Jul 1, 2015

Arts of the Indian Subcontinent and the Himalayas

Freer and Sackler Galleries

Encountering the Buddha | Hindu Traditions and Chola Bronzes | Book Arts of the Mughal Emperors

Arts of the Indian Subcontinent and the Himalayas

An extraordinary range of cultures and art arose on the Indian subcontinent, which today includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. From the southern tip of India to the Tibetan plateau, diverse traditions that emerged over millennia were sustained and enlivened by cultural interactions.

Most surviving ancient art relates to the three world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—that arose in India. Although each religious tradition understands ultimate reality to be formless, each also reveres gods, goddesses, and enlightened teachers who assume myriad accessible forms for their devotees. The art of depicting the divine body was thus of paramount importance. Artists created divine images that reveal fluid boundaries between human lives, the natural world, and the cosmos.

To represent ideal, immortal beings, sculptors drew upon resemblances between human and natural forms. These archetypal metaphors were outlined in artistic treatises and extolled in devotional and secular literature. They include the lotus petal or fish for the beautiful eye and the powerful bull's head for the male torso. In multiple-figure narratives or shrines, a deity's larger size signals importance, as do multiple arms, which convey cosmic power. Specific deities can be recognized by characteristic poses and attributes, such as the Buddha's earth-touching gesture or Shiva's third eye. Islam arrived on the subcontinent in the eighth century. By the twelfth century, Hindu and Jain artists in the ateliers of Muslim courts created new styles that fused local and Islamic idioms. These continued to evolve and gradually spread throughout the subcontinent.

Encountering the Buddha

Worship at a Stupa

At the end of the Buddha's life, his cremated remains were placed in stupas (large hemispherical mounds) that became major sites for pilgrimage. This relief from the Bharhut stupa railing depicts two devotees circumambulating a garland-covered stupa and clasping their hands in the gesture of adoration. The sculptors represented each worshiper multiple times to convey movement over time and through space.

From the railing of the Bharhut Stupa
India, state of Madhya Pradesh,
Shunga dynasty, early 2nd century BCE
Sandstone
Purchase F1932.26

A Royal Couple Visits the Buddha

From the railing of the Bharhut Stupa

At the center of this panel, a thick flower garland adorns a wheel that is located above an empty flower-strewn throne. Together, these symbols represent the Buddha and his teachings. For centuries after the historical Buddha transcended the cycle of rebirth (samsara), artists refrained from depicting his human form. Instead, they portrayed the presence of the Buddha with thrones he had sat upon, trees he had meditated under, and paths he had walked.

India, state of Madhya Pradesh, Shunga dynasty, early 2nd century BCE
Sandstone Purchase F1932.25

Sanchi Stupa

When the Buddha passed from this life and entered nirvana (the state of eternal bliss), his cremated remains were enshrined within hemispherical reliquaries called stupas. Some stupas are adorned with sculptural reliefs that depict the life of the Buddha, much like the Bharhut panels we just saw.

Devotees travel from far and wide to circumambulate stupas and make offerings of flower garlands, incense, and sandalwood paste. As Buddhism spread throughout the subcontinent and into east Asia, many other stupas were constructed to honor the Buddha and important Buddhist teachers.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (ca. 250 – 25 BCE) is one of the earliest stone structures in India and one of the best-preserved Buddhist archaeological sites in the world. As you take a tour of the Sanchi stupa and the surrounding compound, see if you can find any Buddhist imagery similar to what is depicted in the roughly contemporaneous Bharhut reliefs.

Four Scenes from the Life of Buddha

Ancient Gandhara was a cosmopolitan crossroads with ties to India, western Asia, and the Hellenistic world. During the Kushan dynasty (mid-first to third century CE), Gandharan artists synthesized elements from these cultural regions to create an image of the Buddha that combined Greco-Roman ideals of beauty with Indian Buddhist concepts and iconography.

These panels, which adorned a monumental stupa (reliquary), depict the four great life events of the Buddha. Artists presented the climactic moment in each event, focusing every composition on a large image of the Buddha or his mother. Devotees viewed the scenes as they walked clockwise around the mound with their right shoulders toward the enshrined relics.

Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara
Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Schist
Purchase F1949.9

The four scenes in this relief sculpture depict events that took place in India and Nepal. They remain pilgrimage sites today.

