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.

Whether Amaravati was intentionally destroyed or simply fell to pieces is unknown. The first record of it is in 1797, when Colonel Colin Mackenzie, later Surveyor-General of India, visited the site and describe ‘a great low mound, the upper part of which rose in a turreted shape to the height of twenty feet’, with a diameter at the top of about thirty yards. By the mid-1790s the stupa had sunk further; fragments of carved masonry lay scattered around it. Shortly after Mackenzie’s visit, a local landowner carted off pieces to help build a Shiva temple nearby. Other locals used stones they scavenged, often striking off the sculpted surfaces. Mackenzie returned in 1816 to find that the top of the mound had been dug out by a land-owner to make a water tank. The Surveyor and his assistants stayed for more than six months to make drawings, and some time later took 11 stones to Calcutta; nine of these were shipped to the East India Company collection in London.

Almost three decades passed. Then in 1845 Sir Walter Elliot of the Madras Civil Service travelled to Amaravati. The mound had almost entirely vanished, and ‘every fragment of former excavations had been carried away and burnt into lime’. However, Elliot dug the stupa’s north-west quadrant and removed 79 marbles. These were taken to Madras and ‘placed in the front entrance of the Central Museum, more or less exposed to the forenoon sun, but otherwise sheltered’. The collection was catalogued and subsequently photographed in 1858 by Captain Linnaeus Tripe, one of the first great India Service photographers.

In 1859 the 121 objects in the Amaravati collection were shipped to London at public expense. For a year, they sat on a wharf in Southwark before being taken to Whitehall’s India Museum, where at least two of the best pieces were mounted on the outside walls of the building – prey to the climate and air pollution. In 1874 the marbles were displayed in the sculpture court of the new India Museum, South Kensington, the site of today’s Imperial College. About five years later, when the India Museum’s collection was split between the British Museum and the V & A, the marbles, under the auspices of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks of the British Museum, were given to the BM, while decorative arts went round the corner to the V & A. ‘What gratified me greatly,’ wrote Walter Elliott in 1880, ‘was to find that Franks, with the true instinct of a lover of Art, treated these poor suffering remains so tenderly, with an appreciation of their value, and careful handling which they have now for the first time met with. I have urged him to devote a larger space to a gallery of Indian Art, and he seems disposed to do so.’ Franks was as good as his word and mounted the Amaravati marbles in protective cases on the museum’s Great Staircase. They stood there until 1939; brought out of storage after the war, they were reinstated in the north-west corner of the Front Hall, where the present gift shop stands.

This was not the end of Amaravati’s vicissitudes. By the Fifties, humidity and pollution had again started to erode the marbles. They were packed away and stored in the museum’s basement in atmospherically controlled conditions, and remained there for thirty years until finally retrieved last year through the enterprise of resident departmental keepers, and grants from Joseph Hotung of Hong Kong, Asahi Shimbun (a Japanese newspaper), and matching funds from the Wolfson Foundation and the British Government.

I have condensed this latter-day story from Robert Knox’s 1992 monograph, which for the first time gives a detailed description of the whole Amaravati collection, including the pieces still in storage. The publication of Knox’s beautifully illustrated book, which builds on the work of a museum predecessor, Douglas Barrett, coincides with the reappearance of the marbles in a glassed-in room at the west end of the new Joseph Hotung Gallery which was opened last November. With the opening of this gallery, which contains the newly mounted Amaravati marbles and a vast new show of other Asian antiquities, the museum’s collections from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece have at last found their counterpart in ancient India.

