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Two Periods of Buddhist Art in India

Less than 1% of the population of modern India is Buddhist. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that India’s importance for Buddhism and its art is mainly its historical influence. Not only is India the country where the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, lived and taught, but it is the land where the first images of the Buddha were produced and where Buddhist iconography and symbolism evolved. Being a student whose family originates in India, I am interested in some of the historical aspects and influences of Buddhist Art in India.

Therefore, my study of this topic extends to two of the most important periods of Buddhist art in India, the Kushan and the Gupta Periods. The Kushan period is the period in which the first human images of the Buddha appeared. This paper will briefly discuss the Mathura region and will primarily focus on the styles and attributes of sculptures from the Gandharan region. This discussion will illustrate how regional differences contributed in developing two distinct styles of art within the same period. Therefore, I will briefly discuss the history and location of the Gandharan region.

I will focus on the Gandharan Bodhisattva (2nd/3rd century, made of schist) displayed in the Art Institute. Next, the paper will discuss the Gupta Dynasty, this is period in which the culture of the period was more concerned with aesthetic values of sculpture, which I will illustrate through my discussion of the Preaching Buddha of Sarnath (c. 475 ad, Buff Sandstone). As a result, the art from the Gandharan region will show how regional location and influences affected this period’s sculpture, and the art from the Gupta Period will illustrate how aesthetic preferences of the culture influenced the sculpture of this period.

By discussing the Gandharan Bodhisattva and Preaching Buddha from Sarnath, we can see that the art of Buddhism in India reflects the ideals and the sophisticated aesthetics of the varied regions and periods in which it flourished. In early Buddhist art, the Buddha was merely symbolized by a wheel, a bodhi tree, or a stupa. Not until the Kushan period [AD 50-250], during the reign of Kanishka I, was the historic Buddha represented in human form. The creation of a Buddha image in human form corresponded to the theological changes influenced by Mahayana Buddhism taking place in the religion.

Two distinct styles of sculpture emerged during the Kushan period, one associated with the region of Gandhara and the other with the city of Mathura in northern India. There is much debate in which region these first images appeared, and such discussion is not relevant to my thesis. What is relevant is that these two regions developed two distinctly different styles of sculpture. While Mathuran art developed from local Indian artistic traditions, Gandharan sculptures were heavily influenced by the artistic traditions of the Hellenistic world, most probably as a result of Alexander the Great’s colony in Bactria (western Afghanistan).

Mathura school sculptures often share iconographic features with their Kusana-period counterparts in the northwest. But for the most part, they reveal a purely Indic stylistic heritage that must have evolved independently” (Huntington 151). The Gandharan style of sculpture, on the other hand, combines an intriguing blend of Western classical and Indian influences. Gandhara was a region in the northwest of ancient India, known for its Greco-Buddhist school of sculpture. Gandhara corresponded to the modern Peshawar valley, but its more popular meaning today encompasses large portions of northern Pakistan and adjoining northeastern Afghanistan.

Gandhara’s regional location was vital to this Hellenistic development. Gandhara was located just east of the famous Khyber Pass, comprising what is now north-western Pakistan. The art of the Roman Empire was probably brought to Gandhara because much of the Mediterranean trade with Asia was channeled through such mountain passes. This region’s sculpture had some chief characteristics, especially its degree of realism inherited from its Greek antecedents in the area combined with ideals of its own native tradition.

The stance of the figures, the style of the draperies, and even the proportions of the idealized features of the heads with their straight noses, oval eyebrows and tranquil expressions owe much to Greek prototypes” (Penny 103). We can observe the Greco-Roman influence on the sculpture of Gandharan art by observing the Gandharan Bodhisattva at the Art Institute. As a beginning student in Buddhist Art, the stylistic differences in this sculpture are quite obvious. After conducting research on Gandharan sculptures, I found that the sense of volume conveyed in the outline of the Buddha’s garment is characteristic of Gandhara sculptures.

Both the folds of the clothing and the body underneath are modeled with a greater sense of naturalism compared to the sculptures can be seen in images from Mathura. It is important to note that although most sculptures from the Gandhara region share certain stylistic and iconographic features, a tremendous variety may be seen in its works. However, “in general sculptures are characterized by naturalism in body forms, drapery, and pictorial scale, reveling a debt to Hellenistic, Roman, and other western influences” (Huntington 134).

This example of a Gandharan Bodhisattva probably once stood in a stupa or temple. This sculpture is made from the material schist. According to the book “The Materials of Sculpture, Schist is a metamorphic rock of foliate character and dark silvery gray color, sometimes tending to blue or green. Used for the great school of Buddhist sculpture in Gandhara” (Penny 310). The hard schist material allowed the sculptors of Gandhara to carve the folds of the garments and details of features and jewelry much more crisply and with greater volume than materials such as sandstone (Pal 152).

