The fascinating story of the Pompeii Lakshmi

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Pompeii Yakshi, The Ancient Indian Statuette found in Pompeii in 1938

Amedeo Maiuri, an Italian researcher, discovered the sculpture in 1938. The sculpture is said to symbolize a female Indian deity of beauty and fertility. It’s probable that the sculpture was originally a mirror handle. The yakshi is evidence of first-century CE economic commerce between India and Rome. The sculpture, which dates back to the 1st century AD, is made of marble and stands at a height of about 5 feet (1.5 meters). It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Roman sculpture from the period, and is considered a masterpiece of the ancient world.

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The Yakshi depicted in the sculpture is a beautiful woman with long flowing hair and a serene expression on her face. She is depicted wearing a long, flowing dress and a crown of flowers on her head. In her right hand, she holds a bunch of grapes, while her left hand is resting on the head of a panther, symbolizing her power and strength.

Originally, the figurine was considered to depict the goddess Lakshmi, a fertility, beauty, and riches goddess venerated by early Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. However, the iconography, particularly the exposed genitals, indicates that the image is more likely to represent a yakshi, a female tree spirit who embodies fertility, or a syncretic rendition of Venus-Sri-Lakshmi from an old trade between Classical Greco-Roman and Indian civilizations.

The statuette at the discovery in Pompeii, before reconstitution (source)

Origin of the Pompeii Lakshmi

The history of trade and cultural connections between Ancient Rome and the great eastern kingdoms has always been fascinating, such as the 3rd century Chinese accounts of the Roman Empire, called Da Qin. Though the exact origin is unknown, based on archeological discoveries and historical research, the Pompeii Lakshmi has a dubious provenance. Rome played a vital role in antiquity’s Eastern eastern commerce, importing various products from India while also establishing its own trading outposts there. The first and second centuries CE appear to have been the height of trade between Rome and India.

The sculpture may have traveled to the west under the reign of Western Satrap Nahapana in the Bhokardan region and was exported from the port of Barigaza. Pliny said that 100 million sesterces were transported annually to India, China, and Arabia due to the prosperity of commerce.

The letter kharoshthi śi engraved on the base of the figurine

At the base of the Pompeii, the statuette has an inscriptive mark in Kharosthi (the letter śi, as the śi in Shiva). This means she may have originated in or traveled through the northwestern regions of India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. Because the Pompeii statuette had to have been constructed before 79 CE, if it was made in Gandhara, it would imply that the Begram ivories are likewise from the first century CE.

According to D’Ancona, iconography in India falls within the wide category of female goddesses. In terms of cross-cultural pollination, the idea of the goddess accompanied by two kid attendants, as seen in the Pompeii Lakshmi, is a rare image of Lakshmi or Yashis in Indian art. It lacks the lotus blossom present in Lakshmi iconography. According to D’Ancona, the iconography shown in this figurine may have been brought from the Classical world, presumably taken from the imagery of Venus attended by cherubs bearing cosmetics containers, which are well known in Greco-Roman art. According to D’Ancona, she might be one of the various portrayals of Venus-Sri-Lakshmi that arose in the first century CE.

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