One of the oldest sacred forms of Buddhist art is the
stupa, a profound representation of liberation from the bindings of the
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.
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.
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.
AJIVIKA CAVES, 3RD century B.C., Barabar, Bihar. These are
the earliest rock-cut caves in northern India. The chaitya
arch is an imitation of the bent-wood architecture of the
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
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.
Treatise on art
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 Buddha’s 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.
Stupas of the 3rd century B.C., Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Asoka’s 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
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.
Torana, Great Stupa, Sanchi. The finely carved human and
animal figures create a world of grace.
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.
ADORATION OF THE chakra, torana, Great Stupa, Sanchi.
(Right) Gajalakshmi, torana, Great Stupa.
The abundance and generosity of nature are
depicted in numerous representations on the
gateways and railings.
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
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.
JATAKA, TORANA, GREAT Stupa, Sanchi, 1st century A.D. The
stories of the Buddha’s past lives illustrate the qualities
of virtuous living. These carvings are a rich record of the
lifestyles of the period when they were made.
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
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.
Grandest Buddhist caves
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
Kesarai Stupa, Bihar. This is one of the largest stupas ever
made. In its majesty, it reminds one of the grandeur of the
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.
Sculpture on epic scale
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.
The Ajanta site
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
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
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
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.
A meeting point
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
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
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
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.
Four Great Events
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 Buddha’s life were presented
most often. Other incidents and legends from his life were also
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 Buddha’s 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