Yoni shaped Ritual Vessel

Bengal or Bihar, Eastern India
Pala, 11th-12th centuries
Length: 19 cm; Width: 8.5 cm; Height: 4 cm

This vessel crafted in bronze is a ritual vessel used during religious ceremonies. It has a conical receptacle for fluids or unguents, with a beaded border all around it. It has a long, spout like projection emerging from one side which is flanked by a leaf to its left and right.  The other side of the vessel is embellished with a floriated kirtimukha or face of glory, which is an auspicious motif and a common feature of Pala art.

The length of the spout-like projection hints at the vessel possibly being used for lustration. The shape of the vessel bears a striking resemblance to later tantric vessels, which were shaped like a yoni (the female sexual organ)particularly one called kusi or argha, used to pour libations during rituals. The yoni, symbol for feminine energy appears in various forms in the rituals and practices of tantra. It acquires a special significance as it represents the Ultimate Reality, which manifests itself in its female principle, Prakriti. According to tantra, all manifestation results from a fundamental dualism of a male and a female principle: Purusha (cosmic consciousness) and Prakriti (the cosmic force of nature).

While the Palas who ruled in east India (Bihar, West Bengal and what is now Bangladesh) from the 8th to the 12th centuries were royal patrons of Buddhism, Hinduism also flourished during the period of their rule. It is likely that this vessel came from a tantric context, perhaps a Shaiva/ Shakta one. There is a very visible patina on the vessel, which indicates that it was in regular use.

Similar vessels have been found in the subsequent centuries from regions as diverse as Rajasthan and Bengal. This vessel is an antecedent to the later tantric ritual vessels, and at this stage its shape and form is still evolving to eventually culminate into the more familiar form of the later centuries.


Provenance: Private collection, UK, 1950s-2014.

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