India, Buddhist Art in
INDIA, BUDDHIST ART IN
Sometime around the fifth century b.c.e., the historical Buddha Śākyamuni encouraged his disciples to spread his teachings in all directions. Although Buddhism was thus established as a missionary religion, the earliest remaining artworks devoted to the Buddhist tradition date from the mid-third century b.c.e. After that time, however, Buddhist arts and teachings flourished together, propagating outward from their Indian home to the farthest points of Asia, until the advent of Muslim hegemony, when Buddhism virtually ceased on the Indian subcontinent. Today India is mainly of historical interest to scholars and art historians of Buddhism; to Buddhists, however, India is home to the most important pilgrimage sites. India is the land where Buddha Śākyamuni lived, taught, and died, as well as where the familiar and beloved arts and literature of Buddhism first developed. Indeed, much of the history of India's culture is only known through the accounts of travelers and pilgrims and through the arts and literature they brought home with them. Particularly important are the many Buddhist pilgrims from China—especially Faxian (ca. 337–418) in the late fourth century c.e. and Xuanzang (ca. 600–664) in the seventh century—and the countless merchants and monks who traveled along the Silk Road and to Southeast Asia.
The materials used for Buddhist arts in India range from precious metals to the cliffs that edge the Deccan plateau. Artworks made of more ephemeral materials, such as clay or wood, have not survived but were probably made in abundance starting in the second century b.c.e. The most prominent medium is stone relief sculpture, sometimes carved nearly in the round, along with the context of the sculptures—monumental reliquary mounds (stŪpas) and architecture in brick or stone. Although today most Indian Buddhist sculptures are found in museums, they once were part of stūpa railings, were arrayed in niches on the exterior walls of temples, or were placed on altars with other images. Free-standing sculptures were also important; bronze-casting achieved a high degree of perfection in south India and in Kashmir, where they inlaid the bronze with silver. Mural painting in dry-fresco was established early in India, culminating in the preserved works at AjaṆṬĀ in the fifth century c.e., but influencing later mural painting throughout Buddhist Asia. Manuscript illuminations and sacred writings on palm leaves were specialties in Pāla northeast India, providing models for the vast corpus of Himalayan
books. Ritual objects, usually made of metal alloys, were always in demand for Buddhist ceremonies and initiations.
The themes of the earliest Buddhist arts in India celebrate nature's abundance, ironically in Western eyes, around the stūpas that commemorate the Buddha's death. The flourishing forces of water, plant life, and animals and spirits are all evoked in the reliefs at Bhārhut and SĀÑcĪ. The motivation for this "iconography of abundance" has piqued the curiosity of many generations of art historians. When MahĀyĀna Buddhism arose in India, with its emphasis not on the humanity of the Buddha Śākyamuni but on his spiritual attainment, another irony was embodied by representing this ethereal spirit in physical form. Images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas became the focus of devotion and complicated meditations. The primacy and the very existence of bodhisattvas, beings whose only purpose is to devote their enlightened energies to the benefit of others, may have been the impetus for formulating images of the Great Persons (Mahapuruṣas) in the first century c.e.
Pillars and edicts of the Mauryan emperor Aśoka (mid-third centuryb.c.e.)
An apparent convert to Buddhism, Emperor AŚoka (r. ca. 268–232 b.c.e.) of the Mauryan period sponsored the first large-scale and most well-known Indian imagery. After witnessing the carnage at an excessively bloody battle in Orissa, it is said that Aśoka took up the Buddhist cause of nonviolence. Throughout his empire, at crossroads and places sacred to Buddhists, Aśoka had monolithic pillars engraved with political edicts and Buddhist precepts. Most of the messages are in the Brāhmī script, the earliest writing used in India. Only about thirty of the Mauryan-period columns remain. The capitals of the pillars are composite, with inverted lotus-petal bells, an abacus, and crowning animals. The pillars are made from one shaft of sandstone (monolithic) from thirty- to forty-feet high, sunk deep into the ground, and polished by the application of heat, which gives them a glassy and durable finish.
