When Mt Vesuvius famously entombed Pompeii in volcanic ash in 79 CE, it buried a mystery that would stir a debate among Indian scholars more than 2,000 years later. In the early 20th century, amid the ruins of this ancient Roman city, archaeologists unearthed an exquisite figurine that resembled the Indian Goddess Lakshmi.
The statuette, standing 25 cm high and carved from ivory, is referred to as ‘Pompeii Lakshmi’ and was found in a wooden chest along with sundry objects in a private home in Pompeii. What was a Hindu goddess, or her likeness, doing so far away from India, in this wealthy Mediterranean city?
Housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli) today, Pompeii Lakshmi is only one of myriad treasures that have been excavated in Pompeii, including the well-preserved remains of humans as they tried to flee their doomed city. Frozen in time, this ancient city gives us a unique glimpse into Roman life during that period.
Although called Pompeii Lakshmi, the name could be a misnomer as historians believe the statuette represents, not Lakshmi but a yakshi, a tree spirit or a mythical being in Indian folklore. The figurine, they argue, lacks many of the attributes of Lakshmi, like the lotus, elephants or owl. The way it was found and how it got there is a fascinating story with many aspects still unexplained.
Archaeologists discovered the extraordinary figurine in October 1938, when they were excavating the ruins around the Casa dei Quattro Stili in Pompeii. It was recovered from a house next to a large dye house, suggesting that indigo could be one of the commodities traded between Rome and India in ancient times.
Pompeii Lakshmi is nude except for a girdle around her waist and heavy jewellery. She is wearing heavy necklaces, bangles, an elaborate head ornament and elaborate coiffure. Two female figures on either side of her probably depict attendants. The statuette was found in many pieces and was painstakingly reassembled by archaeologists and conservators.
The figure’s origin is still unknown. Some early researchers believed it had been fashioned in Mathura but that theory has been discarded today. The most widely accepted source of the sculpture is believed to be Bhokardan in Maharashtra (modern-day Jalna), which was a part of the Satavahana territory. This is supported by the fact that female figures similar to Pompeii Lakshmi were discovered by archaeologists there.
However, this is not a foregone conclusion. The base of Pompeii Lakshmi bears a Kharosthi inscription, which suggests that it could have travelled from Gandhara in ancient Indian (present-day Pakistan). The figurine also bears some similarities to the Begram Ivories from the Kushana period, which were found in Begram, Afghanistan, between 1936 and 1940.
The Lakshmi most likely reached Pompeii through the Roman trade with the Satavahanas between the 1st century BCE- 1st Century CE. Interestingly a small sculpture of the Greek Sea God Poseidon, wine jugs and a plaque depicting Perseus and Andromeda have been found by archaeologists at sites associated with the Satavahanas further cementing the interpretation that besides the trade there was cultural exchange as well.
Places like Pratishthana, Tagara and Naneghat were important conduits for the Satavahana trade with Romans. Indo-Roman trade had reached its zenith during the Satavahana period and these finds are a testament to it.
It is quite possible that Pompeii Lakshmi made her way by sea to the markets of ancient Rome, and from there into the home where she was found. Since the archaeological evidence associated with her is so scant, we may never know for sure.