A female ascetic surrounded by cobras, personifying a musical mode (Asavari Ragini)

The seated woman in this painting, surrounded by writhing cobras, is the personification of a feminine musical mode (ragini). She wears her hair in a topknot, an indication of her ascetic nature. In India, the practice of asceticism was believed to bestow certain gifts on the practitioner, suggested in this painting by the cobras that surround the female ascetic. Although they are fearsome creatures, the cobras are charmed by the ragini’s ascetic powers and will not harm her. Paintings of musical modes often vary from the descriptions given in texts, yet the source of this image of Asavari Ragini—which is encountered in numerous Indian paintings—can be partially traced to a text that describes the woman as follows:

“On the summit of the sandalwood mount, robed in the peacock’s plumes, with a splendid necklace strung with pearls and ivory, drawing to herself from the sandalwood tree the serpent—the proud one wears it as a bracelet, her body ablaze with dark splendor.” —from The Mirror of Music (Sangita Darpana), 1400-1600, by Damodara Misra; trans. by Klaus Ebeling in Ragamala Paintings

Maitreya, the Buddha of the future

Maitreya, whose name translates as “the Friendly One,” is the Buddha of the future. He can be identified by a stupa in his crown, a composite symbol that in the Tibetan tradition is thought to embody the essence of the mind of the Buddha. Maitreya’s hands are in the gesture of preaching, and two lotuses at shoulder level support his special symbolic implements: a “wheel of the doctrine” on his right shoulder and a vase on his left. The wheel symbolizes the sacred teachings, while the vase contains the elixir of immortality; those who imbibe the elixir transcend birth and death and overcome all misery.

The Tibetan inscription on the base reads: Homage to the Sublime Lord Maitreya! Please hold me, dPal-‘Bar [the donor], always in your loving care. May it be auspicious for all!

The image’s proportion and ornaments reflect the Pala style of eastern India, which heavily influenced the art of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.