Thought and images

Print edition : March 14, 2008

Remains of Nalanda University, in present-day Bihar. Nalanda finds mention in Buddhist texts as a place frequently visited by the Buddha. It became known for its famous monastery during the rule of the Guptas in the 5th century A.D. Monks and scholars came here from all over Asia. Scholars such as Guru Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, who were responsible for spreading Buddhism across Asia, are known to have studied here.-

The bronze images of the Pala period, found in large numbers at Nalanda and Kurkihar, are among the finest ever produced.

IN the 8th or 9th century B.C., the composition of the Upanishads began in India. These are philosophic texts that contain earlier traditions of the land and are based on centuries of speculative thought.

In early times, simple stupas were made in shrines of the Buddhist and Jaina faiths. As divinity was seen in all that there is, these served as aids in the meditation upon the formless Eternal. Over the centuries, one can see the long journey of Buddhist art, from the worship of plain stupas to the point where a complex pantheon of deities was created. The last Buddhist caves of western India, of the 7th century A.D., have many images of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Stupa at the Vikramasila University site in present-day Bihar. This great university inherited the intellectual legacy of Nalanda. Vajrayana Buddhism, which prospered here, spread to the trans- Himalayas and beyond. One of the greatest teachers from here was Atisa, of the 11th century.-

The developments that led to these manifestations took place largely on the plains of eastern India. The earliest Buddhist thought was based upon the pan-Indian philosophic concepts of the Upanishads. All of existence was seen as part and parcel of the same greater reality.

The world of illusion, which one can see around one through the veils of ones ignorance, is termed samsara. The purpose of philosophic thought was to break free from the spell of this unreality, the Maya or Mithya, of the material world.

Maitreya, 10th Century, Vishnupur, Bihar (Patna State Museum). The relaxed posture and elegance of this figure are characteristic of the best sculptural figures of the Pala period. The Maitreya, one of the most commonly depicted deities of the period, is the Buddha who is as yet to come in the world.-

The two best-known teachers of the Upanishadic age were Mahavira and Gautama Buddha, both of whom were born in the 6th century B.C. The Buddha gave a rational, philosophic message to his followers. He spoke of Three Noble Truths: that there is pain in the world; that there is a reason for the pain; and that it can be removed by following the right path.

Nirvana is the extinguishing of ones ego and self in the realisation of ones true nature. The responsibility of salvation lies entirely upon the individual and his own efforts to discipline himself.

Many found the path easier when they could pray to the Buddha and seek his benign help. In time, Bodhisattvas, or compassionate beings on their way to enlightenment, were also conceived. They delayed their own salvation to help all sentient beings on the path. This new branch of Buddhism soon had many followers and began to call itself the Mahayana order, or the Great Vehicle.

Bodhisattva on Stupa plinth, Pilak, Tripura, c. 8th/9th century A.D. This graceful and lively sculpture of the period is reminiscent of contemporaneous palm-leaf manuscript paintings.-

Meanwhile, in the land of Magadha, on the eastern plains of India where the Buddha had preached, great centres of Buddhist study came up. These had the bountiful support of the Buddhist and Hindu kings of the region and developed into vast monastic universities. At these centres of learning, the message of the Buddha and his many qualities of wisdom and compassion were studied in great detail. A pantheon of deities was created in which these qualities of Buddhahood were personified. By meditating upon the personified qualities, a worshipper was to imbibe the virtues presented. Having attained those qualities, the worshipper became that deity.

Three of the best-known Buddhist universities, Nalanda, Vikramasila and Odantpuri, were in eastern India, in the region of present-day Bihar. In fact, Bihar derives its name from the many viharas that flourished there. The greatest of these monastic centres was at Nalanda, which was a hub of learning for pilgrims and scholars from all corners of Asia.

Excavations at the Nalanda site have revealed numerous stupas, monasteries, hostels, staircases, meditation halls and other structures. These speak of the splendour of the university, which was also famed for its three magnificent libraries. The thriving intellectual environment at Nalanda produced the most noted Buddhist thinkers.

In the main shrine of the Mahabodhi temple, Bodhgaya, present-day Bihar, is a benign figure of the Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra. While meditating under the bodhi tree, the Bodhisattva was assailed by doubts and confusions, personified in Buddhist tradition as the armies of Mara. He touched Bhumi (Earth) and called upon her to bear witness to the fact of his self-discipline and resolve on the path to enlightenment.-

The 8th century saw the founding of the Pala empire, which ruled over most of Bengal and Bihar until the 12th century. It was a period of flourishing trade and prosperity. The Palas were generous patrons of monasteries and art. Towards the end of the 8th century, Dharmapala founded a great university, the Vikramasila University, which was to rival the importance of Nalanda itself. By this time, Buddhism had entered its third major phase: the Vajrayana school. It was this sophisticated philosophy that blossomed in the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of Vikramasila.

