Wednesday, October 1, 2008
The first archaeological discoveries of early Indic civilisation were in the valley of the river Indus. Since then, numerous sites have been discovered southwards until Gujarat and eastwards until Uttar Pradesh. Along with Mesopotamia, this is one of the two oldest civilisations of the world. While the Mesopotamian remains cover a relatively small area, Indic culture is known to have spread over a vast area. The name “Indus Valley Civilisation”, however, has remained.
Other early cultures of the world present numerous representations, in their art, of warfare, war memorials and prisoners. The Indus Valley Civilisation of the 4th and 3rd millennium B.C. is unique in not providing even one such image in its many artistic depictions. This is the only civilisation where archaeology has not unearthed evidence of weapons of war or barracks for an army or police. Historians are also fascinated that all evidence points to a thriving, cooperative system and not a conventional
A FRAGMENT OF a Jaina stupa railing, Kankali Tila, showing the depiction of a torana, which is identical to the toranas of the early Buddhist stupas (GovernmentMuseum, Lucknow). In ancient times, symbols and motifs of the art of all faiths in India were the same.
In the 8th or the 9th century B.C., the Upanishads were composed out of the philosophic traditions that came from the earliest times of Indic civilisation. The thoughts contained in the Upanishads went on to form the basis of all major faiths in the subcontinent, in times to come.
This is a philosophy that sees a great oneness in all of creation. It is the same that is in each of us, in plants and trees, in animals, even in inanimate objects. All that there is, is perceived to be a part of the One. “Samsara”, the world of separated beings and objects around us, is believed to be an illusion we see owing to the limitations of our senses and sensibilities. (Four or five centuries later, the Greek philosopher Plato voiced similar thoughts about the illusory nature of what we perceive through our senses.)
CHAKRA, TORANA OF great stupa, Sanchi. In the early period, in art there was no depiction of the Buddha, Jaina Tirthankaras or Hindu deities. Instead, there were only symbols of their achievements and teachings. It was not the ephemeral personalities but eternal messages that were the subject of art.
The other is Mahavira, who is known as the 24th “Tirthankara” or “Victor” over the fear of death, and those who follow his path are known as Jainas. Both Mahavira and the Buddha taught the philosophy of the Upanishadic age and there are striking similarities in their teachings.
The earliest-known great emperor of ancient India was Asoka, of the Maurya dynasty, in the 3rd century B.C. Probably following the example of the Persians, with whom there was considerable interaction in that period, he made numerous inscriptions on tall pillars he had erected, as well as on large rocks.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of ancient Indian history is the humility of rulers. Even a king whose territories were as vast as Asoka’s, covering practically all of the subcontinent, hardly, even in his numerous edicts and inscriptions, mentions his own name. He is just described as “devanampiya piyadassi”, “beloved of the divine” and “one whose vision is filled with adoration”. This is not a title he had given himself; it is a term used for his father, his grandfather, other Indian kings and even for kings beyond Indian shores.Nothing remains of the stupa itself today. A portion of the railings that surrounded it and one of the gateways are preserved in the Indian Museum, Kolkata. The railings are made of sandstone and are engraved with sculptures representing incidents from the Buddha’s life, Jataka stories and other scenes.In early Buddhism, the figure of the Buddha was never made. Instead, there were symbols of his achievements and teachings, such as the Bodhi tree, the wheel and the stupa. The sculptural reliefs of the railings are a virtual library of early Buddhist iconographic motifs.
Similarly, at Sanchi, also in central India, sculpted railings were made around a stupa, in the 2nd century B.C. These present Buddhist themes and were made under the rule of benevolent Sunga kings.
In the 1st century A.D., under the rule of the Satavahana kings, great gateways were made at the entrance to the large stupa at Sanchi. These continued the Buddhist themes. Inscriptions show that the Satavahana rulers followed Hindu deities and were generous to the Buddhist Sangha.
Since earliest times, the art of all faiths in India had beings that represented the abundance and vitality of nature. These were often in the form of young maidens, who stood below trees.
The mere touch of such an auspicious being was supposed to cause the tree to bloom. The Indic belief in the interrelatedness of the whole of creation is beautifully expressed in this image.
The first formalised deity seen in Buddhist and Jaina art is Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi with elephants that shower water upon her. Like the yakshi, she too represents the bountiful abundance of nature. Lakshmi continues to be worshipped until today by Hindus and by Buddhists in Japan and other countries.
In Jaina art, Ambika continues to depict the generosity of nature. It may be noted here that Saraswati, known today as a Hindu deity, was first seen in a Jaina monument of the 2nd century B.C. at Kankali Tila, near Mathura. Saraswati continues to be worshipped by Buddhists and is the second most-revered deity in Japan after the Buddha. The fertile valley of the Krishna river was the cradle of civilisation in the eastern Deccan. This area became one of the greatest centres of Buddhism and over 140 early Buddhist sites have been listed in this region. The best-known monument of the region is the great stupa at Amravati. The exquisite phase of the art of the Amravati stupa was created under the rule of the Satavahanas.