Classical Buddhist Hindu Icons

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					Classical Buddhist &
     Hindu Icons
  (and their Homes)
After the disintegration of the Mauryan dynasty in 185 BCE, the empire built by Ashoka once
again dissolved into separately regions, the rulers of which were often threatened by invasion
of border tribes that had formerly been held at bay. Within a hundred years the power vacuum
left by the Mauryans had been filled in northwest India by a group of Central Asian nomads
known as the Kushans, who established a summer capitol near Taxila (in present day
Pakistan) and a winter capital at Mathura on the Yamuna river (see map in IAR, p.112). (It is
during this same period that the Sañchi Stupa was renovated, further to the south.) The third
and most important ruler of this Kushan dynasty was Kanishka the first, crowned in 128 CE;
he established trade and cultural connections with Roman colonies in Central Asia, which
participated in trade along the famous “silk route” leading all the way to China. Traders soon
began to branch off to the south to distribute and acquire goods from northern India, and soon
artisans trained in Roman styles began to work in the areas of Gandhara & Mathura.

Buddhist historians point to this period as one of strong support for Buddhist institutions in the
Northwest. Whatever the particular interests of Kanishka himself, it seems to have been
during this period of history that the first images of the Buddha in human form, which reflect
clearly the influence of Roman styles in northwest India during this period, were made. Over
the course of time, however, Buddhist iconography evolved clearly distinct features; and
during this and the subsequent Gupta dynasty Hindu & Jain icons, depicting in human form the
various gods linked to Vedic and Vaishnavite traditions, begin to appear as well. Although
these images clearly pointed to very different unseen worlds for Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains,
clearly the artisans creating such images used common methods & visual symbols.
             1.      Early Buddhist &
                        Hindu Icons
                       (2nd-6th CE)
Stone Buddha images made during the Kushana period seem to have
been part of walls surrounding and adorning stupas (much like the
attendants and nature spirits seen at Sañci) or rock-cut gathering halls
used primarily by monks. Sometime during the period of the Gupta
dynasty (early 4th - mid 6th CE), however, the images themselves
became the focus of worship, just as abstract symbols had been in
earlier periods. A much smaller number stone Hindu icons appear
towards the end of this period as well, though again it is unclear when
such images became the focus of worship as the fire-offering had been
since early Vedic times. It may also be images made of wood or clay,
which have not survived, preceded these stone images.
                         The first image?

This sandstone image is the earliest
dated Buddhist icon made of stone,
which its inscription claims was
made in the third year of King
Kanishka’s reign (131 CE).
Actually the inscription calls it a
“bodhisattva,” which may reflect
the increasing emphasis in this
region on would-be Buddhas other
than Siddhartha Gautama. Like all
other Mathura sculptures, this
figure is made of locally available
red sandstone; its color would not
have mattered since the figure
would have been originally painted.
The cloth, interestingly, sticks to
the body as if it were wet.
                         Buddha Icons at Mathura
The broad shoulders and well-rounded faces of these images, more clearly visible in these
photographs, is characteristic of Mathura sculpture; as is the halo behind the head which is only
partially preserved here. The threefold knotted hair at the top of the head will gain increasing
importance in later Buddhist iconography, echoing the threefold umbrella which caps major
stupas. The elongated ears are a standard physical feature of the Buddha described since the
early days of the tradition as one of numerous traits that reveal his divine power.
This seated image could well be
designed for worship following the
patterns depicted in carvings at
Sañci. The seated Buddha is flanked
by two royal attendants and in the
air above the intact halo (though
difficult to make out in this figure)
there hover two winged celestial
beings. Below the figure, making
the Buddha look as large as a stupa
in comparison, are most likely
disciples honoring the Buddha or
some site associated with his
teaching. The positions of right
hand (only partly preserved) indicate
reassures the worshipper, “have no
fear.” This type of image became
extremely popular and was imitated
throughout Buddhist Asia.
                      Roman influence at Gandhara
Buddhist sculpture seems to have flourished somewhat
later, towards the end of Kanishka’s reign, at Gandhara
near the northern capital of the Kushana empire. Yet
these icons reflect much more vividly the influence of the
Roman artisans who had originally inspired the tradition.
Most of the figure are bodhisattvas, which fits with the
widespread influence of movements refering to
themselves as “the Greater Way” (Mahayana) in this
regions during later periods.
The hairstyle of these figures is reminiscent of the Greek god Apollo; the
mustache may reflect Roman influence. The toga-like garments, sandals, and
necklaces are clearly Roman. It may be that these objects, imported by traders,
had become so familiar to Gandharans that it seemed natural that divine beings
would wear them.
Gandharans clearly
remained interested in
the Gautama Buddha,
however. The
Gandharan style
continues the earlier
tradition of depicting
important sites
associated with the
Buddha, but this times
puts the Buddha in the
picture (clockwise
from lower left):

• fasting (before his
• teaching
• lying on his side
   preparing to die
As in the case of the seated Buddha at Mathura, a number of the stone Buddha
sculptures that came into use during this period seem to be intended for independent
worship. Although these Buddhas Roman robes, their faces remain clearly Asian.

