Sculpture: Kushana

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Sculpture: Kushana

Central Asian Kushana warriors invaded India in the first century of the common era, galloping over the Northwest passes, across the Indus and all of Punjab and Sind, on to Delhi and Banaras (Varanasi). The mightiest Kushana monarch was Kanishka, whose prosperous era probably began in a.d. 78. Kanishka converted to Buddhism and was certainly the most illustrious Kushana king; under his patronage two great schools of sculptural art flourished, one in Mathura, the other around Gandhara.

Mathura School

Situated on the right bank of the Yamuna River, southwest of Delhi and northwest of Agra, Mathura has long been a sacred place of pilgrimage in the cultural history of India. Believed to have been the birthplace of Lord Krishna, it is a premier center of ancient Hindu worship. Buddhist texts, moreover, including the Divyavadana, Lalitavistara, and Anguttaranikaya, refer to the Buddha's visits to Mathura; and the twenty-second Tīrthānkara of Jainism, Neminatha, the cousin-brother of Lord Krishna, often visited there as well. The region around Mathura was also sacred to devotees of Shiva; antiquities of Shaivism and Mother Goddess Shaktism, as well as remains of yakshas, nagas and other folk deities, are found there.

For the development of Indian sculptural art, the Kushana period may rightly be called the golden age of Mathura. Although the town had functioned as a center of art from earlier Mauryan times, as supported by the tall image from Parkham and its inscription, Mathura emerged as a premier center in the Kushana era. The products of this great manufactory have been recovered in Taxila (Pakistan) in the west, Chandraketugarh (West Bengal) and Mahasthan (Bangladesh) in the east, and Shravasti and Kasia (Uttar Pradesh) in the south. The chance discovery of a stone railing at Sanghol, between Punjab's Chandigarh and Ludhiana in 1885 also indicates that Mathura's art products were exported over long distances.

The Mathura style of sculptural art in the Kushana period had the following distinguishing characteristics: use of spotted red sandstone; the emergence and multiplication of a plethora of images connected with Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jain, and folk sects; a progression from symbolism to anthropomorphism; provision of acolytes with deities; use of the lion pedestal (simhasana); depiction of feminine beauty with delicacy, charm, and inviting gestures; introduction of statues of ruling kings; useful Brahmi epigraphs on the pedestals; development of a large number of auspicious and decorative motifs, making India's religious architecture much more attractive; a rich variety of flora and fauna; assimilation of and exchange with Gandhara art; and the pursuit of a policy of eclecticism. Some of the stone masons of the Kushana period have been identified by name, including Rama, Sanghadeva, Jotisa, Dasa, Shivarakshita, Singha, Nayasa, Dehayu, Vishnu, and Jayakula.

Buddhist Images

The most remarkable contribution of the Mathura school of sculpture is the evolution and development of the image of the Buddha. Both Mathura and Gandhara schools are credited with the origin of the Buddha image, but some of the basic elements seem to favor the Mathura school. These elements are: the appearance of a yogi, the concept of chakravartin (universal monarch), the lotus seat, the meditating posture, the urna (upraised dot of "wisdom" between the eyebrows), and the ushnisha (protuberance over the Buddha's head). Already existing Hindu yaksha statues had served as a prototype, it seems, of the early Buddha images, which share the yakshas' volume, heaviness, corpulence, and frontal orientation. Early Buddhist texts, Nidanakatha and Majjhimanikaya, note a close resemblance between the yaksha and images of later bodhisattvas.

Several rudimentary representations may be dated to the pre-Kushana era: the bodhisattva figure in the State Museum, Lucknow (B.12b); a slab carved with the scene of conversation between the Buddha and Shuddhodana, also in the Lucknow Museum (J.531); a small Buddha on an architrave along with Buddhist symbols in the Mathura Museum (M.3); and the slab with the Buddha and lokapalas (H.12). These experiments paved the way, however, to shape the model Buddha/bodhisattva, as demonstrated by examples in the Mathura Museum (A.1, A.2, 76.32) and the Lucknow Museum (B.1, B.18, 66.48) and in Kolkata's Indian Museum (25.524). Stylistically, these belong to the Kanishka phase, that is, the last quarter of the first century a.d.

Seated Buddha

The most notable features of the seated Buddha are: its high relief, uncarved back, and sharp and clear details; a plain halo with a scalloped border; bodhi tree foliage at the top; upper corners occupied by celestials hovering in the air with a wreath; acolytes with flywhisks on each side; the Buddha's shaven head with a topknot like a snail shell (kaparda), hence called kapardin; the right hand raised in abhaya mudra (protection) and the left hand resting on the knee, or sometimes clenched, suggesting the commanding attitude befitting a chakravartin (universal monarch); the urna; wide open almond-shaped eyes, small earlobes, and a somewhat smiling expression; an upper garment covering only the left shoulder; upturned soles in a cross-legged yogic posture, carved with auspicious motifs; and the seat shaped like an altar, with two lions sitting in profile and a central one facing forward. Probably to avoid confrontation with iconoclastic Buddhist sectarians of Hinayana (the "Lesser Vehicle"), the image, though shaped as the Buddha, was often recorded as a bodhisattva ("he who has the essence of enlightenment").

