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Buddhist Art – Emergence Through the Centuries

The romance, the awakening, the renunciation, the enlightenment and the nirvana of Buddha’s life have been celebrated in various art forms since his birth in 563 B.C. and have travelled down the centuries…

The life of Gautama, has assumed the nature of a heroic myth. Every event of his life is accompanied by miraculous happenings, and many episodes are allegorical references to cosmic phenomena. His birth is likened to the rising of another sun; his enlightenment, to the sacrificial fire of agni; in his turning of the wheel of law he assumes the power of the world ruler. Buddhism formed an early alliance with the popular cults of the soil and of nature. This explains the presence of yakshis and naagas, the dryads and water-spirits who appear in all monuments of early Buddhist art. The mythology of Buddhism also came to include a collection of moral tales purporting to relate the events in earlier incarnations of Buddha when, in either animal or human form, he was acquiring the merit that enabled him to attain enlightenment.

Buddhism was such a powerful influence that whole dynasties subscribed to it.Each dynasty, whether the Mauryas, the Sungas, the Guptas, the Kushans and later the Pala and Sena’s, produced stupas, sculptures, paintings and frescoes that are regarded as heritage art today.

The worship of Buddha as a good, an absolute, in Mahayana Buddhism (The Greater Vehicle) found reflection in iconography of that time – the trikaya, or three bodies of Buddha. Yet other Buddhas, presiding over “Buddha fields” were added later and, around the eighth century, we have the complete mandala or magic diagram of the cosmos, with a universal Buddha of the zenith with his seat at the very centre of the cosmic machine, surrounded by four mythical Buddhas located at the four cardinal points of the compass. This concept of five Buddhas goes back to earlier beliefs such as the five elements, five senses. The iconography and style of these concepts is still preserved.

The conversion to Buddhism of the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka (272-232 BC) led to the highest moment of artistic development. The ruins of a stupa at Piprawa in Nepal and the core of the great stupa at Sanchi mutely testify to his zeal. Stone memorials, which consisted of great pillars crowned by sculpted animals of metaphysical significance were set up at sites associated with Buddha. On these pillar and other rocks were inscribed Ashoka’s edicts on Dharma, in Pali. The Chinese Pilgrim Hieun-Tsang who visited Sarnath, in 7th century AD, the scene of Buddha’s first preaching, speaks eloquently of the monument: “A stone pillar about seventy feet high. The stone is altogether as bright as jade. It is glistening and sparkles like light….”

During the later Sunga rulers (185-72 B.C.) Buddhist art emerges from an archaic phase of expression towards final maturity. The stone, whether on railings or on gateways, was profusely decorated. Sanchi, Bharhut and Amrawati are glowing examples. The stupa had come to be regarded as an outward and visual manifestation of Buddha in the Ashokan age. Stupas now built have the same mathematical perfection of sheer architectural form and mass as in pyramids. Above the square or circular base rose the solid and hemispherical dome. The dome symbolized the dome of heaven, enclosing the world. Symbolism found representation in the motifs of the carved railings like those at Bharhut. A frequent motifs is of the yakshi embracing a tree, usually a flowering sal. The embrace of the yakshi and the tree that yearns for her quickening touch is symbolic of some ancient fertility rite. Yakshas are also represented and Kuber, chief of Yakshas adorns the Bharhut railing. The most beautiful representation of yakshis portrays swelling breasts and an ample pelvis. Jeweled ornaments are carved in sharpness and precision while the body curves softly in contrast. The effect of drapery is created intelligently, emphatically defining borders and seams of the skirt.

Medallions served to relate Jataka tales. The method of continuous narration is universally employed i.e., a number from the same story are represented within the confines of the same panel (Ruru Jataka, Bharhut). Time and space have been represented on the panel by placing the figures one above the other.

Embellishment of the four gateways of stupa No. 1 at Sanchi came about in the early Andhra period (72-25 BC). Torans and railings were decorated. The eastern gateway has two panels of Lakshmi typifying the nativity; the enlightenment is indicated by the tree and empty throne and the preaching at Sarnath by the wheel.

The only surviving examples of wall paintings from the early period are to be found in a rock-cut chaitya hall at Ajanta caves. Inscriptions confirm its dedication in the second century B.C. Cave 10 is devoted to Saddanta Jataka, which recounts the story of Buddha’s sacrifice of his tusks during his incarnation as an elephant. The composition is presented in the form of a long frieze. “The artist has given a marvelous impression of the immense dignity and weight of elephants and their ponderous frolics”.

The most famous paintings at Ajanta are in Cave 1 and date from the Gupta to early Chalukya period (late 5th to early 7th century). The colossal painted figures of Bodhisattvas “by their, beauty and finality represent the imagined anatomy of a god. The face has the perfect oval of the egg, the brows curve as an Indian bow; the eyes are lotiform. The elephantine shoulders and arms, the leonine body, and perhaps loveliest of all, the hand which, in its articulation, suggests the pliant growth of the lotus flower it holds”.

The representation of Shakti or female energy can be recognized in the beautifully drawn female figure of dusky complexion who wears a towering headdress.

Rock-cut sanctuaries were enormous halls of worship hewn from the rock in imitation of free-standing architectural types. They were called chaitya-halls, chaitya meaning holy place. All these relate to Hinayana Buddhism (The Lesser Vehicle). The earliest chaitya-hall is at Bhaja, dating to 1st century B.C. It consists of a nave separated by rows of columns from smaller aisles terminating in a semi-circular apse, in which was located the principal symbol of worship, a rock-cut stupa. The impressiveness of the hall comes from the beauty and austerity of the architectural members and the mystery provided by the twilight, which in these interiors seems to make everything melt and almost disappear. The visitor is trapped in a magic world of unreality.

The most magnificent of the cave temples is at Karla. Here, there are two massive stambhas or columns that earlier had enormous metal wheel supported on lions. The façade screen is of carved stone. In this chaitya, the light streaming through the timbered rose-window illumines the interior with a mystical half-light.

The art of Gandhara is the official art of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka and his successors, which flourished in north-western India from 1st to 5th century A.D. The subject matter of Gandhara carvings is entirely Buddhist and its sculptures are closely related to Roman art. The soft, effeminate facial type of the early Buddha statues assumes slowly the mask-like, frozen character of late antique sculpture that prevails over the Roman world. The Gandhara school is credited with the first representation of Buddha in anthropomorphic form. The seated Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are stylistically presented.

During the Pala-Sena period (730-1197 AD) Buddhism had largely disappeared from northern India. It survived only in Bengal until annihilation by Muslim invaders. The worship of the mystical Dhyani Buddha (a kind of Buddhist Brahma) completely replaces any devotion to the mortal Buddha. In this phase, usually called Vajrayana, together with the paraphernalia of its art, it find its way to Tibet and Nepal in the 8th and 9th centuries. The last principal site in India was the University city of Nalanda. The Nalanda bronze images display elegance and a fondness for detail. This metal imagery led to the flourishing of Nepalese and Tibetan sculpture.

In its travel over the centuries, present day Buddhist art in India finds expression in bright paintings on cloth and embroidery, depicting the life of Buddha. Artifacts representing the Tibetan lion, the zodiac, and puja tools litter the brightly arranged confusion of shiny metal and trinkets in souvenir shops.

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