Indologist confirms maize in ancient sculptures
   Author:   Hu McCulloch 
   Date:   1998/10/13
   Forums:   sci.archaeology, soc.culture.indian, bionet.general
Indologist and Ethnobotanist Shakti M. Gupta of Delhi University
confirms the presence of maize and at least five other New World
plants in pre-Columbian temple sculptures in India in her new book,
_Plants in Indian Temple Art_ (B.R. Publishing Corp, Delhi, 1996.
ISBN 81-7018-883-0).

Maize had previously been reported in several Hoysala temples by
Carl Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker ("Maize Ears Sculptured in
12th and 13th Century AD India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian
Diffusion," _Economic Botany_ vol. 43, 1989, pp. 164-180).
Photos of a few of these sculptures are on-line at 

Vocal critics of Johannessen and Parker have argued that it was
their lack of understanding of the intricacies of Hindu
iconography that prevented them from realizing that what is
depicted in these sculptures is in fact not maize, but rather
something else - variously muktaphala (lit. "pearl-fruit", an
imaginary fruit made of pearls), some exotic tropical fruit,
or even, by one account, the Kalpavriksha, a mythical
wish-granting tree (!).

Gupta's earlier books, including _Plant Myths and Traditions
in India_ (1971), _Vishnu and His Incarnations_ (1974), _Legends
around Shiva_ (1979), and _Festivals, Fairs, and Fasts of India_
(1990), establish her as an authority on Indian mythology and,
in particular, the role of plants in Indian mythology.
Now, she has provided a definitive text on some 70 varieties
of plants depicted in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temple art in India.

Prof. Gupta writes, "Different varieties of the corn cob
[Zea mays Linn.] are extensively sculpted but only on the
Hindu and Jain temples of Karnataka.  Various deities are shown
as carrying a corn cob in their hands as on the Chenna Kesava
temple, Belur.  The straight rows of the corn grains can be
easily identified.  In the Lakshmi Narasimha temple, Nuggehalli,
the eight-armed dancing Vishnu in his female form of Mohini is
holding a corn cob in one of her left hands and the other hands
hold the usual emblems of Vishnu.  .... In the Trikuta basti,
Mukhamandapa, Sravanbelgola, Karnataka, a 12th century A.D.
sculpture of Ambika Kushmandini sitting on a lotus seat under a
canopy of mangoes holds in her left hand a corn cob.  Plate 223
depicting a Nayika holding a corn cob in her left hand is from
Nuggehalli, Karnataka.

"Temples where the sculptures of corn cobs are found are
dated 12-13th century A.D.  The common belief [!] is that
maize originated in Mexico and came to India by the 11th-12th
century.  By the time these temples were constructed, maize
would have been fairly common in India." (p. 176).

Gupta does not stop with maize, but goes on to identify
sunflower, pineapple, cashew, custard apple and monstera,
all new world species, in pre-Columbian temple art.

She finds Sunflower (Helianthus annuus Linn.), a native of
Central and South America, in the Rani Gumpha cave, Udaigiri,
2nd century B.C. (p. 30).  Johannessen independently reports
sunflower in his article, "Pre-Columbian American Sunflower and
Maize Images in Indian Temples: Evidence of Contact between
Civilizations in India and America" (in Davis Bitton, ed.,
_Mormons, Scripture and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of
John L. Sorenson_, FARMS, Provo UT, 1998).

Pineapple (Ananas cosmosus [Linn.] Merrill), a plant indigenous
to Brazil, is, according to Gupta, "clearly depicted" in Udayagiri
cave temple, Madhya Pradesh, circa 5th century A.D. (p. 18).
Cashew (Anacardium occidentale Linn.), a native of Brazil, is
depicted in a Bharhut stupa balustrade relief, circa 2nd century
B.C. (p. 17). Gupta finds custard apple (Annona Squamosa Linn.)
sculpted at Bharhut, circa 2nd century B.C., and at Kakatiya,
Karnataka, 12th century A.D. (pp. 19-20).  According to the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, this plant is native to the New World
tropics and Florida.  And finally, monstera (Monstera deliciosa
Liebm.), a large splitleaf evergreen climber native to Central
America, appears in Hindu and Jain temple in Gujarat and Rajastan
from the 11th to 13th centuries (pp. 108-9).

According to Gupta, the chili pepper (Capsicum annuum Linn.) is
mentioned in the Siva and Varmana Puranas, circa 6-8th centuries
A.D.  Unfortunately she does not give page references or indicate
the term used for it there, and the only temple carving she
has found of it dates to the 17th century A.D.  This very
important native of Mexico and Latin America deserves further

The naga lingham, the flower of the South American and West
Indian cannonball tree (Couroupita guaianensis Aubl.), was,
according to Gupta, "cultivated in India from very early times."
In her timeframe, this would mean very early pre-Columbian times.
She notes that it figures into the worship of Shiva at several
temples.  Nevertheless, the only sculpture of it she shows again
dates from the 17th century A.D.  This plant also merits further

Gupta's book contains a wealth of evidence for pre-Columbian
contacts between the New World and the Old, despite the fact
that she is not particularly interested in, or even aware of,
the possibility.  She does repeatedly reject reports that
such-and-such plant was introduced by the Portuguese in the
16th century, but in her conclusion suggests that perhaps plants
such as the pineapple and custard apple "were indigenous to India."
Despite the "common belief" (evidently Johannessen and
Parker's) that maize was brought to India from Mexico prior
to the construction of the Hoysala temples, she reports that
"Maize is also believed to have an Indian origin..."  It is
my understanding that this is botanically impossible, although
it is quite conceivable that maize was present in the subcontinent
for many centuries before the Hoysala dynasty, and that distinctively
Asian varieties were developed early on.

Despite Gupta's confirmation of maize in the Hoysala sculptures
Johannessen and Parker discuss, she argues that the similar
but distinctly squatter objects that appear in earlier
sculptures are not maize but rather Citron (Citrus medica
var. Limonum of Watt.) or Lemon (Citrus limon [Linn.]),
both Old World plants (p. 53).  Perhaps so, but it is
noteworthy that the "citron" she says is held by a Yaksha
in an 8th century A.D. sculpture from Aihole has kernels
aligned in maize-like rows.  A citron looks like a large
lemon with a deeply puckered skin, but the puckering is
random, and does not simulate maize kernels as in her very
clear photograph.

Unfortunately, Gupta makes no mention of Johannessen and
Parker or their predecessors, or of the lively debate that
surrounds the "maize ears".  She also makes no mention of
"muktaphala," or "pearl-fruit," the Sanskrit name said to
be associated with these objects.  My own hunch is that
this was actually a name that was used for maize.

Gupta's book is a little hard to find in the United States.
I had to have the Ohio State University libraries order
it specially, and at present it has one of only two copies
in the entire Ohiolink university library consortium.
At $110 it is a little pricey, but it is informative,
attractive and well done.  The photos are good but almost
all black and white.  All the illustrations are well annotated.

-- Hu McCulloch
   Econ Dept.
   Ohio State University

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