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The Buddhist ateliers of ancient Magadha

India's rich art history is littered with masterpieces by unknown artists. This is especially true of the ancient Buddhist art of Bihar. Lounge brings you their story

Detail of a door lintel portraying the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara dancing, from Lakhisarai in Bihar.
Detail of a door lintel portraying the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara dancing, from Lakhisarai in Bihar. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

To gaze on a Kurkihar bronze is to be entranced by texture. Deep inside the cavernous bowels of the Bihar Museum in Patna, lit by soft, diffused overhead illumination, resides a small gallery of bronze sculptures, depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. These range from statues as small as a few centimetres to ones that are over 5ft tall. But no matter what the size, each sculpture glows. In the larger images, the grains of the aged bronze stelae, sculpted in the lost-wax (or cire perdue) process, sparkle where the light hits. In the smaller, portable statues that are sculpted in the round, the bronze gives off a matte sheen.

After a gap of a millennia, many of the original colours and shine can dissipate. However, many of the Kurkihar bronzes have managed to retain their original, resplendent hues. A small ninth century CE statue of a standing Buddha displaying the varada mudra is particularly beautiful for the rich array of colours it portrays, especially on the Buddha’s exquisitely crafted robe, its striped effect derived by a masterful blending of metals of different colours.

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Crowned Buddha, Kurkihar, Bronze Alloy, 11th century CE, Bihar Museum.
Crowned Buddha, Kurkihar, Bronze Alloy, 11th century CE, Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

So, who were these artists? Scholars are increasingly of the view that throughout the long period of the suzerainty of the Buddhist Pala emperors of Bengal and Bihar (750-1170 CE), the iconographic needs of a new, resurgent and international Buddhism were met by seeding ateliers of artisans, especially attached to large Buddhist establishments like monasteries, throughout eastern India. In time, many of these workshops developed distinct styles, which would go on to influence each other, and be exported across South Asia and beyond.

In her 1984 book, The “Pala-Sena” Schools Of Sculpture, art historian Susan L. Huntington was one of the earliest to make a case for Kurkihar being the site of an atelier distinct from the neighbouring ones at Nalanda or Bodh Gaya. While discussing Kurkihar’s metal sculpture, she writes, “In contrast to works from Nalanda, for example, where jewelry, head-dresses and other details were often created by using small balls or beads of wax, at Kurkihar, such elements are frequently created with a single strain of wax, so that a smoother effect is achieved.” She also argues that “…Kurkihar metal images display much greater use of inlay of different colours of metal to achieve a rich surface throughout the artistic development”.

Crowned Bodhisattva, Kurkihar, Bronze Alloy, 11th century CE, Bihar Museum.
Crowned Bodhisattva, Kurkihar, Bronze Alloy, 11th century CE, Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

In fact, scholars have noted that while the ninth century bronzes from Kurkihar show stylistic similarities to the works of Nalanda, with passing centuries, the mature Kurkihar style becomes more distinctive. This is evident in a set of gorgeous statues of crowned Bodhisattvas and Buddhas from the 11th and 12th centuries. The sumptuous line in the jewellery that Huntington describes is present in all of them, as is another signature of the Kurkihar artists: the creation of expressive eyes by drilling irises.

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This stylistic flourish, coupled with the silver inlay for the eyes, works wonders for the personality of the images. The mature Kurkihar images display a softness of the body, and, as Huntington points out, a “more flowing, continuous lines of elements such as the jewelry, and a smoother quality to the facial features…” Taken together, the result is that each statue is a masterpiece of artistic form and religious function.

The road to Kurkihar

The artisans who created these pieces, over a long stretch between the eighth and 12th centuries, were evidently masters of their art. That Kurkihar had a settled atelier for much of this time isn’t in much doubt and it is increasingly clear that the stylistic flourishes of the Kurkihar “school” laid the groundwork for Buddhist art across South and South-East Asia, certainly in terms of metal casting, influencing art in Tibet, China, Nepal, Myanmar and Java, to name just a few.

