Sacred stupas

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

Stupa and Asoka Pillar, Vaishali, Bihar. Emperor Asoka is believed to have redistributed the holy relics of the Buddha and enshrined them in vast stupas across his empire.-

Stupa and Asoka Pillar, Vaishali, Bihar. Emperor Asoka is believed to have redistributed the holy relics of the Buddha and enshrined them in vast stupas across his empire.-

One of the oldest sacred forms of Buddhist art is the stupa, a profound representation of liberation from the bindings of the material world.

THE concept of samsara, the illusory nature of the material world, underlies the Indian philosophic vision. The search is constantly to rise above illusion (maya, or mithya), to seek the truth beyond: to lose our ego and attachments to the objects of the world around us. To see our oneness with all that there is.

Early Indic art embodies these deep philosophic concepts. It takes us on a journey through the development of spiritual thoughts, on a path that seeks the goal of the eternal truth. One of the oldest known sacred forms in India is the stupa. It is seen at Buddhist and Jaina sites from early times. A vast mud stupa of the 8th to the 10th century B.C. was excavated recently near Nalanda.

The stupa is a profound symbolic representation of liberation from the bindings of the material world. Beyond the sculpted gateways (toranas) and railings (vedikas), beyond the great entrances of the rock-cut caves, beyond the surrounding walls of the temples, lies the most sophisticated presentation of the philosophic truth. Here is that which takes our attention away from the multiplicity of the forms of the world to the concept of the formless eternal.

Since early times, stupas were often made by placing a few pebbles one on top of another. As divinity is seen in the whole of creation, it is the focus of our attention upon it which creates an object of worship. All that there is, is a manifestation of the formless eternal, and we may see that truth in any object we choose to. It is the quality of our attention, the desire to see beyond the outward material shapes of the world around us, that is important.

The concept is explained in Vishnudharmottara, which was penned around the 5th century A.D. It is the oldest known treatise on art and architecture. The high purpose of life, and of art, is to lift the veils of illusion to see the underlying eternal.

Therefore, Vishnudharmottara says, The best way in which the eternal is to be imagined is without form. For seeing the true world, eyes are to be closed in meditation.

The simplest form is to focus upon that which is beyond, that which is within. The followers of the Buddha enshrined his mortal remains in a number of stupas. Thus began a tradition that spread to many countries and continues to this day. Later stupas housed the remains of other great teachers, their personal belongings and also Buddhist teachings.

In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Asoka is believed to have retrieved the Buddhas holy relics and enshrined them again in stupas that he constructed across his kingdom. The original stupas, at Amravati, Sarnath, Sanchi and Vaishali, were among those made in his time.

Asokas monuments had many symbols, such as the chakra, which were common to all Indic faiths. The earliest body of Buddhist art, with images of the life of the Buddha and the Jatakas (tales of the previous lives of the Buddha), was made during the rule of the Sunga dynasty, in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. The Sungas worshipped Hindu deities and were benevolent to the Buddhist Sangha.

In early Buddhist and Jaina shrines from the 2nd century B.C. onwards, the focus was on meditation. Forms of the life of the world around us, trees, animals and humans, were made on the railings and gateways. Their representations here help us appreciate all forms of life in their true perspective, to see them as reflections of the formless, eternal truth. Beyond the railings and gateways is the stupa, to point out the truth towards which we must strive, leaving behind the attachments to the world.

The aim was to provide release from ego and the cycle of the pain of life. Accordingly, eternal themes were represented in art, and personalities were not shown.

Generalised depictions of men and women were seen along with the natural world. Numerous images of yakshas and yakshis, who embody the abundance and fertility of nature, forces that ensure the continuance of life, were made on the railings and gateways. These embody the spirit of nature and serve to remind us of the divinity that underlies all that is around us. The first formalised deity, seen from the 2nd century B.C. onwards, was Lakshmi, lustrated by elephants. In the meantime, Buddhas, or the Enlightened Ones, were alluded to by symbols of their achievement and presence.

Between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., stupas were made at Sanchi and Bharhut, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Between the sacred and unadorned form of the stupas and the mundane world beyond, the railings and gateways were made. The railings create a path for the devotee to walk around the stupa. Stories were depicted on the railings to remind the worshipper of the virtuous qualities of the Buddha. Jatakas are used to exemplify the rules of conduct in everyday life.

The focus is not on the personality of the individual Gautama Buddha. The potential of Buddhahood within us is represented by symbols. The wheel represents the first teaching of the Buddhist Dharma; the Bodhi tree represents enlightenment; footprints and an umbrella over a vacant space proclaim the presence of an Enlightened One.

From the 2nd century B.C. onwards, in the Western Ghats, near the coast of present-day Maharashtra, another magnificent chapter in Buddhist art began unfolding. Over a period of about a thousand years, more than 1,200 caves were hewn out of the heart of the hills. Most of these were Buddhist. Leaving behind the cares and confusions of the material world, the devotee came to these splendid havens of contemplation.