The modern flag of India includes the Aśokan lion capital as an emblem of the unification of India under one government during the Mauryan period. Its powerful silhouette of four addorsed lions once supported an enormous wheel that symbolized the Buddha's first sermon, the "turning of the Wheel of the Dharma" (dharmacakrapravartana), which took place near Sārnāth. The lions are carved in a highly abstract way reminiscent of the composite lion capitals of Achaemenid Persia, but all other features of these free-standing pillars are purely Indian. The four lions facing in four directions probably signify the sovereignty of both Aśoka, since the pillar was erected near the capital of his kingdom, and of the truths taught by the Buddha, whose clan, the Śākyas, used the lion as their emblem. Around the abacus are four small wheels alternating with naturalistically carved animals (lion, elephant, bull, horse), which have great significance to indigenous clan traditions. The lion is especially associated with royalty and power in India. The pillars themselves also signify the pan-Indian idea of the axis of the world (axis mundi) that links the cosmic waters below with the sun above. Floral motifs, such as the palmettes and rosettes sometimes found on the Aśokan capitals, are more familiar in distant Mediterranean regions, but their appearance in India can be explained by the trade relations of India with the West and by the incursion of Alexander the Great into the northwest provinces of India.
Stūpas and stone reliefs (second centuryb.c.e. to first century c.e.)
In addition to free-standing pillars, Aśoka had stūpas, or reliquary mounds, erected in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to commemorate the Buddha and to designate worship and teaching centers. According to legend, Aśoka opened up the original eight stūpas containing the Buddha's relics and redistributed them in eighty-four thousand simple burial mounds.
The earliest known monumental stūpa was erected at Bhārhut in Madhya Pradesh in about 100 to 80 b.c.e. Constructed in red sandstone, it consisted of a central burial mound, now lost, surrounded by elaborate railings (vedikā) with four gates (toraṇa) carved with reliefs. Most of the fragments from Bhārhut are on display at the Indian Museum in Calcutta. The reliefs emphasize the abundance of nature in their depictions of yakṢas and yakṣīs (male and female fertility spirits), lotuses, elephants, and composite water creatures. Medallions with vignettes of the Buddha's life, as well as stories of his previous births (jĀtaka), are carved in a low-relief style, often using continuous narration, with the same characters appearing more than once, in a shallow, almost two-dimensional space. The carvings accentuate geometric patterns, including elaborate tattoos on some of the figures.
The Buddha himself does not appear in any of these narratives. His presence is indicated by aniconic symbols, such as his footprints, an empty seat beneath the bodhi tree under which he became enlightened, the dharmacakra or Wheel of the Dharma that he set in motion, or a parasol over a horse with no rider to indicate that he left his princely home. Some consider these aniconic images to be representations of shrines or pilgrimage sites, and therefore not merely symbols of the Buddha's person. Images of the Buddha are not used until the Kushan period in the north and the late second century c.e. in south India.
The Great Stūpa at SĀÑcĪ, first erected during Aśoka's reign, was completed and elaborated around the beginning of the first century c.e. with railings, balustrades, and gates covered with narrative relief carvings. Reliefs of city scenes describe the sophisticated urban culture of ancient India. Probably because many of the relief panels were sponsored by a guild of ivory carvers, the scenes emulate the precise density of small-scale reliefs. The natural liveliness of these carvings shows a significant change from the geometric style used at Bhārhut. Impressive scenes abound on the elaborate gateways that narrate the life of the Buddha and some of the jātaka stories. Nature, demons, and mythical creatures are all portrayed with great imagination, utilizing a vast visual vocabulary culled from indigenous sources, as well as adaptations of Western composite creatures and plant life.
On the eastern Deccan, the broad central plateau of India, the Buddhist center at Amarāvatī (Andhra Pradesh, Śātavāhana period, second century c.e.) was the site of a large stūpa that was faced and surrounded by elegantly carved white-green limestone slabs. The stūpas themselves are gone, but many of the railings and facing slabs can be seen in Indian and Western museums. Many of the slabs reproduce in section the whole stūpa with its intricate railings and gateways. The narrative scenes are taken mainly from the life of the Buddha, although the Buddha image is still not shown. The style is naturalistic, as at Sāñcī, but uses more layering of figures to give a greater sense of depth. Figures are rounded, like those at Sāñcī, but the outlines are slightly elongated and nervous in their movements. Remains of temples and monastic dwellings have also been found at Amarāvatī and at the related sites of Ghaṇṭtaśālā, Jaggayyapeṭa, and later at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa (third century c.e.).