The Four Great Life Events of the Buddha

1. Prince Siddhartha was born in a grove outside of Lumbini, Nepal.

2. In Bodh Gaya, he achieved Enlightenment and became known as the Buddha.

3. He offered his first teaching at Deer Park in Sarnath.

4. In Kushinagar, the Buddha lay down and abandoned his physical body for nirvana.

Four Scenes from the Life of Buddha - Panel 1

The Birth of the Buddha

The Buddha was born in a grove outside Lumbini, Nepal. In this panel, the Hindu god Indra attends the Buddha's miraculous birth from his mother's side and proffers a swaddling cloth. Queen Maya grasps a tree in a traditional Indic pose. She has the garments and hair style of a Roman matron. Gandhara was a cosmopolitan crossroads where several artistic traditions came together.

Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Schist
Purchase F1949.9

Four Scenes from the Life of Buddha - Panel 2

The Enlightenment

After meditating for forty days beneath a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya, the Buddha approached the moment of omniscience. Evil demons, including two toppled soldiers beneath the Buddha's seat, have failed to distract him. Calmly lowering his right hand, the Buddha touches the earth goddess to witness his attainment of enlightenment. He is also depicted with the characteristic forehead mole (urna) and cranial bump (ushnisha) that symbolize his immense spiritual capacity.

Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Schist
Purchase F1949.9

Four Scenes from the Life of Buddha - Panel 3

The First Sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath

Surrounded by ascetics and deities, the Buddha raises one hand in the gesture of reassurance as he offers his first teaching at Deer Park in Sarnath. The wheel and animals on his throne represent, respectively, his teachings and the sermon's location in a Deer Park. His fine, symmetrical features, wavy topknot, and naturalistically draped monk's robe were adopted from the vocabulary of Greco-Roman art.

Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Schist
Purchase F1949.9

It was here, at Deer Park in Sarnath, that the Buddha delivered his first sermon. He taught a path to end suffering and attain enlightenment. Because of this, Sarnath is one of the holiest sites in the Buddhist world. As you take your tour of Sarnath, you will notice groups of monks seated in prayer. Like Sanchi, Sarnath continues to be a place of Buddhist worship.

Four Scenes from the LIfe of Buddha - Panel 4

Parinirvana

According to Buddhist traditions, the Buddha, at the age of eighty, lay down between two shala trees in Kushinagar and abandoned his physical body to enter the blissful state of nirvana. Only the first shala tree is visible here; the second was depicted on the now-missing right section. By depicting the Buddha lying on his side, artists clearly distinguished his liberation from the cycle of rebirth from an image of ordinary death.

Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Schist
Purchase F1949.9

Head of a lion

Because the Buddha was born a prince of the Shakya (lion) clan, lions often appear on early Buddhist monuments. Although a fragment, this sensitively modeled head conveys noble strength. It was originally situated atop a gateway leading to the great stupa (reliquary mound) at Amaravati. Seen from below, the king of beasts would have indeed appeared a mighty protector of the Buddhist faith.


From a gateway pillar at the Amaravati Stupa
India, state of Andhra Pradesh, Amaravati Satavahana dynasty, 2nd century CE
Limestone
Transfer from the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution F1978.34

Lower part of a nagaraja (serpent-king)

The thick coils behind this figure's legs identify him as a serpent-king. Believed to dwell within splendid kingdoms below lakes and rivers, serpent-kings were absorbed into the Hindu and Buddhist religions as semidivine protectors and devotees. The nagaraja probably stood on a low base outside the gates of a Buddhist stupa (reliquary mound) or a monastery. Its coils emphasize the robust monumentality typical of sculpture from Mathura, the southern capital of the Kushan dynasty. In the northern region of the Kushan dynasty (mid-first to third century CE), a different style, exemplified by the Gandharan reliefs that we saw earlier, emerged simultaneously.

India, state of Uttar Pradesh,
Mathura Kushan dynasty, 1st-2nd century CE
Sikri sandstone
Purchase F1969.3

Standing Buddha

During the Gupta dynasty, sculptors created an image of the Buddha that became a model for Buddhist art throughout Asia. They merged an interest in robust human bodies seen in the serpent-king from Mathura with the graceful nuance of Gandharan sculpture. The result is a balance of humanity and transcendence. The style is exemplified in the radiating string folds of this monastic garment, which simultaneously reveals the body of the Buddha and dematerializes it through pattern.

India, state of Uttar Pradesh,
Mathura Gupta dynasty, 320-485
Sandstone
Purchase F1994.17

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

As Indian Buddhists developed new paths for attaining enlightenment, Buddhist imagery became more varied. In the early years of the Common Era, the bodhisattva, an enlightened being dedicated to alleviating suffering, emerged as a spiritual paradigm and a focus of worship. Associated with Mahayana (Great Vehicle) teachings, bodhisattvas wear princely garb and smile compassionately.

