Buddhist Art : The First Phase

In contrast to the Indus Valley culture, Buddhism was the earliest of Indian religious and cultural beliefs to undertake works of art of any scale and significance. With the decline of Vedic culture (of which little, if any cultural work remains), Buddhism has left behind a large amount of art objects, architecture, organized religious orders and monastic discipline.  While the life of the Buddha (563-483 BC) did not make any overtures toward the production of art, the dissemination of Buddhism from India to Southeast Asia, to China and then to Japan ensured that Buddhist art is as varied as it is prolific, and that it constitutes a significant part of the art heritage of ancient Asia. 

Ashoka: Rock Edicts and Pillars 

Ashoka the Great (269-232 BC) was the first major Indian ruler to show interest towards Buddhism as a state religion and did much to propagate its spread, sending embassies to Ceylon, South East Asia, China and as far afield as the Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East. That there is a certain symbiosis between Middle Eastern (Persian) art and that of Ashoka’s reign is evident from the treatment of the stone pillars and sculpture of his reign, though other sculptures, notably those of elephants and bulls, and more definitely Indian. Among Ashoka’s achievements are various rock edicts carved out laying out the Buddhist order or Dhamma, a four-faced lion pillar at Sarnath dating from the 3rd century BC, as well as numerous other pillars and lesser works of art. The lion pillar in particular is very emblematic of Ashoka’s reign, incorporating as it does four open-mouthed lions, facing in the four cardinal directions with carved manes and a wheel symbolizing the progression of life at their base. It was also toward the end of Ashoka’s reign that other Buddhist architectural typologies, namely the chaitya, the vihara and the stupa began to make their appearance. More is said about these building types in the article "Communion With the Soul: The Rise of Buddhism". 

Carvings at Sanchi 

If the stupa at Sanchi was the epitome of Buddhist architecture, its bas reliefs and carvings are no less an achievement symbolizing Buddhist art. The sculpture on the torana at Sanchi, for example, are detailed enough to be made in wood, though the actual material is sandstone. These gateways consist of three horizontal members with luxuriant sculpture resting on two end-pillars, and the junction of these two members is marked by a scroll-like pattern reminiscent of Ionic orders in classical Greek architecture.  The central panels of these gateways are profuse in their carvings, with sculptures of nude nymphs, plant motifs, water buffalos and elephants mingling in a fashion that evokes Buddhist notions of life and harmony.  Also relevant are illustrations depicting town and country life with buildings resembling vihara halls, village huts, town constructions, moats and more, thus portraying with accuracy life as it may have been during this era.  Marked, however, by their absence are images of the Buddha himself, the artists preferring to portray his life through symbols such as peepal trees and dhamma wheels. This is in stark contrast to sculpture from the later Buddhist era which produced many images of the Buddha himself. 


There are two other significant artistic developments that the carvings at Sanchi address. The first is the question of narrative: in Sanchi this is solved by using bands of sculpture to display narrative. Sanchi artists preferred the use of bas relief sculptures that appeared three-dimensional from certain angles, however, this visual effect was completely obviated from other viewpoints. To provide a sense of narrative, certain techniques were adopted, as for example placing less central figures ‘behind’ main characters by making them smaller.  In all cases, the narrative sequences form part of the overall composition, thus making each small part indivisible from the whole.

The second question was that of temporality, or how to depict the passage of time.  The technique adopted for this was to make a central character the most overarching theme in a frame, and to subordinate all other narrative to this. The other technique was to develop the narrative in a series of frames, each spilling over to the next, thus ensuring a sense of time within the whole composition.  Either way the sculptures at Sanchi and elsewhere are interdependent on one other and the whole composition, and their effect cannot be observed separate from each other. 
Art in the Monastery 
Monastic architecture of Buddhism consists mainly of chaityas and viharas, which were carved in significant numbers out of rock between 120 BC and 400 AD.  While earlier halls contain little in the form of sculpture or adornment, later halls can be very elaborate, for example the ones at Karle and Bhaja.

The art in these halls ranges from adorned pillar capitals and bases to sculpture friezes within the halls themselves, thus indicating that Buddhism was developing from an austere order to one that commanded riches and power from the people and nobility. At Karle, a massive four lion pillar at the entrance sets off the façade, which is framed by a horseshoe shaped window derived from bamboo and wood construction forms.

China and Japan 
Through trade routes and empire, Buddhism had spread to China and Japan by the 2nd century AD. At China in particular, the early Buddhist period is noted for its creation of colossal Buddhas carved out in caves, for example the at the Yungang caves in Shanxi province (450-490 AD), at the Longmen caves in Henan province (495-550 AD), and further afield, a similar colossal Buddha was at Bamiyan in Afghanistan 4th -5th C. AD).

In Japan, the major work is the Horyu-ji temple, founded in 600 AD, complete with chumon (entry gate), pagodas and a Golden Hall.

Though Buddhism reached Japan only in the 6th century, after developing in China, the works of this phase in Japan represent a colossal and very earthly picture of Buddhism, an earthly religion for living beings as opposed to the original philosophic aims of the Buddha.    

Lion Pillar Vaishali. © Professor Banerji. 
East Gate, Sanchi Stupa
Gateway, Karle Chaitya. © Catenacci 1887.
Guardian Deity at Horyu-ji Temple, Japan.

Previous : Beginnings: Art from the Indus Valley Civilization
Next: Buddhist Art : The Later Phase 


More by :  Ashish Nangia

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