Shalabhanjikas Propagating Ayurveda in Temple Architecture

In the Indian ethos, every aspect of nature was revered and considered divine. Rural areas had their own deities symbolising various elements of nature. Ancient Indian literary works speak about nature worship in length. For example Yajur Veda says, Oh Mothers, I hail you as Goddesses…”. Along with the worship of Durga, Lakshmi  and Saraswati, trees, rivers and animals were also worshipped and were given a feminine stature. Among them, tree goddesses or Vriksha devatas were revered for the fruits they bear that spread health and prosperity. 

On October 31st, Sri Aurobindo Society on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo organised an online lecture on Ayurveda and Yoga in Indian Temple Sculptures. The talk was delivered by Smt Rekha Rao, researcher and author of the book, Ayurveda in Indian Temples: Depiction of Herbal Medicines through Apsaras and Shalabhanjikas. The book explores how temple architecture highlights Ayurveda. Read our interview with the author here

The speaker began with a brief introduction to Ayurveda’s origins in our Vedic scriptures. Ayurveda and Yoga are one of the two branches of Indian heritage. Ayurveda was associated with Rig Veda, which dealt with the science of health and longevity. Upaveda is one of the literary branches that dealt with subsidiary applied knowledge, and was associated with the ethic fields of arts and science. 

In Rig Veda mandala I, the usage of medicinal herbs for the medicine is mentioned. Rudra is known to provide good health to two and four-footed beings, that is men and animals. Puranas mention Dhanvantari, who came down to Earth as a king and expounded the knowledge of Ayurveda to all. 

This knowledge was later propagated by means of literary works and sculptures, especially in temple architecture. This was done for two reasons. Firstly, to propagate the medicinal values of some plants and secondly to add aesthetic value to temple sculptures. In many temple sculptures, Ayurveda and Yoga was depicted but this was never mentioned in any temple inscription.

Apsaras or celestial beings were associated with trees and plants, and were known as Shalabhanjikas. Shala means tree and bhanjika means doll holding the branch of the tree. These sculptures precisely depicted the structure of the tree and its fruits. Shalabhanjikas were adorned with many jewels and were always placed at a height or on the outer walls of the temples. Furthermore, female figures were associated with these trees because in many Vedic stanzas, trees were considered as motherly figures as they bear sap that relieves pain and restores health. 

The speaker then brought out six examples of Shalabhanjikas holding flower and fruit trees. 

She explains in the above picture that the Shalabanjika is holding Ashoka flowers. This sculpture can be found in the Bharhut Stupa constructed between the 2nd to 1st Century BCE in Madhya Pradesh. It was noticed that Ashoka flowers were frequently seen as part of the sculptures, and the inflorescence was depicted with such clarity. Ashoka was used in many medicinal concoctions and was mainly used in the treatment of female reproductive disorders. The word Ashoka means that which relieves pain, and many parts of the tree can be used to relieve pain during menstruation. The bark extract is also anti-bacterial and can be used as a diuretic. 

Acharya Charaka in his book Charaka Samhita attributed anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and astringent properties to Ashoka.  It is a sedative tonic to uterine and endometrial tissues. This is why Ashoka is recurrently depicted with a Shalabhanjika in temples. 

Nagakesar with its four globular petals and fruits with four valves are distinctly depicted with the Shalabhanjika in the image above. The woman holds the tree with her right hand, and in her left hand are flowers near her pelvic region. Nagakesar has been used widely in many indigenous medical concoctions to treat skin disorders like rashes, burns and more. It is a powerful expectorant which means it can clear the channels by removing the mucus that blocks them. Tonic from the tree bark can be used during childbirth, and is also seen to reduce anemia and heals ulcers. 

This picture depicts a Shalabhanjika holding an Orchid or also known as Vandaka. This sculpture can be seen in the Ramappa temple in Telangana. Orchids are terrestrial epiphytes that bear inflorescence of varying colours. The flowers are laterally arranged with leaves on either side of the branch. This is accurately depicted in the sculpture in Ramappa temple.

The flowers are pleasantly fragrant. The perfume is used in aromatherapy. Vanilla is an orchid that is frequently used as a flavouring agent in many dishes. Vanilla possesses medicinal properties that are effective against lung and kidney disorders. 

Orchid bulbs are powerful aphrodisiacs, and can be used as fertility medicines. Consumption of smaller bulbs promotes the formation of a male child and consumption of larger bulbs promotes the formation of a female child. 

This is a Shalabhanjika with the Ramphal tree. This can also be seen in the Bharhut Stupa in Madhya Pradesh. Ramphal plant has long leaves and a custard-apple like fruit. This depiction can be seen on the Shalabhanjika. 

Ramphal reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and is a rich source of minerals such as Magnesium and Potassium. Vitamin C helps to reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and can enhance the immunity levels in the body. 

This is a shalabhanjika with Noni fruits in Raja Rani temple in Odisha. Noni in Sanskrit is Ashyuka, and in the sculpture, the shalabhanjika is shaking the tree joyfully. The fruit has many seeds and is used to treat various ailments. The juice of the fruit can be gargled to relieve sore throat. The fruit is also used in the treatment of uterine haemorrhage and oedema. The paste of the leaves and the stem bark is applied on the skin to alleviate skin conditions. The juice of the ripe fruit is used as a general tonic. It is a rich source of phyto-nutrients, and boosts immunity as it has properties such as antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. It is also rich in Iron, Calcium, Sodium and Potassium. 

This is a shalabhanjika with Jambu fruits in Madhukeshwara temple in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh. The Jambu fruit is also known as the Malabar plant. In the sculpture, the Shalabhanjika is holding the berries in her left hand, and a parrot is feeding on them. The right leg is placed on the main stem, and her right hand is entwined around the branch. On the tree is the Malabar Giant Squirrel that feeds on these berries. 

The Jambu fruits are strongly recommended in Ayurveda to treat digestive problems. It is rich in Iron thus purifying blood and treating anemia. It is calorie-deficit and can be used to control diabetes. It has antiemetic properties owing to the presence of Vitamin C. 

Temple architecture is another important piece of documentation in our heritage. It has also given emphasis to Ayurveda in great lengths, and makes up for the lack of written documentation. Our ancient ancestors have conducted significant studies on different fruits and flowers, and have given utmost importance to Ayurveda for the promotion of good health. 

[All images courtesy: Smt Rekha Rao]
[Talk by Smt Rekha Rao]