Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī is one of the most popular Jain goddesses among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike. She is the yakṣī or female attendant deity of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, but has long been a figure of worship in her own right. As a śāsana-devatā – ‘deity of the teaching’ – she is believed to help protect and spread the message of her Jina. The yakṣa Gomedha is Nemi’s male attendant, but has not developed a similar independent status.
As a goddess, Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī is a soul subject to the cycle of birth and can intervene in human affairs, unlike Jinas, who are liberated, perfect souls, completely detached from everyday human experience. Lay Jains worship gods partly to request help with worldly matters, ranging from issues of health and fertility, and passing examinations to business success. By the tenth century several of the śāsana-devatās had developed into independent gods at the centre of their own cults. This may be because of their connections with the major Jinas, links with a prominent pilgrimage centre or various stories of their powers.
Śvetāmbaras know her as Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī while Digambaras call this goddess Kūṣmāṇḍinī. Each sect gives her different attributes, but she is usually presented in art accompanied by a child or two. This underlines her association with motherhood and children, and Jains might worship her when they want to have children.
The numerous temples and images dedicated to Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī throughout India demonstrate her popularity. However, she has especially close connections with Gujarat, stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism, and Shravana Belgola in Karnataka, one of the principal pilgrimage sites for Digambara Jains. Since she is the focus of worship in her own right, she also has hymns and mantras composed for her.
In Sanskrit and north Indian languages the name Ambikā means ‘Mummy’ or ‘Little Mother’. This goddess is closely associated with motherhood and children in legends as well as in her iconography. The name Kūṣmāṇḍinī etymologically means ‘the one associated with a kūṣmāṇḍa’, which is a kind of pumpkin. It is to be noted that a synonym of this, Kūṣṃāṇḍī, is a name of the goddess Durgā in the Hindu tradition. This has led to the assumption that the Jain goddess Ambikā is a borrowed form of Durgā, but this is not accurate.
Rather, Ambikā is connected with a yakṣī named Bahuputrikā – ‘one with many daughters’ – who is said to have been worshipped in old times in Magadha, in eastern India. In Tamil Nadu, Ambikā is also known under the name Dharma-devī – ‘Goddess of the Doctrine’ – which underlines her association with the Jinas.
Standing figure of Ambikā
Image by British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum
A powerful deity, Ambikā has several roles. In some respects she can be thought of as the model goddess for the yakṣīs, as the earliest surviving references to these attendant goddesses name her as the sole yakṣī. Her association with the Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi clearly links her to a function as mother of children and also promotes Jainism as the true religion. One of her most prominent aspects is as protective deity, in particular of children. Kūṣmāṇḍinī is also the guardian divinity of certain holy places, especially Shravana Belgola, the Digambara pilgrimage centre. She demonstrates her appeal to both main Jain sects in her associations with Mount Girnar in Gujarat and is also the presiding deity of a Śvetāmbara sect.
Together with Sarvānubhūti, Ambikā forms the earliest pair of yakṣa and yakṣī in the Jain tradition. These two divinities seem to have provided the model for other yakṣa and yakṣī pairings. The oldest reference to Ambikā in art and literature dates back to the middle of the sixth century CE.
The legend of how Ambikā became the female attendant of the 23rd Jina Nemi does not have a Jain setting, yet is meant to show the final superiority of Jainism over Brahmanism. In the Śvetāmbara tradition, Ambikā is a wife and the mother of two children in Gujarat, with the story clearly set in Saurāṣṭra. Her husband throws her out of the house because she gives food to a Jain monk that had been meant for Hindu Brahmins. She goes to the forest with the children and they sit under a withered mango tree. Miraculously, this mango tree provides fruit and a nearby dried-up lake fills with water so they can survive. When Ambikā’s repentant husband comes to look for them, she misunderstands his intentions and escapes him by jumping in a well with her sons. She is reborn as the yakṣī to Nemi and her husband is reborn as a lion, her vehicle – vāhana – on which Indian deities ride.
The authoritative example for this story is the 14th-century Ambikā-devī-kalpa. It is found in Jinaprabha-sūri‘s Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa, which describes pilgrimage places and Jain beings worthy of worship.
