Nāri-latā-vẹla: when women grow on trees
These doors from the Embekke Devalaya temple in Daulagala, near Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka provide a beautiful example of nāri-latā-vẹla: a mythological vine growing in the Himalayas which produces women ‘in all wise of perfect beauty, glorious in grace’. As Coomaraswamy (1956, p. 92-3) notes, this very common Kandyan design has echoes in contemporary Siamese designs. The origin of the nāri-latā-vẹla is given in a passage of the Kathāvastu Prakaraṇa which warns of the temptations of lust through the story of a monk seduced away from achievement of dhyāna by the sight of the beautiful woman-vine.
The design also appears on some of the items in the Casey Wood collection:
Kandyan craftsmen were not alone in dreaming that women might grow on trees. Coomaraswamy (1956, p. 94) compares the nāri-latā-vẹla to the medieval European stories of Alexander’s encounter with the flower maidens, who leaped out of the flowers growing in a certain wood to ravage him and his knights before expiring a few months later. This story itself is thought to be a version of a Greek tale, with a possible Oriental origin. Another similar tale occurs in the twelfth century Kitāb al-jughrāfiya (Book of Geography) of the Morrocan Sufi Ibn-Tufayl, which describes the island of Wāqwāq in the China Sea, where trees bear fruit of beautiful young women, suspended by their hair, who utter the cry ‘wāqwāq’ when falling to the ground (see Avner Ben-Zaken, Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).