Buddhist Art in Andhra up to the Fourth Century

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BUDDHIST ART IN ANDHRA UP TO THE FOURTH CENTURY Andhra Pradesh has one of the longest and richest traditions of Buddhist art, with its reliefs in white limestone representing a distinctive sculptural and religious tradition. The principal sites in Andhra are Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Goli, Gummididurru, Jaggayyapeta, Bhattiprolu, Ghantasala, and Chandavaram. Within each site, sculptures are made in sets with matching borders for decorating individual stupas, some small, some quite large. Each of the sites are satellites of Amaravati, which through its long tradition and many surviving works can document each of the more peripheral styles. It is probable that Amaravati trained a majority of Andhra sculptors. Toward the last phase of the sculptural tradition, artists shifted to other sites, principally Nagarjunakonda and Goli. Andhra sculpture is important in its own right, and it is equally important for the stylistic influence it had on Buddhist art throughout Southeast Asia and even in East Asia.

Buddhism had already come to Andhra Pradesh by Mauryan times, but the second and third centuries a.d. brought a florescence of Buddhist activity. A rising mercantile community brought a great deal of wealth into Andhra, which in significant part resulted from trade with the Roman Empire. This is attested to by numerous Andhran finds of Roman coins and some Roman works of art. It is probable that even a broader range of foreign works of art were known to Andhra artisans than we can ascertain from extant finds. Indian stupa decoration had then reached a high point, and this, combined with new ideas gleaned from Roman imports and knowledge of foreign techniques, produced monuments and stone carvings of unsurpassed beauty.

Second-century patronage of stupa construction coincided with Satavahana rule in Andhra. The Satavahanas were succeeded in the early part of the third century by the Ikshvakus, who ruled through the early part of the fourth century. The bulk of the patronage at Amaravati was by the Buddhist nuns, monks, and laity, while the women of the Ikshvaku royal house, whose husbands were actually Hindus, were active donors to the Buddhist faith at Nagarjunakonda and hoped to attain their own Nirvāṇa through their good works. A final phase of the tradition, extending into the fourth century, may be seen at Goli, a site about which little is known but which has produced fine narrative reliefs.

The Early Andhra Tradition

A four-sided fragmentary pillar, an early work belonging to the second or first century b.c., illustrates scenes from the life of the Buddha. They are labeled, just as in Bharhut, leaving no doubt as to their identification. One side of the pillar illustrates the events that took place in the last three months of the Buddha's life, from his stay at Vaishali to his parinirvāna (final attainment of enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, after which he will not be reborn) at Kushinagara. It is done in an unusual form of continuous narrative, reading from bottom to top. The carving of the relief is exceedingly shallow. Another scene on the same pillar takes place at Dhanyakataka, the ancient name for Amaravati. Amaravati did not have a place in the biography of the Buddha. Nevertheless, the pillar may have something to do with the founding of the stupa there, an event that was given sanctity by placing it near the scenes from the life of the Blessed One.

Another significant early monument is the stupa at Jaggayyapeta, even though it is known from only a few surviving fragments. It must have been extremely important, as it stands on top of a hill and could probably have been seen from a great distance. A stately relief of the Chakravartin (Universal Monarch) with his seven jewels (wheel, elephant, horse, gem, treasurer, wife, prime minister) is the first and finest example of the many Chakravartin representations developed in Andhra. The relief is extremely shallow and the figures unusually tall and slender, features often considered characteristic of the early phase. It is possible, however, that they represented an actual physiological type who lived in the region. The composition uses hieratic proportions so that the seven jewels, even the elephant, are much smaller than the king. The awkward feet of the monarch show no knowledge of perspective, as is common in early phases of Indian narrative.

The Mature Phase Represented by Amaravati

Most of the sculpture that survives from the Great Stupa at Amaravati, one of the most magnificent stupas of ancient India, was made during the second and third centuries a.d. Amaravati was excavated many times, and a large number of reliefs are preserved in the British Museum, the Madras Government Museum, and the Archaeological Museum at Amaravati. These, along with drawings made by early excavators, have enabled us to reconstruct the structure.

Around the entire Amaravati drum (161.7 ft., or 49.3 m, in diameter) was a series of slabs depicting various types of stupas that were then in current use. An example currently in the Madras Government Museum has been one of the sources for reconstructing Amaravati itself. Four projections, known as ayaka platforms, projected from the drum, with each projection bearing five pillars. These are unique to Andhra Pradesh and certainly indicate a change in stupa ritual. Springing from the drum was a huge dome with a series of decorated slabs about 11 feet (3.4 m) high.

The entire stupa compound was set apart from the secular world by the 9-foot (2.7 m)-tall railing, enclosing the pradakshina (circumambulation) path. The railing was decorated with enormous lotuses on the outside and crowned by a stone coping. The inside of the railing had magnificent narrative reliefs, often placed in lotus roundel or in surrounding areas. As a worshiper performed pradakshina, he was encased between two states of the Buddha's being. On his left are the many events in the present and former lives of the Buddha, issuing forth from lotuses, the symbol of the Buddha's birth. This is contrasted on the right by the stupa, surrounded at its base by numerous stupas, and simple reliefs of the major events in the life of the Buddha on the dome slabs, emphasizing the goal of Nirvāṇa. Consequently, while the reliefs of the stupa itself clearly culminate in the Buddha's final goal, the relief panels on the railing are extremely sensuous, reflecting courtly life.