Well-known stories show how Ambikā plays a part in rescuing or aiding devotees. As with other yakṣīs, this help may be extended not only to commoners but also to monarchs. In such cases, therefore, Ambikā acts as the protective deity to a state. For example, it is said that she helped King Kumārapāla accede to the throne in 12th-century Gujarat.
She is also believed to have had a decisive contribution ‘in deciding a dispute between the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras as to who had authority over the holy place of Girnar’ (Cort 1987: 249) in Gujarat.
Both yakṣas and yakṣīs are considered part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. Like all of the attendant deities, Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī has certain features that help to identify her and indicate her powers. These are described in, for example, texts on the iconography of the Jina, which outline the appearance of the Jina’s attendants.
Being presented as a deity implies that Ambikā has special characteristics linked to the depiction of gods in art. This means she:
- may have more than two arms or hands
- has a vehicle – vāhana
- demonstrates attributes by holding various objects
- may exhibit hand-gestures that symbolise a concept or attitude – mudrās.
Both the principal Jain sects associate Ambikā with motherhood and give her a lion as her divine mount or vehicle. This indicates her possible connection with Ambājī, a popular Hindu goddess in Gujarat (Cort 1987: 248).
Ambikā is identifiable in Śvetāmbara art from the presence of one child on her hip with the other by her side, or accompanied by one child only. The lion vehicle is also often there, as well as a mango tree or bunch of mangoes. Other features have changed in the course of time but common characteristics in Śvetāmbara depictions of Ambikā include the noose and goad. Such weapon-like attributes characterise several yakṣīs and are meant to show that they are powerful beings. Their presence has been interpreted as a sign of the Śakti cult, which was widespread in India, especially between the tenth and 13th centuries.
The standard description by the 12th-century author Hemacandra states:
A Kuṣmāṇḍī, named Ambikā, originating in the congregation [of Lord Nemi], gold color, with a lion for a vehicle, holding in two right hands a bunch of mangoes and a noose; and in her two left hands a boy and a goad, became the Lord’s messenger-deity.
Johnson’s translation, volume 5, page 273
Jinaprabha-sūri’s 14th-century piece on Ambikā says the same.
As a deity, Ambikā is often portrayed with more than two arms, ranging from four or eight to many arms. The only surviving figures of Ambikā that date from up to the end of the ninth century take the two-armed form, then evidence of the multi-armed form goes on increasing. Among Digambaras, however, Kūṣmāṇḍinī is presented with two arms. The sects also give her varying divine attributes, which she holds in her hands. Thus the number of attributes and arms are connected when she is represented in art.
Ambikā figure in Ellora
Image by Y. Shishido © CC BY-SA 3.0
Among the earliest images of Ambikā are Akota bronzes from the late sixth century but these are rare. The two-armed goddess is the standard from the eighth to the 12th centuries whereas the four-armed or multi-armed forms become more common until the 16th century (Tiwari 1989: 26ff.)
- the Ellora Caves 32 and 33, carved in the ninth century
- the Gujarati temples of Kumbharia, dated to 1062 CE
- the temples of Mount Abu in Rajasthan and Taranga in Gujarat, which both date from the 12th century
- Madhya Pradesh, especially in well-known Jain sites such as Deogarh (Bruhn 1969: 77ff.), Khajuraho, Canderi and Vidisha, which date back to the ninth to tenth centuries.
Plenty of images of Ambikā created from the ninth century onwards survive in Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Karnatak.
The 14th-century Śvetāmbara author Jinaprabha-sūri refers to images of Ambikā at several Jain holy places in northern and western India. He also states that Ambikā was the guardian deity of Mathurā. Figures of the goddess from the eighth to ninth century are available (Tiwari and Sinha 2011: 108).
As a favourite Jain goddess, Ambikā has numerous temples dedicated to her. Tiwari gives some examples (1989: 145–146) of the many found throughout India.
One temple to Ambikā was constructed in the tenth to 11th century near Thān in Saurashtra, Gujarat.
In south India too, there are many independent shrines dedicated to Ambikā. An example is the one to the south of the Vardhamāna temple at Tirupparuttikkunram in Tamil Nadu.
Lord Nemi and attendants
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
There is a privileged association between this goddess and the holy place of Mount Girnar, in Gujarat. Ambikā is the yakṣī of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, who is closely connected to this place because it is where he reached final liberation from the cycle of rebirths.
