magic diagram of the cosmos, with a universal Buddha at the center of the cosmic machine surrounded by four mythical Buddhas located at the four cardinal points of the compass. This concept of five Buddhas goes back to earlier beliefs such as the five elements and five senses.
Buddhist Art under Mauryas
The conversion to Buddhism of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (272-232 BC) led to the highest moment of artistic development. The ruins of a stupa at Piprawa in Nepal and the core of the great stupa at Sanchi mutely testify to his zeal. Stone memorials, which consisted of great pillars crowned by sculpted animals of metaphysical significance, were set up at sites associated with Buddha. On these pillars and rocks were inscribed Ashoka's edicts on Dharma in Pali. The Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang, who visited Sarnath (the scene of Buddha's first preaching) in the seventh century, speaks eloquently of the monument: "A stone pillar about seventy feet high. The stone is altogether as bright as jade. It is glistening and sparkles like light…"
During the period of the later Sunga rulers (185-72 BC), Buddhist art emerged from an archaic phase of expression towards final maturity. The stone, whether on railings or gateways, was profusely decorated. The monuments at Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati are glowing examples of this.
The stupa had come to be regarded an outward and visual manifestation of Buddha in the Ashokan age. It displayed the same mathematical perfection of sheer architectural form and mass as in pyramids. Above the square or circular base rose the solid and hemispherical dome. The dome symbolized the dome of heaven, enclosing the world. A frequent motif was of the yakshi embracing a tree, usually a sal. The embrace of the yakshi and the tree, which yearns for her quickening touch, is symbolic of some ancient fertility rites. Yakshas are also represented, and Kuber, the chief of yakshas, adorns the Bharhut railing. The most beautiful representations are of yakshis portrayed with globular breasts and an ample pelvis. Jeweled ornaments are carved in sharpness and precision while the body curves softly in contrast. The effect of drapery is created intelligently, emphatically defining borders and seams of the skirt.
The medallions served to relate Jataka tales. The method of continuous narration was universally employed-that is, a number from the same story is represented within the confines of the same panel. Time and space were represented on the panel by placing the figures one above the other.
During the early Andhra period (72-25 BC), embellishment of the four gateways of the Sanchi stupa and decoration of the torans and railings were undertaken. The eastern gateway has two panels of Lakshmi typifying the nativity of Buddha; the enlightenment is indicated by the tree and empty throne; and the preaching at Sarnath by the wheel. The only surviving examples of wall paintings from the early Buddhist period are to be found in a rock-cut chaitya hall at Ajanta. The most famous paintings are in Cave 1, which date from the Gupta to early Chalukya period (5th-7th century). The colossal painted figures of Bodhisattvas "by their beauty and finality represent the imagined anatomy of a God. The face has the perfect oval of the egg, the brows curve as an Indian bow; the eyes are lotiform. The elephantine shoulders and arms, the leonine body, and perhaps loveliest of all, the hand, which, in its articulation, suggests the pliant growth of the lotus flower it holds". The representation of Shakti or female energy can be recognized in the beautifully drawn female figure of dusky complexion with a towering headdress.
Rock-cut sanctuaries were enormous halls of worship hewn from the rock in imitation of freestanding architectural types. Called chaityas, they relate to Hinayana (The Lesser Vehicle) sect of Buddhism. The earliest chaitya hall is at Bhaja, dating back to the first century BC. It consists of a nave separated by rows of columns from smaller aisles terminating in a semi-circular apse, in which was located the principal symbol of worship, a rock-cut stupa. The impressiveness of the hall is a result of the grandeur of its architecture coupled with the mystery provided by the twilight, which in these interiors seems to make everything melt and disappear. The visitor is trapped in a magic world of unreality.
The most magnificent cave temples are at Karla. The two massive stambhas (columns) here once had an enormous wheel supported on lions. The façade screen is of carved stone. In this chaitya, the light streaming through the timbered rose window illumines the interior with a mystical half-light.
Gandhara art was patronized by the Kushans, whose empire flourished in northwestern India from first to fifth century AD. The subject of Gandhara carvings was entirely Buddhist and its sculptures are closely related to Roman art. The soft, effeminate facial type of the early Buddha statues gradually assumed the mask-like, frozen character of late antique sculpture that prevailed over the Roman world. The Gandhara School is credited with the first representation of Buddha in anthropomorphic form. The seated Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are stylistically presented.
During the Pala-Sena period (AD 730-1197), Buddhism had largely disappeared from northern India. The worship of the mystical Dhyani Buddha completely replaced any devotion to the mortal Buddha. In this phase, usually called Vajrayana, the paraphernalia of art found their way to Tibet and Nepal.
Buddhist Art in Nalanda
The last major site in India where Buddhists art and crafts flourished was the university township of Nalanda. The Nalanda bronze images display elegance and a fondness for detail. This metal imagery led to the flourishing of Nepalese and Tibetan sculpture.
Bidri is yet another proof of the sea like character of Indian art and craft to absorb and assimilate the latest in craftsmanship in keeping pace with the developments in this extraordinary field.