The Buddha preaching, Nagarjunakonda

Benoy K Behl

The fertile valley of the Krishna River was the cradle of civilisation in the Eastern Deccan. By this time, it had become famous in the world for its fine textiles, particularly of cotton. There was a flourishing trade with Rome and large quantities of Roman coins have been found here.

This area became one of the greatest centres of Buddhism and over 140 early Buddhist sites have been listed in this region.

The Buddhist site of Amravati is on the bank of the river Krishna, next to the ancient capital of Dharanikota in the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh.

The history of the stupas at this site covers at least 1400 years, from the time of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.

By the 1st century BCE, the stupa was enlarged and sculpted limestone slabs with narrative sculptures were added. The shallow relief, broad faces, turbans and heavy earrings are reminiscent of other Shunga period art.

In the 2nd century CE, the Satavahanas extended their rule to the Eastern Deccan. Under them, the sculptural reliefs of the magnificent stupa reached its culminating phase. The entire stupa was covered with shimmering limestone slabs, with exquisite sculpture. An ornate stone vedika was also added.

On the inner surface of the pillars were made narrative carvings of the life of the Buddha. The stories are told in greater detail here than was done earlier at Sanchi.

From the 1st century CE onwards, artists in North India, around Mathura, and in the North- Western Gandhara region had begun to depict deities in human form. Earlier, symbols had been used to indicate the presence of Buddhas and Jaina Tirthankaras. Artists in the Western and in the Eastern Deccan took more time to break away from earlier conventions of the art, in which personalities had not been depicted. It is only in the 2nd century that the Buddha was depicted in art in the Deccan.

The coping of the railing is fully adorned with eternal themes. Often a thick and luxuriant garland is depicted. It is reminiscent of the vine of the fullness and bounty of nature which was seen in the 2nd century BCE at Bharhut and later at Sanchi. It is carried by turbaned youths, who would represent the urbane city dwellers of the prosperous Krishna Valley.

A world of Buddhist narratives was created, through which the worshipper moved, as he went around the holy stupa.

Sculpted scenes such as the Birth of the Buddha would transport the viewer, far from the everyday concerns of the mundane world. His soul would be lifted in response to the beauty and grace before him.

In the rapt attention and divine contemplation on the faces of the attendant figures, the artists appear to have portrayed the devotion within themselves. It is a realm of gentleness and beauty, which awakens the best within us.

Activity is contained within a sense of grace which prevails on all forms. The figures portray a quality of surrender to the harmony of existence. The sumptuous richness of the carvings is a fulsome celebration of the divinity which is all around us.

Since the Indus Valley civilization, India has been well known for its flourishing trade. Great centres of art have come up at junctions on internal and external trade routes. Greeks, Parthians and others who stayed in India, took to Indic beliefs and expressed their devotion to deities, in numerous inscriptions.

Commerce brought people from far away parts of India and elsewhere together in a spirit of mutual understanding and appreciation. It is such a spirit of warmth and giving which is contained in donative inscriptions of this period across the whole of India.

The exquisite phase of the Amravati art was under the rule of the Satavahana rulers. However, as in Central and Western India, this was an art of the people. The individual pillars and sculptures were the donations of lay people and the monastic community. Nuns outnumber monks in the donative inscriptions and many of them hold high religious titles. Everywhere in ancient Indian inscriptions it is seen that women enjoyed a high economic and social status.

Besides the Buddha figures in the reliefs, a number of free-standing Buddhas have been found at Amravati and other sites of the Andhra region. They date from the 3rd century onwards. These are quite different from the Buddha figures which were being made at Mathura and Gandhara and show an independent artistic conception. They are dignified and serene. These were to be the models for the Buddhas of South-East Asia.

The Ikshvakus came to power in the second quarter of the 3rd century and established a new capital called Vijayapura or the City of Victory in the Nagarjunakonda Valley. The great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna, one of the most important proponents of Mahayana philosophy, was known to have lived here in the 1st or 2nd century CE.

The area continued as a most important centre for the development of Buddhist philosophy under the Ikshvakus. A large number of monastic establishments were founded here for the residence, study and worship of at least four different sects of Buddhists.

Unlike Amravati, the remains at Nagarjunakonda have been systematically excavated and securely dated through inscriptions to the 3rd and 4th centuries. The original site was submerged by the making of a dam in recent years. However, the edifices were carefully reconstructed and preserved for the future.

The artist continues to present before us the grace which underlies all that is around us. That grace which is also deep within each of us and we respond to it when it is presented before us in art. Earlier, the art brought to us the vital and living world of nature, in which man was only one part of its existence. The focus has shifted. Some of the joy and frolicsome world of creation has been left behind as the emphasis has come more on men and women.

Under its series Glimpses Of Culture, India Habitat Centre is presenting a talk by Art Historian,
Film-maker & Photographer (and the author of this article) Benoy K Behl tommorrow
(February 24) at 6pm. A film ‘Profusion of Life’
(produced by Behl for Doordarshan)
will also be screened on the occasion.
Click here to join


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