India

Pre-Iconic Buddhist Art and Architecture

Buddhist Pre-Iconic art originated in India in the 6th century BCE and avoided anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Pre-Iconic Buddhist art and architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Buddhist art flourished in India following the establishment of Buddhism .
  • Buddhist art in India has two phases: the Pre-Iconic phase where the Buddha was represented by abstract symbols instead of anthropomorphic figures, and the Iconic phase during which representations of the Buddha in human form developed for the first time.
  • Early Buddhist art incorporated specifically Buddhist symbols such as the eight-spoked dharmachakra, the wheel of life that symbolized the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment .
  • Another characteristic feature of Buddhist architecture was the stupa , a mound-like structure housing the relics of holy men.
  • Although India had a long sculptural tradition and a mastery of rich iconography , the Buddha was never represented in human form during this time, but only through symbols such as the wheel, a footprint, an empty seat, or as a character in a jataka tale .

Key Terms

  • anthropomorphic: Having the form or attributes of a human.
  • stupa: A dome-shaped Buddhist monument, used to house Buddhist relics.
  • frieze: Any sculptured or richly ornamented band in a building or, by extension, in rich pieces of furniture.

Introduction: Buddhism and Buddhist Art

Buddhism is a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that emerged in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. The religion is based on the teachings of the Buddha (“the awakened one”), who according to tradition lived from 563 to 483 BCE; however, scholars hold that he might have lived as much as a century later. As with any figure so intertwined with philosophical or spiritual implications, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate myth and legend from historical fact about the life of the Buddha.

Born to a royal family and originally named Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha left his family and all worldly possessions to live as an ascetic and achieve enlightenment. At the age of 35, Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, the “enlightened one,” and began to teach his philosophy of “The Middle Way” (a middle path between the extremes of luxury during the first part of his life and the asceticism of the second part) in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.

Buddhist art flourished in India following the establishment of the religion, which had a sizeable base of followers. In India, there are two broad phases of Buddhist art: the Pre-Iconic (5th—1st centuries BCE) and Iconic (1st century CE—present) phase. As Buddhism expanded outside of India from the 1st century CE onward, Buddhist art and architecture came into contact with different cultures that were adopting new artistic influences.

Early Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist architecture emerged after the Buddha’s death, building on the model of the Brahminist Hindu temple that contained an inner sanctum, a surrounding ambulatory route, and a columned porch. They incorporated specifically Buddhist symbols such as the eight-spoked dharmachakra, the wheel of life that symbolized the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in the 1st century BCE became a model for similar structures in Burma and Indonesia. Another characteristic feature of Buddhist architecture was the stupa, a mound-like structure housing the relics of holy men. The Great Stupa at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure of its kind in India and was commissioned by the Maurya emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. It contains the relics of the Buddha and is decorated with fine examples of Pre-Iconic Buddhist sculpture.

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The Great Stupa at Sanchi: The Great Stupa at Sanchi is decorated with fine examples of Pre-Iconic Buddhist sculpture.

Early Buddhist Art

During the 2nd to 1st century BCE, sculptures became more explicit, representing episodes of the Buddha’s life and teachings. These took the form of votive tablets or sculptural friezes , usually in relation to the decoration of stupas. Although India had a long sculptural tradition and a mastery of rich iconography, the Buddha was never represented in human form during this time, but only through Buddhist symbolism . The friezes and tablets avoided anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, even in scenes where other human figures were present.

Because artists were reluctant to depict the Buddha anthropomorphically, they developed sophisticated aniconic symbols to avoid doing so. His presence was indicated through symbols such as the wheel, a footprint, an empty seat, or as a character in a jataka tale. This tendency remained as late as the 2nd century CE in the southern parts of India in the art of the Amaravati School. It has been argued that earlier anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha may have been made of wood and may have perished since then; however, no related archaeological evidence has been found.

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Footprint of the Buddha: Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara.

