European Private Collection, acquired in 1996
Osmund Bopearachchi, et. al., De l’Indus a l’Oxus Archeologie de l’Asie Centrale, exhibition catalogue, Association IMAGO – Musée de Lattes, 2003, pp. 243 and 268, no. 228
This rare and exceptional metal sculpture was first exhibited and published by the Bibliotheque National de France, where it was identified simply as goddess Hariti of ancient Gandhara and dated to 5th-6th century C.E. Gandhara is an ancient appellation of the geographical region that straddles the borders of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Hariti is a Buddhist goddess who was popular in Gandhara along with the faith in the 5th-6th century.
Originally Hariti was an ogress feared and revered long before the Buddha in Rajagriha, once the capital of Magadha, an ancient kingdom in the modern state of Bihar and Jhargram in India. Her favorite diet was children, and so she was much feared by the populace. Rajagriha was an important site in the Buddha’s life, and the Buddhists claim that Hariti was tamed by the Buddha and adopted in the faith as a protectress of children and of the refectory of the monasteries.
However, as far as is known, no early statue of Hariti has survived in Rajgir or among the remains of monasteries in Bihar or in the Gangetic plains across northern India. Instead, numerous surviving images from ancient Gandhara of the early centuries of the Common Era testify to her popularity in that region. Moreover, she also acquired a male spouse in Gandhara called Panchika, a subordinate of the older dispenser of wealth Kubera. However, she is represented often in Gandhara without Panchika and with a group of frolicking children. Some of the lithic compositions are of impressive size and were likely in shrines attached to refectories as ordained by the Buddha, but other smaller examples images in stone as well as this rare metal example may well have graced domestic shrines.
One comparable stone representation is the well-known British Museum Hariti, where she is seated with half a dozen cavorting children evenly distributed on either side of her feet placed firmly on a small pedestal (fig. 1). The forefinger of her right hand seems to point to the diminutive older figure seated on the footstool between her feet while the left supports an infant laying on his back in her lap and pulling her necklace with his raised left arm.
It may be readily surmised that the goddess in the metal image under discussion was also originally seated on a similar plain seat and provided with a footstool. The rambunctious son may well be jumping up to reach the candy or sweet she holds delicately in her right hand, while her left hand steadies him as his outstretched left hand simultaneously grasps a carrot-like object.
While there are other portable but repoussé metal representations of Hariti in museum collections, I know of no other example which is so completely modelled in the round and so elegantly expresses both gravitas and playfulness at once. Unlike the stone images, there is no attempt here to delineate weighty Roman garments, and while the mother is clothed and adorned with simple dignity and elegance, the seemingly nude toddler by contrast captures the viewer’s attention with his exuberance. Noteworthy is that the feet of both the clad mother and the frisky son are shod, while in most Gandhara images they are without footwear in the Indian tradition.
Had the two figures not been attired so obviously with Roman garments, they could have had other identifications, such as Yaśoda and Baby Krishna, as in a beautiful example from the fifth century in Uttar Pradesh , or as Skandamata or Mother of Skanda, as seen in a few sculptures of the Thanesar-Mahadev group of divine mothers in Rajasthan (figs. 3 and 4).
In fact, these Rajasthan Mothers, whatever their exact function, most naturally express the physical and psychological nuances of the intimate bond between mother and always son that is not the usual norm in hieratic images. In the present example, too, the artist has succeeded in combining the graceful regal dignity of the goddess with the playfulness of her loving son with disarming simplicity and expressiveness.
Subsequently, throughout the history of Indian art, it is the baby Krishna who has been the most popular subject of this tender relationship as he dances naked with the ball of butter that he has stolen from his milkmaid mother’s larder.
There seems no doubt about the provenience of this unique and extraordinary metal representation from the Gandhara region. While it probably represents the Buddhist goddess Hariti and her son, their foreign attire and the shod feet, as well as the plasticity of modelling and the confident fusion of realism and abstraction, could only have occurred in the cosmopolitan artistic milieu in the crossroads that was Gandhara—where different cultures and peoples, both indigenous and foreign, intermingled since at least the visit of Alexander in the 4th century B.C.E. until the arrival of the Huns in the 5th century C.E.
Both for its cheerful subject matter and technical excellence, and despite the slight damages mostly at the back, Hariti and Son remains a major early achievement of metal sculpture in the Indian subcontinent.
Los Angeles, September 2023
1 W. Zwalf, A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum, The British Museum, London, 1996, Vol. II, no. 92
2 M.C. Joshi, et. al., L’Age d’or de l’Inde Classique, L’empire des Gupta, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, exhibition catalogue, 2007, no. 9
3 P. Pal, Indian Sculpture: A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, vol.1, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986, pp. 264-265
4 S. Czuma, et. al., Masterworks of Asian Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1998, pp. 154-155