ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP
CULTURAL SYNTHESIS IN THE BUDDHIST ART OF CHINA
World civilizations are
replete with cultural syntheses. but Sino-Indian synthesis does not have
many parallels. There were international highways through which culture
travlled. Mahayana (which literally means the "Great Ferry") was
an important vehicle in the India-China intercourse. How culture travelled
would not be as easily detectable as the visible cargo. The more remote
the time, the greater is the difficulty in detecting such movement. We can
only note, not scientifically analyse, how the Chinese had the legend of Pangu
who looked like a copy of the Indian Purusa. Then, the Chinese
Kunlun might be exactly the Indian Himalaya. China in the remote past was
not strong in worshipping female deities. Yet, there was "Xiwangmu",
more than three thousand years old who was doubtlessly a goddess, and
described in Shanhai Jing (Book of Mountains and Seas) in an
outlandish manner -a testimonial of her foreign origin. Chinese scholars
begin to consider the possibility of her being the Chinese duplicate of Uma
(and "Wangmu" might be the corruption of "Uma").
Asia became a melting pot of Indian. Persian and Roman art and culture.
which in turn travelled eastwards to China byway of the oases of the Tarim
Basin and the neightbouring areas. Thus the diverse influence of popular and
courtly cults. Taoist and Confucian elements intermingling with influences
from the east and west brought in vigour and the immense variety to Chinese
art styles and subject matter. The scope of narrative painting increased
with the wall paintings of the Buddhist sutras in the shrines. There is
literary evidence to show that Buddhist monastic community was in existence
in Central China by AD 63. During the second century there was also a
flourishing Buddhist community in Katigara from where the new faith spread
northwards into South China and Sichuan. However, Buddhism was merely one
among many popular cults when the Han Dynasty came to an end in the midst of
chaos in AD 221. During the four hundred years of stress and uncertainty,
between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Tang, Buddhism grew
to a tremendous wave that spread the new doctrine to every corner of China.
was the form of Buddhism which took root in China and this is inseperable to
the cult of Amitabha Buddha and the Lotus Sutra. To understand how much it
differed from the Theravada Buddhism, we have to pause for a moment to
consider the life and teachings of the Buddha. The generally accepted dates
of the historical life of Gautama Buddha is 566- 486 BC. His legendary life
spans several births, both human and animal. The Bodhisattva's life story of
previous births known as Jatakas, prepared the way for his Buddhahood. His
last historical life is mixed with legend and miracle. He was miraculously
conceived and delivered as the prince of the Sakya clan ruling on the border
of Nepal. He was predicted to become either a Universal Monarch or a Buddha,
the Enlightened One.
was venerated for having reached the superhuman state of non-being, was
indicated only through symbols. The aniconic form of the Buddha are his
foot-prints, the stupa, the umbrella, the Bodhi tree, the dharma chakra and
an empty seat. Incidents from the life of Buddha are portrayed with
appropriate devices, such as a riderless horse to indicate Gautama's
farewell to his horse and groom when he resolved to renounce the world. A
pair of deers symbolise the Buddha's sermon in Vaisali. Thus the Buddhist
sculptures prior to Mahayana Buddhism has an incomparable structure of high
complexity. The aim of the aniconic Theravada Buddhism is to preserve the
pristine quality of nirvana attained by the Buddha. The Buddha, in
the Sunyata state remained disembodied for more than five hundred years.
Buddha's death the task of maintaining the Doctrine fell upon the monastic
order that functioned with the support of the merchant class, casteless in
the Indian society. Patronage was also extended by the emperors who were
conscious of its values as a unifying force. But the doctrine of
renunciation of all desires in order to break the chain of rebirths remained
a difficult proposition to the common people. Towards the end of the era,
the monks without the cohesion of a central authority progressively
retreated into monasticism with the belief that Sunyata (emptiness) is
nothingness. They regarded the striving for nirvana in the human
death as the ideal of the return of a life to nothingness.
first century AD, Emperor Kanishka I recalled the monks from retreat and
convened the fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. What transpired as the
result of the dialogue is revolutionary in nature. The perfection of the
Wisdom Sutra, formulated in about 50 AD, infused new life to Buddhism. The
arguments in the Sutra poses Classic logic that emptiness is not reached by
the negation of matter; for emptiness is the fundamental truth that brings
matter into being. The later postulations developed in the Lotus Sutra left
no place for misunderstanding: The true cause of illusion is the
preoccupation with the self that clings to material things. Therefore,
emptiness is actually selflessness. As a corollary to selflessness the
virtue of compassion for others developed, exemplified by Amitabha Buddha of
Mercy and Compassion.
phenomena of Amitabha drastically changed Buddha's original doctrine: the
renunciation of the world to break the chain of rebirths. In the popular
cult of Amitabha, the nirvana of the canonical sutras is replaced by
a Paradise in which even sinners can find eternal happiness in Paradise, by
virtue of repent ion. The Lotus Sutra of Amitabha proclaims that the Buddha
nature is imminent in all beings. The reality of life is reflected in the
doctrines taught by Amitabha in sermons and parables. Thus The Lotus Sutra
became a rich source of inspiration and the artists in Central Asia
delighted in painting Amitabha's Western Paradise and varieties of conscious
life from the Sutra.
