Monday, February 1, 2010


(Rendering of Buddhist themes in art -
in the light of Ajanta, Sanchi, Bodhgaya and Amaravati)



Kalinga war is a blot in Indian history. But we have to salute it, ironically though, for it is the point where Buddhist Art began strengthening its foothold in India! A clear case of the lotus of non-violence blooming from the dirt of violence!

Kalinga war divided the Indian art. It was an incident which affected India and the Oriental zone as a whole. As we all know the war at Kalinga marked a turning point in the life of Emperor Asoka. The bloodshed, which purified his thought process, made Asoka to devote himself for the accomplishment of the message of Dhamma, the Buddhist Law. He has put a new Law, the triumph of Dhamma as a substitute to the triumph of weapons. In the modern imagery, this can be described as the red rose blooming from a gun barrel.

Asoka’s favorite deity was Lord Shiva just before the onset of the war of Kalinga. However, the bloodshed and defeat of humanity pierced his conscience and that resulted in a transformation in his vision. The Emperor who adored Shiva turned to the principles of Buddhism and ordered to put out edicts on Buddha Dhamma. Thus he got numerous inscriptions engraved on rocks and pillars. In addition, he erected new dhamma pillars all over his kingdom. The Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath can be treated as one of the renowned monuments by Asoka. This Stupa has a number of animal forms engraved on it.

Buddhist art has a religious connotation for sure. It reflects, very devotedly so, all the important aspects of Buddhism as a way of life. Apparently, these monuments and paintings were mainly aimed at the edification or popularization of Buddhism.

There are innumerable monuments that depict different phases of Buddhism and these works of art give us a reasonably vivid picture of the evolution of Buddhist art through the ages.


The extensive period of five hundred years, involving the decline of Mauryas and the rise of Guptas, is the most imperative era in the evolution of Indian art. Some great schools like Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodhgaya, Mathura and Amaravati developed during this period.

Mauryan period is the era of Emperor Asoka who put up a pillar at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in the 2nd century BC. Though it was Asoka who built the Great Stupa at Sanchi, it was modified later by adding the structure of four gateways. Each gateway has inscriptions from the Jataka Tales as also the key episodes in the life of Gautam Buddha. This can be seen at Bharhut as well. However, the precise means of art concept and schematic expression is more evident on the Sanchi Stupa.

Gandhara art is a hybrid form where we can see a formal association towards Greco-Roman styles. There is no amalgamation of form and content in Gandhara art. The foremost contribution of Gandhara art is the evolution of the Buddha image, which reflects that of Apollo in Greek mythology. It emphasized the splendor of the human body than anything. But the other sculptural languages with reference to the Indian art tried to put across the form as sublime and spiritual. While the first one is sensible, the other is idealistic. This is the main distinction between Western and Indian art forms. Gandhara art flourished for about four to five hundred years and, to
a great extent, it influenced the indigenous art of Mathura, Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda. In short, Gandhara art came here for depicting the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism.

Unlike Gandhara art, Gupta art merges the form and content. Buddhist theme is popular in Gupta era and it is evident from the physiognomy and drapery of the images. Detailed narratives become iconic representations here.

The artists of this region have produced a large number of Buddha and Bodhisattva images along with other Buddhist deities. Gupta art is marked by restraint combined with a high aesthetic sense and discipline. The main centres of Buddhist art during this period were Mathura, Sarnath and Nalanda. This period is also known for excavations of several rock-cut viharas and temples at Ajanta and Ellora.


In the centuries preceding the Christian era, the stupa had become, for the growing Buddhist faith, a focus for religious reverence. Among the 84,000 stupas apparently erected in the Mauryan period by Asoka the most important was one located in Sanchi on the site of an early monastery. An ancient burial-mound had been completely transfigured into a world mountain, oriented by its four gates to the four quarters of the universe. The tiered umbrella, housed within its holy compound, rose as the sacred tree to Heaven, and in doing so it is joined by its shaft - the celestial powers with the fertile soils of the earth. Within the deep centre of the solid hemispherical mass, called the egg, and directly beneath the umbrella, resided the reliquary containing the relic, which was referred to as the seed.

Near the end of the first century B.C. the Andhras arrived at Sanchi to initiate their significant stone renovations, which resulted in the stupa becoming the greatest Buddhist movement in India. At Sanchi, as at Bharhut, the Buddha’s presence is still represented by symbols- empty thrones, footprints, umbrellas, and the like. These images capture the spirit of earth; and in fact the stone brackets carved in the shape of yakshis are the most attractive creations at Sanchi. No longer is the figure a formalized symbol for the human body, whose angled arms and legs give a feeling of motion; here the yakshi moves freely in space and stands in the classical tribhanga (three-body-bends) posture, which would characterize Indian sculpture from this moment on.

Throughout the domination of Shungas, three stupas underwent restoration – Bharhut, Bodhgaya and Sanchi. At Bharhut, the original stupa was not untouched but only the railing was renovated. At Bodhgaya, a railing was erected to enshrine the place where Lord Buddha was known to have walked. At Sanchi, an inclusive reconstruction of the stupa took place. Maurya art is royal, but Sunga art is democratic. While bas reliefs at Barhut and Nagarjunagonda are depthless, depth is the characteristic of those in Sanchi. The railings of Bharhut, Bodhgaya and Sanchi are, in fact, the three milestones of the evolution of art developed throughout two centuries, i.e., B.C. 150 to A.D. 50. Through this long phase of experience, the Indian artists have imbibed the tough way of iconography and they expressed it with sublime aesthetic sense.
The stupa at Bharhut was in addition enclosed within a circular stone fence dominated by four gateways. These accompaniments, of dark red stone, were luxuriously carved with reliefs. We can understand basically how Bharhut looked by referring to the Great stupa at Sanchi. The highly structured enclosures serving to identify the sanctified area of the stupa apparently evolved, as did the rock-cut chaitya halls, from the wood carvings of the earlier period.

