Mountain magic

Print edition : April 25, 2008

Vishnu, Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar. This image of Vishnu mounted on Garuda displays the characteristic features of Kashmiri art, including the style of the crown and the depiction of pectoral muscles. It also has the sense of joy that pervades the art of Kashmir.-

In the valleys of the Himalayas, in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal, art and architecture give expression to beauty and joy.

THE aim of Indian philosophy and art is to awaken true knowledge within one. The sense of natural joy, when the veils of confusion are lifted, is expressed really well in the figures of the Karle caves, of the 2nd century A.D. The art of Amaravati, also of the 2nd century A.D., brings a more inward and contemplative look upon the faces of the figures. By the 5th century, the sense of sublime happiness, which true awareness brings, came to be expressed beautifully in the perfected beings of the art of the northern plains and the Deccan.

This philosophical outlook does not forget the joys to be found in the natural world of creation. All that is seen around one is illusion. However, if seen in its true perspective, it can remind one of the Eternal, of which it is a manifestation. One can therefore take the sublime joy in all of creation and proceed towards awareness of the Truth. It is in the art of Kashmir that this sense of joy is best expressed.

Amidst the great natural beauty of Kashmir, the thoughts of man have constantly turned to the wonder of creation. Since early times, Kashmir has been a renowned centre of Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophy. The Indian philosophy of aesthetics was expounded here in the 10th century by the philosopher Abhinavagupta. It is in Kashmir that Saivism developed to great heights; the manifestation of Siva in the beauty of the world around one was worshipped as Shakti. Unlike earlier austere forms of Buddhism, the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools flourished here. A very special quality of joyousness pervades the art of this land, which is blessed with the bounty of nature.

Kumarajiva statue at Kizil Caves, China. One of the most revered names of Chinese Buddhism is that of the great translator Kumarajiva, son of Kashmiri pandit Kumarayana. His mother, Princess Jiva of Kucha (a Central Asian kingdom), brought him to Kashmir to study Buddhist scriptures.-

In the 1st century A.D., the Kushana emperor Kanishka held the Fourth Great Buddhist Council in Kashmir. It was here that Sanskrit became the language of the Buddhist scriptures instead of Pali. This was also the first time that Mahayana Buddhism received major royal patronage. Earlier Buddhism was mainly an ethical message that called upon each person to seek his/her own salvation through self-discipline.

The new form of Buddhism brought the concept of Bodhisattvas. These were beings who postponed their own salvation to help others on the path towards enlightenment. Followers could turn to them and pray for help. This form of Buddhism proved very popular and spread northwards and eastwards from Kashmir to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

The site of Harwan, on a hill near Srinagar, is where the Fourth Buddhist Council is believed to have been held. Tiles found here, of about the 4th century A.D., display a remarkable meeting of cultures where the styles of the art of the Gupta period from the plains of northern India interact with influences from Central Asia. The motif of geese seen in the tiles has been a common one in Indian art since the Mauryan period in the 3rd century B.C.

Siva Temple, Pandrethan. This 8th century temple on the outskirts of Srinagar displays a judicious sense of balance in its proportions. It is made in the prevalent style of Kashmiri architecture with influences from the north-west.-

Figures in the tiles, shown standing on balconies, had appeared in the art of western Indian caves in the 1st century B.C. and were well established in Kushana period art soon thereafter. The facial features of the figures, their dress and other motifs are reminiscent of the Parthians, the Sassanians and the Scythians whose presence was constantly felt in Kashmir. In the naturalistic expressions and physiognomy, one can see the influence of the art of the Gandhara region.

Numerous images of Siva, Vishnu, the Buddha and Bodhisattvas have been found all over the Kashmir Valley. A fine 5th century Siva, from Fatehgarh near Baramulla, shows the blend of influences from the north-west and from Gupta art. There is a colossal head of Siva from Pandrethan, of the 7th century.

The 8th century ushered in a glorious period in Kashmir. According to the 12th century historian Kalhana, King Lalitaditya expanded the kingdom and conquered most of North India. These military adventures are more likely to have been major raids rather than conquests. However, Lalitaditya would have carried back with him inestimable treasures of precious stones and gold. The prosperity of his reign is seen in the exuberant monuments and art of this period.

Narayan Nag Temples, Wangath, Jammu and Kashmir. High atop a mountain, amidst the verdant beauty of nature, this site has the remains of temples built between the 7th and 12th centuries.-

A great temple dedicated to the sun, or Martand, was built by Lalitaditya at a commanding location above Anantnag. Except for the colossal 13th century Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa, this is the largest temple to the sun in India. It is also the largest Brahmanical temple in Kashmir.