These caves stand in silent testimony to the peace and majesty of the spirit within us. While homes and even palaces of kings were made of ephemeral materials like wood, those that were made in service to the eternal were carved out of everlasting rock. For almost 2,000 years of known ancient Indian history, it was the eternal truths, beyond the passing illusions, that were the subject of art. Hence, only sacred spaces were made out of lasting material. It is only as late as the 15th century that for the first time plinths of royal structures were made out of stone.

The first phase of the prolific excavation in the Western Ghats was from the 2nd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. Buddhist prayer halls and viharas for monks to reside in were made under the rule of the Satavahanas and the Kshatrapas. Although these kings revered Hindu deities, they patronised all religious establishments.

There are 22 rock-cut caves at Bhaja, facing the Indrayani river valley in Pune district. The chaitya-griha, or prayer hall, here was made in the 2nd century B.C.

Chaitya means an object of worship: the stupa inside continues to be the focus of devotion. A horseshoe-shaped arch dominates the facade of the cave. The shape was first made, in imitation of wooden architecture, in the Barabar caves (in present-day Bihar) of the Ajivikas. Soon it was to be a pan-Indian motif in Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu monuments. It continued as a decorative motif in Hindu temples even through the medieval period.

In Bhaja Cave 18, we see the earliest representations of Surya (who represents the sun) and Indra. Such depictions of these deities have also been found at Chandraketugarh in eastern India. Indra is revered in both Hindu and Buddhist temples even today.

About 50 kilometres north-west of Aurangabad, in a secluded gorge, are the caves of Pitalkhora. In their time, Caves 3 and 4 here would have been among the grandest Buddhist caves ever made. The conception of the entrance of Cave 4 is magnificent. It is as if the weight of the cave is carried on the backs of life-sized elephants, which have been made in the plinth. This concept continued in later Indian monuments.

On the south face of the range of hills at Bedsa, where the Bhaja caves are located, is another magnificent site of Buddhist excavations. The grand chaitya-griha here is partly hidden from the profane world outside by a large section of the rock, which has been left uncut. In ancient tradition, that which was considered important was always kept away from the glare of common sight. We have to make an effort to attain the joy and peace found inside.

The magnificent chaitya-griha here was made in the 1st century A.D. The pillars inside are the earliest-known to rise out of purna-ghatas, or vases of plenty. From this period, this becomes a common motif of Buddhist and Jaina art.

A small group of caves was excavated in the 1st century B.C., overlooking the stream of Ulhas at Kondavane near Karjat. Despite its ruined state, the magnificent facade of the chaitya-griha exhilarates the visitor. The figures made here are delicately modelled and graceful. There is a sense of natural ease in the artistic depictions of these times. The men and women express emotions with freedom and warmth, not often seen in later representations.

At Karle, on a high hill, opposite the range that houses the Bhaja caves, a grand chaitya-griha and viharas were excavated in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. This is the largest of all chaitya-grihas to be carved out of living rock.

These magnificent rock-cut caves are not architecture really but sculpture on an epic scale. One can imagine the enormity of the task of creating vast shrines out of the hill itself. Great care and planning would have been required at every stage of the enterprise. The cutting of the rock began from top to bottom, creating the spaces and leaving stone for pillars to be shaped later. Even as the stone was hewn to create the structures, the finishing of the walls and the carving of detailed sculpture were taken up.

Six couples are sculpted at the entrance to the cave. They are larger than life and filled with robust vitality. These are yakshas and yakshis. They were seen individually in the gateways of the stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi. Here they have come together as mithunas, or loving couples. Their closeness to each other, in natural affection, symbolises the completeness of the world, of the harmony of the natural order.

Another site of the prolific excavation of rock-cut caves is on the four hills close to Junnar in Pune district. These were excavated from the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. In Greater Mumbai, within the Borivali National Park, is the cave site of Kanheri. This site provides a view of the developments in Buddhist art for a thousand years, from the 1st century A.D. onwards.

The caves at Kanheri present the last expressions of the early rock-cut tradition of western India. This site heralds developments in the iconography of the Buddhist art of the later period.

About 100 km from Aurangabad, are the 31 rock-cut caves of Ajanta. The caves, formed in a horseshoe-shaped gorge of the Waghora river, were excavated in two phases: first around the 2nd century B.C. and the second around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Cave 10 is the earliest chaitya-griha and was made in the 2nd century B.C. The murals found here are the earliest surviving paintings of the historic period in India. They are known to be the fountainhead of the classic paintings of Asia.

The Sunga and Satavahana periods were marked by prolific monument building. The themes and traditions of art formulated then continued in later centuries.