Standing Buddha

The standing Buddha/bodhisattva images of the same period have similar characteristics in the upper section; the lower half shows the left hand held akimbo, a waistband fastening the lower garment terminating in a double knot, sometimes a bunch of flowers or a turban between the feet, suggesting the superiority of the enlightenment of Buddhahood over kingship. The important citations are to be found in the Mathura Museum (39.2798 and 71.105), the Allahabad Museum (69), the Sarnath Museum (B.1), the State Museum of Lucknow (B.73), and Guimet Museum in Paris (17489). The Allahabad Museum figure is dated in the second Kushana era (a.d. 80), and the Sarnath Museum statue is inscribed with the year three (a.d. 81). Beside Gautama Buddha, the figures of other Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") Buddhas, such as Dipankara, Kashyapa, Amitabha, and Maitreya, also appear.

The Mathura school came in contact with the Gandharas School in the post-Kushana era, and new traits emerged on the Buddhist icons as a result of interaction: the drapery covering both shoulders (ubhayamsika sanghati) with thick pleats; Vajrapani with his thunderbolt as an attendant to the Buddha; other postures, such as dhyana (meditation); and a kusha grass cushion on the seat. With the passage of time, the drapery becomes thicker, with schematic shutter-type pleats, the lions on pedestal face forward and the central lion disappears or is replaced by a meditating bodhisattva or some object of worship. The nimbus gradually becomes elaborate with added bands. By the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century a.d., the Gandharan impact recedes with the disintegration of the Kushana power, and the simpler, earlier traits revive.

Jain Figures

The Jain icons first appeared with the Ayagapatas (tablets of homage) profusely carved with symbols and motifs and sometimes with a tiny figure of a Jina Tirthankara ("ford-crosser" divinity). In the Kushana period, independent Jinas (Tīrthānkaras) were carved and at times four were sculpted in one block of pillar called a sarvatobhadra or sarvatomangala ("auspicious in all four heavenly directions"). The Tīrthānkaras are naked, either in meditating seated pose (dhyanastha) or standing in penance (danda or kayotsarga), and each bears a mark of Shrivatsa on the chest. In this period, Adinatha (the first Jina) is recognized by the hair falling on shoulders, Neminatha (the twenty-second Jina) with his contemporary Hindu divinities Balarama and Krishna, and Parshvanatha or Suparshvanatha, seen through a snake canopy. A number of Jain images bear Brahmi epigraphs in Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit, furnishing useful historic information about the Jain community in the Kushana age. The carved stone railings around the Jain and Buddhist stupas and chaityas were the most attractive parts of those monuments, and the Mathura railings are full of wonderful details, including charming females from Bhuteshwar and Kankali.

Brahmanical and Folk Deities and Royal Portraits

Brahmanical and folk figures emerged in multiple forms during the Kushana period. Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Karttikeya, Agni, Divine Mothers, Kubera, yakshas, and nagas were the most popular deities. Vishnu was generally sculpted as Vasudeva Krishna, with two arms, four arms, or eight arms. Composite forms depict Balarama and other figures emerging from a central Vasudeva icon (Mathura Museum, 13.392–95). One stela illustrates a scene of the flooded Yamuna reaching Gokula (Mathura Museum, 17.1344). Balarama is seen with a snake hood over his head, right hand raised in the abhaya mudra and the left hand holding a cup. Sometimes, he holds a lion-shaped plow, suggesting that he was worshiped as the divinity of agriculture. Surya (the "sun god") is depicted in royal Kushana garb, wearing stitched drapery and boots and driving a chariot.

Shiva is seen in his symbolic lingam as well as in human form. His one, two, or four faces project from the lingam. In complete human form, he is shown with matted hair and erect phallus (urdhvalingin). The Arddhanarishvara (androgynous composite form with Pārvatī) was also shaped in the Kushana period. Karttikeya, Shiva's war-god son, is seen as a young man with a lance (Mathura Museum, 42.2949). His brother Ganesha appears as a nude elephant-headed dwarf in the late or post-Kushana period (Mathura Museum, 15.758).

Among the Mother Goddess deities, Mahishasuramardini ("strangling the buffalo demon") was quite popular, generally shown with her powerful four arms. Other goddesses from this era are Revati, Shashthi, Naigameshi (goat-headed), Pārvatī, Lakshmī, Gajalakshmi, and Ekanamsa (sister of Balarama and Krishna). The composite image of Shakti (female energy) is also seen.

Almost life-size statues of Kushana kings were recovered from a place known as Mat (10 mi [16 km] north of Mathura) where a Devakula (gallery of the statues of the Kushana dynasty) was erected. The sculptures, bearing alien features, represent Wema Kadphises, Kanishka, and Chashtana, and may suggest the indulgence of foreign sculptors.

The folk cults are represented by yakshas and nagas. As a result of German archaeological excavations in the region, some beautiful sculptures of a Naga shrine of the Kushana period were recovered from Sonkh in the Mathura district. Yakshas had by then become dwarfish in shape, suggesting a source of amusement rather than divine veneration.

R. C. Sharma


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