presenting Amitabha Buddha as worthy of worship, the historic Buddha receded
to the state of eternal Omniscent Supreme Being. The way of Amitabha Buddha
and the transcendent Buddha were followed by the numberless Bodhisattvas of
limitless benevolence who choose to come time and again to this world to
help and guide mankind. The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara completes the Buddha
trinity and they are surrounded by a host of Bodhisattvas, angels and fierce
guardians and devotees. In the assimilation of the syncretic-doctrine the
iconography underwent several transformations in China.
first century AD, Gandhara art gave form to Buddha for the very first time.
The style is Graeco-Roman and the Buddhist iconography has no anticedence.
There is no evidence of the halo in Indian art prior to Gandhara art and the
anatomical realism in human form is contrary to Indian aesthetics. In
Mathura we find an earnest attempt to soften this stark realism by
presenting Buddha's all revealing body as if through a veil, symbolising the
transcendent quality of the Buddha. But it was Gandhara art which travelled
to China by means of portable shrines, narrative scrolls, votive stupas and
small-scale Buddhist reliefs.
earliest examples of Gandhara art in Central Asia is to be found in Miran.
The unique paintings of Miran in Gandhara style have no counterpart in
India. Among the clusters of stupa shrine, two yielded paintings that
miraculously survived on large segments of plaster flakes. Part of the
restored murals are in the British Museum and the National Museum in New
Delhi, while fragments of the Vessantara Jataka are preserved only in
Shrines enclosing stupas is an early development Free-standing square, rectangular, circular and apsidal structures have hardly survived. The square shrine in Miran contained a stupa in the centre. On the circular base of the solid mound, about four feet above the floor was a delicately painted dado of winged angels. Dated second century, the seven Cherubims are startling in their resemblance to Christian iconography and classical style. In fact, the broad treatment of form and colour is derived from Graeco-Roman mosaics. The wide gaze of the angles occupy the level to catch the eyes of the worshipper during the circumbulation of stupa in the centre. The adaptation of the form to the particular structural conditions is a western tradition.
The tempera painting on stucco plaster recovered from the south-east corner of the passage contains part of the composition depicting a Buddhist theme. The scene is a procession of monks following the Buddha, identified by the halo, the top knot and the hand raised in blessing. The features, including the moustache, have close resemblance to Gandhara sculpture. The technique employed in modulation by means of shading is derived from the blocking of form in tonal planes familiar to Roman mosaics. That the technique is derived from the art of mosaic is re-inforced by the manner in which the flat background is squared into small cubes. Other details, such as the brownish-red ascentic robe of Buddha and the chouri bearer among the monks are copies of the source in India. But the wide, expressive eyes are stylistically different from those painted in Central Asia or in Ajanta.
A stupa shrine nearby has similar dado of angels painted on the square wall of the passage. The undulating swag dado, familiar in Gandhara art, frames realistically painted youthful busts. The bejewelled girls adorned with flowers, gracefully play on a guitar or carry decanter and cup. The secular theme and the style give the impression of a Bachanial mural in the Eastern province of the Roman Empire.
The mural on the peripheral wall indicates that much care was taken in the consideration of the composition. In the curve of the swag the er:1blamatic portrait of prince Vessantara is included and is placed immediately below the Jataka scene of Prince Vessantara making an offering of the wish-granting white elephant. The form and style is Gandhara and details such as the ritual objects in the hands of the prince and the stylised treatment of the folds of his garment are of particular interest.
The 18 feet long mural on the peripheral wall starts on the south-eastern wall. The Jataka unwinds from the left of the entrance with the scene of the pious prince riding out of the palace gate, banished by his father. Before him a "classical quadriga" carries his equally pious wife and two sons. Then the scene shifts to the forest where the prince on foot presents his miraculous white-elephant to four Brahmin mendicants. Cutting across the broken segment of the wall on the northern side, the scene shows the royal couple in their jungle retreat and then moves forward to the happy conclusion of their return to the palace. The short Kharoshti inscription above the mural, on the right side of the entrance, identifies Prince Vessantara in the painting.
According to Stein, the mural is painted in "true pompeian red". But inspite of the Roman motifs, forms and colours the mural appears to be a collaborative effort, for there is a distinct Indian aesthetic discernible in the portrayal of Prince Vessantara. The technically sophisticated method of modelling in the Buddha group is not repeated here. Also, the representation of the elephant contains the charm for which the Indian artists are known for. In subsequent portrayal of the elephant in Central Asia we notice an inability to capture this particular style. Another characteristic of the Indian style is the two dimensional rendering of form, where even landscape assumes a decorative pattern that retains the two dimensional picture plane.
