The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 29, 2001
'Art and Soul

The Mountain Goddess of Japan
B.N. Goswamy

HERE, in our own land, mountains have long been held as sacred, for it is on them that the gods dwell. Consider the ancient hymns, the moving stories that are woven around their presence, and of course all those names, drenched in tradition, stretching across myth and fact— Kailash, Meru, Mandara, Malayachala, Himalaya. But clearly there are parallels elsewhere. And when I came upon a mention, recently, of the existence of a mountain cult in Japan, alive and flourishing today, I was fascinated. The mountain around which the cult has developed is the Fuji, whose majestic, cone-like crater can be seen from long distances, looming over the landscape, and serving in some ways as an icon of the land itself. And its sacredness is emphasised by the pilgrimages that are undertaken each year for climbing to its top. These pilgrimages are organised on June 30, each year, when the mountain is declared open for climbing, and thus for receiving homage.

Presiding over the mountain is a goddess (the idea is not too unfamiliar to us here), whose image is enshrined in popular imagination. Konohana No Sakuyahime is her name, meaning "the princess flowering like a tree blossom". And she looks every inch a princess in the images one sees of her: tall and sinuous she stands, dressed in magnificent flowing robes, head covered by an intricate crown-like hat, holding in one hand a spherical object, like a fruit, and in the other a long flowering branch of a tree from which streamers hang, swaying gently in the wind. The aspect of the goddess is benign, and gentle. There is perhaps even a touch of sadness in the face, reflective of the legend that is associated with her.

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Taoism and the arts of China
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Some fakes and a scandal
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A collector’s intimate world
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Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
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Difficult business of authentication
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Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
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Nizami: Mystic; Epic Poet
December 3, 2000

An image of Goddess Konohana
An image of Goddess Konohana

Konohana, according to the legend which is contained in texts dating back to the 8th century, was the daughter of an earthly mountain god who was given in marriage to Prince Ninigi-No-Mikori, scion of an illustrious family. The princess is said to have conceived a child on her wedding night itself, something that made her husband suspect his bride of having had a pre-marital affair. Faced with this accusation, and greatly angered by it, the princess, it is said, swore to prove her innocence. To this end, she shut herself up in a cave, closed its mouth with clay, and lit a fire inside, declaring that if she and the child that was to be born to her were to emerge from the cave unscathed, it should be seen as proof of her innocence. This did happen, and the princess's ordeal by fire and smoke ended happily. She, in fact , lived to bear her husband another two children, and came with time to occupy the position of a divine figure, revered by men and approached by countless childless women who sought her blessings. Around her figure grew elaborate rituals, many of them of the shamanistic kind, and shrines where she was worshipped. There are still a large number of them, known as Sengen shrines, that started bestowing upon devotees amulets that ensure easy childbirth. Konohana No Sakuyahime's name became a household word.

The history of pilgrimages to the top of the Fuji mountain, which involved a religious 'ascent', is not without its vicissitudes. When a monk made this ascent for the first time, in the 12th century, the idea caught on. But when large groups of 'devotees— men of the working classes, and peasants and traders and artisans—began to organise themselves for this purpose, the powers that be in post-medieval Japan felt threatened, and even banned, for many centuries , these congregations. But these Fuji-ko's— the word has come to mean an association—managed to survive, and have been organising, from the mid-19th century, when the ban was lifted, these yearly 'ascents'. At first, men alone were entitled to go on these pilgrimages, but gradually women—inspired, curiously, by an Englishwoman, wife of a British ambassador in the 19th century—began to join in. Today, there is intense activity in each Fuji-ko, as the time for the ascent approaches: meetings are held on full moon day, a leader for the ascent is chosen, rituals are clearly decided upon, and so on. Buddhist and Shinto and shamanistic practices come together, in a curious mix. Men and women prepare themselves in mind and body for ascending the mountain in their pristine white robes, the ascent taking anything from six to eight days on foot. The pilgrims often spend the night near the crater, so as to be able to take in the blessed sight of sunrise over the summit the next morning. It is all very structured, very Japanese.

And those who cannot ascend the mountain? For them, there are shrines to be set up at home. With exquisite taste, an altar is raised, decorated with flowers and plants, festooned with streamers, made fragrant with incense. Close to it are placed skillfully plaited snakes made with rice straw. And, above everything, towers a painted image of the goddess with the Fuji at her feet.

Sounds familiar? I am certain it does.

Seeing with reverence

"Thirtysix times and a hundred times, the painter limned the mountain", the saying goes in Japan, but he never climbed it. The mountain referred to is of course the Fuji, and the painter the great Hokusai. The fascination of the sacred mountain lay for him, as he said, in the dazzling beauty of its pure cone. As many as 36 views of the mountain did he paint and print—the figure is given by some as 46—but always without bringing in any human presence in them. It is as if anything extraneous would defile it, render it impure.

And what did Ota Dokan, who first erected the fortress that was later to turn into the imperial palace in Tokyo, write about 'Fuji-san' in the 15th century? "The pine-grove extends to my hut, the sea is close by, and the high peak of Fuji reaches to my very eaves".