The story of Buddhism in India is one of re-discovery. Every few years, more layers of South Asia’s first extensive, organised religion are revealed through a combination of new archaeological finds or thoughtfully curated art exhibitions. In this case, it is the latter: an ongoing exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York titled Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art In India, 200 BCE-400 CE.
The exhibition is a major undertaking, an international effort that encompasses the collections of the Met, private donors, and, crucially, a large number of Indian museums. And if you aren’t lucky enough to experience it in person, a fantastic coffee-table catalogue has been published by Mapin, featuring 12 essays by an international group of scholars of ancient India and Buddhism, as well as beautifully photographed representations of the featured art objects. This veritable hoard of gorgeous and fascinating Buddhist art is vividly brought to life by contextualising it in a precisely-framed narrative of an India that existed about 2,000 years ago.
The main objective of the exhibition is to map the early spread of Buddhism, from the era immediately following the collapse of the Mauryan empire, through the religious art of monastic remains of that era. The other aim is to foreground the cultural history of Buddhism in the Deccan and southern India, a vast region that was known as “Andhradesha” at the time. This is actually a project that is overdue, especially because of the extensive attention that the history of Buddhism in north India has already received over the past century and more.
What has often been overlooked in a north-focused narrative is the great popularity of Buddhism in the Deccan, and the deep roots the religion put down throughout the Konkan, as well as the Krishna and the Godavari valleys. The fact that Nagarjunakonda remains the only well-known ancient Buddhist site in the Deccan— despite monumental remains at sites as diverse as Sankaram on the Coromandel coast, Kanaganahalli in central Deccan and Kanheri on the Konkan coast—shows just how little mainstream Indian history has engaged with the Buddhist past. The Met exhibit provides a much needed corrective in this regard.
The historical period in question was one of great political and cultural flux in South Asia: witnessed in the spread and consolidation of large and prosperous regional kingdoms—many of which coalesced into empires—based on conquest and trade, including the Kushana empire in the north and the Satavahana in the south. The exhibit offers a sense of widening horizons in the subcontinent, in conjunction with the spread of the Buddha dharma.
As an organising principle, the exhibit—curated by John Guy, the Met’s renowned head of South and South-East Asian art—focuses on Buddhism’s interactions with, and absorption of, popular forms of animist worship in India. The folk imagination of the time was a vivid relationship with magical and sacred beings, from nagas, or snake deities, to trees like the sal, the peepal and the banyan, rivers and lakes and the innumerable perilous spirits—the yakshas and yakshis—that populated the natural landscape.
As the art objects in the exhibit show, much of Buddhism’s spread and popularity was the result of a careful and systematic integration of these deities in the narratives of the personal history of the Buddha as well as the role of the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and laypersons), and Buddhism’s monumental imagery, primarily in the form of the chaitya, or stupa.
Much like Puranic Hinduism after it, Buddhism thrived by inserting itself into the cultural fabric of the people. In terms of art, this was achieved by acknowledging the power of the folk divinities and turning them into guardians of the faith, whether by portraying the naga deity Muchalinda as the protector of the Buddha or by integrating popular yakshis like Hariti and granting them visual places of honour in the layout of a monastery or stupa. The artistic masterpieces of the Deccan portrayed in the exhibition show just how well and how elegantly this was done, as generations of artisans developed a distinct artistic grammar that would form the bedrock of all subsequent religious art in South Asia.
The exhibit also does a stellar job of showing how extensive maritime trade with the Mediterranean region resulted in artistic influence and exchange between the Roman empire and India. Just as an exchange of ideas was taking place across the overland trade routes in the north, a similar process was taking place, via oceanic trade, in the Deccan. The murals of Ajanta record this, as do the amazing examples of a copper Roman statue of Poseidon (first century CE) excavated near Kolhapur both in Maharashtra, or a gorgeous ivory figurine of a bejewelled yakshi from western Deccan (first century CE) excavated at Pompeii, Italy.
The Met exhibit and the catalogue (also by Guy) is an invaluable addition to our understanding of ancient India, especially in the context of the oft-forgotten fact that Buddhism was, for a very long time, the dominant religious and cultural paradigm in South Asia. This is a labour of love that opens up new windows into our past, and for that it should be applauded.
The exhibition is on till 13 November at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met Fifth Avenue, New York; $30 (around ₹2,460) for general admission tickets, with subsidised rates for seniors and students. Children under 12 free.