The mural is signed by the artist on the thigh of the white elephant, with a short inscription in Kharoshthi. The name of the artist is Tita. According to Abbe Boyer, the French scholar, "Tita" is the Roman name Titus in Sanskrit. Titus is a popular Roman name of the period. The swag motif and details in the swag also point to Roman origin. Among the put tis carrying the swag are figures wearing the "Phyrygian" cap that is an unmistakable copy of the Persian god Mithra, worshipped throughtout the Roman Empire. Yet, among the bare footed monks in the mural above the dado of the girl with a pitcher, is a starburst; an ancient symbol for the sun that was used as the main decoration on personal items owned by the Mecedonian kings. The stylised 14 point star in the mural is a symbol of light and if it bears a reference to the cup held by the girl in the dado; the cup could mean the "water of life". As religious symbols, "to light the darkness" and "water of life" have origins outside the Buddhist philosophy.
The iconography in the Miran mural is quite complex. The presence of the Persian god Mithra among Roman forms, incorporated in a Buddhist narrative, indicates the changes that were taking place in the evolution of the two religions. The Church of the first five centuries is to be understood in its ancient setting in the pagan Graeco-Roman world. Here, Christianity inherited the Jewish prohibition of images but due to the pagan background, the early Christians regarded the pagan idols as indeed animated by spirits. In order to hold fast to their faith and witness its unique claims Christians had to stand against the pagan symbols. Yet, during its early development, Christianity often got mixed up with mystery cults and foreign religious current in the Roman world. It was not uncommon to find Jesus identified with Mithra, Orpheus or Hermes and the kinship to Buddha being even more obvious, it is not surprising for a synthesis to take place at this point of time and place. The mural in Miran is characteristic of the confluence of several streams in Central Asia. As observed by Stein "inspiration from the contemporary art of the Roman Orient" is obvious. One of the pictorial traditions that would have definitely served as a model for the artists in Central Asia is the Graeco-Roman tapestry. A piece of woollen tapestry which was used in a burial was found at the Lou- Ian site, abandoned at the end of 3rd century AD. It represents the head of Hermes with Caduceus. The tonal variations produced on the face of Hermes by means of woven strands of wool approximates the modelling technique employed in the Buddha group in Miran. A similarity is also seen in the rendering of the wide staring eyes. Evidence points to the settlement of people from the Roman Empire. Some of the fragments of wood carving recovered from a ruined house in Lou-Ian have decorative motifs which include composite classical figures and laurel wreaths linked together.
In Miran, the ruins of a temple near the stupa-cluster has a substructure of niches framed by attached columns. The capital of the half columns is an adaptation of classical design derived from Bactria or Syria. Originally the niches contained huge seated images that were modelled out of clay mixed with hay. The ingenious use of available material in the second century and the resemblance to Gandhara style make them prototypes to the stucco sculptures in the cave shrines. The temple was in al1 probability a combination of masonary and wooden structure. It should be noted that the stupa shrine in Miran with the Prince Vessantara mural, was once decorated in fine gilded wooden carvings.
It is remarkable, during the long history of Chinese art, human form did not find expression; unless as a mask during the Shang Dynasty (1766-1111 BC) or a decorative adjunct as in the bronze table leg of the Zhou/Warring States (481-221 BC) period. It was only during the Han Dynasty (206BC -AD221) that sculptural representation of human form appeared in the reliefs of funerary chapels. The colossal mortuary sculptures in stone on the Spirit Road of Han tombs have few human figures compared to the impressive avenue of fantastic animals. These and the battalion of terracotta attendants in underground burial chambers are distinct affirmation of faith in guardian spirits and immortality. In contrast to these indigenous forms are the iconic Buddhist sculptures that seem to have developed almost simultaneously during the Han period. These distinct and separate streams rarely meet. Yet, the fierce guardians in the pantheon is a Chinese invention which derives from local cult.
Mahayana Buddhism in China is a driving force which introduced the human form as the primary mode of communication to spread the faith. During the early Han period, relief sculpture and painting as pictorial language, is primarily meant for funerary purpose. A surprising range of style and technique is apparent in painting. The fluid brush strokes of the painted brick from the tomb near Luoyang and the steady line drawing of funerary banner from the Mawangdui tombs from Changsha, are respectively Confucian and Taoist in principle. While both portray customs and manners of the contemporary Han period of mid-2nd century BC, the funerary banner is esoteric, its symbolic content is pre-Buddhist. More than thirteen varieties of fantastic birds and animals frame human dwelling in clearly defined planes, where the spirit world dominates the earthly life. The Chinese dragon portrayed in the banner and in the funerary banner and in the sculptures of the Spirit Road is a benign guardian, unlike the Dragon King in the Buddhist Sutra. In the Sutra, Amitabha Buddha rescues the young daughter of the Dragon King but the dragon eventually transforms into a powerful guardian in Buddhist iconography. In the Chinese culture the auspicious symbol of the protective dragon is enduring. If the symbolic structure of the Sutra of the Dragon King's Daughter is analysed, it will be found that its origin lies beyond India and China, hence its lack of relevance to both the cultures. However, it is evident from the Western Han sculptures and paintings, that a transmission of form and technique is taking place even before the advent of Mahayana Buddhism. To a large extent the Silk Road played a role in bringing the world closer to the Han Empire.
