The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part V - Short Survey Of Buddhist Art

After this description of the organization and life of the Buddhist clergy as well as of the ritual, there remains the task of saying a few words on the buildings and cultobjects amid which a great number of Lamas pass their existence; that is to say, the convents and temples and also the images they contain must be described. Since, however, these images are the subject of the volume to which this is but the Introduction, we shall limit ourselves to giving some general idea of the architecture of the convents and temples and of the sculptures and pictures representing the deities.

Notwithstanding numerous works, among which must be mentioned as of first rank those of Foucher, Grunwedel, von Le Coq, and S. Oldenburg, the study of Buddhist art still presents considerable lacunae and numerous uncertainties.

This art must have first appeared soon after the institution of the first sangha, probably towards the middle of the fifth century b. c, but the most ancient monuments known to us do not date back beyond the third.

From that period down to the present day can be distinguished four stages of development

  1. the art of the ancient Indian school,
  2. the so-called art of Gandhara,
  3. the mediaeval art varying according to locality,
  4. and lastly the art of modern times.

(1) The ancient art is almost purely Hindu in character. At most, we can recognize in it a few Greek and Iranian influences. It is known to us by a small number of architectural monuments; sculpture is represented by architectural ornament only, and painting up to the present has not been discovered. Apart from the hypogea which have served as temples, and the huge monolithic pillars set up by King Asoka (c. 250), of which one was found at Benares in 1905, crowned by a superb capital supporting the wheel of the Law, the monuments are principally Viharas and Stupas. The former are houses once inhabited by monks, or chapels of a kind, once occupied by images of the divinities. A collection of these constitutes a monastery (Sangharama). Very few have been preserved to our day (examples are found in the monasteries of Swat or at Takht-i-Boghas). These consist of a kind of tower with cupola or pitched roof, and trapezoidal door. As to the Stupas, they were originally commemorative tumuli faced with stones and surrounded by a balustrade. Each of these monuments is composed of three essential elements whose legendary origin is as follows.

When Sakya-muni was desirous of showing his disciples the right way to construct the Stupas and decorate them symbolically, he took off his three monastic garments, folded each into a square, and laid them one upon another; then he set on top his beggar's bowl (patra), and arranged above all his staff of pilgrimage. Thenceforth the Stupa was composed of a square base of several steps; of a mass recalling a cupola or dome; and of a pinnacle or finial formed of an upright, garnished with several discs (five to twelve) one above another, which represent as many parasols, ensigns of authority. In the subsequent development of these buildings the highest and lowest portions (the base and the pinnacle) tended to increase more and more at the expense of the middle (the cupola). The primitive tumulus must have been surrounded by a wooden palisade. The stone Stupas, the only ones that remain to us, were surrounded by a round or quadrangular balustrade also of stone, but imitating a wooden structure. This balustrade was furnished with several doors and covered with bas-reliefs. Surviving from the ancient period of Buddhist art are several Stupas known to us: that of Barhut, whose bas-reliefs are preserved in the Calcutta Museum; that of Sanchi, whose four doors have been restored; and lastly that of Bodh'-Gaya which is in a fair state of preservation. All date from the second century B. c. and are situated in Central India.

The sculptural ornaments of these Stupas have this much in common that they combine in a single whole various consecutive scenes of the life of Buddha or of his previous rebirths (jtitaka), scenes which in the later periods are reproduced separately. The style is conventional with a leaning to realism. But what chiefly characterizes this art is the absence of representation of the Master, or Buddha, in human form. His throne, surrounded by worshippers, is often seen, but it is empty; empty also is the place beneath the tree where Buddha was seated when he attained Bodhi. At most, some symbols (a wheel, for instance) replace his figure. According to Foucher this abstention from representations of the form of Buddha is due to the fact that at the outset of Buddhism the ex-votos and smaller objects which must have been brought back from pilgrimages represented only the symbols of the places of pilgrimage (e. g. a wheel where Buddha held his first discourse, and so forth). Bespect for tradition and the principle of survival have probably caused this method of representing Buddha to be adopted in the first manifestations of Buddhist art.