This sweetly smiling Avalokiteshvara with fish-curved eyes extends one palm in the gesture of generosity. In his other hand, the bodhisattva of compassion holds a lotus in full blossom.

The bronze was created shortly after the Buddhist ruler Yeshe Ö (947-1024) invited scholars and artists from Kashmir to revitalize Buddhism within his kingdom in western Tibet. Its sculptor clearly delighted in balancing fluidly realized limbs and naturalistic elements, such as the draped antelope skin, with the linear abstractions of a lotus-petal belly and trilobed neck.

West Tibet, Ngari
Guge kingdom, 1000-1050
Brass alloy with copper and tin inlay, colored
wax, traces of gilding, and pigment
Purchase F2001.2a-d

Hindu Traditions and Chola Bronzes

Hindu traditions and philosophy evolved over millennia. Many conceptions of the divine—from an abstract and formless ultimate reality to innumerable and accessible gods, goddesses, saints, and gurus—are recognized as facets of spiritual truth.

Hindu deities graciously take residence within ritually consecrated images for the sake of worshipers. In south Indian temples, bronzes, once ritually enlivened, are bathed, entertained, and adorned as honored living guests. On festival days, they are carried in splendid processions to view their domains and bestow grace on all devotees.

Temple bronzes produced during the Chola dynasty (862-1310) of south India are among the most spectacular divine images created on the subcontinent. In contrast to stone sculptures, which were typically made to be placed against walls, these eloquently poised images are fully modeled in the round. Each is a unique work of art fashioned by the lost-wax process, in which wax sculptures encased in clay molds are melted off and replaced with molten bronze.

Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati

Artists' treatises outlined archetypal metaphors, such as pliant bamboo-shoot arms, for the depiction of goddesses, but the texts also stipulated perfectly straight shoulders for deities, as can be seen in the images of Shiva in this gallery. Here, sloping shoulders and a regal expression suggest that this is a portrait-sculpture of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi. She is adorned like the goddess Parvati, who is known as Uma in south India. Sembiyan Mahadevi's son commissioned the sublimely graceful bronze to be carried in temple processions on her birthday.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, ca. 990
Bronze
Purchase PI929.84

Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati


Artists lavished as much care and attention on the back of sculptures as they did on the front.

India, state of Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, ca. 990
Bronze
Purchase PI929.84

An element as simple as the shoulders of these two figures reveals a story.

Straight shoulders are a characteristic of the perfect body of a Hindu deity, as seen in the sculpture of the god Shiva on the right. The noticeably sloping shoulders of the goddess Parvati, on the left, are unusual. They suggest that the bronze is a portrait of a powerful Chola queen, Sembiyan Mahadevi, represented as a goddess.

Portable bronze images of deities like the Freer Parvati are worshipped at temples such as this one at Chidambaram in south India.

Temple at Chidambaram
Photo Neil Greentree, 1998

Lavishly Adorned Bronzes of Shiva and Uma in Procession, Tiruvannamalai

Photo Neil Greentree, 2000

Lavishly adorned with jewelry and garlands of flowers, the sculptures are carried in processions within temple precincts and through city streets. For devotees without access to temples, these processions are a chance to view deities and receive their grace.

Temple Chariot for Processional Bronze Images, Kapalishvara Temple, Mylapur, Chennai
Photo Neil Greentree, 1988

Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)

This bronze image reveals how Chola sculptors transformed profound belief into requisitely realized form. Shiva Nataraja dances the world into existence as he holds aloft the cosmic flames of its cyclic destruction. His posture radiates graceful energy. Poised upon the dwarf of ignorance, he lifts his left foot high across his body and extends his left arm to offer refuge to devotees. His wildly streaming locks of hair and the flaming, oval aureole (prabha) expand the radius of energy outward and upward.

Though stone images of Nataraja were created before the tenth century, it took the technical mastery and artistic genius of Chola bronze casters to perfect this form, which remains the Nataraja archetype to this day.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, ca. 990
Bronze
Purchase—Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum Funds F2003.2

Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)

Shiva dances on Apasmara, the dwarf of ignorance.

This image of the Hindu deity Shiva is heavily laden with garlands of flowers and ropes of jewels. The ornate golden necklace may have once adorned a similar sculpture.

