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Art During the Gupta Period

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I will be talking about sculptures of the Gupta period and my focus will be in the northern and central sites. The main sites that I will be talking about are Udayagiri, Mathura, Sanchi and Sarnath. What i’ll be trying to show through my presentation is the kind of transition that took place from the Kushana style to what is referred to by some historians as the Gupta style.
Whether there is something called “Gupta style” is a matter of debate among historians. Some are of the view that dynastic labels should not be used. However, art historians like Harle say that in some cases, Gupta period.
HINDU ART
When it comes to Hindu art, Vidisha and Udayagiri were important art centres. Art seemed to have flourished in Vidisha during the reign of Ramagupta and Chandragupta II. The caves of Udayagiri constitute the earliest body of Hindu art in India. We can be sure about the dates for these caves because there is an inscription on the facade that refers to Chandragupta II and the year 82, which is corresponding to CE 401. The doorway of Cave 6 is decorated with jambs (vertical portion of the frame onto which a door is secured), lintels (load-bearing buiding component, a decorative architectural element), half-length pilasters (gives the appearance of supporting column, only ornamental fashion) and representations of 2 goddesses standing on makaras. In this case, the vahanas of both the goddesses are the same. The distinctiveness of the goddesses is apparent by the use of trees above the figures. The one on the left is associated with a mango tree and the one on the right with an asoka tree. On either side of the door there are guardian figures (dvarapalas) standing with the arm nearest to the door held at the hip, the other leaning on his weapon. Huntington says that their husky bodies and almost transparent lower garments are typical of the early Gupta style. Here one can see a kind of transition from the kushana sculptures. While the figures have a strong, muscular built, which is characteristic of Kushana sculptures, they also project a new smoothness of bodies, predicting the much graceful depictions in the late 5th century. The hairstyles depicted here are also characteristic of developed gupta forms, with delicate locks of hair arranged in a luxuriant manner on the head.
There is a symmetrical arrangement on the wall with a representation of Ganesha(3) carved on the left wall adjacent to the facade of the cave and an image of durga in her mahishashurmardini form at the right. Between ganesha and the guardian figure on the left door there is a rep of Vishnu and another image of him between durga and the right guardian.
As the “overcomer of obstacles” ganesha is mostly invoked at the beginning of worship to help the devotee along his spiritual path. So ganesha’s image mostly can be seen at the entrance to a shrine or temple. Since his image is present on the left side of the facade, it is likely that the devotee began his worship from that particular side. On the contrary, Durga in her Mahishashurmardini form is a symbol of victory and normally appears on the side that devotee comes across after completing his/her worship. Now, in the mahishashurmardini story, the asura is defeated while he was in his mahisa form. He was destroyed many times but kept reappearing until Durga killed him. The buffalo in hindu mythology is associated with death as it is the vahana of Yama the god of death. Huntington suggests that mahisa’s numerous incarnations symbolize the, quote-unquote “realm of samsara” i.e the cycle of birth and rebirth from which the devotee wants to be freed. In other words, durga’s defeat of the asura in his buffalo form might indicate the victory of death and triumph over samsara. Thus the placement of durga, symbolizing victory, opposite ganesha, who symbolizes the beginning, is quite fitting. This pairing of these two deities at the beginning and end of a ritual becomes quite common in hindu temple architecture.
There are two representations of Vishnu on the facade. They are quite similar. Both are standing in the same posture with all four arm placed in a lowered position. This position is common for representations of Vishnu before the 8th century. In both the sculptures Vishnu is wearing a crown and a vanamala (garland of forest) that reaches up to his knees. Both the crown as well as the vanamala is standard aspects of vaishnavite iconography. Here we again see the legacy of kushana forms in the stocky, muscular built of the bodies.
The right wall next to the cave facade supports a niche with the images of saptamatrakas, or seven mothers. These were the consorts of several of the principle hindu gods, who helped Shiva destroy the asura Andhaka. As in the case of Durga they represent victory, but of vidya (wisdom) over avidya (ignorance) and are thus positioned opposite Ganesha.
Before moving on to cave 5, I’d like to talk about the transition brought about in the mahishashurmardini.
By using the mahishashurmardini image, we can trace a certain transition in the iconography of the deity. An example would be an early sculpture of mahishashurmardini discovered at the bottom of a well in Mathura. It is the best preserved of 8 pieces of the same type. Dr. Agravala dates these images to the Kushana period. The goddess stands firmly with her weight distributed equally on both legs but her body turned slightly toward the left. The mahisha or the buffalo lurches diagonally from the proper right . his head which is level with the goddess’s shoulder, is pressed so far backward that his horns press along his spine. His tongue sticks out from his half open mouth and his forelegs are bent double. The goddess has 6 arms and she uses 2 of them to hold him, her lower left arm passing around his neck and his lower right arm is pushing heavily on his loins. Of the middle pair of arms, the right is broken off while the left is holding something that is too eroded to identify. Of the two upper arms, the right is again broken but the left seems to be holding something on top of her head. It might be a sword but Dr. Agravala identifies this as a bowl. However it is unlikely that a warlike goddess would carry a bowl while in a battle. On the (6) other hand, in the facade of udayagiri hills the mahishashurmardini has 10 arms and the two uppermost ones are holding an oblong drum. It is possible that the Kushana image was trying to illustrate the same thing.