The Digambara temple to Kūṣmāṇḍinī at Mount Girnar dates back to the mid-eighth century CE. Textual evidence from the 14th century testifies to pilgrimages that various Jain dignitaries made to the temple on the mountaintop, and enables phases in the temple‘s development and history to be traced.
The 14th-century account of Ambikā’s legend by Jinaprabha-sūri, a Śvetāmbara monk, shows that her presence and cult at Girnar, in association with Nemi, was acknowledged beyond sectarian divisions. In this piece the author calls the goddess both Ambiā – Prakrit for Ambikā – and Kohaṇḍidevi – Prakrit for Kūṣmāṇḍinī – using both forms of her name. He clearly states that she resides at the top of the hill, as the śāsana-devatā of Nemi.
Sarvānubhūti and Kūṣmāṇḍinī
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
In Karnatak, Ambikā is mostly known under the name Kūṣmāṇḍinī. There is evidence of her status as an independent deity in this region in the seventh century. She is the guardian deity of Shravana Belgola, the Digambara centre of pilgrimage.
There is no mythic or iconographic connection between her and Bāhubali [the Jain saint closely associated with the site]. Her role as guardian of the shrine, therefore, either precedes the consecration of the Bāhubali icon in 981 A.D., or else further shows how the cults of the Jain goddesses in Karnataka are only loosely tied to those of the Jinas
Cort 2010: 348
There are several figures of Kūṣmāṇḍinī at Shravana Belgola, namely those in:
- a cell in the temple to the eighth Jina, Candraprabha, in the village, next to the maṭha – seat of the bhaṭṭāraka
- a cell in the pavilion behind the Bāhubali image on the large hill, Vindhya-giri
- the Kattale Basadi, on the smaller hill of Candra-giri.
Image by Shanammumbai © CC BY-SA 3.0
A variety of hymns praising Ambikā on her own have been composed in all the languages Jains have used. A noteworthy one is the stavana composed in Sanskrit by the famous Gujarati minister Vastupāla in the 13th century (Nawab 1937/1996 and Jhavery 1944: 328–329).
This deity is said to fulfil all the desires of right-believers and to remove all obstacles.
The 14th-century author Jinaprabha-sūri explains how all sorts of successes and powers will come to Jain believers who worship her using dedicated mantras, yantras and so on. He describes how they will get all sorts of wealth, children, wives and friends, and how they will not come under the power of all sorts of demonic influences. Ambikā, like other yakṣīs or female goddesses, is thus ascribed protective powers.
Ambikā’s connection with motherhood means that worship of her may be performed to request her protection for children. A 14th-century manual on the Jain lay man’s daily conduct, the Ācāradinakara, indicates that ‘a prayer to the goddess Ambikā to guard the child’ (Williams 1963: 279) is part of the birth ceremony. Taking place shortly after a baby is born, this ritual is intended to protect the infant and keep it healthy.
At the end of the piece he writes to praise Ambikā, Jinaprabha gives a few mantras. He indicates that there are many more which he skips over so as not to make his work too big, but which can be learnt from one’s own teacher. They are worth remembering, he says, to ensure the protection of oneself and of others as well.
Various rites are performed with the help of yantras to appease evil forces and placate the goddess. Some of the names used for her may point to her destructive capacities if she is not properly worshipped. This is a way to gain her good will. Besides propitiatory rites, there are also gruesome ceremonies that suggest the terrifying form of the deity is visualised.
Such mantras and rites are given in hymns or in texts called kalpas, written in Sanskrit. These texts set out rituals and yantras for efficient and successful worship. Such works dedicated to Ambikā are available from the 12th century onwards. Examples are:
- the Ambikāṣṭaka of Ambāprasāda, written around the 12th century CE
- Jineśvara-sūri’s 12th-century Ambikā-devī-stuti
- the Ambikātāḍaṃka, the Ambikātāṭaṃka and the Ambikā-stuti, all written between the 12th and 14th centuries (Tiwari 1989: page 29ff. with original Sanskrit texts on pages 148 to 153; Nawab 1937/1996: 175–181 and Jhavery 1944: 322–330).
When successful in their worship, the devotees have all their desires fulfilled. In the Ambikātāḍaṃka, it is clearly stated that worshipping Ambikā ensures that they will get children.
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- aAlauddin Khalji
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- eEast India Company
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