Despite their influence, the artists remain unknown to us. As is the case with nearly all pre-Islamic art in India, art creators were never encouraged to sign their work. They built in wood, terracotta, stone and metal, to create structures ranging from palaces to statues, but the only information that we have, if at all, is the identity of the donors who patronised the works of art—be they royalty, merchants or monks—and sometimes, the name and regnal year of the monarchs during whose reign a particular statue was created.

Newar craftsmen in the Kathmandu Valley use the same techniques pioneered by Indian artists for metal casting.
Newar craftsmen in the Kathmandu Valley use the same techniques pioneered by Indian artists for metal casting. (Getty Images)

This lack of information about artists has long been a source of frustration for historians. Relatively recently, efforts began to group images found at specific locales in order to contrast them with images found elsewhere, to see if any signature styles emerge. The Kurkihar artists were themselves working in a continuum with earlier traditions, the most immediate being that of Nalanda, a close neighbour in both time and distance (Nalanda is about 65km from Kurkihar), as well as the earlier idiom of the art of the Gupta empire. But their innovations were their own.

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Over late March and early April, I was trundling across south Bihar, through the vast landscape of ancient Magadha, looking for the artistic remains of the region’s many Buddhist sites. The heartland of the Buddhist faith, Magadha is geographically huge, bound by the Ganga in the north and its subsidiary rivers, Son, to the west and Kiul to the east.

The Buddhist sites are arranged in a roughly east-west axis parallel to the Ganga and include Bodh Gaya on the Phalgu river, the ruins of the Nalanda and Telhara mahaviharas, the ancient Magadhan capital city of Rajgir, the town of Bihar Sharif (supposedly the site of the Odantapuri mahavihara) and then the important site of Lakhisarai on the western bank of the Kiul.

Present-day Kurkihar, a small village in Bihar’s Gaya district, is located smack in the midpoint between Bodh Gaya and Rajgir, about 40km from either city. Hardly anyone knows of Kurkihar’s existence today. But this village had a very different profile about a thousand years ago, as a major Buddhist centre. Finding Kurkihar, though, was easier than I thought it would be, thanks to the ubiquity of Google Maps, and also due to the fact that I could follow the directions laid down by two historians who visited the village in 1931.

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Scholars Sarasi Kumar Sarasvati and Kshitish Chandra Sarkar of the Varendra Research Society in Rajshahi (in present-day Bangladesh) were curious to explore Kurkihar, which had shot to fame the previous year after a hoard of nearly 226 metal pieces (including 150 images and many fragments) were discovered by villagers while quarrying the walls of an old monastery for bricks. These had been packed in two large earthen jars and buried some eight-nine centuries earlier, probably to save them from depredations during a time of political turmoil. These were the very same sculptures that I saw in the Bihar Museum. At the time, though, they were stored at the Kurkihar zamindar’s house, and Sarasvati and Sarkar were eager to view them.

Approaching the south-west boundary of the village, along a narrow road between paddy fields, it is stunning to see how little the village had changed in 92 years. Much like how the two scholars described it, the first thing you see is a large man-made lake that is probably as old as the Kurkihar site. To its east is a low mound, partly encroached upon by some village houses. A little further down the road, to the left, is the main historical mound of Kurkihar, under which lies the ancient monastic site where the statues were excavated.

The temple museum

On the south-west corner of the mound is the old Ramji Temple, built by the zamindar over a century ago. I had read about it in Sarasvati and Sarkar’s monograph Kurkihar, Gaya And Bodh-Gaya (1936) and wanted to check if it was still inhabited.

I was greeted by the purohit of the temple. Parmod Kumar Harit is a man in his 50s, his white hair cropped short, dressed in white with a huge Vaishnavite tilak across his forehead. When I tell him the purpose of my visit, he is quite taken aback, asking me how I found the place. I tell him of my readings and he graciously offers to show me around.

