Carved Cosmos

Tom Lowenstein

  • Amaravati: Buddhist Sculpture from the Great Stupa by Robert Knox
    British Museum, 247 pp, £40.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 7141 1452 9

‘All conditioned things decay’, was, as roughly translated, the Buddha’s penultimate sentence. ‘The one who has woken’ (which is what the participle buddha means) was trying to reassure the monastic circle that his death was in the natural order of things. The Buddha’s views on an afterlife are ambiguous. The historical man, however, saw the future of his thought as part of a philosophical continuum within society, and he apparently conceded the necessity of a degree of post humous ritual. In texts which describe the Buddha’s final weeks we find him ordering the construction of reliquaries (stupas) for his ashes. These were to be placed symmetrically, as in many Buddhist propositions, on the sites of four life-events: his birth, enlightenment, first discourse and death.

In the centuries that followed the Buddha’s parinirvana (final entry to nirvana), the remains of other leaders came to be buried in stupas, and these funerary domes – perhaps patterned on archaic pre-Buddhistic mounds – became ritual centres. Buddhism in India survived until the 15th century AD, when most of its innumerable monasteries, universities and shrines were wiped out.

Since the 19th century many of these sites have been excavated and one famous reliquary remains: the great stupa at Sañchi in Madhya Pradesh, whose gates are among the best known of India’s ancient monuments, after the Taj Mahal. Paralleling Sañchi, the major stupa of south India was at Amaravati (‘place of the immortal’), a river site in Andhara Pradesh. A few carvings are preserved in a small museum at Amaravati itself; a major collection is in the Madras Museum and about a hundred and twenty monumental pieces were shipped to London in the mid-19th century: they are now on display at the British Museum for the first time since the late Fifties.

The survival into our century of the Amaravati carvings, most of which focus aniconically on Sakyamuni Buddha’s birth, past lives and enlightenment, might have amused the Buddha and have prompted a discourse on vicissitude. The Master was as uninterested in the contemplation of images as he was in ritual. But although his practice was largely abstract and psychological, one late text reports him enjoining meditation on his own painted likeness. A further paradox is the presence in carvings of nature spirits from pre-Buddhist folk religion, naked women and an aesthetic finesse to which ‘purified’ Buddhist perception is indifferent. In keeping with his time, the Buddha, whose system was non-theistic, did not disbelieve in gods and spirits. The devatas were simply part of cosmological society, and the non-Buddhist shrines in the forest clearings of his north Indian territory were part of his aesthetic if not devotional landscape. ‘How delightful the Capala shrine is!’ he said during his terminal illness – an expression of pleasure of a kind which the scribes setting down the otherwise austere transmission, hundreds of years after his death, perhaps heard too little of.

The Amaravati stupa, like other ruined shrines, combined these theoretical antipathies. The dome itself, a plain construction of brick and mortar, was built around a small reliquary casket. The simplicity of the stupa mound, reminiscent of the Buddha’s upturned begging bowl, may be said to represent extinction, completion, nirvana, the absolute. Decorating the surface of the dome were luxuriantly carved limestone slabs, and the stupa was surrounded by an ambulatory, pierced by four all of which were densely ornamented with sacred iconography: the work of six centuries, starting around 300 BC.

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