The pre-Han art in China is remarkable for the absence of any painting or sculpture. Especially remarkable is the lack of human figure in its formal expression. The Chinese sensibility to form, scale and decoration is apparent even without any reference to human form. All forms of decoration remained essentially two dimensional. Sculpture as such played only a minor role and throughout most of Chinese history, animals have been the preferred subject for sculptors. An important tradition of sculpture based on the human figure began as Buddhism reached China from India during the first century AD. Even then, Chinese artists practised sculpture only when commissioned for a Buddhist or ceremonial purpose. And it is in painting, even more clearly than in sculpture, we notice the incorporation of Indian tradition, particularly in the form of story-telling.
the narrative form in painting precedes that of sculpture, though very few
remain prior to 1Sth century. According to ancient literature scroll or pata
paintings have been made in various parts of India. The word "pata"
means woven cloth in Sanskrit, and originally cloth was used as the support.
The narrative scroll, believed to be admired by Gautama Buddha, is a
particular kind known as "Charana Chitta". According to the
commentary of Buddhagosa of the first century A.D., the scroll contained
picture panels placed one below the other in a vertical format or arranged
horizontally. The format of the horizontal bars in the gateway of The Great
Stupa of Sanchi is probably the earliest example of the narrative scroll
transferred to stone. The analogy is strengthened by the scroll-form of the
terminals on the cross-bars. The ancient tradition is a living form among
the patachitrakars of India.
In India, the narrative form in painting precedes that of sculpture, though very few remain prior to 1Sth century. According to ancient literature scroll or pata paintings have been made in various parts of India. The word "pata" means woven cloth in Sanskrit, and originally cloth was used as the support. The narrative scroll, believed to be admired by Gautama Buddha, is a particular kind known as "Charana Chitta". According to the commentary of Buddhagosa of the first century A.D., the scroll contained picture panels placed one below the other in a vertical format or arranged horizontally. The format of the horizontal bars in the gateway of The Great Stupa of Sanchi is probably the earliest example of the narrative scroll transferred to stone. The analogy is strengthened by the scroll-form of the terminals on the cross-bars. The ancient tradition is a living form among the patachitrakars of India.
The narrative scroll is integral to story-telling. In the Buddhist world, the scrolls helped to spread the doctrine through the portrayal of the life of Buddha. They were painted by itinerant monks who recounted the stories in rhythmic prose-verse. Through the lively interaction of the visual and performing arts, communication became more effective, particularly when Buddhism was taken to China. Through the scroll painting, narration gained greater appeal due to the musical intonation of the recital that gave time the necessary structure, as the visual unwound in sequential story script. Transmitted thus, the narrative scroll tradition of India found outstanding expression in the Buddhist art of China.
Several narrative scrolls from the walled-up chapel, from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, are now in the collection of the British Museum, London. The vertical scrolls, dating between 5th to 8th centuries AD, are painted on silk gauze in mineral colours. In a typical scroll, each frame is a square surrounded by a dark frame. The border is left unadorned so that the focus is on the "Still." An interesting invention is a narrow vertical band on the "Still" that alternates from right to left on each successive panel. The alternation helps the eye to follow the passage of the sequence. Though the band is mostly plain, some carry calligraphy. The inclusion of inscribed cartouche is a Chinese invention. So also is the iconography of billowing cloud form to indicate a dream sequence or a supernatural occurrance. In some of the scrolls the cloud form breaks through the frame, linking the narrative from one panel to the other. The quality of serenity in the traditional linking of figures by facial expression and gesture is noticeable even within the small frame. The inclusion of landscape and architectural setting to create an illusion of depth to each of the picture plane is noteworthy.
The adaptation of the scroll form for wall murals leads to several original methods in China. Quite often the traditional frame structure is dispensed with for the sake of pictorial composition. In Dunhuang Cave No.257, the painter uses an unusual device in the composition of the Deer King Jataka, in which each episode is placed within an individual space created by the topography of the landscape. As a result, the various episodes, separated by time and space, are integrated in a harmonious manner. The Integrative function of landscape in painting is a Chinese innovation which reaches greater achievements in later periods.
The Deer King Jataka in the Northern Wei (386-532 AD) style starts from the foreground on the left, where the Deer carries the youth across the river on his back. In the next episode the youth kneels before the Deer in gratitude, and the Deer wanders off into the landscape after the boy's departure. The landscape is quite barren, except for the diagonal series of hills that rise and fall like the dragon's teeth, holding within its jaw the various episodes. The interplay of series of diagonals create a dynamic pattern.
