The birth of the Buddha in a grove of Shala Trees (Shorea robusta) is a recurring motif in Buddhist art. And it revolves around the depiction of Queen Maya in the likeness of a Shalabhanjika. Shalabhanjikas are maidens associated with the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu iconography of South Asia. Also known as tree goddesses, they predate these religions and can be traced back to the era of spirit worship. People in Eastern India (comprising the states of Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha) seem to have revered female tree spirits, associating them with fertility. Eastern India is where the religions of Buddhism and Jainism were born and flourished. No wonder then that the idea of Shalabhanjikas made its way into their legends and art.

The word ‘Shalabhanjika’ translates as ‘the (female) breaker of a Shala branch’. They were venerated by the people of the region. In fact, there are several references to a Shalabhanjika Festival in Buddhist literature. In the book ‘Life in North-eastern India in Pre-Mauryan Times’, a short description of the Festival is given (as recounted in the Avadanashataka). It seems that people would gather in the Shala groves in their thousands, gather the blossoms from the blooming trees and make merry. One such gathering took place when the Buddha was residing in the garden of Jetavana, in the city of Shravasti.

The depiction of Queen Maya giving birth to the Buddha is in keeping with this tradition. It is said to have taken place in a grove in Lumbini, with Queen Maya holding on to the branch of a Shala (in some cases, an Ashoka Tree – Saraca asoca). The association with fertility cannot be missed. In fact, there are rituals such as ‘dohada’ in North India where a maiden is believed to have the power to bring a tree into bloom. The reverse is also considered possible, with women desiring offspring embracing a tree in full bloom. Shalabhanjika sculptures are commonly seen in the toranas (gateways) of Buddhist stupas, the best example being the great Stupa of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. From South Asia, the Shalabhanjika motif spread all across Asia, wherever the Buddhist faith established a foothold.

Image Attribution: The image above, from Wikimedia Commons, shows a schist sculpture of the Buddha’s birth. It is believed to be a specimen of Kushana art, found in Gandhara (a region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border), dating back to a period covering the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries Common Era. The Kushanas were an Iranian people hailing from the steppes of Central Asia. Nomads to begin with, they started moving south in the 1st century BCE. Soon, they carved out an empire stretching over present day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. Ardent Buddhists, the Kushanas inaugurated a second golden age in the history of the faith, patronizing monasteries, encouraging missions and triggering a surge of artistic and literary activity. The sculpture above shows Queen Maya holding on to a tree, while delivering the Buddha. She is surrounded by attendants, one of whom holds onto her. It is preserved at present in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.