The Joseph Hotung Gallery is new only in name: it is the familiar Edward VII Gallery, designed by Sir John Burnet and opened by George V in 1914. It is a high-ceilinged room 360 feet in length, running along the north side of the first floor of the BM. Tall windows give onto sky and plane trees, with Montague Place and Senate House providing a sober out-view. Conceived to be filled with natural light, for the past thirty years the windows have been half-obscured with sliding metal grills and the grey-painted gallery lapsed into a little-frequented annexe. When the Hong Kong connoisseur Joseph Hotung visited the Oriental Gallery, he used to bring his own torch so he could study the Chinese collection properly. Spurred by this inconvenience to suggest relighting the gallery at his own expense, his offer was met by a startling proposal. ‘Why not give us the money,’ asked Jessica Rawson, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities, ‘to re-do the whole gallery?’ Two years later, this has miraculously happened. The whole space has been Stripped, redecorated, its original architectural features restored, with the bays between the new laminated windows panelled with unburnished gold-leaf. To enhance the light that now enters from both north and south, huge advances in spotlight technology have made it possible to pinpoint every piece in the collection. The long, high space of this lovely room is now all air and mingled light; only glimpses of academic Bloomsbury remind you that you’re in London.

The most dramatic point of entry is from the north staircase, which brings you to the midpoint of the gallery with its open porthole to the ground floor. To the right of the entrance extends the East Asian collection with its fabulous jades, ceramics and bronzes. To the left is the museum’s South and South-East Asian collection, introduced with open hand by a sublime gilded Tara deity from Sri Lanka in the ‘three bend’ posture. Ranged behind this is a good proportion of the largest and most important collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculpture outside India.

In contrast to what one specialist in the Fifties described as the ‘crowded and haphazard installation’ of the Amaravati marbles in the museum’s main stairway, the whole South Asian gallery is ingeniously organised. Everything – from the mahogany cabinets in the window recesses, the pier cases that flank the aisle, to the freestanding temple pieces towards the end of the gallery – is lit, clearly labelled and explained so as to communicate maximum detail. There is almost too much, but the quality of the space, like the orderly profusion of an Indian temple, permits this. And at the end – beyond Buddhas from Sarnath and the exquisite dryad from the gate at Sañchi, behind the Hindu pantheon which climaxes in a massive group of black schist carvings – the glassed-off Amaravati marbles shimmer.

‘The Pali word samvega,’ wrote Coomaraswamy in a paper called ‘Aesthetic Shock’, ‘is often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience.’ Indian aesthetics have always demanded the subordination of beauty to the evocation of a flavour (rasa) of the sacred. In Hindu and Buddhist art, the beautiful had value only in so far as it embodied a religious idea which anonymous artists, renouncing any notion of self-expression or reputation, brought to their work through the practice of yoga. The Buddhist stupa or Hindu temple image, then, was designed to recreate for the spectator the same visionary connection with his subject that the artist had experienced through the long discipline of concentration.

This, in part, was the purpose of Amaravati. Travelling to the shrine – in itself an act of ‘merit’ which helped lead to a desirable rebirth – the devotee entered the ambulatory gates and walked in a sunwise (propitious) direction round the stupa. While the unitary stupa connoted death and nirvana, the images to the walker’s left and right on the stupa drum and ambulatory railing were a polyphony of symbols and stories: the symbols alluded to the Buddha and his ideas, while the stories showed scenes from Buddha’s life and previous incarnations.

The lotus – symbol of perfection, purity and realisation – is the overwhelming image. Huge stylised flowers, embossed at the centre with circular stamens, punctuate narrative roundels in the railing, stud vertical columns, hang in swags from stupa garlands and stream round borders. The other purely dharmic symbols are the tree representing the enlightened Buddha and the spoked ‘wheel of law’ which, metaphorically, he set turning in his first discourse on suffering. Mingled with these is a mass of secondary symbols: some – empty thrones, parasols, feet inscribed with auspicious signs, lions, elephants, snake kings, eagles, fly-whisks, garlands – allude to the notion of Spiritual royalty; complementing these are makaras (scaly mythic monsters), potbellied dwarfs, ‘urns of plenty’ and leaping deities – all exuberantly suggestive of the way Buddhism incorporated folk religion and pre-Buddhist hieratic theory.

The narrative panels – which look tiny and crowded compared to the massy and heroic Hindu pieces on the far side of the glass parition – come from two main sources. There are the straightforward illustrations of the Buddha legend: his mother’s premonitory dream, his miraculous birth and his ‘great departure’ from the court for the homeless life of an ascetic. Then there are depictions of the Buddha’s past lives: scenes drawn from Indian folk tales and legends which were modified to represent some five hundred and fifty putative incarntations – as kings and brahmins, even as animals – before the Buddha’s final birth as Sakyamuni. For reasons that still elude interpretation, the Amaravati carving draw repeatedly on only about four of these birth stories: perhaps those largely expressive of the Buddha’s ‘perfection of generosity’. But what is perhaps most appealing to a modern audience is the intimacy and even sensuality with which the scenes are evoked.