In the meantime, changes were taking place in Indian art in the north of India. In earlier representations, only the railings of stupas and the exteriors of caves presented images of the world as seen around us. In the heart of the mountain, we were to contemplate that which was eternal, that which was within. The stupa was simplicity itself.

By the 1st century B.C., images of deities began to be made in Indian art such as a seated Buddha from Isapur, Mathura, and a Saraswati image from the Jaina stupa at Kankali Tila, also near Mathura. Chitrasutra, of Vishnudharmottara, the oldest known treatise on art, says that images of deities are made to help focus attention on eternal concepts, which are too abstract to be grasped easily.

By the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., numerous images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Jaina Tirthankaras, Siva, Vishnu, Kartikeya and other Hindu deities were created. These followed the earlier models of yakshas and nagas.

The form in which the Buddha was presented was that of an enlightened being, one out of many, with 32 attributes that identified him as such. The long arms and elongated ear lobes, as well as the urna, a mark on the forehead, and the ushnisha on the top of the head are some of the auspicious marks of such a great being.

A number of images of seated Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of this period have been found, and these include a fine one from the Katra mound. This was donated by Amoha Asi, a nun, for the welfare and happiness of all sentient beings. This is a common wish expressed in donative inscriptions of all faiths in this period.

At Kankali Tila, near Mathura, an image of Surya was found. An architectural fragment from Mathura shows an image of a Siva Linga being worshipped. Several Lingas of this period, with one face and four faces, have been found. Kartikeya is also depicted, carrying a spear. He was later incorporated into the Hindu pantheon as a son of Siva.

While images of deities were coming into being in the art of Mathura, the main focus still remained on stupas, Buddhist and Jaina. As in previous times, the railings and gateways of these stupas presented the boundless fruitfulness of nature and the joy of life. A large number of beautiful yakshis have been found here.

The Kushana rulers had their summer capital at Peshawar, in the Gandhara region, in north-west India. Buddhism reached this area in the 3rd century B.C., as we see from the inscriptions of Asoka. This region was a meeting point of cultures, which travelled on the trade routes from China to the Mediterranean. Concepts of Indic philosophy, which placed emphasis on the renunciation of worldly desires, were new to many here.

Emperor Kanishka held the Fourth Great Buddhist Council in Kashmir in this region. This was the first time that Mahayana Buddhism was given the full support of royal patronage. The council was also significant for making the Sanskrit language the main vehicle for Buddhist scriptures. The Mahayana school of thought, which was far less austere than earlier Buddhism, soon gained popularity in the Gandhara region. It also spread from here to Central Asia and China.

Little remains of the numerous Buddhist monuments that were made in Kushana times in the Gandhara region. However, vast numbers of sculptures of this period have survived. The sculptures of this region show influences of Mediterranean and Persian styles. Instead of the spiritual, idealised forms of the Indic mainstream tradition, these attempt to present the appearance of people in the world and their everyday expressions. The drapery also shows the influence of Western models.

In early Buddhism, the focus was within oneself, on the potential for enlightenment that is in each of us. In the Gandhara region, the attention was more towards a heroic personality of the Buddha and other Buddhas as distinct individuals. Their help could be sought through prayers. The Jatakas were the subject of the earlier art. These were based on the Indic philosophic view that saw the unity of all of creation and the cycle of births in the world of illusory forms. The population of the Gandhara region was not deeply versed in this philosophy and would have found it simpler to relate to the life of the individual Gautama Buddha.

Beyond the world of forms, the stupa had earlier been kept plain. Now, narrative panels relating the life of the Buddha were placed on it, at the base. The Four Great Events in the Buddhas life were presented most often. Other incidents and legends from his life were also introduced. Here, the emphasis was more on the drama of life in the ephemeral world. Human life, personified in the Buddha, before and after enlightenment, became the vehicle of the message. Depictions in the Gandhara region significantly dramatised the events of the Buddhas life and presented them with charged emotions.

The narrative depictions and figures in the art of Gandhara were formulated by the end of the 1st century A.D. The sculpture flourished and was at its best in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The creation of the Buddhist art of Gandhara came to an abrupt end in the 5th century, with the invasion of the Huns. In the meantime, the tradition of art in the northern plains of India continued to evolve. Mathura continued as a vital centre of Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu art. Sculptures made here have been found far and wide.

The portrayal of deities had become central to Indic art. These deities were the personifications of qualities. By meditating upon them, we awaken the best within us. By meditating upon the Buddha, we hope to awaken the Bodhi, or true knowledge, within us.

This concept of deities travelled from India to other countries of Asia. It took root everywhere and to this day the puja, or the worship of deities, continues. These graceful representations move us and transport us far from worldly concerns to a peaceful realm within. They are a path to take us away from the pains created by our desires in the material world.

The history of Buddhist heritage is the story of a great quest of mankind, a quest to leave behind the desires and attachments of the world of illusions, a quest to attain the peace that can only be found within.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment