The ancient city of Pompeii, probably founded in the seventh or sixth century BC by the Osci or Oscans, an ancient race of central Italy, was destroyed by a deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The disaster killed its inhabitants instantly and buried everything under million tons of volcanic ash and pumice. Pompeii remained lost and forgotten for more than 1,500 years until its initial discovery in 1599. However, when a group of explorers rediscovered the site almost after 150 years in 1748, they were amazed to find that, everything that was buried under the ash, was perfectly preserved for centuries, since devoid of air and moisture.
During a later excavation in 1938, an Italian scholar Amedeo Maiuri found amidst the numerous artefacts and relics unearthed at Pompeii, an exquisite, but damaged figurine, resembling Lakshmi, an Indian goddess of feminine beauty and fertility.
Named as the Pompeii Lakshmi, the ancient ivory statuette depicted a woman with her exposed bosoms and genital, with only a girdle round her waist and flanked by two small children. She was adorned with heavy jewellery like necklace, bangles and an elaborate head ornament. The two female figures on he either side, holding cosmetic containers, probably represent her attendants. As the statuette has a hole bored down from the top of her head, it is considered that the sculpture was originally the handle of a mirror, created for the use of Indian women. The associated scholars in Pompeii were aware that Laksmi is regarded as one of the most popular goddesses of Hindu mythology and is known as the goddess of wealth. As she is a favourite deity of the Indian women and is worshipped in almost every house, it was immediately concluded that the figurine represents Laksmi. However, it could not be vouched, as the statuette was found in many pieces and was carefully reassembled by the conservators.
Although named Pompeii Lakshmi, many scholars believe that the statuette, found in a wooden chest containing sundry items in a private house in Pompeii, represents not Lakshmi, as the figurine lacks many attributes of the goddess, like the lotus or the owl. According to them, the nudity of the statuette signifies that the figurine is more likely to be a Yakshi, a female a nature spirit, in the Hindu, Buddhist in Jain mythical folklore that represents fertility.
There is evidence that there were active trade routes between India and the Roman Empire since the time of Emperor Nero and in all probability, the Pompeii Lakshmi arrived the city of Pompeii during the time of Augustus Caesar. During the excavation around the Casa dei Quattro Stili in Pompeii, the figurine was recovered in October 1938, from a house next to a large Dye House. It suggests that indigo could be one of the commodities traded between India and Rome in ancient times.
However, the origin of the figurine is still shrouded in mystery. Some of the early researchers believed that the statuette was built in Mathura, in India, but the theory was finally discarded. According to the generally accepted view, the sculpture is believed to be originated in the Bhokardan area in Maharashtra and was shipped from the port of Barigaza, which is modern Bharuch or Broach in Gujrat and was once part of the Satavahana territory. The view is supported by the fact that female figures similar to the Pompeii Lakshmi were later discovered in the area.
However, the base of the Pompeii Lakshmi bears an inscription in Kharosthi and that suggests that she might have originated from Gandhara in ancient India, now in Pakistan or any other northwestern regions of ancient India or Afghanistan, or at least passed through those areas. The statuette also has some significant similarities to the Begram Ivories from the Kushana period, found in Begram in Afghanistan between 1936 and 1940.
Pompeii Lakshmi, recovered from the ruins of Pompeii, is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, known as the Secret Museum or Gabinetto Segreto, held in separate galleries in the collection of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum.