About 1938 years ago, the Via dell’Abbondanza was a bustling arterial road in the city of Pompeii, leading to the city’s Forum – the original open-air mall. Along this road, frequented by the rich, was a small and artfully designed house.
This house, along with rest of the Pompeii, was buried under 16 feet of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79 A.D. It was a terrific calamity. Even today, such an eruption would wreck havoc but it had a morbid bonus. Much of the city was preserved exactly as it was by the layers of volcanic rock and ash.
In a wooden chest in the western side of the house, archaeologists in the 1930s unearthed an ivory figurine of what looked like an Indian Goddess. Completely in the nude, it was believed to be a goddess of fertility – and hence, was called the Pompeii Lakshmi. But its exact origins may have been more diverse.
Whoever it belonged to was evidently either well-travelled or an art collector – the walls depicted murals of a ship and exotic artwork. The Casa Della Statuetta Indiana or ‘House of the Indian statue‘ became a tourist favourite.
But where did this exotic figurine come from? And whose depiction is it really of?
Non-Residential Indian Origin
Around the same time that the Casa Della Statuetta was investigated, French archaeologists made another significant finding – in Afghanistan. In the ancient city of Bagram, north of Kabul, two strongrooms in the Kushan summer palace revealed an array of luxury goods from around the world. Rome, Egypt, China and India. Many were elaborately carved ivory figurines displaying beautiful women. Such elaboration had a relatively mundane purpose – serving as legs for low-lying furniture.
Such a purpose is likely for the Lakshmi of Pompeii. Its base is wide and capable of support. But there’s a catch – the top of the statue has a tiny hold in it, perfect for a sort of handle. The statue’s other purpose could have been as a mirror handle.
This might seem sacrilegious for a goddess, but there’s also a good chance that it isn’t a goddess. Its female figure shows signs of having being sculpted as an icon of beauty – scholar Chandreyi Basu points out that attention was made to the curve of its hips, its rightly crossed legs and nude features and to the waist-length hair.
On either side of the figure’s legs are small attendants, bearing toiletries and essentially helping the figure adorn herself. The effect was for maximum sexuality, as it existed in that era. Could it be that this was not a goddess – but a semi-goddess? The latter, known as Yakshis, were popular and sexualized figures of fertility.
The inscription does not help much. Only the letter ‘si’ is evident on its base, which led to the idea that this was Shri Lakshmi. But even Yakshis could have such descriptions, particularly those in Bagram, Afghanistan. Basu suggests that the statue could have been completed in Afghanistan.
It is not yet known. But what the statue does tell us about in certainty is that there was trade between India and Rome at the time. India was seen, even then, as a land of exotic abilities. But to the Romans, she would not have been an Indian goddess or Yakshi – it is more likely that they saw a semblance of their own goddesses, such as Venus and Aphrodite, in its beauty.
Beauty was not always safe in post-volcanic Pompeii. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when Pompeii was rediscovered, the unearthing of erotic art shocked the rulers in charge. Francis I of Naples even ordered many of these to be censored – plastered over or covered. In fact, until the 1960s, women were not even allowed to view them.
It is for this reason that the Pompeii Lakshmi is to be found in the ‘Secret’ section of Naples Archeological Museum. Thankfully, to both tourists and archaeologists, the eroticism of the Indo-Roman past is no longer a secret.
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