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Jinah Kim. Women in Action: Images of Women in the Buddhist Art of Medieval Eastern India and Nepal

In a recently concluded exhibition on Nepalese Buddhist ritual art, ‘Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal’ (Cantor Art Gallery, Worcester, MA; 4 September–14 December 2019), one of the first objects in the display was an early 15th century paubha (the Newar term for a painting on cloth) of Ushnishavijaya, a Buddhist goddess propitiated for longevity (Figs 1, 1a and 1b). The painting bears a colophon with a date of 1412 CE (Nepal Era 532). Now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the paubha is of great historical importance for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is one of the earliest surviving pictorial records of a grand performance of the Laksha Chaitya Vrata, a Newar Buddhist ritual that is often conducted ‘while mourning the death of a family member, with the purpose of transferring the merit to the deceased’ (Lewis and Bajracharya, 2019, p. 56). The painting’s art historical importance also lies in its rare portrayal of a woman in action in a position of authority in a Buddhist setting. In the left-hand corner on the bottom register, we see a Buddhist priest or ritual master—a vajracharya—dressed in white and wearing a red, conical cap (see Fig. 1a). He is seated cross-legged before a homa (fire) and an array of ritual accoutrements. Seated close behind him is a woman in a red blouse, her right hand held up in the gesture of instruction (Skt vitarka mudra). Along with her authoritative posture, that she is an intimate and equal partner of the vajracharya is indicated by the proximity of their knees, since the group of devotees behind her (representing some of the image’s sponsors; the others are on the opposite side) is given a small gap and they all kneel with hands in the gesture of prayer (anjali mudra). On her forehead in the hair parting is the red mark (sindur) that is customary for married women among Hindu households on the Indian subcontinent today, signalling that she is the officiating vajracharya’s wife—or ‘guruju-ma’, as such women are reverently addressed in Newar Buddhist communities still today. While sindur is no longer as commonly worn by married Newar Buddhist women in Nepal, this painting suggests that it was in fact a custom in the early 15th century. In a way, finding women like this guruju-ma in the surviving art historical record sheds light on continuity and change in Indic Buddhist practices, especially regarding the roles of women, about which texts authored by men in Buddhist monastic institutions remain largely silent.

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November/December 2020
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