In earlier Buddhist thought, liberation was possible only through many lifetimes of effort. The Vajrayana offered the possibility of nirvana within a single lifetime. At the heart of this system was the teacher-initiate relationship, where the seeker was guided by his teacher. The complex rituals mantras, or chants, and mudras, or hand movements of Vajrayana Buddhism were codified in the form of tantras. Tantra literally means to carry on knowledge.

The Mahabodhi Temple is built on the spot where the Buddha gained Enlightenment. The present structure dates back to the mid-5th century A.D. and is the oldest standing grand building in the Indian subcontinent. Xuanzang, when he came here in the 7th century, described Bodhgaya as "the centre of the Buddhist world". This is the second of the four most holy Buddhist places.-

The emphasis in this period was on the intellectual quest. This is constantly reflected in the art. Previous art had been more naturalistic. Its focus had been on a gentleness that moved one and dissolved ones sense of ego and that transported one through grace and ecstasy. The purpose of the art remained the same in this period. However, the dynamism of the intellect, which analysed the mental processes of the realisation of the Truth, came to the fore.

The many qualities of the Buddhahood within each person and the steps on the path to enlightenment came to be studied and presented in detail. The qualities that could move one towards realisation of the Truth were presented in a manner that left no room for ambiguity or doubt. This was Vajrayana Buddhism, the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt, whose logic was as clear and as striking as a clap of thunder. It was also as indestructible as a diamond. Such is the intellectual vigour presented in the art of the Pala period.

Parvati, Sonapur, 11th century (State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata). This slim and elegant figure, with a gentle, smiling expression, presents the best aspects of the art of this period. The iconography is more formalised than the previous art.-

The Indian philosophy of aesthetics holds that ones response to beauty is a realisation of the grace that underlies all creation, a grace that is in all that there is around one. The perception of beauty, past the veils of ones illusions, awakens one to a joyous awareness of the Truth.

In this period of great intellectual vigour, the deities represent complex paths of realisation. One of the most remarkable qualities of the art and philosophy of this time is the great intellectual freedom that it represents. There appears to be no limit to the diversity with which personal visualisations of the deities are presented.

Samvara, Ratnagiri, 8th century (Patna State Museum, Bihar). In the universities of the early medieval period, aspects of wisdom and compassion were carefully analysed and deities who personified this sophisticated understanding were created.-

One can see from the numberless variations in the mandalas and in the deities that there was great freedom of thought and expression. Great teachers from the vast universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila had different approaches to the following of the Buddhist path. As recorded in the surviving traditions of Tibet and the Indian Himalayas, the coming there of each teacher from these universities began a new wave of understanding and a fresh manner of the practice of the faith. Many sects, with different practices, continue their legacies even today. What is wonderful is the blend of the continuation of ancient knowledge with the living experience and realisation of each new thinker.

In the Magadha region stands the Mahabodhi temple, which commemorates the event of the Enlightenment of the Buddha. Greatly restored over the centuries, this 5th or 6th century temple is the oldest grand structure surviving in India. The architecture and sculptures would have inspired the Buddhist art of the many Asian countries from where pilgrims constantly came.

Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra, 11th century, Orissa, (Archaeological Survey of India Site Museum, Ratnagiri). Ratnagiri had one of the greatest mahaviharas of medieval times in India. Vast numbers of sculptures of Buddhas and the many deities of Vajrayana Buddhism, exhibiting the relaxed manner and pleasing grace that characterises the art of Orissa, have been found here.-

By the 5th century, the search for enlightenment had developed from a solitary personal exercise to an organised intellectual endeavour. Seals excavated at Nalanda show that the great monastic university here was patronised by the late Gupta kings.

The earliest remains of monuments and sculptures found here date from the 6th and 7th century. Even in its damaged state, the main temple rises over 100 feet (30.4 metres). The stucco figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas made here set the style seen in numerous later stone and bronze images. They have sharper features than ever before and convey an impression of the dynamic intellect that was the focus at this time. The carrying forward of the artistic traditions of the Sarnath Gupta and post-Gupta periods can be seen here. The torsos are smoothly delineated, and the body is visible through the diaphanous garments. Half-closed eyes convey the serenity and peace of the earlier deities.

