Buddhist Art of Northern India

1. Bharhut

2.The Buddhist art of Gandhara and Mathura of the Kushan period (lst-3rd centuries).


3.Gupta-Period The well-known Gupta period (c. 320-600) of North Indian art is also less thoroughly represented than the earlier Kushan period.

4. There are a number of metal and stone sculptures from the Pala period (c. 750-1150), which witnessed the last flowering of Buddhist art in Bihar and Bengal. Another region well documented by fewer but excellent bronzes is Kashmir, which is discussed in the essay on Himalayan art by Robert E. Fisher.


Bharhut: The earliest Buddhist sculptures in the Simon collection are the two railing pillars (Figs 1 and 2) from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh. Bharhut is one of earliest known sites where a large stupa received elaborate embellishment of its stone railing and gateways. First used by Buddhists as reliquary mounds to contain the Buddha's cremated remains, stupas were subsequently erected for other religious teachers and as a sign of the Buddha's achievement of nirvana, a reminder of the goal of all Buddhists. Most early Buddhist patronage of artistic activity was probably associated with the decoration of stupas which were a focal point for worship.

When the British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-93) discovered Bharhut in 1873 he found that the stupa itself had been mostly destroyed by the local villagers who had used it as a quarry for bricks. Despite that, a number of the upright pillars and crossbeams of the railing as well as one of the four monumental gateways had survived. The Bharhut reliefs demonstrate that by the second century BC the Indian artistic vocabulary with an emphasis on the human form was already well established. However, the shallow carving of the reliefs means that the figures are not really separated from the ground, so they lack the organic quality and energy that characterize images from later periods. In addition to being among the first surviving examples of Buddhist stone sculpture, the Bharhut remains also bear important inscriptions that identify the subjects depicted and record the patronage of numerous devotees.

In the upper, larger register of one pillar (Fig. 1), a woman grasps a flowering tree with her right arm. This subject relates to a popular belief that the touch of a young woman can cause a tree to flower. Similar figures found at Bharhut and other Buddhist sites represent different types of fertility goddesses that existed before Buddhism but were incorporated into the symbolic repertoire of Buddhist art. An inscription on this pillar has been read as 'Mahakoka devata', the goddess Mahakoka. Emphasis on fertility and well-being is also conveyed by the female's left hand which seems at the same time to point to her parted legs and to the amorous couple below.


Lavishly jewelled couples were borrowed from pre-Buddhist concepts and apparently signal the abundance of material as well as the spiritual fruits associated with Buddhist practice.


Although the right side of the second pillar (Fig. 2) was cut away when reused in a modern building, enough remains to identify the continuous narrative presentation of Sakyamuni's departure from his father's palace. Born as Prince Siddhartha, Sakyamuni spent the first thirty years of his life surrounded by luxury, but with his decision to embark on a spiritual quest and seek release from the endless chain of existence, he left his father's palace. Thus, the great departure symbolizes a pivotal point in his life.

At early Buddhist monuments like Bharhut, events from the life of Sakyamuni are seemingly presented without the depiction of Sakyamuni himself. The story commences at the top with two females (perhaps deities since they stand on lotuses) in the palace and footprints at the upper right side, which signal Sakyamuni's movement to his horse led by the groom Chandaka. The horse is riderless, but the umbrella, flanked by two flywhisks positioned above the saddle, indicates a special presence. In such early reliefs elements of setting are kept to a minimum and realistic spatial concerns are disregarded. Nevertheless the walls appearing in the middle of the relief ingeniously separate the successive scenes and at the same time demonstrate that the horse depicted below has left the city. Other figures in the relief make gestures of adorationone at the bottom plays a drumcelebrating the joyous event of Sakyamuni's decision to seek spiritual release which will then provide salvation for other living beings. Perhaps one of these figures relates to the name inscribed on the relief, 'the god Arhaguta'. This name occurs on another Bharhut relief, but it is not encountered in other images or in Buddhist texts.