(2) Graeco-Buddhist art is so called because it adopted classical forms to express Buddhist motives; but it is also called the art of Gandhara after the north-west district of India (now Peshawar) where it originated towards the end of the first century A. D. It lasted up to the end of the fifth century, remaining purely Hellenistic except for some debts to Iranian forms and style. It treated, however, only Buddhist subjects, which sometimes demanded modifications even of form if they were to be in accord with the rules of the religion. Unlike what is to be seen in ancient Indian art, the art of Gandhara introduces the representation of Buddha in human shape, his prototype being Apollo and the sole addition being a nimbus. As for the state of Bodhisattva, it is represented by the figure of an Indian prince in all the splendour of his ornaments. It is also in the bas-reliefs of Gandhara, that the figures of Buddha and the saints appear seated on a reversed lotus-bloom, the base of whose bellshaped calix serves for a throne.

The favourite subjects, unlike those of the older Indian art, are rarely scenes from the jatakas, but principally from the life of Buddha, and are of an edifying character. They are disposed in separate panels which run in order from right to left, a system which (in Stupas, for example) is connected with the custom of circumambulation in the direction of the sun's course; that is to say, the building around which the circuit is made is kept on the right hand. The bas-reliefs of this period are remarkable in point of execution for their very high relief approaching treatment in the round: also for their correctness of proportion, for the absence of stiffness in their draperies, and for delicacy of features.

But if the ornamentation of the buildings shows a considerable advance on the older art, their architecture did not greatly vary. At the same time, thanks to modification in the organization of the Sarighas, which had grown larger, the cells (Vihdra) where the monks lived had come to be built one on to another and to form a sort of quadrangular cloister, surrounding a court in the middle of which were placed the Stupas. These accumulated Vihdras formed a monastery (Sahgharama). Moreover, such Viharas as contained images of the gods had been joined likewise. These had lost their partitionwalls, which were now replaced by columns; and thus they became temples.

Finally these buildings were combined: a quadrangle of cells was constructed round the temple, and the Stupa was moved outside. Such a combination is still exemplified in our own day in the construction of the Lamaist convents (see p. xlvi).

The best specimens of the art of Gandhara are in the museums of Calcutta, Lahore, and Peshawar, and also in the British Museum, and the Museum fur Volkerkunde at Berlin. We know nothing of the painting of this period, but to judge from later works of a derivative art which have been observed in the caves of Ajanta and in Chinese Turkestan (see later), it must have attained a high degree of perfection in fresco.

(3) The art of Gandhara forms the base of several mediaeval schools of art. In Central India it persists almost pure in the school of Mathura with its beautiful basreliefs of Bacchic subjects; while the school of Magadha which developed the Indian elements (i. e. the Brahman Pantheon) invented new forms. To it are due those wellknown figures with long thin legs, salient hips, flexible as reeds — those figures overloaded with jewels, gesticulating extravagantly upon bosky backgrounds of stylized plants, that one sees on so many Buddhist buildings in India, Java, and Cambodia.

In Bengal an art analogous to that of Magadha lasted till the eleventh century in miniature-paintings on palm-leaves, whose technique passed presently to Nepal and Tibet.

In the south-east of India the remains of the magnificent Stupa of Amaxavati, not far from the mouth of the river Kistna, which are preserved to-day in the Museum at Madras and in the British Museum, exemplify a very happy combination of Hellenistic with Indian art, indicating the existence of a local school during the first three centuries of our era.

On the other hand, in the famous grottoes of Ajanta, east of Bombay (West India), are found sculptures and, in particular, frescoes in bright colours of an individual style. They date from the first to the seventh centuries and represent scenes in the life of Buddha (the temptation contrived by Mara, &c.) as well as the Jataka. This style is characterized by realism in the treatment of human figures and, still more, of animals. The ornamentation is rich, abundant, and varied.