Another temple at Nalanda has reliefs on the plinth. These are among the very few stone sculptures of the Pala period surviving in situ. Great stupas were also made further east, in present-day Tripura and Bangladesh. Terracotta plaques with reliefs adorn the plinths, which are all that remain of the once-grand structures at Paharpur and at Pilak. These reflect Vajrayana developments in Buddhism and are full of life and vitality.

Free-standing images, of the late 8th century, of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas made out of buff sandstone have been found. By the 9th century, dark grey and black schist from further east became the principal medium to be used.

Crowned Buddhas, instead of the earlier bare-headed ascetic figures, began to appear in Pala times. The crown here denotes the highest spiritual achievement. Wrathful Bodhisattvas also began to appear. These were made to awaken the determination and ardent vigour with which the devotee must pursue the search for the Truth, the fearlessness with which he must face the obstacles and confusions on this path.

Padmapani, 11th Century (State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata). The art of this period reflects sophisticated developments of intellectual thought. The qualities to be nurtured and awakened within one on the path to enlightenment are personified and presented visually with sublime grace.-

In many parts of India, the 8th and 9th centuries saw an increase in the number of bronze images being made. The metal images of the Pala period are among the finest ever produced. The areas where the largest numbers have been found are Nalanda and Kurkihar, near Bodhgaya. Some bronzes are simple compositions with expressions of infinite gentleness and compassion. They also have a lilting grace that reminds one that there is an end to the sorrow of the world.

Later Pala art is complex and presents the many traditional motifs of Indian art, around a main central figure. The deities are increasingly formalised and the iconographic concepts embodied in their various attributes more important.

Surya, 11th Century (State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata). The art of this period presents an eclectic range of deities of the Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina traditions.-

The number of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, identifiable by their different attributes, increased. As in the Brahmanical art of this period, female deities, the counterparts of male deities, became prolific. These were first seen in the caves of western India, in the 6th century. The path to salvation is now through intense meditation on the qualities of Buddhahood depicted in the deities and in complex diagrams.

Metal images were much easier to transport than large stone ones. It is these that travelled to Nepal and Tibet and further north as well as to the countries of South-East Asia. The sculptures transmitted the concepts and styles of Indic art far and wide in this period.

The Sena dynasty came to power in the late 11th century and ruled until the first half of the 13th century. In the later Pala period and during Sena rule, Brahmanical icons were made in large numbers. The centres of artistic production also shifted further east in Bihar and to Bengal. The Brahmanical art of the period is stylistically similar to the Buddhist art of this period and presents the same complexity in iconography.

Tara, 10th-11th Century, Kurkihar, Gaya district (Patna State Museum). Along with male deities, female personifications, like those in the Brahmanical tradition, were created in the Buddhist art of the Pala period.-

The writings of the Tibetan historian Taranatha and considerable archaeological remains show that Orissa was another great centre of Buddhism in Pala times. In the Assiah Hill range in Orissa are some of the most important Buddhist sites of the period. Excavations at Ratnagiri, Orissa, have uncovered a large number of sculptures of the 8th to the 12th centuries. In the Buddha figure here and in other sculptures, a new feature can be seen. The carving is continued on a number of slabs of stone that are pieced together to form the image. Stylistically, the figures have a massive appearance reminiscent of the Vakataka art of the preceding period in western India.

As in Bihar, the deities of Vajrayana Buddhism are depicted in large numbers. At Udaigiri, Orissa, and other sites, there are several images of benign Bodhisattvas. They stand in the graceful and relaxed postures that mark the Buddhist art of Orissa. Complex iconographic deities are also found, such as a Samvara from Ratnagiri. He holds many attributes in his numerous hands, which provide a detailed visual representation of philosophic concepts. Advanced forms of Tantric Buddhism were developed, and they travelled from here to the countries of South-East Asia.

Temple doorways continue the traditions established in the Gupta period and seen everywhere later. Such carvings are also seen in the Brahmanical temples of Bhubaneswar. The interconnectedness of all forms of life is eloquently expressed here. A sense of joy fills these depictions and fills one as one crosses the threshold of the sacred space.

The art of the Pala period reflects freedom of thought and dynamic philosophic developments. Despite the complex iconography that is now represented, the best work retains a sense of joy and grace. These exquisite sculptures take one far away from ones material concerns to a realm of peace within.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor