There are some unique works of art on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Take, for instance, theSaddanta-jataka(of the elephant ‘Six Tusks’) drum panel, dating back to the 1st century BCE, from Kanaganahalli, Sannati, Gulbarga district, Karnataka. It depicts a scene from ajatakatale, with hunter Sonuttara presenting the tusks of Chaddanta, the king of elephants and the Bodhisattva in disguise. Then there is the sculptural rendition of the monolithic wish-fulfilling tree from Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, 2nd century BCE, on loan from the Indian Museum, Kolkata. “The tree is enclosed in a wicker railing underscoring its sanctity, and around the trunk are jars and sacks of coins, represented as the square punch-marked type circulating in the early centuries bce,” states the catalogue.
Over 125 such works are on showcase at the MET, which explore the origins of Buddhist art in India. Part of the ongoing show, titled, ‘Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE’, these comprise international loans as well as newly discovered sculptures. These include stone sculptures connected with the adornment of the stupa, metalwork, ivory, ceramics, paintings, jewellery, and more. “[The show] presents a series of evocative and interlocking themes to reveal both the pre-Buddhist origins of figurative sculpture in India and the early narrative tradition that was central to this formative moment in early Indian art,” states the museum note.
In the ‘Director’s Note’ in the catalogue, Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director, The MET, highlights the assembly of rare early Buddhist works of art, including a number of objects that have recently been excavated from monastic sites in India, and have never before been publicly exhibited. “It is our privilege to present these outside India for the first time,” says Hollein.
The museum team feels that the show couldn’t have happened without the generosity and cooperation of government agencies and individuals in India. According to John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The MET, the long process of planning and negotiation, disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, has finally come to fruition. “The National Museum in New Delhi was the nodal point for assembling all loans. The Ministry of Culture under the government of India, and the Archaeological Survey of India, have been extremely cooperative,” he adds. The museum had to negotiate with six state governments—Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal—to get loans from 12 key sites from across India. “These loans represent more than half of the show,” says Guy over a video call.
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The exhibition is unique as it goes back to the very origins of Buddhist art. For Guy, the notion of doing another “A-Z of Buddhism”, marching from Kushana to Sarnath to Gupta and the Palas, and so on, was not the intention. “That has been done many times, and done very well,” he says. “The exhibition has a different take on the subject. We are looking at the religious landscape into which the young prince, Siddhartha, chose to leave his worldly wealth, his capital city of Kapilavastu, to become a mendicant and knowledge seeker. What did he walk into?” That’s where the show harks back to the pre-Buddhist landscape, populated with demi-gods of many forms—the yakshas, yakshis, nagas and naginis, who had the devotion and loyalty of the local population. According to Guy, the exhibition looks at this relationship between emerging Buddhism and artistic expression as seen in stupas, particularly in the railings, orvedikas.
This is not the only aspect that makes the ‘Tree and Serpent’ unique. It stands out for showcasing the beginnings of Buddhist art from southern India, such as sculptural masterpieces and newly discovered works of art from ancient monastic sites in the Deccan. “Buddhist art history is very much the story of the north, with focus on Magadha, with a side story from the northwest—Kandahar, and sites in Pakistan. I wanted to shift the spotlight to the Deccan,” elaborates Guy. It was a region that Buddha never visited in his lifetime. And yet, it contained key trade routes that acted as pathways to the spread of urbanisation. On the back of that, Buddhism spread and gained patronage.
Guy writes in his preface in the catalogue: “The southern region, the Deccan, was home to some of the greatest early monasteries of Buddhist India. Today, we turn to Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati when we seek to understand the majesty of this architecture and its adornment. The enclosure railing at Bharhut, the ceremonial gateways at Sanchi, and the first copings at Amaravati are the earliest and best preserved of their kind from the early Buddhist world. They are rich in visual narrative, using their surfaces as tableaux for the storytelling that made Buddhism accessible to a wide community of believers.”
Guy calls the show a “historical corrective”, and a way to spotlight a tradition, which has until now been fitted as a footnote in the overall story. In this survey of early Buddhist art from the south, two major iconographic devices have been identified: the tree and the snake. “Their ubiquitous presence in southern Indian stūpa decor prompted James Fergusson, an early student of Buddhist architecture, to title his 1868 publication Tree and Serpent Worship: Or, Illustrations of Mythology and Art in India in the First and Fourth Centuries after Christ. The present exhibition and publication seek both to recognize the pioneers in the field of Buddhist architectural and art historical studies, and to reposition the field going forward,” writes Guy in the preface.
Both the tree and the serpent have been looked at as protective figures in southern Buddhist art. According to Guy, the biographical story of Buddha is full of references to nagas. “They are seen as protecting and honouring the Buddha. After the ‘mahaparinirvana’, they become guardians to his relics. In some of the early stupas, we have seen them intertwined with the base, hugging it in a protective way,” he explains. There are several artefacts that illustrate this. However, the most striking of these is the stupa panel with the nāgarāja Mucalinda protecting the Buddha Dhulikatta stūpa, Karimnagar district, Telangana (Sātavāhana, 1st century BCE). The site, once an ancient Andhradesa settlement, witnessed a series of excavations, 1974 onwards. At the stupa discovered there, one can see a number of panels illustrating Buddha’s protection by the snake king, Mucalinda during rains. “In this panel, the coiled body of the mighty five-hooded snake has gently raised up for protection the two symbols that acknowledge the Buddha’s presence: a rectangular slab understood as his throne seat, and a pair of footprints (buddhapāda). The Buddha is thus evoked in the context of this postEnlightenment Buddha life story, but only upon close scrutiny is his emblematic presence apparent,” states the catalogue essay.
The presence of the tree in early Buddhist art harks back to some of the oldest religious practices in ancient India or venerating a tree shrine—a big tree, enclosed by a railing, with offerings made around it. The idea of the wish fulfilling tree, or thekalpavriksha, is a pre-Buddhist concept as well. “In Buddhist art, of course, the most important tree is the Maha Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, under which Buddha experienced spiritual awakening,” says Guy. In fact, trees mark every seminal moment of Buddha’s life, from his birth to his passing. There is a sculptural representation of the time when, as an infant, prince Siddhartha was presented to the family deity by his mother. “This family deity was a tree spirit, who acknowledged the offering by Queen Maya in human form,” says Guy. “Tree as an element is very much foregrounded in Buddhist art in the south, but is not as prevalent in the north.”
The ‘Tree and Serpent’ also traces the evolution of Buddhist art from symbolic to figurative. The early works are marked by the absence of Buddha’s human form. His presence is marked by symbols such as the empty throne seat, the wheel that represents the dharma chakra, and more. The only sculpted figures in the works represent devotees andyakshas-yakshinis.“There is no precise reason why Buddha is shown only through symbols, such as the riderless horse marching out of the gates of Kapilavastu, or the footprints, which have been very important in the non-figurative representation of Buddha,” says Guy. As you progress through the show, you reach a point where Buddha’s human form does appear. “Finally you get the standing Buddha at the end. It is a climax, of sorts, in this process of evolution from early nature spirit representation to an iconic representation to the final revelation of the Buddha form,” he adds.
‘Tree and Serpent’ can be viewed till 13 November 2023, at The Met, Fifth Avenue, Floor 2, The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, Gallery 999, New York