At the mid point in the narrative, the story shifts to the extreme right and progresses towards the left to culminate on the Deer King once again. This sudden shift in the direction of the narrative is made possible due to the wide-angle vision of the wall mural. The other part of the story is on the right. It depicts the king and the queen seated in an architectural setting. They wear distinct clothes fashionable during the period. In postures and gestures the scheming enchantress, the queen, desires the "nine-coloured" pelt of the Deer King. The ungrateful youth stands in the court with the plan to betray the secret dwelling of the Deer King. As the story progresses towards the left to the approaching danger, the sleeping Deer King is awakened by his friend -the crow. The Deer King confronts the wrong-doer with great dignity. Thus the story culminates in the centre with a moral. The development of the Chinese art tradition is a Judicious assimilation where the representation of space and volume on the ground plane and around each figure is Chinese in character. The vertical or horizontal narrative scrolls of India find a new expression in the Chinese mural, giving rise to a new genre in landscape painting.
In Dunhuang the Deer King is represented several times in aid of the narrative. It is derived from narrative technique perfected in India several centuries earlier. The technique of continuous narration, such as the Ruru Jataka from Barhut, involves a composition in which various episodes of the story which happened at different places and different time are represented in a single composition. In the Indian version, the story takes place in a forest near the river Ganga where the golden ruru or stag lived. The three successive episodes are represented on the same medallion. The story starts in the foreground, where the son of a merchant, in the act of drowning himself, is rescued by the golden stag, which carries him to the bank on his back. The second episode, on the right upper half, shows the ungrateful youth pointing out the stag to the King of Benaras, who has promised reward to acquire the magical deer seen in a dream by his queen. The king is seen in the act of taking aim with his bow to shoot at the deer. The climax in the centre shows the king, having dropped the bow, listening with awe and admiration to the eloquent sermon of the deer on the merit of right conduct. The contrite youth stands behind the king. The innovation in the technique is due to the constraints posed by the restricted medium, which in turn leads to a distinct structure in pictorial composition.
A mural painting from Kucha, now in the Museum Volkerkunde, shows how the Indian narrative tradition and Buddhist iconography is transmitted to Central Asia. The mural shows a picture canvas being held up to the viewer. The mural is painted in an illusionistic technique quite sophisticated in its rendering. The naturalism in the portrayal of the man holding the cloth is maintained by the modulation of form in colour while the nature of the white cloth and the drawing is rendered in stark lines. The wall painting integrates in a harmonious composition four incidents in the life of Buddha. The composition of the narrative follows a plan that moves from lower left to the upper left and then from lower right to the upper right. The format appears as if a vertical scroll is cut into half and spliced together to form a rectangular panel. The story follows an anecdotal 3equence of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, first sermon and ultimate nirvana. Remarkable achievement, especially in style and technique reveals an impressive pattern of continuity and level of skill drawn from India. The iconography is derived from Gandhara art, for the earliest representation of a rich legendary life-cycle of Buddha is found in Gandhara. The portrayal of the Buddha proportionately larger in scale is a convention derived from Indian sources. This device is consistently used in the portable shrines and the sculptures of Central Asia as well.
Painting traditions from India contributed much to the Chinese compositional techniques, particularly in the strip narrative, for both mural and scroll paintings. The influence is particularly evident in large compositions, both of crowded scenes and of single figures. A complex compositional technique evolved in the Paradise scene, beloved of the Amitabha sect. In the Dunhuang mural paintings of the Tang period (618-907 AD), the composition follows the traditional format of the Buddha in the centre seated on a lotus throne. He is surrounded by Bodhisattvas and disciples. The Paradise radiates from the centre, expanding into palace and temple compounds with pleasure gardens, where crowds of mortals sing, dance and attend discussion and preaching. The scene is resplendent with magical happenings. The composition employs aerial view of buildings in isometric projection, a method developed in the west, The assimilation of linear perspective from one source is combined, as it were, with the Indian mode of figure composition. The integration of the two results in the peculiar Chinese style. In the landscape, each architectural rendering is a cameo seen from above whereas the figures are seen at eye level. To achieve focus on areas of interest the artist resorts to distortion of scale, Thus the scene sparkles with the supernatural even when it incorporates the real, These large compositions, though religious in nature are often extraordinary study of pure landscape, The Buddhist murals thus ushers in a new tradition of Chinese landscape painting.
single-figure painting was also popular at this time. In terms of surviving
evidence, the nearest we can come to such works are the votive banners in
silk, painted or embroidered. In the silk painting of the 8th century, the
Paradise of Amitabha shows the Buddha, holding a crystal globe and seated on
a lotus throne under a canopy decorated with flowers. The lotus throne wafts
on the curlings of waves, echoeing the blue of the Buddha's hair, framed by
a pronounced halo. The Buddha is surrounded by four Bodhisattvas and six
monks. Among the two donors shown in the realm of the mortals on the lower
plane, the woman on the left of the picture is intact, while only the hat
remains from her missing male counter-part to the right. In the centre of
the lower level there is a doorway, symbolising the entrance to Amitabha's
Paradise. Since it is a Tibetan invention, the silk painting is a testimony
to the cultural exchange that took place when Tibetans occupied Dunhuang in
759 AD. In Tibetan Buddhist paintings, this gateway is painted like a patch
of cloth under the lotus throne of Buddha. Or the entrance is indicated by a
square or oblong piece of silk appliqued in the middle of the lower border
to denote the heavenly entrance. The Tibetans in turn acknowledge Nepali and
Kashmiri influence besides that of India in the Tibetan Thankas.
