Sculpture and Bronze Images from Kashmir

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SCULPTURE AND BRONZE IMAGES FROM KASHMIR The ancient kingdom of Kashmir has come to be recognized as the center of a major regional tradition in the history of South Asian art, whose links and influence spread throughout the entire western Himalayan region, as well as to parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan in the post-Gupta and early medieval period. Few material traces of this ancient heritage remain today, which is so well documented by Kalhana in his twelfth-century chronicle of Kashmir, the Rajatarangini, since most of its monuments were destroyed during the Muslim conversions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Initially known from the sumptuous Buddhist bronzes preserved in Tibetan monasteries that came on the international art market in the 1960s and 1970s, following political upheaval in Tibet, the importance and antiquity of the style have been gradually realized through the study of the disparate collection of stone sculpture, much of it fragmentary, preserved in the Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar, and the relief work of such ruined monuments as Martand and Avantipur elsewhere in the valley. However, documentation prior to the seventh century is hampered by the lack of dated as well as representative material.

Formative Period

The early phase

The earliest evidence of an autonomous Kashmir style lies in a small group of Brahmanical sculptures from Bijbihara, in the south of the valley. They are all carved in the round from gray chlorite, and are notable for their static poses, linear modeling, and squarish faces. Some are of miniature scale, a feature that continues into later styles. Their ornamentation is simple, and the hair is usually bound up in a double-looped topknot. Designated as the early phase of the formative period, it dates from the first half of the fifth century and beyond, during the reign of the Kidarites. Though this is a high point of Gupta art elsewhere in north India—the Udaiyagiri cave sculptures are dated to the beginning of this period—here the influence is late Gandhara Buddhist art, in modeling, ornament, and dress, reflecting the still-flourishing state of that tradition as well as continuity with past centuries.

The most impressive example is the large six-armed Kumara standing with his vahana (an animal or bird that served as the mount or vehicle of the deity), the peacock. While the massive frame and arrangement of neck ornaments closely resemble those of a Gandharan bodhisattva figure, the lower garment reproduces that of a Brahman depicted in that style, while technical features such as the forked string folds and the zigzag and linen folds of the dhoti can be traced directly to the stucco sculpture of Jaulian and Mohra Moradu at Taxila. A Sassanian influence is evident in the corrugated form of the ribbons of the diadem. Two distinguishing masculine features of the formative period are the short single-stranded sacred thread and the garland, formed of overlapping flowers, that clings tightly to the thighs and reaches the knees, both of which are seen on the Kumara. These two accoutrements, though modified in future styles, are almost invariably depicted on Brahmanical and Buddhist deities in Kashmir. Three Mother Goddesses survive from this period, all somewhat stout and wooden in modeling, and clad in Hellenistic garments comprising a short chiton, an ankle-length lower garment, and a himation, of which one finds an almost exact counterpoint on a panel of figures on Stupa A15 at Jaulian.

Around the middle of the fifth century, Gupta features begin to appear in the form of regalia and jewelry, including the ubiquitous annular ear ornament, which is found on the later of the three female figures and on the detached head of a male figure, probably Vishnu, which also has a crown with a large central polygonal panel of Gupta influence. Only a single Buddhist example is known to survive from this period, a headless seated Buddha carved in relief, its robe pleated asymmetrically in ribbed folds, which was found at Baramula at the western entrance to the valley.

The later phase

Sculptures of the later phase of the formative period, carved from both gray chlorite and limestone, of which there are many examples from Bijbihara and Baramula, are notable for a predominantly Gupta influence. This is most evident in the increased volume of the body and limbs, and in the rounded faces and large almond-shaped eyes. The use of the short sacred thread, distinctive floral garland, and simple jewelry continues from the previous phase, but while the feminine attire is still Hellenistic, the masculine lower garment now more closely resembles the Gupta form, clinging tightly to the rounded thighs and tied with a plain belt, the long loose ends falling down the thigh. Images of Shiva retain the double-looped topknot, whereas the Vishnu crown is now of turreted form, derived from depictions of the busts of kings on Sassanian coinage, with a row of corkscrew curls, a Gupta feature, showing along the brow. These eclectic influences were gradually assimilated in the second half of the fifth century and early sixth, at a time when Gandharan art was in sharp decline through lack of patronage, and this phase appears to have reached its zenith around a.d. 525, when the Hephthalite king Mihirakula ruled the kingdom. The Hephthalites, or White Hunas, had earlier defeated the Guptas in their heartland of Malwa, and were probably responsible for the introduction of several Gupta stylistic features to the northwest.

