On view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 13 is a stunning sculpture that was once part of a stupa in Kanaganahalli, a key Buddhist site excavated in northern Karnataka at the turn of the 21st century. Over 2,000 years old, the limestone sculpture shows snakes wrapping their coils around the stupa. Its dome is further protected by a canopy of umbrellas that resembles the bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The art is beautiful and layered, but its aesthetics also point to a system of Buddhist ethics that repeatedly makes itself manifest in the eight interlocking rooms at the Met which together house “Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE”.
According to John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Met, the motifs of tree and serpent recur in early Buddhist art: “The tree is the bodhi tree, of course, but it is also the pre-Buddhist wish-fulfilling tree, and the nagas, the snakes, play a very critical role in the Buddha’s life story, too.” When floodwaters rise during the sixth week of the Buddha’s great meditation, the naga Mucalinda rises up to protect him from the elements. “When he is born, two Nagarajas emerge to give him his first bath—one dispenses cold water and the other sprays hot water.”
The 600 years (200 BCE–400 CE) that the exhibition takes as its focus are crucial to Buddhism. “What happens over these years is a radical transformation,” said Guy. In this time, the Buddha’s ashes are further divided amongst several stupas that are built to enshrine his remains. Guy said 90 per cent of the exhibition is dedicated to the art of the stupa: “We have drum slabs, railings, pillars, crossbars, gateways and other elements. Our labels have drawings of stupas and an arrow that points to their location. People must situate the elements in their architectural schema.”
Guy wanted the stupa to be at the heart of “Tree & Serpent”, figuratively and literally. A replica that Met designer Patrick Herron built in the museum has a 19-foot drum, a six-foot walkway and a 10-foot-high railing. “Visitors are encouraged to circumambulate the stupa, like they would at a site in Kathmandu,” said Guy. The interior of the stupa has been opened out to show original relics that have been loaned to the Met from the Indian Museum in Kolkata and other sources such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “These are sacred objects for those with a spiritual connect to Buddhism.”
A passage from India
Having focussed a large chunk of his research on art in southern India, Guy first conceived “Tree & Serpent” when he visited several Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and northern Karnataka in the winter of 2015-2016. In museums at small towns such as Guntur and Karimnagar, Guy found iterations of ancient Buddhist art that, he decided, the world needed to see. “I thought this was a very important story, simply waiting to be told,” said Guy. “I wanted to bring into focus aspects of southern Buddhism that had never been paid attention to in quite such a way before.”
Of the 125 exhibits that Guy collected, 65 are from India, and 50 of these had never left the country before. If bringing these objects to New York posed a logistical challenge, securing them as loan involved a lot of diplomatic manoeuvring. Originally scheduled to be held in late 2020, the exhibition became reality in July this year with the support of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Union Ministry of Culture and eight State governments—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Guy said, “COVID made life difficult because in that period so many people simply moved on—they were transferred or promoted—and we had new gatekeepers to negotiate with. This required very hard diplomatic work.”
The comprehensiveness of the show is hard-won. One of the exhibits, a drum slab depicting five Buddha-life narratives, is large (200 x 86 x 24 cm) and intricate. On loan from the Archaeological Museum in Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh, this sculpture travelled by ferry, truck and plane to reach the Met along with other Buddhist artefacts. “Tree & Serpent” has also collected material from Phanigiri, a village in Telangana where substantial Buddhist discoveries were made in 2002-2003. “None of this has been seen,” said Guy. “The Telangana government sent these straight from the godown. This is an enormous privilege.”
Guy said both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were keen to promote the Buddhist circuit in their States amongst tourists. “I think they saw an opportunity to raise the visibility of their heritage. We hope the exhibition will also help promote awareness in some small way.” The scale of “Tree & Serpent” is clearly also a measure of Guy’s ambition.
“The exhibition foregrounds under-appreciated objects which were not at all on the people’s radar, even people who have spent a lifetime in Buddhist studies,” said Guy. “After contextualising them in this exhibition, their true significance starts to emerge. I think there’s a whole body of material now that people will no longer be able to ignore, and it will extend the scope of art historical research.”
- The motifs of tree and serpent recur in early Buddhist art. The tree is the bodhi tree, but it is also the pre-Buddhist wish-fulfilling tree.
- Nearly 90 per cent of the exhibition is dedicated to the art of the stupa. Drum slabs, railings, pillars, crossbars, gateways and other elements are all on display.
- “Tree & Serpent” captures the Buddha in the moment when his wheel of dharma had begun to turn and take over the consciousness of South Asia.
The Buddha as present and absent
The scope of Buddhism is sometimes determined by the limits of Brahmanism it abjures, but in “Tree & Serpent”, many of the religion’s supernatural tenets absorb tropes of nature worship that already existed at the time of the Buddha’s birth in 564 BCE. “The landscape into which the Buddha was born was heavily populated by cult deities—yakshas, yakshis, nagas, and so on—who had attracted enormous loyalty of the local populations. Buddhism couldn’t ignore them. It had to somehow accommodate these influences,” said Guy. Contact with the Buddha renders these sometimes malevolent forces benign, and the yakshas and yakshis that populate early Buddhist art inhabit an auspiciousness that differs from the yantras and spells that later Tibetan Himalayan Buddhism popularised.