The temples of Kashmir have a remarkable architectural style of their own, quite unlike the Nagara and Dravida styles of northern and southern India respectively. Late Hellenistic and Central Asian influences are seen in the triangular pediments, enclosing a trefoil arch.

Each of the 84 niches made around the temple contained an image of Surya or Vishnu. As in other Indian temples, these were manifestations of the main image in the sanctum and, finally, of the formless Eternal, which they all represent.

Harwan Buddhist site, near Srinagar. The Fourth Buddhist Council is believed to have been held here in the 1st century A.D. Terracotta tiles of the 4th century have been found here.-

Lalitaditya also built a large Vishnu temple and a Buddhist chaitya at Parihaspura, which would have been one of the greatest religious centres in the world in the 8th century. Though the monuments are ruins today, their scale speaks of their former glory. These would have been the models for Buddhist structures from Central Asia to Japan.

The stupa here was most likely the one depicted in a 12th century painting at Alchi in Ladakh. Kalhana also writes about colossal gold, silver and copper images of Vishnu and the Buddha installed in these temples. They are perhaps a continuation of the tradition of brihad, or great, Buddhas seen at Kanheri in western India. Brihad Buddhas have also been seen in Ladakh, Bamiyan (in Afghanistan), China and Japan.

An 8th century crowned Buddha found at Parihaspura displays a form that was popular at that time. The crown is tied with ribbons, which flutter on either side, a style common in Central Asian art.

Siva Temple, Payar. This temple of the late 8th or early 9th century is most important for its fine sculptures that survive in situ.-

A small, but well-preserved, temple at Pandrethan, on the outskirts of Srinagar, represents a fine example of Kashmiri architecture. A figure of Lakulisha above the doorway indicates that it is a Siva temple, while a figure of Indrani, Indras wife, displays the blend of artistic forms in Kashmir.

In the 9th century, Avantivarman, the founder of the Utpala dynasty, built two magnificent temples at Avantipura. One of them, the Avantiswamin temple dedicated to Vishnu, was modelled on the Martand temple, though it is much smaller.

Though the temple is a ruin, the few surviving panels, on the side of the stairs leading to the shrine, show the exuberance of the sculptural style. Figures fill all the available space, giving the composition a crowded appearance.

Martand Temple. This majestic sun temple of the 8th century may have been in its time one of the grandest structural temples in India.-

The most popular form of Vishnu in Kashmir is the four-headed Chaturmurti. One can see a number of such sculpted figures at the Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar. On either side of the central human face, one can see the faces of his incarnations as a boar and a lion. The facial type and the modelling of the torso are typical of Kashmiri art.

A number of terracotta heads have been found at stupa sites in Akhnoor and Ushkur. These were dated to the 5th or 6th century. While the heads are distinctive and of a fine quality, the medium does not seem to have been very popular in Kashmir, where stone, the more permanent material, was preferred.

The grand Siva temple of Masrur, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. This is one of the grandest temples of North India and is the only vast rock-cut temple of the region. According to the art historian Michael Meister, the temple was the conceptual model for the vast "temple mountains" of Cambodia.-

Kalhana mentions that very large metal images were in worship in the 8th century at Parihaspura. These have not survived, but numerous smaller works speak of a vast and active production of excellent figures in metal. The Kashmiri artist preferred an alloy of zinc and copper, which has a soft, beautiful glow and a yellow colour. The images and the stone sculptures show the blend of artistic influences of the plains of India and of Gandhara. Whereas the surviving sculptures in stone are mainly of Hindu deities, those in metal are chiefly Buddhist.

One of the most magnificent works in metal is a nimbus, almost six feet (1.8 metres) high, from Devasar. It is of the 10th century and is a great achievement in the art of metal casting. Forms of Vishnu and his avataras are made in the roundels.

Detail of doorway, Masrur. There is a striking similarity between the wooden and rock-cut sculpture of the Himalayan regions of this period. These finely sculpted figures, who seem to be stepping out of their niches, are similar in this aspect to the later Chola temple sculptures.-

An elaborate 9th century brass image of Buddha Vairochana shows him sitting on a lotus pedestal and there are stupas on either side. It has the conventional treatment of rock formations, which was seen in the murals of Ajanta and is common in Kashmiri art. Vairochana is the universal form of the Buddha in whom is embodied the essence of all Buddhas. Lotus pedestals and the deities of Vajrayana Buddhism were first seen in Buddhist art in the caves of western India, from Kanheri in the 6th century onwards. It is in Kashmir that one can see a great flowering of the Vajrayana philosophy and its art.

The formidable mountains that ring the Valley did not prevent Kashmiri monks from travelling constantly to Tibet, Central Asia and China. Between the 4th and 10th centuries, they conveyed the teachings of Buddhism far and wide. Kumarajiva, the son of Kumarayana from Kashmir, is one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in Chinese history. These teachers carried with them bronzes and manuscripts with paintings, which spread the aesthetics of Kashmiri art in distant lands.

