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Reconstructing Buddhist Art in relation to Iconography and Architecture with special reference to Ma

In the recent times, a huge controversy has sparked up regarding the chronology of sculptures and sandstone pillars. This controversy has been an inspiration for me to sidetrack from my usual articles on Art and Culture of the Mughals and the Delhi Sultanate, and shift my focus on reconstruction of Buddhist Art with relations to Iconography and historiography. As someone who mostly reads William Dalrymple, Catherine Asher, and Swapna Liddle, this article is going to be a challenging one owing to my limited yet expandable knowledge in the subject. In my view, in order to study the built spaces and the present arrangement of pillars and monasteries, one should first study the about successive excavations that took place, as Buddhist pillars and sculptures have been considerably shifted around.

Today most pillars have been shifted to the Bodhgaya museum and the only reason they are known to the world of scholars and writers is because of 2 plans that were made in the late- 19th century and mid- 20th century. The first one was made by Alexander Cunningham in 1892 and the second one was made by Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1935. Contemporary historians find Coomaraswamy’s plan better as it gives a more authentic description of railing posts of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya. Historians who have studied this temple, have noted that the temple is surrounded by railing on three sides (North, West, and South) and there were small entrances from these sides that can be judged from the gaps in the railings. Historians have also noted that only a few sandstone pillars survive today, while most of them have been broken or damaged. Many of these sandstone posts have been preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and in the Indian Museum in Calcutta. An analysis of these pillar posts can be done by studying the fragments that are kept in the Indian Museum. In the South-Eastern corner of the Mahabodhi temple, there are four sandstone posts that are equipped with three rows of cross-bars, while the five broken posts on the North-Eastern side are equipped with only one row of cross-bars. Apart from these 2 more cross-bars are kept in the Indian Museum. All the sandstone posts, even those without the cross-bars, have edges and mortice-holes that have been cut to receive that cross-bars which signifies that every post had cross-bars and most of them were looted and destructed. A very evident example of destruction and looting is the Stupa at Amaravati, which was one of the most magnificent Stupas to be ever built. Slabs from the Amaravati Stupa grace many homes and public places in modern-day London. Coming back to the Mahabodhi Temple, most of the pillar posts have one medallion in the center and three-quarter medallions on the top and bottom. These contain full-blown lotus flowers, with overlapping petals, containing human busts or real and mythical animals within the line of their stamens. The lotus motif is often replaced, mainly in the upper medallions, by representation of incidents from the life of Buddha, the jataka tales, bodhi trees of the seven Buddhas, stupas, chaityas, and goddess Sri. One post on the south side, shows the goddess Sri and the lotus in the three-quarter medallions, respectively at the top and bottom and a mithuna in a rectangular panel in the middle. The rectangular panel is framed by pilasters with animal capitals at the sides, a railing at the base and stepped merlons on the top. On the beveled edge of this post on top is a pearl garland drooping from a blue lotus, while below, suspended from the base of the rectangular panel, is another garland without the blue lotus. Corner pillars on the south-west and north-west are divided into four rectangular panels, filled with mithuna’s, worshippers, and architectural motifs, the north-west pillar containing figures of a somewhat livelier character, including the famous representation of Surya, the Sun-god on his chariot. Apart from these relief sculptures, there is the so-called jeweled walk itself, which survives as a brick platform to the north of the temple, flanked by eleven sandstone pillar bases on either side. The neck of the pots is decorated with bead and reel molding and a row of overlapping lotus petals. Representations on the sandstone railing posts at Bodhgaya suggest that these pot bases may have supported octagonal shafts, that carried the weight of the superstructure above.

Coming back to the initial discussion of the two plans made; today problems while discussing chronology of these sculptures come because of the Haphazard method used by Cunningham during the archeological investigation at Bodhgaya. Though he did pioneer work by clearing the site and making space available for easy inspection, he left his trails extremely unclear with inadequate drafting and paperwork, making it difficult to locate what was found where and when. Nevertheless, attempts are being made to establish original locations of sculptures and pillars from his reports.



BIBLIOGRAPHY: Chakravarty, Kalyan Kumar, 1997, Early Buddhist Art of Bodhgaya, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers


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