On the Development of Early Buddhist Art in India

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  • On the Development of Early Buddhist Art in IndiaAuthor(s): Walter SpinkSource: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 1958), pp. 95-104Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3047760 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 22:35

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    N the mountains of Bombay State in western India, some two thousand years ago, a series of rock-cut halls were dedicated by the early devotees of Buddhism. Recalling an age of great faith and patronage, these excavated sanctuaries represent one of the most important sources

    of our knowledge of early Indian art and history. They are of two basic types: the chaitya hall,









    ScALE OPmiP41ES


    with its spacious pillared interior suitable for congregational worship; and the so-called vihdra or monastic residence, composed of a series of plain cells around a square central court. A typical site will have one or more chaitya halls surrounded by a series of vihdras cut along the face of the cliff. The extensiveness of each of these complexes was determined by the needs of the monastic community and by the patronage which it commanded.

    Both the chaitya hall and the vihdra are based on wood and thatch prototypes. The prototypes themselves have long since disappeared, owing to the impermanent nature of their materials. However, the details of their construction are known, for they are depicted in numerous reliefs and paintings of the period.' In the rock-cut halls, notwithstanding their monolithic nature, a sculptural duplication of these free-standing edifices was attempted. So pervasive was this intent that, where the excavators' art did not suffice, wooden additions were commonly made to the stone hall to complete the structure. For instance, if technical considerations forbade the carving of intricate elements in stone, such as the grillwork which filled the great central "sun-window,"

    i. For a conjectural reconstruction of a structural chaitya hall, based on the excavated monument at Kondifie, see Percy Brown, Indian Architecture: (Buddhist and Hindu Periods),

    2nd ed., Bombay, 1942, pl. III. For a general discussion of structural prototypes, see Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "Early Indian Architecture," Eastern Art, II, 1930, pp. 209-235.

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    the usual elements would be affixed in wood (Fig. I.)2 In other instances completely nonfunctional elements would be attached to perfect the duplication; in the Karle hall (Figs. 3 and 4) we can still see the ancient wood rafters arching impressively, but uselessly, beneath the solid vault.

    It is not difficult to determine the evolutionary sequence of the chaitya hall and vihdra forms. Consistent changes are constantly seen. For instance, in the older chaitya halls at Bhaj a and Kond~iie (Fig. I) the interior columns are simple unadorned shafts; in a later stage of develop- ment, at Karle (Fig. 3), the columns are strikingly elaborate. One could cite numerous other

    examples of development, but these changes have been carefully discussed by many authorities more amply than is possible here.8

    On the other hand, the usual dating of this whole sequence of monuments must be seriously questioned; indeed the traditionally accepted chronology must be in error by some two hundred

    years. Correcting this error will throw a different light on the development of art and thought during one of the most significant eras of India's history. Buddhism and Buddhist art were in their formative stages when these eminent monuments of the early faith were excavated. Intimately connected with the social and political history of their times, they attracted the pious interest of

    ever-increasing numbers of the populace and commanded the patronage of even the ruling classes. Their inscriptions supply a record of dynastic changes. But their history, like their style, has gen- erally been interpreted in an erratic light.

    A rather nai've suggestion, too eagerly accepted, played a decisive part in establishing the incorrect

    dating of the early rock-cut halls. A donative inscription at Karle says that the famous chaitya hall was "established" by a certain banker (se.thin) from Vaijayanti named Bhfitapila.' An early investigator proposed that this Bhfitapila might be identified with the last king of the Sunga

    dynasty, a certain Devabhfiti, who is known to have ruled at about 80o or 70 B.c.5 There was nothing convincing in this slight similarity of names; nor was there any historical evidence that a Sunga king ever controlled the region. But no one strenuously objected to the idea, and it was accepted, in that early period of research when tenuous hypotheses were often gratefully received.

    So the chaitya hall at Karle has long been dated at about 80 or 70 B.c. At about the same time

    another (and equally erroneous) assumption was made according to which the earlier halls, such

    as those at Bhaji, Kondifie, and Nisik (Fig. 2) were assigned to about the second century B.c.' Since these halls were certainly earlier than Karle (Fig. 3) in their architectural forms, the two

    hypotheses seemed to support each other and gained accordingly in strength. The first century B.C. date for the actual hall itself at Karle has seldom been questioned, but at

    the same time some authorities have noted that the sculptures associated with it cannot belong to

    such an early period.' The full-bodied couples in the narthex have their closest counterparts in

    works from Mathuri and Amar~vati that are known to belong to about the first half of the

    second century A.D. (Fig. 7, cf. Fig. 6). For this reason these writers have assumed that the aus-

    picious couples, the so-called mithunas, were later additions to the hall. Actually this is not the

    2. A few wooden elements still remain in the large central arch of the Kondifie hall (Fig. 1x) in the smaller arches the same forms are carved from the stone. The monolithic nature of the interior columns is evident here, since the lower portions have been broken away.

    3. For a useful survey of these monuments see Percy Brown,

    op.cit., pp. 24-39. The traditional chronology is used.

    4. Karle Inscription i, in the porch of the chaitya hall. The numbering of the inscriptions hereafter follows that given in James Burgess, Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and Their Inscriptions (Archaeological Survey of Western India, No. 4), London, 1883. For style and dating of Karle Inscrip- tion i, see Burgess, pp. 23-25, 78; Sir John Marshall, "The Monuments of India," in The Cambridge History of India, I, ed. by J. Rapson, New York, 1922, p. 637.

    5. See J. Stevenson, "Sahyidri Inscriptions," Journal of the

    Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, v, pp. 152-153. James Fergusson accepts Stevenson's misinterpretation and thus

    perpetuates the error in his History of Indian and Eastern

    Architecture, London, 1891, p. 117. 6. This hypothesis, based largely upon a misreading of the

    Hithigumphi Inscription of Khgravela, will be discussed below.

