UNPACKING INDIAN WELLNESS WHEREVER YOU ARE
Unpacking wellness in India, Episode 34
Location: Tree & Serpent, Early Buddhist Art in India 200BCE-400CE, The Metropolitan Museum, New York,
How to experience it:
- in person until November 13
- online now and for a long time
Perhaps you thought Buddhist art was a side-bar in India’s rich cultural history? It was not. It was central, and it was magnificent in quantity, quality, expanse and influence. The medieval Hindu sculptures we seen all over India did not arrive fully fledged; all this preceded it.
In fact, a cornucopia of Buddhist visual riches was created at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wealthy Buddhist centres and trading towns, most of them now wiped from India’s map. Today, we see tantalizing vestiges at Sanchi, Sarnath, Ajanta, Ellora, etc, and along trading routes such as at Bhaja near Mumbai. There are surely more to be found. Just imagine their heyday!
The Met museum’s show gives more than a glimpse into this little-known world. It opens its doors wide for us. Many of its 140 or so exhibits have been lent by Indian museums, some of them very rural even by my intrepid standards! Just think: almost all the exhibits were lost until keen and curious archaeologists started to find and save them two centuries ago - and continue to do so today.
Bursting forth during the third century BCE and funded by sophisticated patrons, for about a thousand years early Buddhist ideas and art enriched the subcontinent and were carried on trading ships to local markets as far apart as Pompeii in Italy and Guangzhou in China.
To have this impact, the art had to be classy. This is most evident in the stone sculptures on show. Their bold designs were precision-cut into India’s abundant stone. They entertained and educated monks, pilgrims and other visitors with Buddhist story-telling friezes; they honoured big-time donors with full sized portrait figures; and they celebrated nature in all its glory and fecundity.
Huge artisan workshops must have had full order books - sought-after southern sculptors were sending ivory carving up to Begram in present-day Afghanistan. Sculpture coated the huge beehive-shaped stupas, the spiritual and ritual focus that evoked The Buddha’s presence, his dharma (his teaching), and his role as ‘turner of the wheel’ of morality, knowledge and compassion. It covered the surrounding railings, the spiritual gateways. Decoration was applied to all kinds of ritual object from jugs to jewellery.
And that’s not all. A wealth of inscriptions tells us who (nuns, perfume-makers, politicians, foreign merchants, and more) gave what, why, and its value, shedding light the on the society, politics and economics of powerful dynasties whose patronage is so evident but whose paper records have all but disappeared.
Here below are a few pieces to lure you to The Met. Or, take a break to enjoy the 20-minute-long online tour led by its curator, John Guy, who spend more than a decade realising this exceptional show.
Must-do wellness experience at The Met’s Tree & Serpent show: move slowly through the show, linger, see the details
Tree & Serpent buzzwords: Wow! I never imagined all this was going on then!
Here's the first image of a Buddhist monastery to be found so far, at recently excavated Kanaganahalli in Karnataka state, then part of the powerful Satavahana empire. Its rigorous cubist design made early in the 2C BCE contrasts with the extravagantly bejewelled monks - could they be of the Toda and Asila banking families who are recorded in donor inscriptions?
Again at Kanaganahalli, here we have recent news recorded with great loyalty: Pulumavi, the Satavahana ruler, is pouring water on the hands of his victor in a symbolic surrender of Ujjain city - which seems to have been negotiated treaty rather than bloody war. See both men's ministers checking the rituals are correct.
Imagine dipping into a decor store in Pompeii and finding this sumptuous, exotic yakshi (nature spirit or protector) for your home. Probably made recently in Bhokarden, south India, it would soon disappear with Vesuvius' eruption of 79 CE, to be found 1938 when it revealed how extensive India's trading was in luxury goods.
Surely this cannot be Indian? Yes, it can. Chandragupta, who founded the Maurayan empire that covered north India, married the Seleucid ruler's daughter Helena in 305 BCE, cementing Hellenistic ties. This Ionic capital with local adjustments was found in 1896 in Chandragupta's capital city Pataliputra (today's Patna), and was perhaps part of his splendid royal palace.
There's always a place for an elephant in India. This fancy little children's toy, just 3 inches wide, shows that even back in the 2C CE there was a hierarchy for toys: this elephant and its precariously perched riders is made of copper alloy for the elite, cheaper ones were made of clay.