Guptan Period Art

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GUPTAN PERIOD ART The Gupta dynasty governed much of northern India for about two hundred years after its founding by Chandragupta I in a.d. 320. During this period, sculpture in stone and terra-cotta rose to high aesthetic levels, and the earliest Hindu stone temples were created. It was a period of not only outstanding artistic accomplishments but also the creation of some of India's most honored poetic compositions, including the plays and poetry of the famed Kālidāsa. We have the testimony of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who visited India during this time, describing the social, cultural, and political customs and institutions, which were, by our contemporary standards, unusually enlightened. Modern historians have used such exemplary characteristics to propose the Guptan period as a "Golden Age," a time when Indian art and culture reached its apogee, creating a classical standard against which all Indian traditions can be compared. While these claims are not unfounded, it is important to remember that knowledge of the Guptan dynasty and the art of the period was lost early in ancient India, and was only rediscovered by nineteenth-century scholars and antiquarians, who used the Guptan period for various nationalist and political purposes.

The Guptan kings themselves, although they ultimately controlled much of northern India, were not major patrons of sculpture and architecture. There is only one temple site known today that was actually patronized by the Guptas: Bhitari, in modern Uttar Pradesh, which has an inscription by Skandagupta (reigned c. 455–467), the last of the major Guptan kings. The temple remains at Bhitari are brick. Terra-cotta and stone were used to decorate the temples, and small pieces found at the site of what was once a large stone Vishnu image are probably part of the Vishnu sculpture that Skandagupta's inscription mentions he had made.

While the Guptan kings cannot be connected to any temple or sculptural patronage other than Bhitari, they were producers of lavish gold coins whose tiny images, including portraits of the kings, rank among the most accomplished artistic creations of the period. The portraits of the kings show them performing a variety of tasks that are part of the vocabulary of kingship, including sacrificing by placing incense into a censer and playing the lyre to indicate the king's musical and intellectual accomplishments. A coin type of Samudragupta (reigned a.d. 350–375) shows a horse standing before a sacrificial post ( yūpa) with the Sanskrit inscription reading: "The king of kings who performed the horse sacrifice wins heaven, having protected the earth." The coin commemorates Samudragupta's performance of the vedic horse sacrifice (ashvamedha) that would make him a universal king (cakravartin), while on the reverse is an image of the queen holding a flywhisk.

Scholars assume that during the Guptan period many Hindu temples in brick, like the remains of those at Bhitari, were built throughout northern India, particularly in the Gangetic Plain. Only one fairly complete example remains today, however, that at Bhitargaon. The assumption is that the other temples have been over time dismantled and their bricks reused. The only secure evidence for their existence, however, are the various finds of loose terra-cotta reliefs that turn up and must once have decorated brick structures. Many of these terra-cotta reliefs are of the highest quality and are a major artistic accomplishment. The plastic quality of terra-cotta worked well for Guptan artists, who favored a fluid and unencumbered sculptural modeling.

It was also during the Guptan period that Hindu temples began to be made of stone, both temples that were rock-cut caves as well as temples built from stone blocks. Again, these temples are found mostly in relatively peripheral geographical areas, in an arc of what must have been forested land around the edge of the Gangetic Plain and outside the Guptan heartland, mostly in what is today Madhya Pradesh. These temples and caves are all small and structurally diverse, indicating their early date and novelty. The absence of early stone temples elsewhere in northern India remains unexplained.

The earliest Hindu cave temples are located at Udayagiri near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. There are twenty rock-cut caves, all very simple, with a single cell and one doorway with a porch. There are indications that some of the caves had structures built in front as well, probably of wood. Two inscriptions at the site name Chandragupta II who, while not the patron, came to the site to celebrate a battle victory around a.d. 401. Because of the inscription, we can date caves 5 and 6 to around a.d. 400. The facade of cave 6 has a series of images carved in relief. The importance of these dated images cannot be overstated, as it is the first time we have Hindu images set into a context. While Hindu icons date from around the first century b.c., almost all are from Mathura and are loose finds, so that we have little idea how they were originally intended to be organized.

The image series at cave 6, starting from the far left side, begins with the elephant-headed Gaṇesha. Across the front (from the left) is Vishnu, then two door guardians on each side of the door to the cell, then a second Vishnu, and two images of the goddess Durgāas killer of the Buffalo Demon. On the right side are two shallow niches that once housed now very ruined sets of the Seven Mothers (sapta mātṛkās). Finally, flanking the top of the door to the cell are two females, personifications of the sacred rivers, Gaṇgā and Yamunā. The cell itself is today empty, but it would have held a Shiva liṅga. Thus, the little cave has an elaborated and surprisingly complicated iconography that involves Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and Shakta deities, and such imagery as paired door guardians and river goddesses that have remained standard at Hindu temples even today.

One of the most famous and frequently illustrated sculptures from ancient India is that of the Boar avatār of Vishnu (Varāha) carved in high relief in the niche next to cave 6. The figure has a boar head and human body, and is shown in triumph having rescued the earth, here personified as a woman holding onto the Boar's tusk, from the watery flood of the ocean. While the story of the rescue comes from a number of texts, the enormous tableau (the Boar is 12 feet [3.6 m] tall), with detailed and numerous figures carved across the back and sides of the niche, has been interpreted by scholars as having an allegorical meaning related to Chandragupta II's victory in conquering most of northern India for the Guptas. It was under Chandragupta II's reign (c. 375–415) that the Guptas reached the height of their political power, with Chandragupta removing the last of the resisting political powers and consolidating the geography of his kingdom. This included the area around modern Allahabad, where the two rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, join together. This is one of the most sacred areas to the Hindus, and these two rivers are depicted on both sides of the Boar niche, coming together to form one river and flowing into the ocean, represented by the wavy lines at the bottom of the relief. This is the ocean from which the earth has been rescued, but it is also a pun on the name of Chandragupta's father, Samudragupta, as Samudra means "ocean"; the imagery implies that now the Guptas control India from ocean to ocean across northern India.