                                                                 The figure on the
                                                                  right once again is
                                                                  seated atop a scene
                                                                  depicting several
                                                                  seated figures.
                                                                  Although the exact
                                                                  context of the
                                                                  scene is not clear,
                                                                  the large size of the
                                                                  Buddha seated
                                                                  above it again
                                                                  echoes the
                                                                  size of the
                                                                  monumental stupas
                                                                  popular in earlier
Amaravati & Buddhist icons
 in the south (50-320 CE)
 While Kanishka & his successors ruled
 over most of northwest India, the
 Andhra kingdom prospered in the
 south, and Buddhist practice continued
 to flourish there as it had during earlier
 periods. The rulers of this dynasty were
 influenced by contact with Rome as
 well, as Roman traders came to ports on
 both western and eastern coasts, and
 may even have established a colony off
 the eastern coast. Though stupas
 remained popular during this period,
 icons of the Buddha appeared as well,
 especially in the east coastal capital of
 Amaravati. Whether the creators of
 these were influenced by Gandharan
 styles is an open question.
   Iconography during the
 Gupta Dynasty (320-550 CE)

When the first of the Gupta dynasty rulers
began uniting many of the territories that had
been part of Ashoka’s ancient empire--ruling
from the same capital of Pataliputra, along the
Ganges--their sponsorship of arts & sciences
led to a new wave of development in
literature, architecture, mathematics, &
medicine. The sculpters of the period,
likewise, refined and added to the artistic
styles inherited from the Kushans, possibly
also drawing on the Andhra culture of the
South. It seems to have been the artists of this
period who systematized the way that physical
attributed said to reflect the Buddha’s divine
status--e.g., the mole between the eyes, the
bump on top of his head, wheels on the palms
and soles--were portrayed in sculpture.
One of the most noticable changes is
the intricate design of halos, which
had originally been smooth in
Kushana sculpture. Notice here once
again the cloth sticking to the body as
if wet, a feature of some Kushana
period icons.
During this period Buddhas all over India come to resemble one another more and
more; and these depictions of the Buddha’s features became the norm for
representing him throughout Buddhist Asia.
It is during the Gupta period, interestingly, that we find the first free-standing
structures used to house images for worship. The Sañchi temples pictured here
and on the next slide are two of only a few surviving structures preserved from
this period. Though Sañchi continued to be dominated by its stupas, Gupta
dynasty monks clearly also incorporated images into their worship.
Although Roman influence was dwindling by this time in Indian history, certain
distinctively Roman architectural features had become part of temple design, and would
remain integral to Indian architecture. Note that the structure of these stone temples is much
simpler than those that would come to dominate the landscape over the next thousand years:
a porch, entryway, and inner shrine room.
                           Early Icons of Vishnu & Shiva
The Gupta rulers sponsored both Buddhist & non-Buddhist religious traditions, as had
many other kings before them. Thus during the period of flourishing Buddhist
iconography, one finds a smaller number of sculptures (many of which seem to be the
remnants of small temples which have since been destroyed) depicting Vishnu and Shiva,
the two major deities whose traditions were rapidly becoming influential during this time,
both claiming some kind of continuity with ancient Vedic culture.