The most important example of the phase, which was found at Fattehgarh, near Baramula, is an addorsed Maheshvara, a form of Shiva, accompanied by his vehicle, the humped bull, in which the placid central Mahadeva head is framed by those of Bhairava and Uma. This iconographical form, in which the reverse figure is Shiva's faithful attendant Nandin, is described as Bhuteshvara in ancient Kashmirian texts. Although earlier examples may yet come to light, it is the first sculpture to combine two features that later become a hallmark of Brahmanical sculptures in the mature Kashmir style, namely, the frequent portrayal of the deity with three lateral heads, and the use of personified weapons in the form of diminutive side attendants. While the former feature has a long earlier history in ancient Gandhara, the depiction of ayudhapurushas is commonly found in Gupta Vaishnava sculpture of the fifth and sixth centuries, including a rock-cut example at Udaiyagiri in Malwa.

The Pandrethan Period: Post-Gupta Influence

The next major stage of development marks the assimilation of post-Gupta influence in the Pandrethan group of sculptures, which probably dates from the second quarter of the seventh century, in the reign of the first Karkota king, Durlabha Vardhana. Most are displayed in the museum in Srinagar. Carved in high relief in large scale from gray limestone, they are distinguished by their exaggerated poses, vigorous modeling and ornamentation, and a new repertoire of dress. Though there are links to the previous style, which seems to have gradually died out, the form and decoration of these sculptures signal an abrupt transition with the past, and they are now in most respects prototypical of the Classical style. A notable feature is the complex detailing of the edges of garments, which was further refined in the following period. The corpus comprises a large group of Buddhist sculpture, much of it fragmentary, which was excavated in 1915 from the site of two stupas and a vihara (monastic residence) near the village of Pandrethan (a contracted form of Puranadhishthana, meaning the "old capital"), whence the name of the style derives, and a group of twenty Brahmanical sculptures accidentally discovered in 1926 in the adjacent area of Badamibagh. These comprise Shaivite deities, mostly depictions of Maheshvara, and a group of Mother Goddesses, many in a dancing pose, reflecting a North Indian post-Gupta development that dates from as early as the beginning of the seventh century.

Leaving aside representations of the Buddha, there is little difference between male or female deities of either denomination in dress and ornamentation. The male dhoti now covers the left thigh to the knee, while the outer fold falls to the right ankle, its edge detailed with pleated or plain zigzag folds, which becomes the subsequent standard. The sacred thread, now double-stranded, falls well below the waist, and subsequently never rises above it again. The masculine ornaments consist of a wide, boldly patterned necklace or torque, ear pendants, wide armbands, and a single thick bangle, while the headdress is of tall pentagonal form crowned by a diadem of three triangular leaves with scrolling foliate design and beading around a central gemstone. The centrally parted ribbed hair bulges out beneath the fillet in semicircular bunches around a compartment of pairs of lateral ribs, in what has been described as a "window effect," one of the most distinguishing features of the style, which continues for many centuries, excluding images of Vishnu. The female anatomy now more closely follows the usual Indian form, with pronounced breasts, narrow waist, and large hips, while the standard attire comprises a short-sleeved and tightly waisted long tunic that resembles a modern Punjabi qamis, and a diaphanous lower garment falling to the ankles, usually combined with a long floating scarf that covers the hair behind. The jewelry consists of a pair of short necklaces, pendant ear ornaments, wide bangle, and diadem, while the wavy hair is centrally parted beneath the fillet. Depictions of the Buddha are necessarily conservative, but rather than Gandharan influence, Mathura appears to be the main source for the design of the clinging robe, which is invariably asymmetrically pleated in string folds, the neckline treated in several variations. A large standing image already displays a twist to the pelvis, which is partly retracted, and the slightly protruding stomach, so characteristic of the Classical standing Buddha.

