Eastern embrace

Print edition : November 30, 2012

Magnificent monuments, paintings and manuscripts attest to the rise and continuing influence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal and Tibet.

One of the earliest countries to embrace Buddhism was Sri Lanka. In the 3rd century BCE, Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Asoka, carried a cutting of the revered Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya to Sri Lanka. Buddhism was symbolically planted, along with the holy tree, on the island. Both the faith and the venerated Bodhi tree continue to flourish.

Sacred Bodhi Tree, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. This may be the oldest recorded living tree in the world. It has grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, India, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The cutting was brought by Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Asoka, and was planted in Anuradhapura in 249 BCE by the king of Sri Lanka, who called himself Devanampiya-tissa, meaning "beloved of the divine".-

The paintings of the Sigiriya caves, of the 5th century, in Sri Lanka, are very similar to those of Ajanta. They have the same inward look and a lyrical grace that seem to say that there is an end to the sorrow of the world.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, magnificent Buddhist monuments were constructed in Java. The Borobudur Stupa was built by the Sailendra kings in this period. One of the most magnificent Buddhist monuments, it is the tallest stupa standing in the world. There are many thousands of feet of fine relief, which one sees as one climbs upwards and goes around the stupa.

Nepal is geographically very close to the cultural centres of the Indian plains. There is a great heritage of philosophy and art that Nepal has shared with India over the centuries. With the disruption of Buddhist centres in India after the 12th century, monks and scholars took refuge in Nepal. They carried with them their greatest treasures, their valued manuscripts and paintings. Thereafter, Nepal became one of the main lands that continued the Buddhist heritage of the plains of eastern India. Paintings and sculptures made in Tibet over the next few centuries were mainly made by Nepalese artists.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 35,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made over a hundred documentaries on art history. This series carries photographs from his photographic exhibition on Buddhist Heritage of the World, which is currently on display in Nara in Japan and in the French Reunion Island. It was also displayed earlier this year in London, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Leh, New Delhi and at the International Buddhist Conclave in Varanasi. The series has photographs taken in 19 countries/regions across Asia and in one part of Europe which has a 300-year-old Buddhist heritage.

Mirisawetiya Stupa, Anuradhapura, 2nd century BCE. The vast stupa is 209 metres high and symbolises the grandeur of the spirit. Its size and magnificence create awe in viewers and transport them to a world away from the turmoil and confusion of daily existence.-

Aukana Buddha, near Kekirawa, Sri Lanka, Circa 5th century C.E. The tallest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, it measures 39 feet (11.88 metres) from its lotus plinth and 46 feet (14 metres) from the ground. It is known to have been made in the reign of King Dhatusena, the period when "brhad", or colossal, Buddhas began to be made in Sri Lanka and in the caves of Maharashtra in western India. The tradition soon spread to South-East Asia and northwards to Kashmir, Ladakh, Afghanistan and Central Asia.-

Apsaras, Mural, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, C. 5th Century. The painter's gentle touch reflects sympathy and compassion for humankind. These paintings carry forward the tradition of apsaras (celestial beings) who carry offerings of flowers for deities and venerable beings.-

VATADAGE, POLONNARUWA, SRI LANKA, 12TH CENTURY. Vatadage means circular relic house or shrine. It is similar in concept to the chaitya-griha made to house objects of veneration in India. The shape of the structure is unique to ancient Sri Lanka. These were built around small stupas which enshrined holy relics. Vatadages may have had wooden roofs supported by stone columns, sometimes arranged in concentric rows. This one may be the finest example of a vatadage, only 10 of which remain in Sri Lanka. It is believed to have been built during the reign of Parakramabahu I to hold the tooth relic of the Buddha.-

DAMBULLA CAVES, SRI LANKA, 1ST CENTURY BCE TO 13TH CENTURY C.E. Situated in central Sri Lanka, it is carved out of a rock that towers 160 metres over the surrounding plains and is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in the country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the complex has five caves where paintings and sculptures were made during the Anuradhapura (1 BCE to 993 C.E.) and Polonnaruwa (1073 to 1250) periods.-

SRI DALADA MALIGAWA OR THE TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH RELIC, KANDY, SRI LANKA. The temple is located in the royal palace complex in Kandy. Since ancient times it is believed that whoever holds the holy relic holds the key to governance of the country. Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings. After the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha, the relic was preserved in Kalinga. It was smuggled into Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha, on the instructions of her father, King Guhasiva, in the 4th century. The present-day Temple of the Tooth was built by Vira Narendra Sinha.-

SEATED BUDDHA, GALVIHARA, POLONNARUWA, 12TH CENTURY. Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the capital of Sri Lanka in the 11th and 12th centuries. Galvihara here has four magnificent Buddha statues carved out of a granite hill face. They depict the Buddha seated, standing and reclining. Galvihara is part of a monastery built in the 12th century during the reign of King Parakramabahu.-