This sculpture, which
most likely adorned the
top of a temple column,
shows Krishna
(enlarged in the photo
on the right) counseling
Arjuna as he sits
despondent in his
chariot. The Greek
sculptural style is
evident here as in the
bodhisattva sculptures
of the Kushana period
in the Gandhara region.
Also surviving from this period are images of Vishnu himself, and indeed the largest temple
preserved from the Gupta period is dedicated to Vishnu. Unlike sculptures of Gautama Buddha
and other bodhisattvas, Vishnu is often shown with multiple arms, each holding different
symbols of his power, including the conch shell and the lotus, as seen in the two late Gupta
period sculptures below. Such multi-limbed depictions may have been inspired by Vedic
references to the cosmic being as having numerous heads, arms, & legs.
                                                                                The bronze
                                                                                Kashmiri Vishnu
                                                                                on the right sports
                                                                                several wheel
                                                                                symbols, most
                                                                                likely reminders of
                                                                                Vishnu’s solar
                                                                                radiance; the one
                                                                                atop his head
                                                                                substituting for a
                                                                                halo (partly
                                                                                preserved in the
                                                                                other image). In
                                                                                accounts Vishnu
                                                                                also uses his wheel
                                                                                as a weapon to cut
                                                                                down enemies.
Surviving sculptures at other locations reveal evidence of the growing importance of
Vishnu’s other incarnations. On the left is depiction of Vishnu taking form as the celestial
sage Narayana, instructing a pupil, with other deities gathered above to listen to his
teaching (clearly similar to the deities depicted in some Buddhist sculptures). On the right is
a depiction of Vishnu taking the form of a boar to rescue the earth (pictured as a naked
woman) from the primordial flood, as the myriad of Vedic deities & sages look on.
Icons of Shiva are found during this period as well. The linga with faces in four directions actually
dates from the Kushan period in the region of Mathura where the first Buddhist icons were made.
The Gupta period figure in the middle (5th CE) depicts Shiva in the human form of a mountaineer
and hunter, as described in the Mahabharata. Both of these contrast strikingly with the multi-armed
form of Shiva that begins to appear during the late Gupta period (6th CE).
            2. Traces of Early Temple
              Construction (2nd-8th CE)
It is likely that artisans working for Buddhist, Hindu & Jain patrons built wooden
structures to house many of the symbols & images sampled in the previous
section. Although none of these structures have survived, we see much evidence
of them carved in stone: a large number of caves in mountain cliffs, & some free
standing structures carved out of bolders, were painstakingly made to be used as
spaces for gathering and worship. Initially rock caves seem to have been Buddhist
monastic residences; but gradually Hindus & Jains also began to hire rock-
cutters. The forms cut into rock at these sites--most of them dating from the
smaller kingdoms that formed once the Gupta dynasty dissolved in the mid-6th
CE--clearly imitate earlier wooden structures. This suggests that wood carving &
building techniques must already have been well developed by the time these
rocks were carved; and indeed wood was widely used for buildings in India until
the early twentieth century. Decorative sculptures preserved at these sites,
furthermore, show icon styles continuing to evolve well beyond the early Roman-
influenced forms of the Kushan & Gupta periods.
  The Buddhist Monastery at Ajanta
(2nd BCE-6th CE, west central India)
Gupta period paintings preserved in the oldest caves:
The Stupa/Image Hall (late 6th CE)
Inside the Hall:
stupa & Buddha
 image merged
    into one
      Ceiling & Side Columns:
rock-cut imitation of wooden structure
Another Stupa/Image Hall
  Shaivite Cave Temple at Elephanta
(6th-7th CE, near present-day Mumbai)
entrance to the linga shrine:
Three-head Shiva (panel on side wall of cave)
Multi-armed forms of Shiva on surrounding cave walls:
Rock-cut Boulder Temples at Mamallapuram
  (mid 7th CE, east coast of south India)
temples named after the five brothers of the Mahabharata epic:
     Boulder Carving:
description of the heavenly
river Ganges coming down
  from heaven due to the
penance of an ancient sage

(note the temple, probably
  Vaishnavite, depicted
       bottom right)
Rock -cut Temple at Ellora
(8th CE, west central India)
Seated Shiva at in Main Temple
Goddesses at Ellora: Lakshmi (left) & Durga (right)
       Vishnu’s boar incarnation (left) &
Shiva holding the demon Ravana captive (right)
scenes from the Mahabharata battle atop temple columns:
3. Late Medieval Proliferation of Iconic
      Forms & Temples (8th-15th CE)
  Over the next eight hundred years, Buddhist institutions gradually
  disappeared from most of India. Hindu stone temple construction
  and icon sculpting, on the other hand, flourished, with a number of
  important Jain temples being built as well (& indeed often leading
  the way in innovative design). These are the temples to which most
  people point when speaking of India’s religious heritage, which
  reflect most clearly the influence of the medieval Purana literature.
  Interestingly, though, the foundational events of both Hindu & Jain
  traditions had already passed by the time these later stone temples
  were built; and indeed, Hindu & Jain political power was in severe
  decline during most of this period, as Muslim rulers began to take
  over most of their territories. Briefly sampled here are two temple
  styles from the beginning of this later medieval period.
     Southern Temple Styles: later Pallava
(8th CE, predescessors of 10th CE Chola kings)
       Kalinga Dynasty
(9th-11th CE, east central India)

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