The transition is apparent when we look at the garment, ornamentation and the position of the arms as well as the mahisa in later representations. In this article, the author compares this image with 3 other ones. The 1st is a terracotta plaque. The goddess has 4 arms and the lower left one grasps only the animal’s muzzle, not his neck. He stands in the same position as before but much less erect. Agravala dates this to the gupta period.
The second is a high relief in stone and the style is clearly gupta. The iconography is furthur developed. The buffalo is now hardly standing up at all while the lion bursts out from the right and bites him fom the back. The third is again a terra cotta plaque which was discovered in nagar, jaipur district of rajasthan. The deity’s hair is prettily arranged and she is heavily ornamented with double ear rings, necklaces of large beads, small bracelets and wide anklets. She stands steadfast but now she only has 2 arms. Like before, the right hand presses down on the buffalo’s loins while her left hand seems to be striking the muzzle. He seems to have the same attitude as before but his horns seem to have incised lines. The lion is sitting at the left corner and seems to be completing the picture rather than helping his mistress. His posture combined with the attitude of the buffalo has led historians to suggest a date around the end of the kushana period or the beginning of the gupta period.
Odette says that these early sculptures of mahishashurmardini creates a homogenous group whose simple forms later become the basis of elaboration in the gupta period. We can already see the first modifications in the addition of the lion in amber museum and Mathura museum and in the multiplication of hands in the udayagiri caves. Later on the buffalo is depicted upside down with his head at the bottom. Finally, he is shown to be trampled completely under the goddess’s feet. By the end of the gupta period there was more focus on dramatising the energy of the goddess as opposed to the tranquil strength during the kushana period.
The Udayagiri image of durga projects the trend towards the increased use of multiple body parts to indicate power and strength during this period. In her 10 hands durga holds the weapons provided by various hindu gods that on their own hadn’t been able defeat asura. Huntington says that her representation as the supreme goddess, greater than the combination of all the male gods, “prefigures the growing emphasis on female goddess and personifications that is prominent in much of post-Gupta art and perhaps indicates a continuity with the prehistoric emphasis on the female.” As far as style is concerned, the date given by the inscriptions corresponds with the details of her costume and the stocky form of her body.
Another important cave in Udayagiri is Cave 5. Its closeness to cave 6 and cave 7, both of which were excavated during the reign of Chandragupta II suggest that this was created during the same time. (Forms a cluster) the main feature of this cave is Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu. Here the varaha appears in the form of Nr-Varaha, i.e. it has the body of a man but the head of a boar. He lifts the earth which is personified as the female goddess, prithvi, with his tusks saving her from submersing under the ocean. Beneath Varaha’s left foot, there is a naga who appears to be submitting to the deity. This is ensured by his anjali mudra which is a gesture of respect. The kushana elements are visible in this case a well, in the husky muscularity f the varaha’s body. But this time, the built of the varaha correlates with textual evidence which describe him to have broad shoulders and smooth body. The vanamala, characteristic of Vishnu, is seen here as well along with a lotus that appears to be on his head. Although varaha remains dominant due to his three dimensionality there are other characters on the walls and back of the niche. Water or ocean is depicted by a series of wavy lines on the three walls, the sages that acknowledge him as the supreme deity appear in rows on the back of the wall. The river goddesses, ganga and Yamuna are also depicted on both sideds of the wall.
The symbolism of this image is manifold and it can be read in a number of ways. On one hand, it can be taken literally as the story of the rescue of the earth by varaha. But, Varaha is also the name of a type of vedic ritual. Thus, Huntington says that this representation might be a reference to the performance of the varaha rite. On the other hand, the varaha sculture may be seen as having associations with the secular realm. The ganga and Yamuna figures on the right wall are shown on their respective vahanas as opposed to the convergence of the two water bodies. This may be a graphic representation of Madhyadesha, thorough which the two rivers flow. Huntington suggests that here, the ganga-yamuna reliefs are symbols of protectors of the land and the gupta kings are similar to the varaha who is rescuing the earth. She also suggests that it is possible that the varaha symbolizes changragupta himself as these caves are dated to his period. These different interpretations should not be taken to be contradictory as multiple levels of understanding are quite common in south asian art as stated by Huntington.