The various changes were brought about by a complex combination of borrowing and innovation produced by local and non-Kashmirian artists working together to produce a new dynastic style of sculpture. Artists were almost certainly brought from nearby Simhapura (the Salt Range in modern Pakistan), known to have fallen under the rule of Kashmir in the early seventh century, where there is firm evidence of an earlier Gupta tradition, and where post-Gupta currents must have also reached. Many of the new features can be linked to post-Gupta developments elsewhere in North India, particularly the predominantly Buddhist workshops of Sarnath and Nalanda, from where there was selective borrowing, especially of the window effect and the form of the dhoti. A North Indian influence is most notably lacking in the upper garment of the female figure, since elsewhere in North India in this period the female deity is usually bare-breasted. It is at this stage in its history that Kashmir began to project political power well beyond its borders. One of the effects is a powerful artistic influence on the sculpture of Afghanistan and adjacent territory, which continued until the fall of the Hindu Shahi kingdom to the Yaminids in 1026.

The Classical Style

The Pandrethan features were refined in the Classical Karkota style, which absorbed further influences from mainstream Indian art to produce a rich, vibrant, and varied range of expression. Several of the recorded religious buildings of this period can be identified, the most important being the complex of royal buildings at Parihasapura, the court capital of King Lalitaditya (r. 724–761), the ancient kingdom's most illustrious ruler. Excavations at the site of the stupa built there by his minister Cankuna have yielded several Buddha and Atlas-like yaksha figures, which is the earliest datable group from the valley. The surviving sculpture divides into two groups: examples in stone, much of it now carved from green chlorite, terra-cotta, and bronze, mostly Brahmanical, which have been found in Kashmir itself, or its close vicinity; and examples in bronze and ivory, almost exclusively Buddhist, which have been conserved in Tibetan monasteries. Examples of both groups are now in private and public collections worldwide. Among them are several with dedicatory inscriptions in proto-Sharada script, some of which bear the names of the Potala Shahis of Bolur (the region of Gilgit and Baltistan in present-day Pakistan), which has led some scholars to talk of a local school based there.

The dates are in the cyclical Laukika era, of which the century must be inferred, and their interpretation has created disagreement between epigraphists and art historians in the past. However, new evidence demonstrates that the fully developed Buddha type, and thus the entire Classical style, emerged in the seventh century, and not in the eighth century, near the time of Lalitaditya, as previously thought. This takes the form of an inscription in metrical Sanskrit on the pedestal of a standing Buddha in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which records its dedication during the reign of a King Durlabha. There were two King Durlabhas, who ruled consecutively for almost a century, Durlabhavardhana (r. 626–662) and Durlabhavaka (r. 662–712), and either could have been the king of the inscription. Fortunately, the wide range can be greatly modified by taking into account the date of the Pandrethan sculptures, which cannot be much earlier than the second quarter of the seventh century, and that of a seated Buddha in Classical style in the Norton Simon Museum, which can now be dated with certainty to 696. Until further evidence appears, the most likely date for the emergence of the Classical style is from between 650 and 680. A slow decline appears to have begun toward the end of the eighth century.

The characteristic and almost invariable features of a Buddha in Classical style, and the standard facial type of the period, can be seen on the standing figure in a private collection, which closely resembles the Potala example, as well as a standing Buddha from Cankuna's stupa. The face is oval with arched eyebrows, an urna, large almond-shaped eyes, long nose, compact smiling lips, and small round chin. In profile, the nose and the brow form a continuous line, while the lower half of the face recedes. The robe is symmetrically pleated on the torso, the arms, and the sides, but plain on the legs, and falls from the wrists in two parallel parts, the edges rippled on the proper right, and detailed in a complex design of pleated zigzag folds on the left. A triangular-shaped panel formed on the left shoulder has the same complex pattern, while another on the right is patterned with concentric parallel folds. When the robe covers the left shoulder alone, a single triangular-shaped panel is formed. In the case of a seated image, the same rules apply, apart from the lower part of the garment, where the treatment shows a similar set pattern. Here the Buddha stands on the stamen of a multilayered lotus, which rests on a molded pedestal, as in many examples of this period. However, a wide variety of pedestals is found for the seated Buddha (most frequently depicted in teaching mode or earth-touching mode), ranging from an openwork-type with elaborate cushion, supported by columns, lions and leogrypths (a composite, mythical animal) and a seated yaksha; to an even more complex design of a rocky landscape, animals, and deities.