A votive stupa from the Pala-era at the Ramji Temple at Kurkihar.
A votive stupa from the Pala-era at the Ramji Temple at Kurkihar. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The temple, though old, looks like it is built over an earlier structure that looks suspiciously like a stupa. Much of the main temple is whitewashed, but, as Harit points out, one can still see Pala-era architectural stone slabs, pillars and lintel fragments that were used to create parts of the temple, from doorways to wall brackets. Inside the sanctum, next to the modern images of Ram, Sita and Lakshman, lay a couple of beautiful carved votive stupas, with four seated Buddhas displaying different mudras in directional niches. A panel showing the pancha (five) cosmic Tathagatas and another depicting the various manushi Buddhas served as wall brackets on the outer wall of the sanctum.

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Harit then takes me out to the rear of the temple and on to the main mound itself. Looking like a grassy hillock, littered with debris from the encroaching village, he points out the highest part of the mound, shaded under a banyan tree. “That’s where the statues were found,” he says, “down in a hole.” He says that people constantly come across pillar fragments and other debris all over the village. There is so much underground, he says. He then points me to the compound of one of the houses. A large and beautiful pillar fragment, he says, is used to wash clothes on. Others are used as fodder basins for household cows. Has the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) ever come to excavate? I ask. He shakes his head. “Not as far as I know of.”

He offers to take me to the main Kurkihar temple further inside the village, where locally excavated statues have been collected and stored for decades. The Devistan temple, which, in 1931, was basically a shed and a compound, is still a fairly humble one-storey shrine, but with a large outer courtyard and a spacious inner sanctum hall. Harit introduces me to a gregarious middle-aged man in sunglasses, the purohit of this temple, Rajo Pandey. He says he has been friends with Harit since they were children but had never imagined that one day they would be helming the two village temples.

While describing the temple as it stood in 1931, Sarasvati and Sarkar had drawn attention to the fact that it was clearly built either over a pre-existing structure or by using the materials from one. “Fourteen ancient pillars, most of them of the early Pala period (ninth century AD), support the roof of the porch, and the stone frame of the entrance of the temple too belongs to the same age.” Modern gaudiness hides much of the detail now but the 14 pillars still hold up the temple, although they have now been painted a bright red.

Pala-era black basalt stalae of the Buddha at the Devistan temple at Kurkihar.
Pala-era black basalt stalae of the Buddha at the Devistan temple at Kurkihar. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Inside the main hall lies a veritable museum hoard of stone sculptures, all from the Pala period. Apart from a couple of Brahminical images, including an ekamukha-linga (Shiva’s face carved into a lingam), they are all Buddhist. The most stunning is a large, 5ft-high sculpture of the Buddha seated in the earth-touching pose (bhumisparsha mudra). Carved out of black basalt, like pretty much all the stone sculptures of the region, it is almost a larger mirror image of an exquisite bronze seated Buddha image from the village that I had seen at the Bihar Museum.

Like all the other Buddhist images in the temple, it too is worshipped, albeit in a Hindu garb, so the Buddha’s forehead is marked in a white Vaishnava tilak, with an additional dab of vermilion paste on the ushnisha. Two fantastical leogryphs, or vyalas, flank the Buddha’s sides, while two Bodhisattvas flank his shoulders and two flying vidyadharas hold garlands above his head. A mass of thick twirling vines, exquisite in their detail, form a large circular nimbus above the halo.

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What’s interesting is the identity of the Buddha. It isn’t the Shakyamuni but one of the pancha Tathagatas: Akshobhya. This is clear from a short Sanskrit mantra engraved near its head, written in characters from the era: tun Aksobhya vajra hun. The halo is engraved with the classic Buddhist prayer: ye dharma hetu…

A statue of the Buddha Akshobhya, one of the five Tathagatas, at the Devistan temple at Kurkihar.
A statue of the Buddha Akshobhya, one of the five Tathagatas, at the Devistan temple at Kurkihar. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The system of the five cosmic Tathagatas, four for the cardinal directions and one in the centre, is the classic system of forming Tathagata-kulas or families, out of which the last great form of Buddhism, the tantric Vajrayana, emerged. Much in the way as it is practised in Tibetan and Newar Buddhism today, Vajrayana, in its popular outward form, was just the ritualised form of Mahayana devotionalism. There is no record of the more esoteric tantric rituals that may have been once practised in Kurkihar. Without a proper excavation of the site, though, this can’t be ruled out.

