The Great Stupa at Sanchi is said to contain the relics of the Buddha himself. The form of the stupa was a development of the ancient practice of erecting a hemispherical mound over the remains of the dead. According to tradition the Buddha said that his remains should be interred in a stupa built at a crossroads and thus easily accessible to all.
Like a crossroads, four large toranas (gateways) face the four cardinal directions around the stupa, serving as entrances to a circular processional walkway. Worshippers would enter through these walkways and walk round the stupa. The sandstone beams across the gateways were held up by bracket figures like this, representing female tree spirits called yakshis. In an ancient (pre-Buddhist) Indian fertility rite, beautiful young maidens were said to usher in spring by kicking a tree trunk while breaking off a branch, so as to arouse it into blossoming. The type of tree spirit shown here, known as Shalabhanjika Yakshi (literally, the yakshi who is breaking a branch of the Shala tree) echoes this tradition. The sculpture of these early Buddhist sites includes many such pre-Buddhist symbols. Here, the Shalabhanjika Yakshi serves as a fertility symbol associated with the spirit of the tree and earth to ensure the auspiciousness of the site where the stupa is built.
In keeping with the style of sculpture of the early Satavahana dynasty (about first century BC - third century AD), the yakshi has a bare torso with a single pearl necklace falling between her breasts. A girdle holds up a diaphanous lower garment across her broad hips. She also wears heavy anklets and bracelets, and her hair is tied into elaborate plaits.