Processional Image of the Goddess, Adorned with Silks, Gold, and Flowers, Tiruvannamalai
Photo Neil Greentree, 2000

Jasmine bud necklace

Many south Indian images of deities were adorned with precious jewelry and flower garlands given by devotees to show reverence and accrue spiritual merit. This necklace replicates in gold a fragrant jasmine-bud garland.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
late 19th–early 20th century
Gold and red semiprecious stones
Purchase—Partial funds provided by Miss Narinder K. Keith and Miss Rajinder K. Keith FI990.4

Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Vina)

The figure's eloquently swaying pose captures the spirit of Shiva Vinadhara, who is revered as the essence of sound and the deity who brought music to the world. Shiva's two front hands are poised to play the lutelike vina, while his rear hands hold aloft his loyal antelope companion and battle-ax. The smoothly worn front surface results from the precious substances, such as milk, poured upon the deity in worship. The rear of the sculpture reveals its original detailed surface.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, ca. 950
Bronze
Purchase F1997.28

Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Vina)
Rear View

Artists lavished as much care and attention on the back of sculptures as they did on the front.

India, state of Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, ca. 950
Bronze
Purchase F1997.28

Chidambaram Milk Ritual Bath (1988)

Sculptures of Hindu deities are ritually anointed with a range of substances, including milk, honey, curds, ghee, sugar, and water. Here, priests pour milk over an image of Shiva resting his arm on the bull Nandi. The smooth, almost blurred features on the faces of many Chola sculptures are a result of lustrations repeated over many years.

Nandi the Bull

Nandi (the Joyous One) has the distinctive hump of an Indian bull and wears jewelry that befits his stature as the trusty mount of Shiva. Like all Indian deities, he rests upon a lotus, which symbolizes divine purity. Devotees threaded poles through the openings in the lotus base and carried the bull on their shoulders to accompany an image of Shiva in temple processions.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, 12th century
Bronze Purchase
F1985.30


Processional Image of Dancing Shiva,
Jambukeshvara Temple, Srirangam

In procession, the Nandi would have been consecrated, adorned, and carried on a palanquin in front of the Hindu god Shiva.

Child-Saint Sambandar

This delightfully plump, dancing child is dynamic from every angle. Born in the seventh century in a south Indian town, Sambandar sang his first devotional verse as a young child in a temple courtyard. After a golden cup of milk miraculously appeared in his hand, he explained its source by pointing upwards, the gesture seen here, towards an image of the goddess Parvati. The child-saint's four thousand verses are still sung today, and his image is honored within all major south Indian temples devoted to Shiva.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, 12th century
Bronze
Purchase F1976.5

Child-Saint Sambandar

The quality of a Chola bronze can often be discerned by the care and detail lavished upon the back of the sculpture.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
Chola dynasty, 12th century
Bronze
Purchase F1976.5

Garland of sacred double seeds

Rudraksha beads are sacred to the god Shiva, and many diminutive images of lingams, the abstract and most sacred form of this deity, adorn the necklace.The double Nandi (Shiva's bull vehicle) on the gold pendant echoes the rare double-rudraksha seeds with which the garland is strung. On the upper part of the pendant, the goddess Parvati worships her husband in his lingam form.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
late 19th—early 20th century
Gold, double rudraksha seeds, diamonds, and rubies
Purchase F1990.8

Garland of sacred double seeds (detail)

The elaborate gold pendant on this necklace contains a tiny figure of goddess Parvati worshiping her husband in his lingam form. A large pendant casket, empty today, most likely contained a small portable lingam, perhaps of crystal or gold, as well as sacred ashes.

India, state of Tamil Nadu,
late 19th—early 20th century
Gold, double rudraksha seeds, diamonds, and rubies
Purchase F1990.8

Book Arts of the Mughal Emperors
The Mughal emperors reigned over the Indian subcontinent for three centuries (1526-1857), establishing thriving capitals at Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, and Lahore. Descendants of the great conquerors Timur (Tamerlane) and Ghenghis Khan, the Mughals combined an immense pride for their illustrious ancestry with an ardent appreciation for Indian cultural traditions and European artistic trends. As a result, they forged a uniquely syncretic culture that manifested itself in their artistic production. Following Persian tradition, Mughal emperors valued books as symbols of kingship. In addition to collecting Persian and Indian texts, emperors commissioned illustrated manuscripts and painting albums that boasted exquisite calligraphy and intricately detailed paintings. Artists painted allegories, religious scenes, naturalistic portraits, important historical events, and observations of court life.Learn more about the Freer Gallery’s collection of Mughal paintings at http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/worlds-within-worlds/gallery.asp. 