A packed scene in a railing pillar of particular beauty: the narrative roundel and its border contain over thirty figures in only about 100 cms of stone. It is a tableau of figures in astonishing postures and of great gestural variety. Near the top sit two half-naked women on a bench: they are playing a game. One lies propped on a bangled arm, her left leg bent, the right leg dangling; inclined towards her partner, the other sits with one leg folded, the toes of the other foot resting on the striations on the bench’s fore-edge. They smile dreamily over their play, while below them a group of women musician are performing. One is a cross-legged lyrist with her back towards us, a long braid of hair following the curve of the spine, her left arm sharply, confidently angled, her thigh raised as though moving in time to the music, and her right arm embracing a long pear-shaped instrument. Facing this figure sits a woman with a transverse flute, each finger positioned so clearly that a flautist might be able to guess the note she is stopping. With her elbow bisecting the space between the players, and moving with a droll, self-conscious vigour, is a dancer whose gestures, like those of the performers in other roundels, could be identified by modern practitioners; leaning somewhat zanily towards the dancer is a man waving a conch shell.

Throughout, there is either movement or a relaxation which is drowsy, companionable, music-pervaded. Even the subterranean serpent kings with their ladies, and the hump backed oxen from a separate narrative in the fluting below, appear to sway within the same charmed suffusion. In high, tight relief, their bodies roundly in separation from the limestone matrix, whose grain they follow, and casting grooves of shadow into the background, kings, previous Buddhas, courtiers, geese, musicians, dwell in a cosmos of effort less languor, where species mingle and strata of legend melt together.

On the other hand there are pieces of solemn tranquillity and economical focus such as the representations, in small, of the stupa itself. One, for example, stands with ethereal clarity, chased in low relief and decorated simply with garland swags and stylised cobras under a thick cloud of royal parasols. Another, decorated with lotuses and more knotted cobras, is bracketed between two kneeling elephants: the domed symbol of nirvana flanked by tuskers – the force of gravity suggested by the illusion of their weight pulling them backwards – inscribed with a lovingly fulfilled realism. This flexibility of transfer between devotionalism, iconographic intensity and, in the story roundels, a life-loving naturalistic indulgence gives Amaravati its haunting and lusciously involved beauty.

The profusion of imagery, so much of it small, in this small, quiet, air-conditioned room, is bewildering at first. Indeed, some of the panels, especially from the latest period, with their ‘dry faced’ figures and skinny, elongated, nervous bodies may seem repellent and suggest a Dantesque infernalism which the flaking surfaces, cluttered with grains of quartz and mica, somehow intensify.

It is as well, at first, to stand outside and look in at the ambulatory panels raised high on their steel framework. In front, in a darker stone than the rest of the pale greenish limestone (known as ‘Palnad marble’), stand two guardian lions and an eight-sided pillar with wheels, trees and lotuses. In the ancient, spidery Brahmi script which decorates some pieces, the donor of the pillar, the perfumer Hamgha (first century BC), is piously remembered. A good man? An enlightened one? A family man? A pandar? Anything is possible. The Buddha’s last meals were donated, severally, by a courtesan and a blacksmith: the latter unintentionally poisoned him. People like these, besides the Buddhist saints and mendicants, walked round the stupa. What they read as they went was a simulacrum of the cosmos – physical and metaphoric, legendary and quick – in whose criss-cross of absolute and relative realities they themselves were tangled. Individual carvings came and went. Hamgha’s pillar no doubt replaced some earlier donation and perhaps fell to yet another. The composite rose, changed shape and collapsed. Its ruins in this latest station, so brilliantly assembled, look reassuringly safe. When they come back from an exhibition in Japan next year, some extra pieces, still in storage, will complete the monument.