Originally [such sculptures] may have been polychromed or gilded. ” (Pal 307). The structures made of schist were often covered with gold leaf, sometimes applied directly to the stone, sometimes over red priming. This often made such statues appear golden. Unfortunately, the sculpture in the art institute has lost its shine with age, but if you look closely you can see gold sparkles across the image. This sculpture obviously has foreign influence when we observe the long wavy thick hair, the heavy robe and sandals.

This seemed to be some of the influences via Alexander the Great’s conquering pathways of trade. The princely bearing of the figure is emphasized by the powerful, fleshy torso, the rounded breasts and abdomen, and the long, wavy hair. The strong, round chin, straight nose, and smooth oval face adorned by a twirling moustache suggest the mixture of races and nature of Gandharan art and culture. It is typical of the hybrid art from Gandhara, “Greco-Buddhist,” in that the sculpture is purely Greco-Roman in profile, but dressed as an Indian secular prince wearing a dhoti.

The relaxed pose and jewelry represent the bodhisattva’s continuing association with mankind as, through compassion, he has voluntarily postponed his own achievement of nirvana in order to devote his superhuman powers to relieve suffering and further the spiritual progress of others. This impressive sculpture illustrates the emergence of the Bodhisattva as a distinct iconographic image in the Buddhist religion and artistic tradition. The way in which the robes hang, the facial features, executed in accordance with the standards of the Hellenistic school, are combined with the traditional meditative poses of Buddhist art.

It probably stood on a base whose front was carved with a scene of worship. Gandharan Bodhisattvas are considered the most elaborate adorned and regal of all gods represented in Indian art, yet they display a human vulnerability by wearing charms. These figures are accompanied by a plain halo, which indicates their divinity eventhough their other attire represents a secular prince. In summary, we see a Bodhisattva who is decorated with jewelry to symbolize his humanity, but is obviously a divine figure stylized to fit the ideals and influences of Greco-Roman sculpture.

While the Gandhara Bodhisattva illustrates how regional differences influenced art of the Kushan Period, the Preaching Buddha of Sarnath illustrates how sculptors from the Gupta period were more concerned with the aesthetic effect of their work. Karl Khandalavala explains Gupta art by stating that, “While earlier art was extrovert and concerned with mundane existence, this art is introvert and aims at visualizing the superman endowed with the highest wisdom, which is declared as the supreme goal of life” (41).

In his book, Indian Sculpture, Pratapaditya Pal builds on Khandalavala’s idea when he states, “There is less concern with garment folds and details of jewelry. In contrast, the sculptors were more interested in registering inner feeling and spiritual ecstasy, not through dramatic distortions but by a subtle and serene expressiveness” (212). The Gupta period (AD c. 320-c. 540) has earned the title of “the golden age of India” as it was a period of great military strength, wealth and prosperity, and a period where the arts and sciences flourished.

Historical background of a dynasty is always important in discussing art, however the historical background of the Gupta period will not be discussed in detail because it is not directly related to the thesis. My discussion of Gupta art deals mainly with the latter developments of the 5th and 6th centuries. However, it is important to note that the sculptural style of the Gupta period is not an isolated development, and was indeed influenced by the prior sculpture schools of Mathura and Gandhara. Nevertheless, the Buddhist sculptures of Gupta period are aesthetically finer and more sensitive creation then that of the Gandharan Buddhas.

The Gupta sculptor converted basic elements of the Gandhara Buddha into a more refined vision. The Romanized countenance of the art of Gandhara was subtly transformed and given “a purity of form and expression all its own, by the Gupta sculptor” (Khandalavala 6). The divine image now combines a disciplined body with a conquered mind. Although Gupta kings were traditionally devotees of Hinduism (particularly to the gods Visnu and Siva), they respected Buddhism, giving Buddhist religious and artistic communities unrestricted support.

It is important to note that the iconographical system formed in this period became the basis for artistic expression in India for centuries. However, it is also important to note that it is often agreed that, “these were the last great days of Indian Buddhist Art… as Hinduism displaced Buddhism in India, the future of the art, like that of the faith, moved eastward” (Sherman 103). In other words, the Gupta period was the beginning of the decline for Buddhist artistic representation in India. Nevertheless, it did indeed leave its mark.

After all, the Gupta period is considered as the period of systematization of iconography. “Iconic forms of the divinities of all three religious systems became more rigidly determined and codified during the Gupta Period” (Pal 213). In other words, the portrayal of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ gestures and postures became more elaborated and stylized. These iconographic elements later influenced and can be widely seen in Eastern Buddhist Art. This influence is one of the reasons why the Gupta sculptural style is often referred to as the classical style of Buddhist art.

