The Buddist Art: 1AD -500AD

Buddhist art spread far and wide in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Its origins date back to the 200BC -100BC when non-iconographic representations of the teachings of Buddha are found in sculptures, votives, and friezes. The Buddha was not depicted in human form and aniconic forms with elaborate symbolism are used. Some of this is seen in the art of the Amravati school. It is believed that the earliest Buddhist art is seen in the architecture of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya and in the frescoes at the Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra.

The earliest noted anthropomorphic form of Buddha in artwork can be seen from 100BC in Northern India, from the Gandhara area (North West province, now in Pakistan) and the region of Mathura, in central North India. The Gandhara art was influenced by the Greek culture, giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist art of that century. The Gandhara Buddha had distinct Greek influences and the concept of human-god was a Greek concept. The Gandhara Buddha is identified today by the wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes and sandals, leaf decorations and nirvana symbols etc.

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(Buddist Art – Mathura and Gandhara School of Art – Buddha images are used only for illustration purpose)

In comparison, the Mathura School Buddha presents a strong Indian traditional influence with divinities such as Yakshas. The Mathura Buddha is depicted as clad in a thin muslin cloth draping his left shoulder, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat and other such details. Both the Mathura and Gandhara regions art influenced each other too, as the two regions were politically united under the rule of the Kushans and both were the capitals of the empire. The Kushan period lasted from 30 – 375AD. The attribution to the evolution of aniconic Buddha to iconic Buddha representations are still in debate whether it was a Greek influence or a natural evolution of the Mathura Buddha form.

In Gandhara Buddha one observes features of solidity and stoutness in the strong physical appearance. An effect of heaviness and compact realism is felt, an earthiness is observed, whereas the Mathura Buddha is more natural and decorative in appearance. Apart from Buddha, the other sculptures are portraits of the rulers, statues of seated rulers of Kushan dynasty, statues of standing figure of Kanishka in stone are obtained.

Buddhist art represented in the form of paintings can be seen today at the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. The oldest group of caves are believed to be built in 200 BC, while the second cluster of caves, were built (cut out) around 400-560 AD. The caves constitute monasteries and worship halls (chaityas) with different Buddhist traditions carved and painted upon, depicting past lives, rebirths of the Buddha, tales from Jatakamala, and rock cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. The murals and frescoes are made of dry fresco pigments laid on dry plaster surface. The Ellora caves, Maharashtra, contain Hindu, Jain and Buddhist symbolisms in the depictions. The Ellora caves also are rock cut caves and operated as worship halls and monasteries for the monks.

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Buddhist art flourished under the later Andhra dynasty reign, the Satavahanas from 1st Century AD to 320 AD. Parts of the Ajanta cave murals are attributed to this empire, especially the 9th and 10th caves which were influenced by the aniconic symbolism of Buddha from the Hinayana phase. The artworks were ornamental paintings on the concepts of Buddhism.  The South – Western India and the North Deccan region was ruled by the Vakataka dynasty between 500 – 700AD, during which the second phase of the mural paintings and frescoes were found in the Chaitya caves at Ajanta. The Buddha is depicted iconically as a highly stylised, delicate idealised figure where one could glean the classical form under the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. These can be seen in the decorative, ornamental, sensual forms of Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Avalokitesvara, Padmapani and Gandharvas and Apsaras depicted in the cave paintings on the walls of caves no.-1, 2, 16 and 17.

One can observe and understand the tremendous impact Buddhist art has had on Indian Art as a whole. From moving beyond depictions of gods and goddesses to the interpretations of philosophies and teachings, Buddhist art brings to the visual culture a strong sense of evolution and acceptance of the evolving Buddha forms. In today’s contemporary times, the teachings of the Buddha and the figure of the Buddha in paintings is still seen as a favourite in figurative art among Indian artists. However much the iconography of the Buddha changes, the essence seems ingrained in Indian art and minds, and that is something to be aware of especially in these turbulent contemporary times.