Cross-cultural Images of the Goddess with the Lotus in Kushan and Mughal Art


Pendant with Shri, c. 100s. Pakistan, Gandhara, Sirkap, Kushan Period (1st century-320). Gold repoussé and carnelian, Diameter - w:5.00 cm (w:1 15/16 inches). Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1953.14.

Prosperity, good fortune, and an abundance of good things are universal goals. A 2,000-year-old gold and carnelian medallion in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, now on view, depicts a goddess who was venerated for the attainment of these goals. Her image combines both Indian and Mediterranean attributes, so she would have been relevant to people of both cultural spheres. In her right hand she grasps the stem of a lotus flower like the Indian goddess of wealth and good fortune, Shri Lakshmi. In her lowered left hand, she holds another lotus stem that blossoms with a Greco-Roman style bowl overfilled with fruits. Her garments and hairstyle are Greco-Roman, and her diadem is reminiscent of the type worn by Hellenisticcity goddesses, who often hold a flower or cornucopia. This goddess also recalls the iconography of the indigenous Indian goddess Hariti, a mother goddess who was venerated throughout India for the procurement and welfare of children. In the region of Gandhara, where this medallion was made, Hariti was often depicted in Hellenistic robes and bearing a Greco-Roman-style cornucopia.  

The region of the Indus River Valley, once called Gandhara, now in Pakistan, was exposed to Hellenistic culture since 326 BC, when Alexander of Macedon moved his armies through this area, leaving behind Greek governors to manage the territories. The governors became independent Indo-Greek kings after the death of Alexander, and they imported Hellenistic art and artists to the region over the course of the next century. Greco-Roman ideals were revitalized there when merchants from the Mediterranean passed through Gandhara on their way to meet the Silk Road to China, and luxury items such as this goddess medallion testify to the profound Indian and Mediterranean cultural admixture and the shared wish to attain that which she was believed to provide: wealth, good fortune, and prosperity.

A Female in Classical Robes Standing in a Landscape Holding an Ektar and a Lotus, c. 1590India, Mughal, late 16th century. Opaque watercolor with gold on paper, mounted with borders of gold-decorated cream and blue paper, Page - h:30.50 w:20.00 cm (h:12 w:7 13/16 inches) Miniature - h:13.20 w:9.40 cm (h:5 3/16 w:3 11/16 inches). Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection 2013.311.

About 1,400 years later, the goddess with the lotus was still being merged with European imagery. When the medallion was made, northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were ruled by a Central Asian peoples known as the Kushans. Another group of Central Asians, called the Mughals, unified the same territories during the sixteenth century, and another period of receptivity to Western art was initiated. In an album made for the third Mughal emperor Akbar, was a painting of a goddess holding the stem of a lotus flower in one hand. This painting is part of the newly acquired collection of Mughal and Deccan paintings from the Ralph and Catherine Benkaim collection. The figure stands in a barren landscape by a spray of flowers, as though her powers of fecundity caused it to spring to life in the desert. She wears the Indian artist’s rendition of European dress, and in her right hand she holds a stringed instrument called an ektar. The instrument may link her with the Indian goddess of music and learning, Sarasvati, while her image as a whole seems to evoke that of a western classical muse, such as Euterpe. Her hair is arranged in a European-style coiffure and ornamented with a diadem that has the feather crest of Mughal turbans. 

Abundance and prosperity, music and learning, the goddess with the lotus across centuries and cultures unites these universal ideals. See her in Cleveland.

This blog post is part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's spotlight on women in the arts. Check back throughout the month of March for stories from members of the CMA staff for their stories in honor of Women's History Month.


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