A short Introduction to Buddhist Art History

A short Introduction to Buddhist Art History

 “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Gautam Buddha

 Buddhist art history comprises paintings, reliefs depicting Gautam Buddha and Bodhisattvas, Buddha's life, and Jataka tales. Bodhisattvas are portrayed-characters, recognized as past lives of Gautam Buddha. And, Jataka tales subscribe to various mind-bending Buddhist myths, reckoning the teachings of Buddha. These were created under patronage of successive earlier Indian kingdoms.

Buddhist art history is divided into two phases: aniconic or pre-iconic and anthropomorphic. Buddhism gradually got divided and evolved into multiple sects, depending on the idol and principle worship. For example, the Hinayana sect did not believe in idol worship, unlike the Mahayana sect.

 What is the Aniconic or Pre-iconic phase?

 The aniconic or pre-iconic phase of Buddhist art history comprises reliefs, panels of sculptures on walls and gateways of stupas, identifying Buddha's presence through symbolic motifs and not a human being. These symbols consist of footprints, trees, animals, or absence of form. For example, the Prasenjit pillar at Bharhut stupa has a panel called The Enlightenment at the Tree Sanctuary, which describes Buddha's enlightenment through a tree whose leaves are directed upwards. The other motifs like the throne, omega, parasols, and garlands, embellish his royal nurturing.

(Two Lotuses, Bharput Stupa; Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 Aniconic representation aimed at following values preached by Buddha, instead of mere delusionary idol worship. This phase is said to have existed from period Buddhas existence in fifth to first century BC. The depiction also exposes Indian artists' expertise who excelled in wood, stone, thatch, and terracotta.

 Anthropomorphic Production Centers

The human depiction of an individual or a belief is known as an anthropomorphic image. Gautam Buddha had restricted his disciples from image-making, thereby limiting his deification. However, Buddhist mythology states that after Budhha becomes samyak sambuddha (supremely awakened teacher), he remained in his nirvanic state for 90 days. Missing his presence under the bodhi tree, the king Prasenjit made a meditating Buddha statue, placing it in the same spot where Buddha sat. When Buddha arrived, the figure walked towards him. 

 The myth provides us an idea that although the aniconic phase was devoid of defined buddha image, artists must have created images from perishable material, which were damaged with time.

 However, the first Buddha image was made during the Kushan dynasty (early first century BC until 375AD) at Gandhara, signifying the Hellenistic style. Before Kushans expanded Buddhism, King Ashoka, of the Mauryan Kingdom in north India, was a significant ruler who constructed many stupas, panels, pillars, and inscriptions. His spearheaded mission of spreading Buddhism benefitted citizens beyond the boundaries of India.

(First image of Sitting Buddha, Gandhara. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Buddhist Art Production Centers And Patronage

After having defeated the Mauryan king, the Kushan dynasty rose to power, intensively managing the art centers of Gandhara and Mathura. While Gandhara carries an outsider influence, Mathura sculptures were indigenous. Kushan dynasty also witnessed the perpetuation of the Mahayana sect, thereby incrementing the number of Buddha idols. 

 The lineage is carried forward by the mighty Gupta kingdom (3rd-6thcentury AD) in the north, during which the art and architecture of India rose to prominence. Therefore, the Gupta period is also known as the Golden age. With robust yet subtle human depiction, brilliance in iconography, and material, the Gupta art influenced other parts of India. Subsequently, Ajanta and Ellora caves, in central India, depicted bodhisattvas like Padmapini, among other jataka tales with absolute precision. 

(Ajanta Cave, Image by Took from Pixabay)

Indian artisans created standing, seated, and sleeping Buddha, parinirvanik(during death) Buddha, and other poses with stylized features and symbolic compositions. For example, one of the buddha images shows his hand touching the ground, known as bhumisparsha mudra. It represents that the entire universe is observing the process of his enlightenment. Thus, Buddhist art epitomizes a conscious rendering of an intensive range of art forms through an experiential wisdom and Buddhist religious importance.

Author credits: Urvi Chedha 


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