The most outstanding example of Kashmirian bronze Buddhist sculpture is undoubtedly the elaborate composition of the Buddha seated on a stylized mountain with attendants, now in the Norton Simon collection. Many of the more elaborate compositions such as this would have had aureoles, some depicting the various events in the life of the Buddha. A Maradharshana stone group with the Buddha assailed by his daughter Mara and a pair of demons, closely modeled on a Sarnath original, found just outside the confines of the valley and now in the National Museum, New Delhi, has an inscription and date in the year 5, equivalent to a.d. 729. This sculpture, with the Buddha seated on an hourglass pedestal on a rocky podium accompanied by a diminutive Earth Goddess and a mysterious kneeling male figure plucking a stringed instrument, has many of the features of some of the elaborate bronze groups inscribed with the names of the Patola Shahi rulers, which date from around this time; this demonstrates that the full repertoire of design of these so-called Gilgit bronzes was known in Kashmir, and that the sculptures were almost certainly cast by Kashmirian artists.

Many stone sculptures of Brahmanical subjects in Classical style have survived in the valley, mostly fragmentary, of which many are three-headed, a feature peculiar to Kashmir. These were either carved with an integral stepped and molded pedestal, or mounted separately on such a pedestal, usually spouted to the right to drain off libations. These were placed in shrines or set in the niches of the peristyle that enclosed the courtyard of most temples. The most outstanding sculpture in the style is undoubtedly the majestic, richly ornamented three-headed Vishnu, holding his attributes, the lotus and the conch, which must date from the seventh century. It is now in the museum in Srinagar. This iconographical form, incorporating the naturalistically carved lion and boar heads of the avatāras Narasimha and Varaha, but lacking its ayudhapurusas, is often referred to as Vaikuntha Vishnu, though there is ambiguity concerning its exact identification. All the new features of the style can be seen in this image, including the distinctive facial type described above. The pose is now a gentle contraposto, with one foot placed slightly forward, which is common to all depictions of Brahmanical deities with the exception of Surya, and the Buddhist deities Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara. The dhoti is of standard form, and the complex pattern of pleated zigzag folds seen on the Buddha's robe appear on the open edge of the garment, with a characteristic fan-shaped collection of folds below the belt. The multistranded sacred thread now falls to the thigh, and the floral garland is of imbricated leaf pattern design. Among the sumptuous jewelry is a diadem formed of three horned crescents containing foliate designs, a more elaborate alternative to the triangular form, which survives from the previous style.

The Utpala Style

The style underwent a brief revival in the mid-ninth century during the reign of Avantivarman (r. 855–883), as can be seen in the sculptures of the Vishnu and Shiva temples at Avantipura, which are carved from a highly polished black marble. However, though they show new vigor, much stylization has crept in, and the facial features are hardened. The earlier complex patterning of the open edge of the lower garment and the foliate design of the crown is crudely interpreted, and the headdress is out of proportion to the head. Two iconographical changes are evident: the sacred thread is now triple-stranded, and a reverse Kapila (angry) head is added to three-headed images of Vishnu. Sculptures from the Shiva temples erected at Patan by his successor Samkaravarman (r. 883–902) partly reflect influence from the Pala art of northeastern India, and are the last signs of external borrowing. The most important sculpture of the ninth century and one of the largest known castings of the medieval period in India is the almost 6.5 ft. (2-meter) high openwork aureole for a Vishnu image found at Divsar, which contains avatāras of Vishnu and other deities set in scrolling vine roundels. This period is one of pronounced influence on the sculpture of Chamba and adjacent hill regions, and the famous bronze four-headed Vishnu from the Hari Rai temple in Chamba town is closely modeled on the Kashmir type.

The tenth century was a time of political turbulence, economic decline, and increasing isolation, from which the kingdom never really recovered. A silver inlaid bronze of a six-armed Avalokiteshvara group, dated in the reign of Queen Didda in 989, shows a marked decline in the style. Though local demand declined, there was a ready market for stock images of the Buddha from Tibet in the following two centuries. A group of stone sculptures found at Verinag, attributable to the twelfth century, demonstrates that the style had greatly degenerated by that time, but little remains in Kashmir of the intervening period.

John Siudmak

See alsoBronzes: South Indian ; Guptan Period Art


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