The painting of the Paradise of Amitabha also shows synthesis of the Ajanta style. The outlines of the drawing suggests rounded plasticity and the continuous fine contour line that guides the composition. The application of colour is decorative rather than atmospheric and the two dimensional picture plane is retained. The pavilion structure is not rendered in linear perspective, instead it is conceived in terms of an overall design. Particularly pronounced is the influence in the ornamental nature of the foliage, jewelry design and the mode of highlighting the features, such as the nose, chin, cheek and forehead.
The use of white in Dunhuang art in the general scheme of painting is a unique feature derived from the Ajanta murals. While the white in the ground is left unpainted in details such as the waves beneath the lotus seat, colour is applied in thin wash in several areas so that the white ground of the cloth shines through. The luminosity thus achieved is harmonised with the rich brightness of pigments applied thickly on top of other pigments. The usage of the lime white is identical to the Ajanta style to decorate a dress or parts of architecture. White is also used .as an underpainting to give a burnished luminosity to the jewelry and as a highlight on nose and iorehead. It is also used as an accent in the mural, painted predominantly in bright pigments. applied flat with very little variation in. tonal values.
At this point it is pertinent to take note of the description of the making of Tibetan Thankas, to which the silk painting bears a close resemblance. The rules for the preparation of devotional Buddhist paintings on cloth has endured from antiquities. According to literary sources the cloth meant for painting is dipped in lukewarm water with glue and lime and then stretched on a thin frame made of wood or bamboo to dry. The surface is then rubbed several times with a smooth stone and sprinkled with lime water until it becomes ready for painting. The main guidelines are then drawn: the border, a central perpendicular line, the two diagonals intersecting at the centre and other lines according to the figures to be sketched. These lines map out the perfect symmetry and balance that constitute the serenity of the Buddhist icon. Following the guidelines a faint drawing of the main figure is made with a pencil which in turn is brushed with a thick brush dipped in black ink. Thereafter the painting begins. The background is painted first followed by the clothes of the main figures. The day of commencement of the painting and the time of drawing the eyes are fixed for an auspicious day according to the astrological considerations.
Comparable to the painting on silk is the embroidery of the Buddhist icon, both of which were votive offerings from Cave No.17 in Dunhuang. Donated by traders and pilgrims, the silk embroidery, which is contemporary to the silk painting, shows remarkable similarity in form and style. The 241 cm high embroidered cloth is divided into three zones, vertically and horizontally. Amitabha Buddha stands on a lotus in the centre and is enclosed within two concentric mandorlas. Above him is a Jewelled canopy on either side of which are two angels borne aloft by clouds. Known as "xiangyin shen", the flying figures literally mean gods of fragrant music. Beneath the Buddha's feet is a rectangular strip of appliqued cloth, symbolising the entrance to the heavenly abode filled with "fragrant music".
Chinese Buddhist art reflects on the ways in which religious, literary, social as well as cultural practices were conceptualised. The Buddhist iconography was adopted and adapted to fit native systems of belief. The Buddhist legend too underwent tremendous transformation and the stories of magical Hetuprataya contributed greatly to this. The" Jing Bian" or illustrations of sutras are meant to communicate the Buddhist doctrines. Other important themes are the life story of Buddha, Jataka tales and the rewards of Amitabha's Western Paradise or Pure Land. The scenes of great splendour of Paradise contrasted with images of the tortures of hell awaiting evil-doers provided dramatic interpretation in Chinese paintings.
Buddhism was instrumental in developing the "renwu" or the human figures genre,.which is one of the four disciplines of Chinese paintings. There emerged a number of great masters in portrait-painting who, without exception, achieved their fame by painting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other Buddhist figures. They were Wei Xie (3rd-4th century) and contemporary Zhang Mo, Gu Kaizhi (346-405 AD) and contemporary Dai Kui, Lu Tanwei (d.485?), Zhang Sengyao (6th century AD) and contemporary Yang Zihua. There were many famous painters from foreign countries. Cao Zhongda (original foreign name lost) was not only a class in himself, but created the "Cao style" with very refined depictions of the Buddha's and Bodhisattvas' costumes as if his figures had just emerged from water. While Cao Zhongda had hailed from Central Asia, another painter had settled down in China during the same period by the name of "Sengjia Fotuo" originally from Central India (his Indian Buddhist name must be Sanghabuddha). This was not only the century of great portrait artists in China, but one of them Xie He (also Hsieh Ho), was both an artist and also an art theoretician. The Six Principles, popularly known as "Liu-Fa" propunded by Xie He in 490 AD, set a standard for criticism of painting in China. Xie He's codification closely follows the Indian canons. Yashodhara's commentary reads:
Jayamangala on the Kamasutra has been in practise from the ancient
" Jayamangala on the Kamasutra has been in practise from the ancient times."
bhedah Paramani Bhava Lavanuayojanam
bhedah Paramani Bhava Lavanuayojanam
Sadrisyam, Varnika bhangam iti citrani shadangakam
The correspondence between the Indian and Chinese canons can be seen in the following analysis.