Iconic Buddhist Sculpture and Painting

Buddhist art during the Iconic phase largely evolved as it came into contact with other cultures in Asia.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Iconic phase of Buddhist art

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Unlike the Pre-Iconic phase where the Buddha was represented by abstract symbols, the Iconic phase of Buddhist art showed representations of the Buddha in human form for the first time.
  • The initial impact of Islam on Buddhist art was generally destructive, as Muslim invaders destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and artifacts . By the end of the 12th century, Buddhism in India remained only in select regions of the country.
  • A revival of Buddhism began in 1891, when Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the aim of restoring ancient Buddhist shrines and temples that had been neglected or damaged.
  • There are two separate strands of Buddhist art in Asia: the Northern Branch, which encompasses Central Asia, China, Japan, and Korea where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced; and the Southern Branch, which encompasses Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia where Theravada Buddhism is practiced.

Key Terms

  • Anthropomorphic: Having the form or attributes of a human.

From Pre-Iconic to Iconic

Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha began to emerge in the 1st century CE in Northern India. During this new Iconic phase, representations of the Buddha in human form developed for the first time, following centuries of Pre-Iconic art in which the Buddha was represented by abstract symbols.

The two main centers of creation have been identified as Gandhara, in today’s North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, and the region of Mathura in central northern India. The art of Gandhara had benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture by this time, following the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. This led to the development of Greco-Buddhist art, a specific form characterized by wavy hair, detailed flowing drapery, and shoes or sandals. The Buddhist art of Mathura, in contrast , was based on native Indian traditions. The two styles were characterized by a high degree of realism and strongly influenced each other.

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Gandhara Buddha: Representation of the Buddha in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, 1st century CE. This showcases the wavy hair and detailed flowing drapery typical of the style.

Buddhist art continued to develop in India through the 4th and 6th centuries CE. The pink sandstone sculptures of the Gupta period were particularly influential in Southeast Asia, and it was during this empire that the “ideal form” of the Buddha appeared, becoming the model for future generations.

By the 10th century, the creation of new Buddhist art in India was waning, and by the 12th century it had largely disappeared due to the expansion of Islam. The initial impact of Islam on Buddhist art was generally destructive, as Muslim invaders destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and artifacts. By the end of the 12th century, Buddhism in India remained only in select regions of the country. It continued, however, to expand through the Himalayan kingdoms and in East and Southeast Asia. A revival of Buddhism began in 1891, when Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the aim of restoring ancient Buddhist shrines and temples that had been neglected or damaged.

Expansion of Different Styles

As Buddhism expanded outside of India from the 1st century CE onward, Buddhist art and architecture came into contact with different cultures that were adopting new artistic influences. Central and Eastern Asia practiced Mahayana Buddhism, which formed the Northern branch of Buddhist art. Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka practiced Theravada Buddhism, which formed the Southern branch of Buddhist art.

Northern Buddhist Art

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia, China, and ultimately Japan and Korea started in the 1st century CE, where the Mahayana branch of Buddhism was developed and practiced. Buddhist art persisted for several centuries in Bactria (modern Afghanistan) and Central Asia until the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE. The art, along with the religion, spread from eastern Central Asia to China, which favored solemn and abstract representations of the Buddha under the Northern Dynasties of the 5th and 6th centuries and more lifelike, classically Indian depictions under the Tang Dynasty until 845.

Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the 6th century and adopted by the state in the 7th. Numerous temples and monasteries were built in Japan, and countless sculptures and paintings were made under governmental sponsorship. Japan also developed an extremely rich figurative art for the pantheon of Buddhist deities .

Southern Buddhist Art

Buddhism traveled to Southeast Asia through maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean. The Pali and Sanskrit languages and the Indian script, together with Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism , were transmitted from direct contact, through sacred texts, and through Indian literature such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Theravada Buddhism was transmitted to Burma, Siam (Thailand), lower Cambodia, Southern Vietnam, and Indonesia. This largely influenced the direction Buddhist art would take in Southeast Asia.

Several very powerful empires formed in Southeast Asia between the 9th and 13th centuries. These powers, including the Sri Vijaya Empire based in Sumatra, the Khmer Empire in Cambodia, and the ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, were very active in Buddhist architectural and artistic creation. The construction of vast Buddhist temple complexes played a particularly important role.