(4) With the disappearance of Buddhism the art inspired by this religion died out in India towards the twelfth century. Let us consider its development in other regions, in some of which it has continued to the present day.

In Ceylm Graeco-Buddhist art had penetrated along with the religion in the second and third centuries, but only a few monuments survive. Then came the Indian mediaeval art which struck root, and is still found in our day, but in full decadence. In Java, on the other hand, this mediaeval art was grafted upon a native stock, and the temple of Boro-budur, built in the ninth century, and still in admirable preservation (out of 2,000 bas-reliefs only about 600 are missing), is one of its most striking manifestations.

In Indo-China the same art has undergone Brahman influences, as the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia prove. In Siam and Burma the modern art which has been evolved from it is distinguished, on the architectural side, chiefly by bell-shaped Stupas, by the pointed towers of the temples, and by the affected and distorted forms of the figures of divinities and genii. The surfaces are overloaded with gold and with encrustations of tinsel which tire the eye.

But the most unexpected influence of Graeco-Buddhist art, and one which was only discovered a very few years ago, is that which it exercised on Central Asia, and, probably through that region, on China and Japan.

Excavations, carried out in recent years by learned expeditions from England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan, have thrown a vivid light upon Buddhism and its art in Eastern or Chinese Turkestan and the territories immediately adjacent to the Chinese province of Kan-su. In the south of this country the oasis of Khotan was an important centre of the Buddhist faith. The art of Gandhara, and subsequently that of mediaeval India, were transported there, to be modified only by the exigencies of the plastic medium, namely, clay, which the artists were obliged to employ; for quarry-stone does not exist in Eastern Turkestan. The wooden statues, which are excellently preserved, thanks to the dry climate of the country, are profusely painted and gilded. Imposed on an art which is fundamentally Indian or Hellenistic are to be noted some Persian influences and, to a slight degree, the influence of Chinese art. The miniatures found at Khotan show a quite original style.

From Khotan Buddhist art penetrated farther to the north-west towards the oasis of Kashgar and beyond to Tamchuk (to the north-east of Maralbashi), where have been discovered sculptures of the pure Indian type. More to the north, near the town of Kucha, numerous frescoes have been found in underground buildings, the subjects and the execution of which are Indian with traces of Iranian and Chinese influences. To the east of Kucha, in the marshy regions of Lake Lob-Nor, other frescoes have been noted by the learned traveller Sir Aurel Stein — very remarkable and close akin in style to the works of Hellenistic art. In the north of Chinese Turkestan, near Karashar, monuments have been met with in which the most diverse styles are associated, while at Turfan the frescoes show us a new art, that of the Uigurs, a Turkish people. This is an art formed of a native element with a mixture of Chinese elements and later of Tibetan, not to mention an influence of Iranian art exercised through the Manichaean monks in whose ranks Uigurs were found in considerable numbers.

Finally, outside Turkestan, but quite near to its frontier at Tun-huang (Kan-su province), the grotto 'of the thousand Buddhas', visited by Sir Aurel Stein and by Pelliot, has supplied us with several specimens of Buddhist art dating from the sixth to the tenth centuries, which present a very remarkable mixture of Indian, Chinese, Persian, and Tibetan styles.

The existence of this art of Gandhara in a state of greater or less degeneration in Eastern Turkestan explains the presence of certain features in the Buddhist sculptures and paintings of China and Japan (in this matter we know almost nothing about Korea).

In purely national motives appear certain details, which are of Hellenistic style, e. g. the nimbus, the arrangement of the folds of the robes of Sakya-muni and the other Buddhas, and the costume of certain Bodhisattvas. Finally, it explains the very composition of certain pictures or bas-reliefs, as for example those treating of the scene of l-iakya-muni's death or of his passage into Nirvana.