    7. Ludwig Bachhofer, Early Indian Sculpture, 2 vols., New

    York, 1929, I, p. xxixi Benjamin Rowland, The Art and Architecture of India, Baltimore, 1953, p. 72. Both Rowland and Bachhofer have felt that the sculptures are several cen- turies later than the architectural elements. All authorities

    agree that the Buddha images on the facade

    (see Fig. 9) are more recent additions, and had no part in the original plan.

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    case. A detailed study of Karle, long hindered by the dearth of good photographs, proves that its sculpture and architecture belong to the same period of excavation. From this point we must move inevitably toward the conclusion that Karle and many other monuments have been misdated by two centuries or more, and that a major revision of early Indian chronology is needed.

    Studying the exterior of the Karle hall, we find that the original design of the porch was con- ceived with the mithunas an integral part of it. For instance, on the sidewall of the porch (Fig. 8) the repeated pattern of the arched niches is broken to allow for the inclusion of dancing couples; and only the presence of these couples in the original plan can explain an otherwise meaningless repetition of the small paired arches above their heads. The same curious paired arches figure above the dancers near the springing of the main fagade arch (Figs. 5, 9). Here also, the otherwise consistent layout was noticeably altered, for the arched niche beside the dancers is no longer vertically aligned with the others on the fagade. Such adjustments in the original plan, otherwise

    inexplicable, demand the conclusion that the mathuna figures must have been included in the

    original program of excavation. Even more dramatic evidence of the direct association of sculptural and architectural elements

    confronts us in the Karle interior, famous for the huge pillars carved directly out of the living rock (Fig. 3). The capitals of these monolithic pillars extend well out into the space defined by the nave and were therefore an integral part of the excavation (Fig. 4). Significantly, the robust style of the capitals is identical with that of the mithlnas in the porch.

    The foregoing makes it clear that the sculpture and the excavated structure of the Karle

    chaitya hall belong to the same point in time.8 The traditional date for the hall cannot be main-

    tained, for it cannot account for the style of the figure carving. We must seek a date for Karle's establishment considerably later than 80 or 70 B.c.

    Fortunately, we can fix the date of the hall within narrow limits, by reference to the reign of the satrap Nahapana, a famous ruler who dominated the western region of India in the first quarter of the second century A.D. The end of his reign in the area must have been about A.D. 124, for at that time he and his followers, known as Kshaharitas, were "entirely destroyed" by the later Andhra conqueror Gautamiputra.9

    Nahapana is mentioned in an inscription at Karle carved beneath the sill of the central "sun- window." The appearance of this inscription on the completed fagade, together with inscriptions of his followers scattered throughout the interior, makes it clear that the hall was not excavated after his reign. Furthermore the inscriptions inside the hall are donative, recording the gift of certain pillars by his followers, and even, apparently, by his grandson. Since Nahapina was

    8. This was acknowledged by the earliest authorities, and has been recognized by various scholars since, notably S. K. Saraswati (see The Age of Imperial Unity, ed. by R. C. Majumdar, Bombay, 1951, p. 502) and Douglas Barrett (Sculptures from Amardvati in the British Museum, London, 1954, PP. 54-55). Sir John Marshall (op.cit., p. 637) also recognized the inconsistencies in the traditional dating.

    9. The fact that Gautamiputra restruck great numbers of Nahapina's coins confirms his statement of victory which is found in Nisik Inscription 14. In Karle Inscription 2 and in Nisik Inscription ixA, Gautamiputra records pious donations of properties which previously belonged to Ushavadita, Na- hapina's son-in-law. Thus Gautamiputra's contemporaneity with Nahapina cannot be questioned. Unfortunately, Indian inscriptions are dated according to a variety of eras or regnal years; but in this particular case the period of rule can be fixed with unusual conviction. The records of Nahapina's fol- lowers, which range from the "year 41" to the "year 46," must be assigned to the well-established "?aka era" starting in A.D.

    78, an era which, significantly, was used by many later satraps. According to such a reckoning 46 + 78 = A.D. 124, etc. This same era was used a few decades later by RudradIman, who is thought to have been the father-in-law of Gautamiputra's son, Pulumivi, the latter being in turn a contemporary of Ptole- my's. This process of historical triangulation should also in- clude the fact that Rudradiman's grandfather, Castana, bears a relation still undetermined to the Kushan king Kanishka, who ruled at about the early second century A.D. For an ex- cellent discussion of the evidence merely touched upon here, see D. C. Sircar in The Age of Imperial Unity, pp. 80o-x83, 200-2045 E. J. Rapson, Catalog of the Coins of the Andhra Dynasty, etc., London, o908, pp. xxvi-xxvii. It should also be noted that the correctness of this dating is emphasized by the evidence of the sculptural styles seen at Mathur. under Kanishka and his successors, at Amarivati under Gautamiputra and Pulumivi, and at Karle under Nahapina. Only the use of this era can bring these related styles into chronological proximity.

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    already a grandfather at the time, we can assume that the completion of the hall occurred late in his reign.'"

    By the time of his overthrow in about A.D. 124 we know (from Inscription 32 at Junnir) that

    Nahapana had become a Mahi-Kshatrapa--a great satrap, whereas he was still only a satrap in the Karle fagade inscription. Inscriptions datable in A.D. 120 in the so-called Nahapina Vihira at Nasik also refer to him as a mere satrap, and have many similarities in style and content with the inscription on the facade at Karle." We would therefore assume that Karle was essentially finished by A.D. 120.

    The chaitya hall at Karle is the earliest of the important...


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