THE BAYON, CAMBODIA, 13TH CENTURY. King Jayavarman VII built the greatest Buddhist complex in Cambodia at his capital Angkor Thom. The face towers of Angkor Thom are now a universally recognised symbol for Angkor. The faces look in the four directions and symbolise the universal benevolence of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. The Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom, is the king's own sacred temple-mountain.-

BIRTH OF THE BUDDHA, MURAL, LOKA HTEIK PANN PAGODA, BAGAN, MYANMAR, 12TH CENTURY. The murals in Bagan are among the finest Buddhist paintings in the world. They carry forward the gentle traditions of the early art from Ajanta onwards. Similarities with the contemporaneous art of the Pala kingdom in India are apparent. The themes of the paintings are the life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories of his previous lives.-

PAGODAS AT SUNRISE, BAGAN. At the end of the first millennium, Myanmar had a deep and direct relationship with the centre of Buddhist philosophy, at Bodhgaya in India. In the 11th century, the king of Myanmar restored the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya at his own expense. He also made replicas of the Mahabodhi temple in his own capital of Bagan.-

SHWEDAGON PAGODA, YANGON, MYANMAR. Tradition ascribes this stupa to the 5th century BCE. Archaeologists date it to between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E. It houses relics of four Buddhas-Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa and Gautama. The Theravada tradition recognises 28 Buddhas in human form. The Buddhavamsa, a text that is part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, describes the lives of the 28 Buddhas. They are not the only Buddhas believed to have existed. Gautama Buddha is believed to have received the permission to be the next enlightened one from Dipankara Buddha. Gautama Buddha preached that innumerable Buddhas have lived in past kalpas. In fact, the first words he spoke when he was born were "I am one who will tread the path taken by others before me."-

ONGTUE TEMPLE, VIENTIANE, LAOS. The grand Wat Ongtue in Vientiane was originally built in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. It houses a colossal Buddha image, which weighs 10 tonnes. As in the tradition of Laos, the great temple is also an educational institution. Young men come here to gain knowledge of the arts and sciences, as well as of the science of life.-

SEATED BUDDHAS, WAT CHAWATTANARAM, AYUTTHAYA, THAILAND, 17TH CENTURY. Great Buddhist monasteries at Ayutthaya, from the mid-14th to the 17th centuries, were centres of philosophy, literature and the fine arts.-

WIHAN LUANG, WAT RATCHA BURANA, AYUTTHAYA, 15TH CENTURY. King U Thong founded a new capital in the mid-14th century, 85 km north of present-day Bangkok. He named it Ayutthaya, after the city of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama in India. In fact, the king of Thailand personifies virtues as depicted in the character of Rama. Many structures that represent the glorious Buddhist history of the site survive at Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.-

SEATED BUDDHA, WAT MAHA THAT, SUKHOTHAI HISTORICAL PARK, THAILAND, 13TH-14TH CENTURIES. In this period Sukhothai, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the great Buddhist centres of the world. Some of the most graceful pieces of Buddhist art were created here, in a style that is famous to this day.-

WIHAN LUANG, WAT RATCHA BURANA, AYUTTHAYA, 15TH CENTURY. Over the centuries, its ideal location between China, India and the Malay archipelago made Ayutthaya one of the main trading capitals of Asia. By the 18th century, it was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of about one million.-

BOROBUDUR STUPA, JAVA, INDONESIA, 8TH-9TH CENTURIES. Built by the Sailendra kings, this is the tallest standing stupa in the world and one of the most magnificent Buddhist monuments. The several thousand feet of fine reliefs made around the stupa spell out the essential beliefs of Buddhist philosophy. The bottom level presents the life of passions in the world: the Kamadhatu. The next level presents the law of action and reward: the Karmadhatu. Rising upwards, numerous reliefs depict the Rupadhatu, the life and stories of the Buddha. He is Rupa, the personification of the potential for enlightenment within us. The next is the level of the final truth, which is formless: Arupadhatu. Here, there are no distractions of the illusory forms of maya and all that we see in the stupa. This is the final truth in all Buddhist thought, beyond all forms.-

RELIEF, BOROBUDUR STUPA, 8TH-9TH CENTURY. Sophisticated seagoing sailing ships such as this must have carried out the extensive trade then between India, Indonesia and China.-

KALA GATEWAY NEAR THE TOP OF THE BOROBUDUR STUPA. Through this gateway, we leave Kala, or Time, behind us. We proceed towards the understanding of the final truth of Arupa, or the Formless Eternal.-

VAT THAT LUANG, VIENTIANE. This magnificent stupa, which brings before us the majesty and grandeur of the spirit, is a national symbol of Laos. It was originally made in the 16th century and restored in the mid-20th century.-

SEATED BUDDHA, DONG DUONG. COLLECTION: DA NANG MUSEUM, VIETNAM. South and Central Vietnam have many Hindu and some Buddhist temples, all made in the 7th to 13th centuries. A monastery complex was built at Dong Duong in the 9th century.-

ASOKA PILLAR, LUMBINI, NEPAL. Lumbini is near the border with Uttar Pradesh in India. This highly polished sandstone pillar commemorates the visit of Emperor Asoka to Lumbini in the 3rd century BCE.-

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