The worship of the Bodhi tree seems to have been widely prevalent, as there are many representation of it on the sculptured panels of Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati. Bodhi tree was Asoka’s favourite object of worship.


The artists of Gandhara and Mathura were the first exponents of the theistic movement of Buddhism and produced the image of the Buddha in stone for the first time. In early figures, the Buddha is represented as a prototype of a god belonging to the Hellenistic world, seated insecurely on a small lotus stand. But in the example of the seated image of the Buddha hailing from Takht-i-Bahai, there is an explicit Indianisation. Here the Buddha is seated securely on a lion pedestal and his facial expression is one of restfulness and serenity. Viewed from this angle, the Gandhara craftsmen dedicated their skill for the progression of the Buddha figure.

The Mathura sculpture has two characters. The earlier period was leaned to Bharhut style, but the later period showed much distinction in mode and perception. The later period of Mathura expresses, without symbols, the Buddha as a human being. In the styles of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodhgaya the Buddha was represented by the symbols like the wheels, throne and footprints.

Here, the Buddha’s figure never appears; however, he is always represented by way of a series of symbols that allude to major events in his life. The symbolic vocabulary includes such signs as the wheel, representing the first sermon of the law; the Bodhi Tree, representing the Enlightenment; and the stupa, representing the Buddha’s Great Release or Parinirvana.
A horse, without a rider on its back, recalls the departure of the young Buddha-to-be from his father’s royal house; a set of footprints displays the auspicious symbols of a spiritual Chakravartin; a royal umbrella over a vacant space proclaims his holy charisma. Each of these symbols established a focus for a pictorial event.

The Gandhara craftsmen by no means tried to confine the spiritual quality of the Buddha. To them the Buddha meant a god - nothing more and nothing less. On the other hand, the Mathura craftsmen had the vision of a highly spiritual being that had shown to humanity a way bout from their anguish. Buddha is an illuminated soul, full of divine vigor and the craftsmen tried to expose him as such by means of gestures and signs.

But as Mathura expressed anthropomorphism regarding Gautam Buddha, an innovative era was born in Indian art. And this became a concrete turning point in the Indian spirituality. The relief sculptures hailing from Mathura represent a number of scenes from the life of the Buddha. The scene of enlightenment is indicated by the seated figure of the Buddha wherein the master is seen touching the earth. The Buddha is portrayed by the side of a wheel to be a sign of the happening of the first sermon at Sarnath. The carving of the reliefs is not reflective and the method is a continuation of the practice of Bharhut and Bodhgaya.

Simple but elegant expression is the connotation of Amaravati art. All the railings and slab of the Amaravati stupa are made of fabulous sandstone. Amaravati style is an evolutionary outcome between Sanchi and Mathura schools. In this gorgeous style, forms of plants and flowers (especially lotus) are engraved. Even though the images of Buddha is visible somewhere, the Amaravati stupa depicts Buddha symbolically.


Asoka’s period is the golden era of propaganda of the art. Among the stupas in India, the Sanchi stupa is much significant for it contains the relics of Gautam Buddha. Mayadevi’s dream and the main events in Buddha’s life are depicted in the same stupa.

The reliefs at Bharhut give a picture of the fashions and settings of Shunga times, the numerous birth stories of the Buddha’s previous life (Jatakas) and the significant events of his life as Shakyamuni. In Buddhist legends and mythology, Gautama Buddha has been represented as an ideal human being and, quite naturally, we find that the early Buddhist art of Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodh-Gaya and Amaravati and other places shows no anthropomorphic representation of the Master. Everything with him has been described as transcendental. This is amply represented in Buddhist art.

At the same time, with the improvement of the sculptural school of Gandhara, another school of sculptural activity grew around the centre at Mathura under the benefaction of the Kushanas. While the craftsmen of Gandhara took their stimulation from the Greco-Roman art repertoire, the craftsmen of Mathura imbibed the traditions of earlier Buddhist centres like that of Bharhut and Sanchi.

Let us conclude with the details of Ajanta art where we can see the representation of Jataka tales. Ajanta art is the soul of Buddhist culture. Paintings of Ajanta depict the Buddha and Bodhisattva. Those are against the “Perspective’’ style of Western way of art which assembles the images according to their distance. But the Buddhist way is not so. In other words, the Buddhist art posit the images one by one vertically in a panel. Ajanta is the best example. Moreover, the time concept in Ajanta art is infinite. Mahaparinirvana, the great sculpture in Cave No.26, shows the creative freedom of the artist. Ajanta is otherwise important in showing the development from Hinayana Buddhism to Mahayana Buddhism by the paintings of Bodhisattva Padmapani and Bodhisattva Vajrapani.

There is a stream of message of Buddha Dhamma passing through the monuments in India, though the new Kalingas breed dread in the mind of the beholder.

k p ramesh
poongottu veedu, ayalur, palakkad- 678510, kerala
ph: 00 91 9447315971

• Paper presented in International Seminar on Buddhist Heritage,
on 2010 January 15 - 17 conducted by Dept. of Archaeology, M S University, Baroda.

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