1. The Bhava
and L8.vanya contribute to life giving critical element in
painting. The vitality or spirit is transferred from the artist to his
brush. In the Chinese the reverberance of life breath is Qiyun.
2. "Lavanya" by itself means an aspiration to beauty of form.
3. "Rupa Bheda" corresponds to the appearance of the object, whereas Jin is the true reflection of the object in the depiction of form.
4. "Pramanani" is the depiction of form through a study of the underlying structure. Bi is the structure laid by the brush.
5. "Varnika Bhangam" is naturalism through the application of descriptive colour and thereby the rendering of form.
6. "Yojanam" is organisation in a pictorial composition.
While all the above canons can be transcribed into Xie He's rules, his sixth principle, "Transmission and Perpetuation" or the copying of old master's works, is unique to Chinese tradition. Transmission by means of copying is dictated by conditions in which Chinese art developed from the first century onwards.
Before Buddhism was introduced to China, the experience of the Chinese artists was limited to animistic symbols and composite animal forms, mostly in two dimensional decorative pattern applied to ritual objects. The portrayal of human form and the medium of sculpture and painting are striking by their very absence. When the religious art of Buddhism came to China, the Chinese artists had to copy the human form in sculptures and paintings with great diligence to master the form and technique which was unknown to them until then. Records show that Cao Buxing, artist of the Three Kingdoms, was one of the earliest painters to copy Buddha's form. Since sculpture is not an expressive art in China as in many other cultures, Xie He's Six Principles have played an important role in the subsequent development of Chinese painting.
Dunhuang, since Han and Jin times, was the gateway to the west. Being on the cross-roads it absorbed several cultural cross-currents. If Buddhism brought Indian art to China, trade and political turmoil in the Roman Empire brought other people with a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and a rich mythology. Synthesised with the native system of belief, Buddhist legends underwent tremendous transformation. Buddhist art too absorbed diverse influences and different styles evolved simultaneously or at different times in various sites. Apart from India the predominant influence is from Rome and Middle East, particularly that of Thrace, Syria and Persia. Roman influence can be seen in the development of linear perspective and atmospheric rendering of space. The shrine paintings of China employ the Pompeiian mode in the isometric projection of buildings and landscape as a setting for human activity. The scientific observation of the environment derived from the west underwent a spiritual transformation in Buddhist art and ultimately became a unique Chinese medium to express the poetic Taoist principles by means of mysterious landscapes.
The first few centuries of the Christian era was particularly charged with missionary zeal. Therefore it is not surprising that Mahayana Buddhism absorbed Christian doctrines in the Lotus Sutra. Of particular interest is the phenomena of Amitabha Buddha and his Western Paradise. The particular form of Amitabha's sermons from the Vulture Peak and his way of teaching through parables the distinction between good and evil has no anticedence in India or in China. Certain conclusions may be drawn from the pivotal role played by the fourth Buddhist Council convened by Emperor Kanishka-1 in Kashmir during the first century AD and the ensuing dialogue that resulted in Mahayana Buddhism and the Buddhist art of Gandhara. In fact the Roman penchant for portraiture has left in Gandhara sculptural proof of the Roman presence and several iconography which are puzzling in their form have origins in the Graeco-Roman world of early Christianity.
The syncretic doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity as Pure Land Buddhism due to the preachings of Saddharma-pundarika or the Lotus Sutra. Amitabha Buddha preaching at Vulture Peak is a motif representing the Lotus Sutra in its entirety, even though several parables find representation. The iconography of Vulture Peak also represents the Western Paradise on Mount Potalaka in which Amitabha presides. The imaginative compositions of allegories and parables interweave within splendid paintings of paradise. The new genre of painting on the Lotus Sutra brought forth favourite artistic themes, such as the The Revelations of the Eternal Life of the Thathagata, The Compassion of Avalokitesvara, Supernatural Deeds of King Resplendent's Two Sons, The Seven Major Parables, The Attainment of Buddhahood by the Daughter of the Dragon King etc. The Appearance of the precious Stupa, Children Making A Stupa, The King Saving the Sage Asita and the Ordeals of the Bodhisattva Sadaparbuta, and other narratives having special appeal are those that illustrate the magical power of Buddha in coming to the rescue of suffering people, such as: Sumati Burning Incense to Evoke Buddha's Blessings and Conversion of 500 Robbers. There are also narratives related to but not specifically mentioned in the Sutra which find expression in painting. Of particular interest is the miracle of the fire pit that turned into a lotus pond when Rahula was thrown into it to prove that he was Sakyamuni's son. Several such stories of persecution, including that of Bodhisattvas is rather surprising in Buddhism which is known for its peaceful co-existence.
