Buddhist Legacy

Print edition : October 05, 2012

Shrine, Mahabodhi temple, Bodh Gaya, Bihar. The temple is built at the spot where the Buddha gained Enlightenment, near Gaya in Bihar. The present structure dates back to the mid-5th century C.E. Xuanzang, when he came to India in the 7th century, described Bodh Gaya as "the centre of the Buddhist world". One of the four holiest places for all Buddhists, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List of Monuments.-

Early Buddhism was founded on the Buddhas sublime message of love and self-discipline. This philosophic vision of life found representation in mighty stupas, impressive gateways that stand before them, and great caves hewn out of rocks, which together form perhaps the greatest art ever created in the world.

This feature includes photographs of early Buddhist sites and art in India, from the 3rd century BCE until the 2nd century C.E. These are deeply revered sites closely linked to the life of the Buddha: places from where he gave the sublime message of love and self-discipline. Early Buddhism was born out of this philosophic vision of life.

Dhamek stupa, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh. This stupa marks the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The original stupa that stood here is believed to have been made in the 3rd century BCE. The present stupa is much larger than the original one and was probably made in the middle of the first millennium C.E. This is another of the four holiest places for Buddhists.-

We see the art which was created for this faith. It is filled with the dignity of human and other beings engaged in right conduct (as the Buddha had said). It is also an art which recognises the joy and the fruitful abundance of nature. The Buddhist philosophic view treats the material world around us as maya, or illusion. The high purpose of life (and of art, as stated in the ancient treatise on art-making) is to lift the veils of illusion to help us to see beyond. The spell of maya is powerful and very difficult to overcome. We remain caught in this illusory world, full of desires. It is desires that lead to pain.

Chaitya-Griha, Kushinagara, Uttar Pradesh. This commemorates the place where the Buddha achieved Parinirvana, that is, he left his mortal body and attained freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth, in his eightieth year. This is another of the four holiest places for Buddhists. In the course of time, it was covered with sacred shrines and monasteries built by King Asoka and others.-

The power of maya is fully recognised in this art, which shows us the fertility of the illusory natural order around us. In fact, the first deity of Buddhist and of Indian art is Maya, the personification of the force which creates the illusory world around us. Maya is seen in the form of yakshas and yakshis. As the yakshi touches the tree above her, it bursts into blossom and fruit: such is the magic of maya.

Stupa and Asoka Pillar, Vaishali, Bihar. Vaishali was a prosperous city which the Buddha visited a number of times. In the 3rd century BCE, Asoka is believed to have redistributed the holy relics of the Buddha. He enshrined them in many stupas across his empire, such as the one here.-

The art of this period is deeply philosophical and may be among the finest ever created in the world. The stupas remind us of arupa, the formless eternal. Impressive gateways stand before the stupas. Great caves hewn out of the living rock bring before us the majesty of the spirit within us.

Yakshi, railing of Bharhut stupa, 2nd century BCE, Madhya Pradesh. Collection: Indian Museum, Kolkata. Nothing remains of the stupa itself today. A portion of the railings that surrounded it and one of the gateways are preserved in this museum. The railings are made of sandstone and are engraved. These are the earliest representations of incidents from the Buddha's life and from Jataka stories.-

Great stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. The greatest surviving Buddhist stupa of the BCE period is on top of the hill at Sanchi. The stupa was originally made in the 3rd century BCE. In the middle of the 2nd century BCE, it was doubled in size. Four gloriously carved stone gates, or toranas, each 34 feet (10.2 metres) high, were added to the railings in the 1st century C.E.-

Worship of the Buddha, represented by a tree, inner face, East Gateway. Buddhism brings before us a vision of the eternal harmony of the world and the oneness of all creation. The tree is used here to represent Buddhahood. The animals are seen worshipping it, much as humans would. This is a vision that has a fulsome compassion for everything around us.-

Shalabhanjika, East Gateway, great stupa, Sanchi, 1st century C.E., Madhya Pradesh. This is the best-known sculpture of the Sanchi stupas. Such figures, made on the gateways of stupas and temples, are the earliest deities of Indian thought and art. They represent the fertility and abundance of nature, the power and spell of maya over us. We acknowledge them and then leave them behind to proceed towards the eternal truth.-

The Buddha, Gupta period, at East entrance of Great stupa, Sanchi. By the 5th century, the representation of the Buddha in art had been perfected. This is a sublime and idealised image, of one who has transcended the noise and clamour of the material world. He looks within and invites us to an inner journey.-

The Buddha, sculpture, Gandhara, Indian subcontinent. Collection: National Museum, New Delhi. Buddhist art from the north-western regions of the Kushana empire (1st and 2nd centuries C.E.) displays the influences of Greek and Central Asian art. These depictions are different from the purely idealised art of the mainstream Indic tradition. In other Indian schools, garments were made translucent to allow the luminous form of the idealised body to show through.-

Kesaria stupa, Bihar. More than two kilometres to the south of East Champaran is one of the largest stupas anywhere. It is 62 feet (18.6 metres) in height and 1,400 ft (420 m) in circumference at its base. It is believed to have been constructed some time after the 2nd century C.E. upon the ruins of a much older stupa.-

Mithunas, Chaitya-Griha, Karle, 1st century BCE, Maharashtra. Mithunas, or loving couples, are made on the facade of the chaitya-griha at Karle. These yakshas and yakshis are the earliest deities represented in Indian art. They present the fruitful abundance of nature. This is maya, which we must leave behind at the gateway in order to proceed towards true knowledge.-

Mithuna couple, Chaitya-Griha, 1st century BCE, Kanheri, Maharashtra. The men and the women have the sense of prana, or inner breath, and the movement of life. They display individual postures and have gentle expressions.-

Magnificent facade, Karle Chaitya-Griha, 1st century BCE, Maharashtra. This grand rock-cut entrance to the meditation hall reminds us of the magnificence of the spirit within us. This chaitya-griha is one of the most impressive ever made in the Buddhist world.-

Nashik caves, 2nd century C.E., Maharashtra. Another grand group of rock-cut caves is on top of a high hill on the outskirts of Nashik. These were made during Satvahana rule and display the fine qualities of the art of that period.-

Riders on horses atop tall pillars, Bedsa, Maharashtra, 1st century C.E. Made atop tall columns in front of the magnificent chaitya-griha at Bedsa, these figures are marked by a sense of robust youth and vitality. The animals are made with an emphasis on musculature and are a remarkable achievement in the art of this early period. These figures and animals represent the life force of nature around us, which is maya.-

Stupa in cave interior, Junnar caves, Maharashtra. There are many small rock-cut caves on four hills close to Junnar, in Pune district. These were excavated from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century C.E. Seen here is the interior of a chaitya-griha. It has an inscription of the 2nd century C.E. and was the donation of a resident of Kalyana in Maharashtra.-