Seated Deity, Masrur, 8th century. There are striking similarities in the motifs and styles of the Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions of the art of this period.-

In the meantime, in the 8th century, in the Himalayan foothills, a high ridge of sandstone at Masrur was carved into a magnificent temple complex. This was the period when hill faces far south at Kazhugumalai in Tamil Nadu and at Ellora in western India were carved both on the inside and on the outside to create temples.

According to the art historian Michael Meister, the great temple at Masrur provided the antecedent and the conceptual model for the vast temple mountains of Cambodia. The temple seeks to express the cosmic form of the divine. The sculptures are similar to those found in the wooden temples of this period in the nearby Chamba region.

Mrikula Devi Temple in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. This temple may be of the 11th century. Though the exterior is not impressive, the wooden interior is richly carved. A great deal of similarity can be seen here with the art and architecture of the Kashmir Valley.-

Chamba, in Himachal Pradesh, lies immediately south of Jammu and Kashmir. The early temples here are in the secluded valley of the river Ravi, naturally protected by high mountains. No ancient trade route, or even a modern highway, passes through this valley and it has enjoyed continued periods of peace and stability.

Many temples here are over a thousand years old, with brass images that have been worshipped continuously since they were consecrated.

Eighth-century temples here, at Bharmaur and Chattrari, have images with inscriptions that mention King Meru-Varman as the donor and Gugga as the sculptor.

Padmapani from Pandrethan, Sri Pratap Singh Museum. Amidst the beauty of the natural world, the art of both Buddhist and Brahmanical faiths presents a sense of joyousness. Kashmir was a great centre of Mahayana Buddhism, which spread from there to Central Asia.-

The wooden temple of Lakshana Devi at Bharmaur is richly carved and reminds one of the art of the Gupta tradition in the northern plains. However, the lilting grace and joyousness of the hills pervades this work. The Deodar wood is lovingly carved to convey the softness and ever changing curves of living forms. The doorway is a masterpiece of wooden carving. It has a three-storied pediment crowned by a gable, in the style of the hill architecture seen in Kashmir.

In the hills, the worship of Devi, the female principle, is preferred, often in the form of Mahishasuramardini, when she slays the buffalo demon of ignorance. The image of her as Lakshana Devi is slim and graceful, yet it shows her power.

Bharmaur Temples, Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh. This secluded region has been a peaceful haven. The worship at temple shrines here has continued uninterrupted over the centuries.-

There is a late 8th century image of Vishnu under worship at Bharmaur. The image conveys the strength and power of Vishnu in his Narasimha avatara, part human and part lion. A life-sized brass image of Nandi, the bull Siva rides, stands in the courtyard of the temples of Bharmaur.

The Shakti Devi temple at Chattrari is another wooden structure of the 8th century. The entrance to the sanctum is a magnificent work of art. On the lintel, flying gandharvas, or celestial figures, convey the joy of existence. Numerous deities are finely executed on both sides. Both the majesty of the spirit and its ineffable gentleness are conveyed in these fine carvings. Indeed, these serve well the purpose of raising one far above the mundane concerns of everyday life.

Chattrari Temple, Chamba. The doorways, which preserve figures of the early period, are similar to those of Buddhist temples by Kashmiri artists.-

The image of Shakti Devi in worship is slender, with a slightly flexed, elegant stance. The blouse, scarf and other features are reminiscent of those seen in Kashmir and in other hill art.

The town of Chamba has several early stone temples, which continue to be under worship. The Lakshmi Narayana temple complex here is a spectacular group of stone structures. A 10th century Siva and Parvati are the most exquisite group in worship here. While they have a regal bearing, human tenderness is also expressed, as with Sivas elbow affectionately placed upon Parvatis shoulder.

Wooden Sculpture, Lakshana Devi temple, Bharmaur, Chamba district. There is a lilting grace to the sculpture of the mountains of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. The lines are fluid and appear to follow the logic of grace rather than optical reality.-

The temple of Mrikula Devi in Lahaul may be of the 11th century. Though the exterior is not impressive, the wooden interior of the temple is richly carved. The earliest carvings here are on the entrance to the shrine, the ceiling panels and the pillars supporting the ceiling. Carvings of a later period include those on both sides of the window. There are also two large dvarapalas, of the later period. A great deal of similarity can be seen here with the art and architecture of the valley of Kashmir.

It is in the valleys of the Himalayas that the art of India finds some of its most joyous expression. The Indian philosophy of aesthetics sees response to beauty as akin to brahmananda, or the final ecstasy of enlightenment itself. Therefore, beauty is sought in all that is around one. This is brought out in art so as to help transform and fill one with divine joy.

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