But apart from these remnants of Hellenistic influence the style of the mediaeval sculptures and paintings of China and Japan is dependent upon tendencies identical with those which manifest themselves generally in the national art of these two countries. For Korea we lack documents, as we have already said, but we may suppose that Buddhist art there differs but little from that of China.

In Nepal the old Indian art is now represented by the five Stupas raised, according to tradition, by King ASoka; while the mediaeval art of India is reflected there in the Stupa of Svayambhu-Natha, near Katmandu. This monument, which has been repaired several times, is covered now with paintings and gilded plaques in the Lamaite fashion (see later). But it is in the making of large wooden statues and the casting of bronze statuettes of Lamaite divinities that the Nepalese, clever carvers and founders, excel. Miniature painting, introduced into the country about the eleventh century, has prospered continuously. A number of Persian and Tibetan motives make their appearance in what is, fundamentally, an Indian art (Sylvain Levi).

The art of Tibet which dominates all aesthetic expressions of the Lamaites in general, whether Tibetan, Mongolian, or Chinese, has a distinctively individual character. In architecture especially, the Tibetans have developed a special type, remotely reminiscent of the Egyptian style, but of still unknown origin. Its characteristic feature is the predominance of straight lines and geometrical forms, and ornament is confined to uniform coloration of large spaces. The result is that the Tibetan buildings look like fortresses. The most remarkable monuments of the purely geometrical type are the 'gilded temple' of Gyantse and the gate near the temple of Marbo-ri at Lhassa. As an example of the uniform colouring may be cited the palace of the Dalai-Lama (Po-ta-la). In sculpture, the Tibetans borrowed the style of the statues at first (from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries) from Nepal; but their national genius has so far transformed them that to-day it is Tibetan art which dominates Nepalese artists in their production of statues and statuettes.

It is a curious fact that bas-reliefs, so widely known in all other Buddhist countries, are almost completely lacking in Tibet except on very ancient monuments, probably the work of Indian artists (S. Oldenburg). They are replaced everywhere by single statues and statuettes. Temple figures are often grotesquely muffled in costumes of rich stuffs like certain Madonnas or saints in Spain, Italy, and, above all, Latin America. As regards painting, Tibet lived at the outset upon its borrowings from Nepal or Northern India; but very few monuments of this period remain to us. The most important have been discovered recently (1911) in the ancient convents of Quaraqoto (M.) in the country of the Tangutes (province of Kuku-nor) by the Russian traveller Kozlof. These remnants of the ancient Tibetan-Indian art, which evidently had been imported into the country where they have been found, are mingled with products of the art which may be called Tangut. This displays Uigur, Chinese, and even Persian influences imposed on a fundamentally Indo-Tibetan art (S. Oldenburg). In its later development Tibetan painting transformed its Indian models at will, without experiencing any foreign influence, except perhaps, to a very slight degree, that of China, so far at least as concerns fineness of brush-work and perfect sureness of line.

True, that this last characteristic is partly owed to the established and theoretically immutable rules, in accordance with which Lamaite pictures must be executed. Nevertheless, a certain freedom of fancy is permitted and one sees sometimes non-canonical attitudes and accessories which produce the best possible artistic effect. Certain painters add bits of landscape to the likenesses of gods and of saints with very happy result. Others try to give portraits in place of conventional figures. One of the characteristic features of Tibetan paintings is the extreme brightness of their coloration, which is, perhaps, the best means which could be used to make them visible in the half-darkness of Lamaite temples.

The only manner of painting among Tibetan and Mongolian artists is that of the miniaturist, and it is applied even to surfaces which attain the dimensions of several yards, as, for example, banners in certain processions or pictures exposed during the great feasts at Lhassa and other centres of pilgrimage. This manner is governed by the desire to omit no detail, and it is really astonishing to see in the imagery on one of the Ts'ogs-isin (see later), ten inches in height and eight in width, for instance, more than one hundred figures, each scarcely one inch high, but represented with all details which make them readily recognizable, though these are often indicated by no more than a single but characteristic stroke.

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