Krishna and the Golden City of Dwarka

Sacred Hindu texts, such as the Mahabharata, the Harivamsha, and the Ramayana, include wondrous stories and advice on kingship. The Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) commissioned translations of these stories into Persian, the language of the Mughal court. This painting is an illustration from the Harivamsha, which is the genealogy of the Hindu god Krishna. It depicts the blue-skinned Krishna residing in his golden palace at Dwarka. Krishna commissioned his palace as an extension of his own godly splendor, which was conveyed with meticulously applied areas of raised paint and pricked indentations to heighten the building’s golden gleam. Dwarka, located in western India, is among the most holy pilgrimage sites for Hindus today.

From a Harivamsa (Lineage of Vishnu
Probably designed by Keshav Kalan (act. ca. 1570–1604) and painted by Miskin (act. late 1570s–ca. 1604)
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1585
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase F1954.6

This is a Google 360° view of Shree Dwarkadish Temple, a shrine dedicated to Krishna at the site where his palace is believed to have stood.

Da’ud Receives a Robe of Honor from Akbar’s Vizier

In this painting, the provincial ruler Da’ud dons an imperial robe as a symbol of his deference to the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). The bird’s-eye perspective offers a view of both the ceremony and the flourishing terrain of Akbar’s empire. It also reveals the emperor’s interest in ruling from both monumental cities—similar to the one depicted in the painting’s upper left corner—and from mobile encampments. Like his central Asian ancestors, Akbar travelled frequently and conducted court affairs in extensive imperial camps. He spent close to forty percent of his time on the road and traveled with a retinue of up to 300,000 individuals.

From an Akbarnama (Book of Akbar)
Attributed to Hiranand
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1596–1600
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Purchase F1952.31

Like their central Asian ancestors, the Mughals were largely nomadic. The sixteenth-century Persian painting on the right depicts a tent encampment similar to the one used in the Mughal painting on the left.

On Left

Da’ud Receives a Robe of Honor from Akbar’s Vizier
From an Akbarnama (Book of Akbar)
Attributed to Hiranand
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1596–1600
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Purchase F1952.31

On Right

Khusraw and Shirin feasting at night in a desert encampment
(Quintet) by Nizami


From a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami (d.1209)
Copied by Murshid al-Shirazi
Iran, Shiraz, Safavid period, 1548 (955 A.H.)
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1908.266

Folio from the Gulshan Album

The emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) was passionately interested in the arts of the book. The border of this folio, with depictions of artisans in his workshop, encapsulates the emperor’s aesthetic sensibility. Its subject conveys his love for manuscripts, its style reveals his delight in naturalism, and its finish exemplifies his refined taste. In the upper right corner, an artisan vigorously smoothes and polishes a sheet of paper with a heavy burnisher. Moving counterclockwise, a bookbinder, surrounded by the tools of his trade, stamps a design onto a leather cover. Two woodworkers, one filing the edges of a bound book to size and the other constructing a bookstand, occupy the left margin. Another artisan blows through a rod to intensify a flame for smelting gold used in illumination. The last figure, a calligrapher, sits at a low table and dips his brush into a blue-and-white inkwell.

Marginal figures attributed to Madhava (act. 1582–ca. 1624)
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600
Calligraphy by Mir Ali
Probably Uzbekistan, Bukhara, ca. 1540
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase F1954.116

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings

Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) commissioned a number of allegorical portraits. This painting, for example, uses symbolic references to assert his preference for spiritual matters over worldly ones. The artist Bichitir depicted the emperor handing a book—a treasured object in the Islamic world—to a humble shaykh (religious scholar) instead of an Ottoman sultan or an English monarch. Furthermore, he placed these foreign rulers below the shaykh suggesting their lesser importance. In the lower left corner, Bichitr included a portrait of himself in this chain of powerful figures to convey the respect that Jahangir accorded to painters.

From the St. Petersburg Album
Signed by Bichitr
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1615–18
Margins by Hadi, Iran, 1755–56 CE
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase F1942.15a

The religious scholar depicted in this painting is Shaykh Husain, who was in charge of an important Sufi shrine at Ajmer.

This is a Google 360° view of Ajmer Sharif, the Sufi shrine overseen by Shaykh Husain.

Although the Ottoman sultan depicted below the shaykh appears to be a generic type, the English king below him is identifiable as King James I of England (r. 1603-1625). The portrait was copied from an English painting by John de Critz, which may have been brought to the Mughal court by an English ambassador.

F|S
Credits: Story

Curated by Debra Diamond
Curator, South and Southeast Asian Art
Freer | Sackler

Photos and Video by Neil Greentree
Photographer
Freer | Sackler

Edited by Nina Cavazos and Rachel Hirsch
Freer | Sackler

Produced by Marc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Developer
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Smithsonian Institution, 2015.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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