In general the teachings of the "Twenty-Eight Chapters of the Lotus Sutra" appear either in the upper part of the picture area or in the centre, creating a focal point within a large space, while amplifying scenes, such as narratives and parables in the surrounding areas. The illustrations are arranged from top to bottom on the picture plane. Cameos representing the Lotus Sutra are incorporated into a pictorial composition. But the iconography does not follow a structure in the selection and arrangement of the themes, except those from the Sutra narratives, are usually composed with landscape as a background. By being anecdotal, no attempt is made to create a composition in terms of sequential arrangement. The artists' main concern appears to be the overall design that interprets spiritual experience by means of bold areas of colour and abstract meandering patterns of rhythmic lines.
The murals in the shrines are gigantic compositions that spread across the wall several square metres in area. The distinguishing feature of the Buddhist murals is the unique treatment of space. By the very magnitude of size the murals cannot be seen all at a time. The composition is laid out in such a manner that several units having different messages combined to form the whole. The apparent inconsistency of scale and the intentionally ambiguous treatment of space becomes meaningful when experienced part by part. The cue to this movement is given by the movement of the figures and the rhythmic lines that connect one area to another. It is common knowledge that these paintings were meant to spread the Buddhist doctrine. It should not have been difficult for a Buddhist monk, well acquainted with the narrative, to interpret the visuals to the passing traders and pilgrims. Often several narratives are running parallel to each other, intermingling freely or turning one area common to both the stones. The painting of the Vulture Peak in Cave No.61 in Dunhuang has the typical "multiple view point" so that even while considering a part of the mural, one has to scan the painting in a holistic cultural perspective keeping in view all relevant events.
Cave No.61 of Dunhuang belonging to the short period of the Five Dynasties (907-960 AD), shows a follow-up of the paintings of the splendid paradise of Amitabha Buddha of the Tang Dynasty. Though the painting lacks the richness and magnificence of Tang patronage, it is poignant in its expression of a period of stress and unease. The Vulture Peak combines illustration of several chapters of the Sutra that covers an area of fifty square metres. The viewers' attention is drawn to the upper right corner where the billowing mass of writhing forms emerge as dragons, reminiscent of the familiar Kui pattern on the Shang bronze vessels. That this is the 'Wish-fulfilling Jewel Mandala" is strengthened by the hand that emerges out of the swirling cloud in the lower plane. The disembodied hand turns in a protective gesture towards the dark cloud of dragons above. The dragons and the cloud pattern teach that Buddhahood can be attained through the intervention of Amitabha who saved the young daughter of the evil "Dragon King", expounded in the Devadatta Chapter of the Sutra.
Beneath the hand of Buddha a stupa mound is held aloft in a cloud that trails across the land, carrying the viewers' eyes to a bridge that spans a river that materialises out of the mist. There are three men on a hillock, observing the vision of the "Wish-fulfilling Jewel Mandala" from the other side of the bridge. The narrative moves to the left where a man in a boat floating in a mysterious river that flows around the compound walls of palaces. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings speaks of a boat in which bodhisattvas carry people across the river of life and death to the Shore of Supreme Enlightenment. It is interesting to observe that the "River of Life" encircles each and every building in the composition. In the foreground, two men stand beyond a small shrine near the boat and look upwards. Their glance is carried further upwards by the flight of birds in symmetrical formation on either side of the Vulture Peak. Above the Vulture Peak curlings of clouds spread across the horizon, separating the mortals below from the realm of the immortals above. The imagery derives from the esoteric schools that has developed during the Tang period. Their mystical speculations and complex images and symbols probably encouraged the use of calligraphed cartouches within the composition to be more explicit to the uninitiated.
With an intention to reveal the Eternal Life of Thathagata, each part of the painting has significance. The parable of the Magic City in the Third Fascicle of the Sutra has created on the wall-painting, the two storeyed palaces raised high on plinths and encircled by walls pierced by a gate tower which is five storeys high. The two men standing on the grounds of the building on the right represent "The Parable of Farming". The multiple viewpoint characteristic of Chinese painting takes the viewer on a gliding tour of the panorama. The scanning vision takes us into every compound, made possible by the isometric projection of the buildings seen from above. In contrast, the shifting viewpoint zooms in on figures seen at eye level, irrespective of their position in the picture plane.
The visionary nature of the Buddhist paintings combined with Taoist beliefs instilled forever in Chinese painting the quest for the "manifestation of the spirit residing in every form". Nature is transcribed not through observation but by means of spiritual introspection. The Five Dynasties painting of the Vulture Peak is energised by "the effortless flow of the interacting forces of nature". The symbolic and spiritual content of the Sutra are conceptualised in an imaginary landscape. Spiritual harmony nourishes the mountains, hillocks, swirling clouds and the water waves that rise and fall and flow in a unifying rhythm that permeates the whole universe.
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©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
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Published in 1998 by
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