The complexity of India art, ritual and belief system can be simplified into two forms of worship and adoration. One is for the miracle of death which is realized in the worship of ancestors in which the quest for afterlife and rebirth are dwelled upon and the other is for the miracle of life that is realized in creation and its constant presence around us in the world. This is pronounced in the depth of both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Going back to the ancient days of the Ashoka era, when vedic deities held supreme power, Lord Indra was accepted into both Buddhist and Hindu pantheon of Gods. Indra is often depicted with a staff and is believed to have released life giving waters to earth after slaying the demon and also released the Sun into the sky thereby starting the cosmic cycle. This placed Indra as one of the supreme deities who brings to earth the miracle of life, and his releasing water to the earth is associated with water cosmology. Indra's staff therefore became the potent symbol of life spiritually, and denoted supremacy and proliferation of race and rule politically.
This potent belief of Indra's staff was further explored by Ashoka in the kingdom of Magadha, where he spread his faith on Dharma by placing edicts across his kingdom in the form of Ashoka Pillars. The Ashoka pillars stand for spiritualism and pure living, they teach the value of dharma and exude his imperialism across Magadha. But what were these pillars and what was their significance?
The pillars were not just a list of rules for better living surmounted by a lion signifying imperialism. These pillars in their very construct were the symbolism of the "Tree of Life" that stems from the pot of water placed at the bottom from which rises the shaft( yashti) of the pillar(stambha). The "Tree of Life" flowers into a lion capital or into an architectural unit depicted on temple walls in later years(photo below with pillars marked in white) but primarily re-emphasizing on the root principle of water cosmology.
The "Tree of Life", was symbolized by Ashoka when he erected his pillars with engraved edicts and placed them into the earth by digging a pit and covering it with water or placed an earthen pot full of water at the base inside the pit from which rises the shaft of the pillar. This architectural unit of a water-pot based pillar signifies the potency of the miracle of life and its constant presence in this world as we know it.
Meanwhile far away in the interior forests of the Hindu Brahmanical countryside way back in an era even before Ashoka probably, another version of the potent "Tree of Life" took shape. Going back into the realm of Lord Shiva, there runs a mythical story on Lord Shiva and Parvati (Mother Goddess). After their wedlock they returned to Kailasa and retreated into the caves of this divine mountain. For eons they remained here, in union away from all the worlds. Meanwhile, there was trouble in Devaloka and on earth as the Asuras had again begun to harass the devas and other mortals. This disturbed the Rishis, Devas and other Gods and they came to the cave entrance seeking Lord Shiva's help to vanquish the charging Asuras. Realizing that they were unable to awaken Lord Shiva out of his marital bliss, they decided to step into the cave. Deep within the cave, the Lord and His consort, lay in union. Parvati was taken by surprize on the sudden entry of the heavenly folk, and in order to save her embarassment, she picks up a full bloomed lotus and covers her face.
This moment, of Parvati attempting to cover her embarassment (Lajja) has been depicted in sculpture as Lajja Gauri showing her face covered with the lotus as well as her holding a lotus bud in each hand signifying fertility, life and creation. Her raw beauty has been depicted without any subtlety, her moment of union with Lord Shiva has been captured by the scuptor. Dr. Ramachandra C. Dhere in his book "Lajja Gauri" describes her womb to represent an earthen pot. This representation brings alive the original concept of the miracle of living where the "Tree of Life" is represented by progeny and lineage. The potency of the life giving waters in water cosmology is metaphorically represented by the waters within the yoni of the woman.
This echoes the same symbolism with which Ashoka erected his edicts around Magadha. These waters are considered enpowering and they render the living all powerful and brings prosperity. Such was the depth of belief in Indian iconography and representation in Indian art.
Indra with staff: Christopher Tadgell is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at the School of Architecture, Canterbury College, Kent Institute of Art and Design 1996, http://www.ellipsis.com/history/
Ashoka Pillar: © Lexicon of Greek Personal Names. All rights reserved.
Lajja Gauri: Naganatha Temple, Naganathakolla, Bijapur District, India. Badami Museum, Item B36 Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), government photograph. Date c. 650 CE. Image scanned by uploader from Bolon, Carol Radcliffe, Forms of the Goddess Lajja Gauri in Indian Art, The Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, Penn., 1992)
This image is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.
Airaveteshwara temple: commons.Wikipedia.org