that Lajja Gauri is ‘Aditi’ or mother earth, who is mentioned in the Vedas. She is the source of all life and creation, and invoked so that she may ‘spread wide and favour us all’.

Later Associations

Images of Lajja Gauri were found in several places in India such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. She was synonymous with various local goddesses such as Yallama, Aditi, Adya Shakti, and Renuka. 

Artists include Lajja Gauri in all Kohbar paintings, as she brings fertility and good fortune to newlywed couples. The Palaghat goddess, who is an integral part of Warli art, is also linked to Lajja Gauri. ‘Palaghat’ is both the birth-giving position and a position for sexual intercourse; it is also the name of the all-powerful Mother Goddess.

Lajja Gauri would later be assimilated into Hinduism and elevated to the status of a consort of Shiva. She thus became associated with the linga, and even gained the lion of shakti as a vahana (vehicle) of her own. While people continue to worship the linga, this goddess has faded into the annals of history.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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