On Buddhist stupas and visual abundance

On Buddhist stupas and visual abundance

In 1896, Alexander E. Caddy took this photograph of a group of sculptures from the Swat valley after he had them stacked together in a tableau. Caddy, who worked for the Indian Museum of Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a photographer, was perhaps unaware that he was doing a service to the architects and sculptors of ancient Gandhāra by setting the sculptures in this manner. In fact, he was restoring a shadow of the original aesthetic of the monastic setting, one of visual fullness and of almost overwhelming horror vacui.

Alexander Caddy, Buddhist sculptures from the Swat, 1896, photographic print, London: British Library. Photo 1003/(1169).

Caddy’s stacked tableau is an archaeological pastiche: no exact find spots were recorded for any of the objects that appear in the old photograph, and the sculptures are grouped together on the basis of iconographic and morphological affinity, rather than stratigraphic reasons. Fragments of chattras are mounted flat on the wall next to false gables. They are interspersed with meditating and preaching Buddhas and bodhisattvas, who stand alone against the background. Capitals and harmikās are on the floor, and atlantes line together on the shelves close to ceiling. No one would call the rows of sculptures in Caddy’s photograph a ‘reconstruction’ in the sense of the current archaeological parlance. Yet, this image from 1896 has a real merit: it preserves a sense of sculptural overabundance.

Gandhāran stupas were richly decorated. The quadrangular podium of the stupa, which elevated their profile, often had figures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas surrounded by devotees and separated by a row of pilasters. At times, each buddha and bodhisattva was seated under an ogee arch or under pseudo-niches, like in this votive stupa from the monastery of Jaulian, in Taxila.

Unknown artist, One of the votive stupas from the monastery of Jaulian, Taxila. Photograph: Alice Casalini.

On the circular drum of the stupa, the life of the historical Buddha, Śākyamūni, was represented on a series of panels, in a linear development that followed the curve of the monument. In stupas of monumental dimensions – such as Saidu Sharif I, in Swat – the viewer would have reached the drum of the stupa stepping over a series of staircases, in order to engage in the ritual circumambulation, or pradaksina. The devotees followed the Buddha around the circumference of the stupa, as he was born in the human world, attained enlightenment and spread his teachings, until his final moments and the late movements of his bodily relics. Above this register depicting the historical Buddha’s life, the artists often depicted revelers enjoying heavenly pleasures, princely figures and putti moving among garlands while cosmic Buddhas and bodhisattvas are worshipped.

Unknown artist, Relief panel depicting Asita’s prophecy (bottom right) and Siddharta in school (?) (bottom left. Scenes of devotion above the railing. Lahore Museum. Photograph: Alice Casalini.

Several sculptures from Gandhāra represent religious monuments and buildings of the time, giving an idea of the rich ornamental nature of their surfaces that is now unfortunately lost. This is the case of a relief slab from Sahri Bahlol, now in the Peshawar Museum.

The relief shows a double-domed structure resting on columns of the Gandhāran-Corinthian type. The first dome emerges from a railing, called vedikā, and is decorated with abstract patterns lined across several horizontal registers. Above, the second elongated dome rises from another vedikā, now topped by a row of standing Buddhas under arches. Both domes are filled with rows and rows of geometrical motifs.

Unknown artist, Upper section of a vihara chapel, c. 2-3rd CE, schist, c. 20 x 25 x 4 cm, Peshawar: Peshawar Museum. Photo: Alice Casalini.

Chapel-like structures, like the one represented in this relief, are called viharas and were usually located in a row around the main stupa along the boundaries of the stupa court. The chapels housed inside of them one or more sculptures of a buddha or bodhisattva, either in the form of a single free- standing statue or of a relief slab depicting the Buddha and his retinue. These structures, too, were lined with relief panels, painted and plastered. At the time of monastic use, these chapels were most probably filled with a plethora of perishable materials – colourful fabrics, wall paintings, wooden structures, flowers, garlands, and even votive offerings from devotees and worshipers.

Much is now lost—but even as late as the 7th century, the Chinese monk and pilgrim Xuanzang (602–664 CE) traveling through Swat, Peshawar and Taxila, saw stupas covered with plates of silver and gold, and marvelled at their decoration of precious substances and every kind of precious jewel. This scenario is not unfamiliar to those who have visited a contemporary Buddhist temple: despite the great variation in Buddhist art and architecture across the centuries throughout Eurasia, many sites still to this day embrace an aesthetic based on rich décor, bright colours, and elaborate patterns.

For examples of stupa decoration in the exhibition see EXH1 and EXH74.

[1] Xuanzang, Da Tang Xiyou ji, Taishō shinshū Daizōkyō, 51.2087.

Alice Casalini

Alice received her BA and MA in Languages and Civilisations of Asia and Mediterranean Africa from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and studied Buddhist archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University. She is currently a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Chicago.

Her dissertation explores the ways in which sacred spaces and religious objects in Gandhāra shape their own viewers. She is also a visual artist and illustrator.