Stūpas and monastic centers were usually patronized by guilds and by individuals, both lay devotees and monks or nuns, not by royalty or wealthy merchants. This public interest aspect of stūpas is reflected in everyday scenes from the Buddha's life, usually depicted in the reliefs, rather than scenes of royal and godly figures in palace halls. This patronage may also have contributed to the prohibition against using Buddha images: Lay Buddhists may have felt that you should not represent in art a person who had entered nirvĀṆa, a tathĀgata (one who has gone), the name most often used to refer to the Buddha in the texts.
Rock-cut architecture (first centuryb.c.e. to second century c.e.)
Beginning in the first century b.c.e., rock-cut or cave sanctuaries and monasteries carefully imitated wooden structures of the day. In the centuries around the beginning of the common era the rock-cut worship hall (caitya) and monastery (vihāra) became established forms in northern and central India. The earliest site known is Bhājā (100 to 70 b.c.e., contemporary with Bhārhut) in Maharashtra, where a large caitya hall and many small monastic dwellings were excavated. Its imitation of wooden constructions includes the use of actual wood beams in the hall's barrel ceiling; wooden architectural sculpture and balconies once adorned the front. Other rock-cut sites, all found along the high escarpment in Maharashtra, are Pitalkhorā (also 100–70 b.c.e.), Bedsā (early first century c.e.), and Nāsik and Kānheri (both about 125–130 c.e.).
The largest caitya hall is at Kārlī, Maharashtra, carved out of a stone cliff in about 50 to 75 c.e. near Bombay. It has a navelike form, 125-feet in length including apse and colonnade, and has stone reliefs of a palatial facade; a free-standing lion-topped pillar marks the entrance. An enormous horseshoe-shaped window with a wooden lattice filters light into the hall, illuminating the monolithic stūpa at the apse-end of the hall. This window shape and lattice decoration characterizes Indian facades to this day. An elaborately sculpted veranda has high-relief elephants "supporting" the side walls and voluptuous couples on either side of the main door. Figures ride animals on the interior column capitals and the facade has multiple balconies decorated with reliefs of smiling people. Overall, Kārlī shows a sensuous environment equal to that created on Sāñcī's carved gateways in miniature, here on a large scale carved right out of the living rock.
The Buddha image: Mathurā and Gandhāra (Kushan period, first to third centuries c.e.)
The beginnings of figural sculpture of the Buddha in India is a controversial and intriguing study in the motives for image-making, as well as the development of both indigenous and adapted styles. Two sites—Mathurā, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, and the Gandhāra region in present-day Pakistan—sponsored parallel versions of Buddha images and narrative reliefs at least as early as the first century c.e. (some fragments may be from the first century b.c.e.). The Kushan rulers, under whom this new trend in Buddhist imagery arose, came from Central Asia and dominated the area from Bactria to the Gangetic plain. Buddhism was spreading actively along the Silk Road through Central Asia at this time, making Gandhāra a fertile site for trade in artworks in service of the faith. Mathurā, the Kushan southern capital, had long been an artistic center, and artists there also made images for the monastic centers that had spread throughout northern India.
The Mathurā images follow indigenous forms with geometric, full volumes and attributes signifying a spiritual being (called lakṣaṇa). The solid power of the Mathurā buddhas follow the prototype of the village yakṣas found so frequently around stūpas—nature
spirits standing apart from the everyday world. The Gandhāra images resemble Hellenistic figural and relief traditions first imported with Alexander the Great when he conquered the area in 327 b.c.e. The Gandhāra buddha looks like a perfect, sensuous human being—a nobleman wearing heavy monk's robes.
Narrative reliefs of the Buddha's life also flourished at this time, especially in the Gandhāra region, now freely using the figure of the Buddha in the scenes. The Gandhāra scenes are very like those found on Roman sarcophagi—set pieces in niches separated by Western-style columns and pediments. Reliefs from the third and fourth centuries at Amarāvatī in south India also began to include images of the Buddha.
Gupta period "classical" style (fourth to sixth centuries c.e.)
The disparate styles of Kushan Mathurā and Gandhāra blended into an eloquent compromise during the fifth-century c.e. hegemony of the famous Gupta clan. The Gupta "classical" style became the prototype for Buddha images throughout Asia. A sandstone image found at Sārnāth, the site of the Buddha's first sermon, exemplifies this style—sensuous human volumes combined with abstract religious symbolism. The ornamental finesse of this style was to be admired and imitated throughout South and Southeast Asia for centuries. It also provided the visual vocabulary for much of the religious art in Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan. Although in India the remaining Gupta period images are usually stone, metal-cast images were also commissioned and exported. A larger than life-size copper alloy sculpture weighing about one metric ton was found at Sultāngañj in Bihar.