On stylistic grounds established by Huntington, and more extensively by the doyen of eastern Indian art history, Claudine Bautze-Picron, the Akshobhya statue can be ascribed to artisans working in the mature tradition, so, 10th century or later. While this latter Kurkihar style is marked by a more slender treatment of the body, especially the arms and torso, it can also be marked by other flourishes, like the use of the vyalas as decorative elements.

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After waving goodbye to the two priests and driving away from Kurkihar, it’s hard not to feel bittersweet about the place. While the villagers have done as good a job as anyone can expect them to of safeguarding such priceless images, the potential of the site is just crying out for a systematic excavation. It’s high time that Kurkihar was put on the map.

The art of the Tantra

One of the first things that medieval monarchs did, while donating land for a village, a monastery, or a temple, was to build a water reservoir, a tank. In a country and culture as sensitive to water pressures as India, it is probably not surprising that one of the first recorded instances of public works in Indian history is inscribed on a rock in Junagadh in Gujarat: the Western Kshatrapas ruler Rudradaman I declaring in 150 CE how he had repaired and maintained a water reservoir and irrigation conduits built by the Mauryan emperors.

The Palas were no different, and, throughout their vast domains across Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, sites of political and cultural importance were dotted with reservoirs. Many historical tanks have survived, including the one at the village of Bargaon, which itself stands atop a large mound containing the unexcavated remains of the rest of the Nalanda mahavihara.

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A view of the Main Temple Site 3 at the ruins of the Nalanda 'mahavihara'.
A view of the Main Temple Site 3 at the ruins of the Nalanda 'mahavihara'. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The northernmost limit of Nalanda is said to lie near the village of Begumpur, 3km north-west of the excavated ruins. The southernmost would be at Jagdishpur village, 3km south-west of the ruins. Nalanda, in its prime, was massive, and it wasn’t the only Buddhist establishment in the area.

The Odantapuri mahavihara is thought to lie under modern Bihar Sharif, about 11km north-west of Nalanda. And 33km to Nalanda’s north-west are the excavated ruins of Telhara, the site of the Tiladhak mahavihara. Just about 15km east of Nalanda are the historical villages of Ghosrawan and Tetrawan, both sitting atop large old Pala-era localities and Buddhist remains. For nearly a thousand years, starting with the Guptas and ending with the Palas, the area was a thriving region of Buddhist learning, culture and art production.

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Narodakini, Rajgir, Nalanda, Phyllite Stone, c. 11th century, Bihar Museum.
Narodakini, Rajgir, Nalanda, Phyllite Stone, c. 11th century, Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Among other kinds of religious art produced by Nalanda’s many ateliers, the most interesting has to be the tantric artworks. Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism’s rich iconography is well represented at Nalanda, although the Palas established the Vikramashila mahavihara further east to function as the cutting-edge monastery for new esoteric innovations.

Art historian Rob Linrothe, in his magisterial survey of Vajrayana in Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities In Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999), proposes a highly influential method of dividing the emergence of Tantric Buddhism into three phases. Phase One of proto-tantric imagery, existing within the wider Mahayana, had the longest span, from the seventh to the 13th centuries, and can be seen in the maximum number of places, from Maharashtra to Afghanistan. Phase Two imagery, corresponding to the major Yoga Tantra texts, span the eighth to 13th centuries, while Phase Three imagery, corresponding to the radical and transgressive Yogini Tantra philosophies, ranges from the 11th-13th centuries.

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Through each of these phases, the importance of the historical Buddha declines, even as that of the pancha Tathagata increase. As does the popularity of tantric  deities like Yamantaka, Heruka, Vajrayogini, Nairatmya and Samvara, which belong to the families of the various Tathagatas. At Nalanda, you can see exquisite examples from all three phases. And one of the best ways to do so is to buy a 5 ticket for the ASI site museum, located just opposite the main gate of the Nalanda ruins.

