Varaahi breastplate

South Karnataka, India, 18th century
Copper alloy
Height 33 cm

The breastplate called Molakattu in Tulu is an intriguing element of the ritual paraphernalia of Bhutaradhane. While commonly used for a wide variety of female spirits such as Varaahi believed to have derived from the Tantric Sapta Matrika cult, or the complementary rain spirit, Malrayee and the mother goddess, Ullalthi. It is also used in the worship of the androgynous spirit, Jumadi who is shown wearing both a breastplate such as this and a fierce mustachioed mask.

The entire plate has been cast in high relief on a single sheet with no visible joints. The most common motif, that of the serpent’s hood is seen emerging vividly at the shoulders here, as if separating away from the body of the plate. The large hoods have a crescent moon incised in a crude fashion within. Both the circle and the crescent in conjunction are important symbols of the bhuta tradition, representing the sun and the moon and are therefore often engraved on ritual material as well as the spirit shrines. But when seen singularly, the crescent is more common. The shoulders usually have a hook within the design so as to enable the spirit medium to wear this plate, which can often be extremely heavy. There is a very basic outline of what appears to be a pendant possibly in the shape of a betel leaf on a chain around the neck. The naga appears again in a much smaller size, as a single row of repeating hoods atop a simple curled outline of a body with projecting tips in a decorative pattern bordering the entire plate. The hoods have been enlivened with roughly incised outlines and curliques. This border is set within a subtler band of raised dots. The most conspicuous element are the uplifted globular breasts, modeled with protuberant nipples both of which are emphasised by the use of simple raised concentric bands. In most breastplates, older as well as contemporary, the nipples are often deliberately outlined through a design element or the use of expensive metals like gold. There is a rudimentary narrowing at the waist, which serves to accentuate the curve of the rounded belly and brings attention to the carefully carved hollow of the navel, which can sometimes have a floral design with a jewel inset. The slightly curving belly is a design element common to the art of the subcontinent suggesting the in drawn breath of the life force or the prana. The ripe curve of the belly, the full breast with the distinct nipple combine in the narrative of this bhuta to suggest the fecund aspect of the feminine body, a possible reason for its prominence within the goddess figures of the bhuta pantheon. Ullalthi has been worshipped in coastal Karnataka for at least five centuries according to historical evidence and Varaahi gained in prominence around the same time either in association with the Saivaite influence prevalent in the region including the esoteric cults such as the Nath panthis or possibly as some scholars have suggested, after the advent of Vaisnaivism in the thirteenth century.

Private collection, USA, 1960s.

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