Meditation in stone

Marking Buddha Poornima which falls on May 23, Thakur Paramjit writes about the 2000-year-old Gandhara sculptures, depicting Buddha’s life and doctrine

Figure of Buddha, 2nd century AD.
Figure of Buddha, 2nd century AD.

For the past 2000 years, Gandhara sculptures have held an enviable position in the art circles of the world. Using simple chisels, the sculptors of the Gandhara region helped in propagating Gautam Buddha’s doctrine of salvation. Primarily a religious art, these sculptures depict various episodes from Buddha’s life such as, his deeds as a boy, austerity, enlightenment, the first sermon, taming of the mad elephant, and his death at Kusinagar.

The school developed in the erstwhile Gandhara region, which today falls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan, and Taxila and Peshawar in Pakistan are ranked as the most significant centres where the remains of the Gandhara art have been discovered. Bamiyan is famous for colossal Buddha images, one of which was 53 metres and the other 38 metres in height.

The Gandhara School shows influence of various cultures, though the spirit is Indian. The Roman influence is evident where the sculptors have shown separate scenes, without continuity in successive penals whereas the Greek influence is mirrored in the deep undercutting techniques. It is believed that the use of moulds and colouring of stucco sculptures is influenced by similar techniques used in Alexandria. Persian and Parthian influences show themselves in the form of winged animals, dress, drapery and vegetation. Persian style of profiles and Parthian style of frontal views also support this theory. But whatever, or however strong the influences may be, the Indian dimension forms the core of the art.

"The Gandhara sculptures are housed in museums in various countries, including Japan, England, the USA, Germany, France, India and Pakistan. Central Museum, Lahore housed the largest collection of Gandhara sculptures in the world. But after Partition, a division of the collection took place on April 10, 1948, with 60 per cent objects retained by Pakistan and 40 per cent being given to India. The Government Museum in Chandigarh received 627 sculptures which is the second largest collection of these sculptures in the world", says V.N. Singh, Director of Chandigarh Museum.

Buddha and other divinities, 3rd century AD.
Buddha and other divinities, 3rd century AD. — Photos by the writer

During the early period of the Buddhist Art, the presence of Buddha was symbolically depicted as Dharma Chakra or the Wheel of Law, footmarks, Peepal tree etc. It was only four-and-a-half centuries after his death that sculptors conceived him as a human figure. He was usually shown standing, dressed as a monk, or sitting in meditation.

The Gandhara sculptors have portrayed the figure of Buddha as Apollo, apart from showing wavy hair, notched curls, topknot (usnisa), sometimes moustaches on the Buddha’s face, and mark of urna between the eyebrows. Usually, the thick pleated garments cover both the shoulders and look akin to the Roman toga. Other modifications include Bodhisattva sometimes wearing sandals, pointed and prickly petals of lotus seat, the plan halo round the head and muscular formation of body.

The Gandhara sculptors laid special emphasis on facial expressions, garments and jewellery. The treatment of facial expressions ranges from benevolent to serious. Grief is invariably shown in vivid and graphic description like burying the head in hands or placing the hands on forehead. Garments are generally wrap-around kind, usually one around the waist and the other across the shoulders. Exceptions, however, are there in the form of foreign dresses like trousers — both tight and baggy with coats. The dresses of the women are long, usually gathered below the breasts, skirts and long sleeved blouses. Jewellery forms a major element of the Gandhara art. Men wear headbands, pearl rings, earrings, necklaces, amulet chains, armlets and wrist-lets. Women are bedecked with a variety of earrings, necklaces, bangles, waistbands, anklets and head ornaments.

Though a majority of sculptures portray Buddha’s life and incidents related to his life, yet the Gandhara sculptors did not confine themselves to this only. A small number of other deities and themes too are depicted.

"Gandhara art is essentially the artistic manifestation of Buddhism. The predominance of Buddhist sculpture in the region precludes any doubt about this art being subservient to the faith. However, there are some possible examples of non-Buddhist elements in the art of Gandhara. These relate either to the form and style, or to the subject matter, possibly of the Hindu themes", says Poonam Khanna, Assistant Curator of the museum.

"The Hariti image of the museum is a unique one and it is one of the eight known inscribed and dated sculpture. The image has not only some interesting stylistic and aesthetic features, but also bears historical importance in determination of the stylistic sequence of Gandhara Art", adds V.N. Singh.