Buddhist statues of the Gupta Period exhibit sculptures that are meditative and serene, a body that is “subtly modeled” and a face that exhibits enlightenment. Rather than concentrating on how a Bodhisattva is dressed as in Gandhara, they are more concerned with the aesthetic effect of the sculpture. Thus, we see soft folds of the dress, the exquisite bending of the hands and the half-closed eyes of the Buddha. The drapery of the figures are transparent and clung to the body as if wet.

The Preaching Buddha of Sarnath is “generally regarded as the quintessence of the Gupta aesthetic and a masterpiece of Indian art” (Khandalavala 44). Although, I have been unable to see this sculpture in person, I was able to examine and evaluate a full page color illustration in the book The Golden Age by Karl Khandalavala (40). As one examines this sculpture, it is obvious that this sculpture is focusing on the meditative and serene qualities of the Buddha.

The intent is to focus us on the meaning of the faith instead of concentrating on the person of the Buddha. His form is highly abstracted, extraneous details are eliminated and our attention is drawn to the focused gaze and to the hands, areas surrounded by smooth unadorned surface” (Fisher 55-56). On a side note, “the downcast eyes, so important for the concept of the image, may well derive from Gandharan art” (Far Eastern Art 104). This image is supposed to depict the story of how after remaining in contemplation for some weeks, the Buddha traveled to Sarnath, near modern Varanasi, where he preached the first sermon to his five companions in the Deer Park.

In Buddhist terminology he set the wheel of the doctrine (dharma) in motion, in art the wheel symbolize both the first sermon and the doctrine of dharma. Buddha is seated as a yogic ascetic, displaying the soles of his feet, and his hands in the “dharmacakara mudra” the turning of the Wheel of Law. This became one of the most common indicators of the historical event at Sarnath, as well as a symbol for Buddhist teachings in general. Behind his head and centered on the “urna” the tuft between his eyes, is the halo, the sun wheel, indicating the universal nature of the deity.

This sculpture obviously goes beyond just representing this event, and more to the ideals of Mahayana Buddhism. Unlike the Gandharan Bodhisattva, this image is stripped of all the jewelry and other non-essential artifacts. Rather, this sculpture is more concerned with portraying an image that is removed from this world. The robe of the Gandharan Bodhisattva was large and volume with the pleats of the robe curling over the chest in waves. The Preaching Buddha’s robe is much more transparent with loose drapery eloquently ending on his sides.

The torso is also different in that the Gupta’s sculpture has a more triangular shape torso. The figure incorporates sandstone. This may partly be due to the notion that the material sandstone helps deliver a more smooth look. “The grain of sandstone is barely discernible but enough to make its smoothness more sensuous that of a material without a grain” (Penny 111). Other noticeable characteristics of this sculpture is that the Buddha is seated in a yogi ascetic pose. We see many common symbols in this image such as the lotus flower.

The throne is decorated with lions, called leogryphs, which indicated a throne of royalty. Such images highlight the emphasis on a royal celestial Buddha, which is heavily influenced by Mahayana beliefs. The halo is decorated with borders of symbols, such as lotuses, and often give reminders of symbols associated with yakshas. The hands are sculpted more elegantly, the chest and shoulders are narrower, and the face has a softer outline than the Gandharan image. All in all the image is more silent in its delivery.

The viewer of the sculpture is asked to think about the meaning of the religion rather than focusing on the clothing and accessories of the sculpture. They are asked to grasp the meditative and celestial ideals of the Buddha and understand his doctrine. In summary, the culture of the Gupta empire influenced sculpture in that its Mahayana culture demanded more aesthetic value in the art—in which one can understand the meaning of the faith, rather than the figure of the Buddha.

The Kushan and Gupta periods of Indian art are two of the most important eras of Buddhist sculpture in India. To analyze the Kushan period I focused on the Gandharan Bodhisattva in the Art Institute. The two major regions of the Kushan dynasty, Mathura and Gandhara, were less than 500 miles apart, nevertheless, they developed two distinct styles of art. The Gandhara region was more Hellenistic in style due to the Greco-Roman influences on this region. As we progress in time, we come to the Gupta period which was indeed influenced by the styles of the prior periods.

However, by the 5th century AD, it becomes obvious that the culture of this period was more concerned with aesthetic value as illustrated by the meditative and silent sculpture of the Preaching Buddha from Sarnath. By analyzing these two works and the periods in which they were developed we can see that the style of one of the sculptures was influenced by the region in which it developed, while the other was more heavily influenced by the aesthetic preferences of the time.

In conclusion, the Gandharan Bodhisattva illustrated how regional location and ideals influenced the style of sculpture, and the Preaching Buddha illustrated how aesthetic preferences and rising cultural tastes influenced the style of sculpture in the Gupta period. This analysis is important in that it shows how the Buddhist sculpture in India reflects the ideals and the sophisticated aesthetics of the varied regions and periods in which it flourished.

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