Yami the Goddess and Mirror Tortoises

My old posting about bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and his mirror remains to be my only adventure into another, non-European cultural territories so far. I had ambitious plans to write more about ‘other’ mirrors too, but the European art history alone provides an enormous amount of materials (and I constantly discover more, and new layers in it). 

So, when I came across this Nepali statue, of woman with a mirror in her left hand, it looked like a good chance to double my cross-cultural exposure. The small, 12.5 cm tall ivory-carved figurine depicts the Indian goddess Yamuna, or Yami.

To be honest, I can not add much more to the stories told on Wikipedia; in case of Buddhism I have studied it a bit in the past, but Hinduism for me is a vast, unchartered ocean of complexly arranged gods, goddesses, humans, other creatures, all intertwined and entangled in the endless epic stories and sagas. Complex intricacies of the Greco-Roman mythology immediately seem to me a simple arithmetics compared to the calculus of  any of the Hinduism traditions – and there is not one, but many of those!

But anyway, back to the basic facts. On the one hand, Yamuna is the goddess of the same-name river, a large, and very important one, sacred even, to the Hindus. It is the river on which is located New Delhi, for example, or even better known place, the world-famous Taj Mahal temple. There is a chance you have seen the pictures of this river even if haven’t been there yet), the temple is often portrayed standing on the river banks, as on the picture below. Just bear in mind that it’s not the pool which is shoot with the mosque most often, but the river itself (although they should be somehow connected, of course):

Since Yami is the goddess of river, she is often portrayed near water, or even in the water, floating in a boat with his companions, or taking bath, like on this picture:

This is a contemporary image, and it may look quite frivolous, blasphemous even, compared to the deeply respectful depiction of the goddess in the past. Oh, and because of the same proximity to water she is also often depicted with a tortoise (e.g., sitting on or riding it).

But besides being an anthropomorphic deity of natural phenomena, Yami is believed to be the very first woman – and at the same time the daughter of the god of Sun Surya and his wife, Saranyu, the goddess of dawn and clouds. So, Yami is a semi-deity, half-woman, half-goddess.

Yami was born with her twin brother Yama, who is on one hand was the god of Death, but also a life-promoting agency – when he sacrificed himself, he therefore let the world, and a man in the world, to appear. Yami (sometimes written as YāmīnĪ, “night” in Sanskrit) is a patroness of the night (and darkness, therefore she is often depicted in black), but she is also a symbol of fertility, abundance, and the other good ‘female’ properties (but also the ‘bad’ ones, too).

So, in some sense the emergence of the mirrors in this context seems to be unavoidable:

It’s hard for me to say whether this a glass mirror or still a bronze mirror. This figure from Nepal dates from the late 17th century (it could be of 1680, for example), and at that time both options are feasible.

Because of her role – femininity, fertility, sexuality and so forth – Yami has always been a very important and very revered goddess in Hinduism  It is interesting that despite such a popularity I was not able to find so many pictures of her in the internet. I guess, there is no lack of her sculptures, or other representations in real life, but could be still a shortage on the web, due to the still limited access to the internet in many regions of South Asia).

Here are a few I came across so far:

This is a much more recent statue, from the middle of the 18th century, also from Nepal. Yami is shown here with two of her female servants (or companions); this is  quite a frequent motif. Here she holds a small mirror in her right hand, while in the left one is seemingly a vessel with vermilion, a common red pigment, but also a symbol of blood, love, sex (i.e., exactly the properties Yami is in charge of). Notice also the red traces on the face of the first statue.

Here’s another similar statue, only the goddess here is alone:

Perhaps there was a mirror on this ancient statue of the goddess as well (dated to the 8th century AD), but it did not survive. But other symbols of ‘everything female’ are still very present here:

On the other ancient statue if Yami (of late 10th century) we see only a fragment of the mirror survived:

This very elaborate statue depicts a great mirror, we see a handle its back, and the lady even looks at it, but here attribution is uncertain, she might be Yami, but could also be “just woman”:

And in many cases it’s really difficult to figure out who’s who and who hold what in these colossal sculptural groups (bear in mind, that’s about 20 m high):

It is tempting to assume that Yami is comparable to Venus in the European tradition, but I am afraid it would be too superficial a comparison (and a bit wishful thinking). If we dig a little deeper into Hinduism, we immediately start seeing an immense complexity of their concepts, far more complex and sophisticated than those in Europea (at least, how we know them). For example, femininity is conceptualized as ten-part, or ten-facet Mahavidya:

And these are not different people, but one and the same woman (well, Woman), all together at once, yet never at the same time; fairly quantum. No mirrors can quite  keep track of all these interconversions and cross-penetrations.

Some concepts are even more complex and combine both male and female traits – like in the case with the androgynous Ardhanarishvara; she-part of this deity also often holds a mirror:

while he-part can hold something more masculine, like a mace:

This is my story so far; and a corresponding icon:

ALL MIRRORS IN ART

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