The earliest Hindu temples built in stone date to slightly later than the Udayagiri cave 6, that is, the first quarter of the fifth century, and like the cave temple consist of a simple cell with a porch. Some of these fifth-and sixth-century temples retain part of what were towered roofs, but none is complete. Scholars are divided on whether some of the earliest temples, such as Sanchi Temple 17, were actually flat-roofed, without a tower, but the tower very quickly became standard on all Hindu temples, as seen on temples today as well.

The Vishnu Temple at Deogarh, of the early sixth century, is one of the best preserved of the Guptan Hindu temples. While the single-cell shrine is small (inside about 9 feet square), it has an exquisitely carved doorway and three large relief panels on each of the other three sides. There are still sections of the tower remaining as well. The shrine is set on a square, raised plinth of earth, enclosed with low stone walls with directional stairs and small, now ruined, shrines at each of the four corners. The three relief panels are each masterpieces of Guptan period relief sculpture. Each panel depicts a form of Vishnu—as the savior of the entrapped elephant, as an ascetic, and as preserver of the universe while lying on the cosmic snake. The concept of the Hindu deity in the temple shrine manifesting himself on the walls of the temple in the four directions and in multiple forms for the worshiper, who circumambulates the outside of the temple in worship, is seen in its nascent form at Deogarh.

Jain and Buddhist Art of the Guptan Period

The Guptan kings were Hindus, but both Jainism and Buddhism were also important religions during the Guptan period, for which art and architecture were produced in great numbers. At many sites, for example at Mathura, all three religions existed together, with art being created in a shared style but depicting different gods and their stories. The focus of Buddhist worship was on the stupa, a relic mound that by the Guptan period was highly elaborated in hundreds of forms, materials, and sizes, and on the Buddha in human or anthropomorphic form. One of the most amazing sites in India is Ajanta, a rock-cut monastic site of some thirty caves that stands as one of the world's inspired artistic accomplishments and dates primarily from the second half of the fifth century.

The histories of Buddhist rock-cut architecture and that of the Hindu caves stand in stark contrast. We have seen the beginning of Hindu rock-cut architecture at Udayagiri with the simple cave 6 of about a.d. 400. By that date, the Buddhists had been making rock-cut caves for over five centuries, and were producing structures of elaborate complexity. The late appearance of Hindu architecture in stone versus that of the Buddhists is due in part to the Hindus' lack of the highly organized monastic structure of the Buddhists, which could plan, finance, and create enormous monastic complexes of stone with involved and extensive narrative reliefs. Hindus at that time worshiped their deities in local shrines, under trees, and in their homes, all of which did not call for temples and large icons.

When and where the anthropomorphic Buddha image was first created continues to be the focus of considerable research and debate. By the first century b.c., small images were being made, but it was the monumental images created at Mathura around a.d. 125 that were to be decisive for the form of the Buddha image in India. By the Guptan period, the Buddha image had a fairly consistent iconography: the robe of a monk, a cranial bump, and certain standard hand gestures. At Mathura, the Guptan-period Buddha retained much of the earlier monumental Buddha style, including the broad shoulders, large arms, and swelling chest. A new type of Buddha image appeared, however, at another site, that of Sarnath, the place near Varanasi on the Ganges River where the Buddha gave his First Sermon. The Sarnath Buddha image appeared in the second half of the fifth century, and was a radical departure from the Mathura type of Buddha image from which it was ultimately derived. Rather than the powerful and masculine Mathura Buddha, the Sarnath images were much slighter in build, with delicate facial features and narrow shoulders, their robes clinging tightly to their bodies without any indication of fabric folds. It is this new style of Buddha image that became popular, influencing images across India and ultimately in China and Southeast Asia as well.

The Vakataka Dynasty

The rock-cut monastery of Ajanta mentioned above, while created during the Guptan period, was not under the control of the Guptan dynasty. Ajanta was in an area controlled by the Vakataka dynasty. Scholars have long categorized the art of Ajanta, and indeed all art in northern India during the fourth to sixth centuries, as "Guptan art." It has only been since the mid-1990s that the full importance of the art done under the Vakatakas, who ruled more or less simultaneously with the Guptas and were at times related to them through marriage, has become clear, due to recent finds and excavations.

The Vakatakas were split into two branches. The eastern branch ruled the territory where Ajanta was built. A western branch, which ruled near modern Nagpur, patronized Hindu temples and art. Excavations and field research at sites such as Mandhal, Ramtek Hill, and Paunar have revealed archaeological and artistic material that is only just now being evaluated, but it is clear that our placement of this material within a Guptan stylistic tradition is not correct. The Hindu sculpture from Mandhal, for example, in its squat heavy forms and unusual iconography, has yet to be integrated into the art historical traditions of India as we know them today. Whether or not the Guptan period can be considered an artistic Golden Age, there remains plentiful material and scholarly rethinking for future art historians.

Robert Brown

See alsoAjanta ; Ashvamedha ; Guptan Empire ; Kālidāsa ; Sculpture: Buddhist ; Shiva and Shaivism ; Vishnu and Avatāras


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