Q.4 (c) Explain as to how the early Buddhist Stupa art, while using folk motifs and narratives and common cultural symbols, succeeded in transforming these themes for expounding the Buddhist ideals. [2013, 20m]
From pre-historical times, burial mounds containing the remains of the dead were a common funerary practice in some Indian societies: in these mounds, the living paid homage to their dead, just like Buddhists would do for their saints, centuries later. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra also suggests that the practice of erecting funerary mounds over the bodily remains of kings predated Buddhism.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra claims that after the Buddha passed away, his followers divided his cremated remains into eight portions. Each of the eight kingdoms in which the Buddha had lived received one portion of the relics, and a stupa was erected in each kingdom in order to house the remains.
Initially, relics of the Buddha were embedded in the core of Stupas. In the next stage, relics of Buddha’s disciples and companions were similarly enshrined. Worship was soon transferred from the relics to the Stupa itself. During 200 BCE to 300 CE, Stupas- with or without relics – became important part of Buddhist monasteries.
The Stupa represented many things in the Buddhist tradition:
- It stood for the axis mundi (the centre of the universe);
- it symbolized the Parinirvana of the Buddha;
- it was repository of relics of the Buddha and other monks;
- it was a place of veneration, worship and pilgrimage for monks and laity;
- it was not merely considered a commemorative symbol but also believed to be the living presence of the Buddha, a depository of his protective powers and living energy.
The Stupa art expounding Buddhist ideals by using folk motifs and narratives and common cultural symbols:
- Many of the relief carvings at the early Buddhist sites drew from a large pool of common cultural symbol and ornamentations that had nothing especially Buddhist about them. For instance, sculptures at Sanchi Stupa depicted yakshas, yakshis, nagas and nagis. They were appropriated as attendant deities of Buddha.
- The narrative art of Bharhut Stupa, depicting Jatakas of Buddha’s previous birth in sculptures and the decorative art of Sanchi Stupa belong to the folk tradition.
- The scene of the birth of Buddha in some Stupas shows maya flanked by two elephants holding round pitchers in their trunks. This is a Buddhist apppropriatioon and adaptation of the Gaja-Lakshmi motif giving it a new meaning.
- The intricate and elaborate surface decoration and the shallowness of the relief carving at sites such as Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati suggest that these represented a translation of the wood carver’s art into stone.
- Few Stupas have Swastika inset into their base which is certainly a common cultural symbol of ancient times.
The Stupa architecture expounding Buddhist ideals by using folk motifs and narratives and common cultural symbols:
- Anda: The main structure of the Stupa consisted of a flattened hemispherical cupola or dome, called an anda, placed atop a cylindrical base. Anda was a symbol of latent creative power and was also intended as an architectural replica of the infinite dome of heaven, representing the cycle of death and rebirth. Anda relates to the universe in ancient Hindu mythology and was also sometimes called the Garbha or ‘womb’.
- Harmika: The harmika, located at the summit of the anda, symbolized the zenith beyond life and death (nirvana) and its resemblance to a sacrificial altar was of particular significance, for the attainment of nirvana required the sacrifice of the self and the world.
- Yasti: Rising from the harmika was the yasti or pole (that was imagined to run through the anda into the ground) which represented the axis-mundi (world axis) that connected heaven and earth.
- Chattras: Above the anda, the yasti serves as a support for tiers of chattras (umbrellas) that signify the supremacy of the whole structure. The three elements of the chattra at Sanchi represented the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Law, and the community of monks.
- Vedika: Keeping with the ancient tradition of enclosing a sacred tree with a fence, the chattra was enclosed by a railing or vedika. They served to demarcate the boundary of the sacred precinct with the secular world. The lowest vedika had four entrance gateways or toranas. The orientation of the toranas (east, south, west and north) corresponded with the direction of the sun’s course: to sunrise, zenith, sunset and nadir.
Hence, the early Buddhist Stupa art and architecture, though religious in character and sui genere, assimilated the secular, religious folk motifs and narratives and common cultural symbols of the past, succeeded in transforming these themes for expounding the Buddhist ideals.