The Guptas arose as the first major Indian dynasty since the Mauryas, but they maintained missionary and trade relationships with Central, Southeast, and East Asia. Although the rulers were themselves mostly Hindu, they sponsored a rich environment for the flourishing of a variety of art forms and dedications, from Hindu plays to Buddhist monuments. Mathurā continued to be a major artistic center, but Sārnāth arose as the leading innovator of the style. As the Buddha image became firmly established as the primary focus of Buddhist devotions, aniconic expressions of the religion, such as the stūpa, became less important in India in favor of temples to enshrine statues of Buddhist figures. During the fifth century, Gupta-style buddhas were placed at each of the gateways of the Great Stūpa at Sāñcī.
The multi-tiered MahĀbodhi temple tower at Bodh GayĀ in Bihar, the site where the Buddha reached enlightenment, was first built during the Gupta hegemony. A descendant of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat is enshrined there and the site remains a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists. The outer facets of the temple have enumerable niches for Gupta-style images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Miniature votive temples are placed around the main structure, intermingled with remains of earlier stūpa railings, shrines, and altars, providing important archaeological evidence of the development of pilgrimage site arts. At Bhārhut and Sāñcī there are clear reliefs showing what the earlier Bodh Gayā shrines looked like.
The classic Gupta proportions and spiritually charged detail appealed to patrons of Buddhist arts throughout India. Art and artists from Sārnāth were exported especially to the Deccan and southern India, as well as to Orissa and northeastern India. From there the style spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Art and artists from Mathurā, the northernmost center of the Gupta style, were exported north toward Kashmir and the Gandhāra region. From there the style spread through Central Asia along the silk routes into western China, where it ultimately influenced Buddhist arts of the Tang dynasty (618–907).
Painting and sculpture at Ajaṇṭā (fifth century c.e.) and related sites
New rock-cut architecture was excavated beginning in the fifth century, serving both Buddhist and Hindu worship needs. The best-known group of Buddhist caitya halls and vihāras is at Ajaṇṭā on the eastern Deccan (Maharashtra, latter half of the fifth century). Dry-fresco murals on many of the walls portray the previous lives (jātakas) of the Buddha, as well as Buddhist saints and divine beings. Figures seem to glow in the dark interior because of the use of brilliant color and white highlights. Although the images use courtly, sophisticated compositions, they evoke a strong spiritual presence. Remarkable for their rich modeling and palatial imagery, these paintings also provided models for designs in Sri Lanka and especially for the murals of rock-cut halls in Central Asia and China for the next three centuries.
Imitations of wooden facades and high-relief sculptures at Ajaṇṭā cut into the caitya halls and vihāra walls also carried forward the Gupta opulence into ever more elaborate displays. The style and skill of the painting and sculpture at Ajaṇṭā continued to flourish in India in works dedicated to Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Auraṅgābād, also in Maharashtra, was an important site for both rock-cut and structural Buddhist architecture, as well as relief sculpture. Buddhist and Hindu rulers excavated the long cliff at Ellorā on the Deccan from the seventh to the ninth centuries.
Final phase of Buddhist art in India (sixth to twelfth centuries c.e.)
Buddhist structural architecture, sculpture, and manuscript illumination continued in India until the twelfth century. Two major sites were Nāgārjunakoṇḍa on the Deccan plateau and Nālandā in the northeast. Both rock-cut and structural complexes
served as universities for Buddhist scholars from all over Asia and as monasteries for monks and nuns. The Gandhāra region and Kashmir in northwestern India remained strong producers of distinctive arts that combined the humanistic Gandhāra ideal with Gupta spiritual sensibilities.
Buddhist stone and metal-cast sculptures, as well as manuscript illustrations, of the Pāla and Sena dynasties in northeastern India (eighth to twelfth centuries) are well known for their supreme elegance and fine detail. Usually called the Pāla style, this lithe and refined tradition was exported to Burma, Java, Nepal, Tibet, and China, especially in service of the Mahāyāna and VajrayĀna Buddhist traditions. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the Pāla style was declining in Bihar and Bengal, until this last stronghold of Buddhist art in India finally collapsed under the advent of the Muslims in the northern regions of India.
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