Two of the masterpieces of Nalanda’s stone sculptures are actually fragments. The first of these, the lower portion of a colossal sculpture of the tantric deity Trailokyavijaya, from about the 10th century, could seem like a most un-Buddhist thing: a study in power and violence. The deity is based on the myth of the subjugation of Shiva during a fight for the ownership of Kailasha. The myth emerged at a time of an intensifying real-life power struggle between Buddhism and Saivism for patronage, clout and religious supremacy. While Saivism concocted its own myths for the domination of Shiva over Buddhist heretics, Trailokyavijaya was one of Buddhism’s answers, detailing the defeat of the prideful Maheshwara and his integration him into the Buddhist faith.

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Trailokyavijaya, Nalanda, Bronze, c. 10th century CE, Bihar Museum.
Trailokyavijaya, Nalanda, Bronze, c. 10th century CE, Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The artists responded to the myth and its popularity in Nalanda, taking iconographic cues from tantric texts such as that Sarvatathagata Tattva Samgraha. In the Nalanda fragment, we see just the feet of Trailokyavijaya as he tramples on Shiva and Umadevi in the warrior-like pratyalidha stance. The victor wears a garland (vanamala) made up of tiny Buddhas and emerges from a field of fire. The black basalt is shaped into fantastical whorls depicting the flames, even as Trailokyavijaya prepares to draw an arrow from his quiver. It is a powerful image and we can gauge the importance of this deity from the fact that Nalanda’s artists produced other masterpiece versions in full bronze (now in the Bihar Museum), as well as smaller stone stelae (which you can see at the National Museum in Delhi).

The ultimate meanings of Vajrayana imagery have more to do with depicting psychological states. For a tantric sadhaka (initiate), the Trailokyavijaya imagery represents the victory of true knowledge over false. Similarly, the imagery of the Phase Three Tantric deity Heruka functions on a variety of levels. The Nalanda Heruka is huge, about 5.7ft high, and although both its arms and feet are damaged, enough remains to portray the dancing vision of this wrathful deity. Heruka dances on a corpse, wearing a garland of skulls surrounded by yoginis. His smiling lips part to reveal fangs, while his skull-adorned crown has a small image of the Tathagata Akshobhya, whose family, or kula, Heruka belongs to.

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In tantric texts like the Hevajra Tantra and mantra compendia like the Sadhanamala, Heruka is a stand-in for the tantric practitioner, dancing as he does in the maha-sukha (the great bliss) of the realisation that the phenomenal world (samsara) and Buddhahood (nirvana) is one and the same, that duality of experience is just an illusion.

It is an imagery dripping with iconographic symbolism and the Nalanda artist’s mastery of its many subtleties is astounding. The statue really does look like, to quote the Hevajra Tantra, “The Lord play(ing) in the cemetery surrounded by his eight yoginis.” The fact that Tantric images such as the ones created in Nalanda and elsewhere in Bihar would go on to create the benchmark for images as far afield as Sumatra or Tibet make the work of the unknown artists even more remarkable.

A group of Kurkihar bronzes at the Bihar Museum.
A group of Kurkihar bronzes at the Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Pala-era Buddhist art was truly internationalist and at the base of that global vision were generations of humble, highly skilled and imaginative artists. The ateliers of Nalanda and Kurkihar are but two in a wealth of such workshops spread across Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Kashmir, to name but a few regions. It is only in Bihar, though, that so much of their work has survived the vagaries of time and neglect.

The genius of the ateliers is that they kept abreast of all the iconographical and doctrinal innovations that emerged over this long period. They would have had help, of course, through the guidance of monks, tantric sadhakas and other religious specialists, but the fact that they could create such masterpieces of esoteric art, all the while churning out Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Brahminical images for mainstream devotees, is nothing short of astounding.

For anyone who loves Indian religious art, it’s hard to leave the treasures of Bihar behind. There’s always the urge for one last look. And so, a few days later, I visit the Bihar Museum in Patna one final time, to gaze again at the calm eyes and inscrutable smiles of the bronze Buddhas. After all, to gaze on the masterworks of the unknown artists is to immerse one’s self in wonder.

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