The dome and drum slabs at Amaravati are in low relief on a flat ground, a technique descended from the earlier Andhra tradition. The railing shows much more variety. In one group of reliefs, the ground is not flat, but is carved in several distinct planes. This strikingly innovative technique lasted only for a brief time, and was probably confined to only one or two sculptors. However, it makes Amaravati unique. Multiplane relief was then abandoned for the traditional mode, only sometimes showing remnants of the multiplane system.

One of the finest examples of the multiplane relief is the Presentation of Rahula on a railing crossbar. In it, the Buddha's son Rahula is being presented to his father to ask for his inheritance. His father is represented by an empty throne with a flaming pillar behind it and a footstool with an impression of the Buddha's feet upon it, common symbols used to represent the Blessed One. Although the pillar and feet are abstract symbols, the throne is naturalistically represented in an approximate single point perspective, with its vanishing point somewhere at the top of the pillar. The perspectival illusion is enhanced by the fact that the back of the throne is at the deepest level of the picture surface. Although not a fully coherent space, the composition is well ordered, for it is anchored by an inverted "v" (or a wedge) created by the central empty throne of the composition, the surrounding figures overlapping and remaining calmly in place. We are reminded that such formulas were used in the classical paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and it is possible that the artist was trying to reproduce a painting technique by actually carving into the stone, just as was done many centuries later in the Italian Renaissance. There are many variants of this compositional formula throughout the railing.

We know that Amaravati artists were aware of Roman art, for a small Buddhist stone relief panel from Amaravati, showing a woman in classical dress with Indian ankle bangles, was clearly copied with modification from a Roman import. These high points of Amaravati sculpture are almost an anomaly, as later sculptors seem to have lost their sense of depth, and have reverted to single plane compositions, with elongated figures stretched to their limits, but clearly inherited from Jaggayyapeta.

The Final Phase of Andhra Buddhist Art at Nagarjunakonda and Goli

The final phase is marked by the sculptural art of Nagarjunakonda, the capital of the Ikshvakus, with its greatest period of production belonging to the latter part of the third century a.d. It culminates during the fourth century at the site of Goli village. Nagarjunakonda (ancient Vijayapuri) was submerged by the construction of the much-needed Nagarjunasagar Dam. The sculptures in the valley were salvaged and brought to an island museum, which also contains a model of the submerged site. While several of the architectural monuments were reconstructed on the island and on the surrounding hills, others only survive as small models in the museum. In contrast to the Amaravati stupa, the Great Stupa at Nagarjunakonda was only sparsely decorated. However, the stupas in the monastic compounds were decorated fully. There were no railings around the Nagarjunakonda stupas, although they had drum and dome slabs. The most interesting of the sculptures were long low friezes on the ayaka platforms that protruded from the drums, illustrating current and former lives of the Buddha. These ayaka beams were symbolic substitutes for railings, thus belonging to the world of saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death. Each individual panel was separated by pilasters, and further separated from each other by coquettish mithuna couples, many of them illustrating Sanskrit poetry. These couples appear at the beginnings of a long tradition of mithuna couples used in Indian temple architecture. Magnificent female bracket figures cap the ends. In the current example, with scenes from the Buddha's life, the scenes read from right to left.

While multiplane carving and western perspective are absent in Nagarjunakonda sculptures, a battle scene whose function on the stupa is unexplained is clearly a reverse copy of a Roman battle scene belonging to the time of Trajan (a.d.2nd century), now on the Arch of Constantine. While we know of Roman coins found at Nagarjunakonda, and a stadium using bricks of a standardized Roman size, further research is still needed to explain the presence of this composition and its inexplicable subject.

Perhaps the most beautiful panel from Nagarjunakonda reflects a knowledge of Sanskrit poetry, Canto X of the Saundarananda by Ashvaghosha, a first-century poem often illustrated in Andhra Pradesh from the second to the fourth centuries. The story concerns the conversion of the Buddha's half brother Nanda, who consequently rejects his bride Sundari. In a quirky detail, the Buddha and Nanda are seen flying up to heaven to inspect the celestial maidens.

This same theme remains popular in Goli village, whose sculpture represents the last major phase of the Andhra Buddhist tradition, extending it into the fourth century. Goli is also known for its ayaka panels. In the Goli variant of the story we see Nanda in the grove of Indra staring at the beautiful Apsaras. While the Nagarjunakonda and Goli panels emphasize slightly different episodes of the Saundarananda, the Goli artist was clearly conversant with the Nagarjunakonda version. However, the architectural pilasters used as dividing scenes are here almost balloonlike, losing their rigid sense as dividers. The multiplane carving is now a thing of the past, and the shallow relief with elongated figures of the early Andhra tradition has reasserted itself in the final phase of Andhra Buddhist art.

Elizabeth Rosen Stone


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Buddhist Art in Andhra up to the Fourth Century

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Buddhist Art in Andhra up to the Fourth Century