The monastic landscape of south India between 200 BCE and 400 CE seemed to have written artistic prescriptions for a Buddhism rooted firmly in nature. The climate of the time favoured the well-being of the environment. Asokan inscriptions, for instance, protect certain categories of animals and the forests they live in. Guy said, “The Buddha’s message of compassion plugs into so many contemporary concerns of humanity sharing this planet and doing a pretty good job of messing it up. The exhibition reminds us of our environmental responsibility, our stewardship of the planet. A concern for living beings is fundamental not only to the Buddha’s teachings, but it is also central to our future.”
In the final room of the show, one sees depictions of the Buddha in human form. His earlobes have been elongated by the heavy earrings he wore as Prince Siddhartha. Their length underpins his sacrifice. These images of the Buddha are familiar, but “Tree & Serpent” also shows us that artists of the time often grappled with anxieties of portrayal: How does one represent a man who had circumvented the cycle of life with a transcendental nirvana that made his humanness extinct? Elsewhere in the exhibition, the Buddha becomes manifest not in body, but symbols—as footprints, an empty throne, a riderless horse and a flaming column. Speaking of the room devoted to this “aniconic” form of Buddhism, Guy said, “These metaphors all demand a certain sophistication on the part of the viewer.”
The Buddha’s life had unfolded in the greater Gangetic area, in places like Gaya and Sarnath where he lived and taught, but these sites have very little to show archeologically. “There is very little original material on the ground in the north. In comparison, the four greatest early Buddhist monuments—at Bharhut, Sanchi, Ajanta and Amaravati—are all in the Deccan. This fact tends to get overlooked or is only treated as a footnote. The Buddha never travelled to these places in his lifetime, but his relics surely came there,” said Guy.
The story of the south
While much is made of the Kushana kings in the north, historians often ignore the Satavahanas, a dynasty that ruled Andhradesa—present-day Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra—from late second century BCE to early third century CE. “The Satavahanas controlled as much territory as the Kushanas—from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal—and had far better international connections. They controlled trade to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, generating enormous wealth.”
The grandeur of elements from the Kanaganahalli stupa shows how Buddhism flourished in the time of the Satavahanas, but “Tree & Serpent” has put on display two other objects that Guy said symbolise “the whole Indo-Roman trade story”—a first century Roman bronze of Poseidon excavated at Kolhapur in 1944-1945, and a first century ivory yakshi figurine retrieved from a merchant’s house in Pompeii in 1938: “Rome was importing gemstones, ivory, muslin, cotton goods, dyestuffs. Romans may not have ended up at Masulipatnam, but their silver and gold coins found their way up the Godavari and Krishna rivers. They were finally melted down and repurposed as jewellery.”
In his preface to the “Tree & Serpent” catalogue (published in India by Mapin), Guy writes that the showering of mercantile wealth, made largely through interregional trade, resulted in much of the finest Buddhist art being preserved in India. “With the waning of that trade, support for the monastic communities also subsided, and Buddhism gradually faded from the Indian landscape.” The wider Indian population ultimately swung back to Hinduism. Guy said, “Buddhism prospered for some time, a millennium in some regions, but by late medieval times, the 12th and 13th century, it was a spent force in India. Many monasteries were abandoned because the people had turned away.”
“The Buddhism we see on display at the Met is best preserved in Sri Lanka today. This was the reason why Guy asked a group of monks from a Sri Lankan vihara situated in New York to bless the exhibition when it opened.”
During his travels in India, Guy reached Chandavaram, a village in Andhra Pradesh. Here he found a Hindu temple whose threshold had been decorated with two sculpted limestone panels from a nearby stupa complex. “The panels were shown face-up, I think intentionally. They were pointed and purposeful. They made a statement.” The appropriation of sacred sites, said Guy, has a long global history. “The Romans built their temples on pagan sites, and the early Christians built their churches on Roman sites. You find layer upon layer. In West Bengal and Bangladesh, we have Buddhist material absorbed into mosque architecture. On one side of the panel, you see Islamic imagery, but on the other, is a Buddhist image.”
In much the same way that Buddhist symbology included local terrestrial deities like yakshas, the Buddha is appropriated as an avatar of Vishnu in the rituals of Hinduism. The Buddhism we see on display at the Met is best preserved in Sri Lanka today. This was the reason why Guy asked a group of monks from a Sri Lankan vihara situated in New York to bless the exhibition when it opened. A recording of the sutras they chanted now punctuates the silence in the Met’s cavernous charcoal rooms. “The sutras are part of an unbroken oral tradition that has survived since the time of the Buddha. That is powerful stuff!”
“Tree & Serpent” captures the Buddha in the moment when his wheel of dharma had begun to turn and take over the consciousness of South Asia. “The exhibition is not intended to be evangelising in any sense,” said Guy. “It is a historical exercise in studying an important early culture. The greater understanding and empathy that people bring to the show, the more they will get out of this art.”