When it comes to Cave 4, the main object of worship is the ekamukhalinga or the one-faced linga. Here, the date cannot be determined with surety. However, certain features like the simplicity of the face, the distinctive depiction of separate locks of hair and comparatively modest amount of jewellery suggest a time period f the 5th century. The round face with heavy features is indicative of kushana types as opposed to the more fluid and subtle forms of the late 5th century. When the image of a linga or a phallus is put together with one or more human heads, it implies the unification of sexual energy, denoting the entire creative energy of the universe, with the intellect. This is one of the most expressive symbols in Hindu art.
Another sculpture, dated to the 1st half of the 5th century because of its resemblance to the udayagiri sculptures, is that of harihara, the syncretic union of Vishnu and shiva. The features indicative of the early gupta period are the muscular but smooth body, full face and simple ornamentation. This image is an interesting one because it shows a god that is half shiva and half Vishnu. The two gods can be clearly distinguished from their distinct headdresses. Not only is this, the erect linga, characteristic of shiva represented only on the proper right side. What this image indicates is not only a well- developed iconography for each god but also a stage of religious development in where there was “ultimate duality in spite of apparent duality”.
Eran is another vaishnavite site, around 80 km away from vidisha, where a great complex of temples and sculptures were produced during the gupta period. These art forms can be dated to the period between samudragupta’s reign and the period of the Hun invasion which took place around the beginning of the 6th century. There seem to have been sculptural and artistic ties between Udayagiri and Eran. This can be seen from a large sculpture of varaha. Again, the power of this deity is expressed through full, heavy forms of the body and the solidity of his pose. At a later date, around 484 CE there is a pillar bearing a double sided image of garuda. The specific date of this pillar which is the 12th day of the light fortnight of the month of ashad (approx. June/July) indicates that astrological considerations were taken into account while selecting the time of dedication. This is because Ashad is associated with the summer solstice and the longer days, which were considered to be auspicious. Huntington says that this aspect of dedication of temples and religious sculotures has been virtually ignored. Scholars tend to focus on the specific year and the chronological implications but ignore the actual date and hence the religious and astrological implications. According to the inscription, this pillar was dedicated to a form of Vishnu. This is interesting because both garuda and Vishnu are solar deities. And ashad is associated with the summer solstice. There are two front views of garuda, one facing the east and the other the west. Both representations hold a snake, a symbol of garuda, who is considered to be the natural enemy of snakes. The style of the sculpture, for example the huskiness of the body shows closer ties the earlier carvings from north-central India, rather than the slender, delicate figures of the late 5th century. This, as suggested by Huntington, probably indicates regional preferences.
BUDDHIST ART OF THE 5TH CENTURY: SANCHI
At around 412 CE, there was a revival of artistic activity in Sanchi. This renewed interest in the site may have been due to renewd imperial power and wealth in the region. It seems that after the Satavahana period, artistic activity in durable materials stopped as the only works that can be attributed to kushana period are a few sculptures. The innovations included both creating new monuments and renovating the old ones.
For example, some additions were made to Stupa I that transformed the iconography to more typical Mahayana forms. Huntington says that there was evidence from earlier periods of Mahayana practices at this site. So the modifications only reflected a change in the form but not so much in the thought. Near the northern gateway of stupa I, a pillar crowned by the representation of the Bodhisatva Vajrapani was set up. The figure is now detached from the pillars, it is broken at the knees and significant portions of the arms are missing but the damaged right hand holds a vajra which is still visible at the right hip. Here also the body is smooth and suggests a development toward the mature gupta formulations of the mid 5th century though it still presents kushana precedents. Harle is of the view that this figure belongs to a slightly later period, perhaps from the early 6th century. An interesting feature of this sculpture is the halo behind the head, which Harle calls the “pleated fan” and its 12 evenly spaced holes piercing the rim. Huntington suggests that these may have been intended to hold metal tenons for the attachment of a larger halo whose metal spokes might have suggested rays of light projecting from the figure. Holes on the necklace and the belt also suggest that metal was added to enhance the beauty of the sculpture. The location of vajrapani at the north entrance of the stupa is significant as it signifies the power of Buddha knowledge. It is through the north side of a mandala (spiritual/ ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism rep the universe), in this case, the stupa itself that one gains access to enlightenment.
As part of renovating sanchi, 4 Buddha images were added at the entrances of the Great stupa, one facing each direction. The best preserved of these demonstrates the characteristic elegance, delicacy and serenity of the Gupta period. The Buddha’s eyes are cast downward and seem to be three-quarters closed. He has a gentle smiling expression which casts an impression of harmony and introspection of Buddhist thought. The large eyes have been seen in Mathura from probably the 4th or 5th century and the composition of the slab is derived from Katra-type Buddha of Mathura in the Kushana period. There is an intricately carved halo (lacelike in effect) centred behind his head. There is a shift from the angular forms of early gupta formulations to more modulated transitions and smoothness of the body. The roundness of the face is as well as the features of the attendants seem to be related to the Udayagiri caves. Huntington says that these Buddhas are significant from the point of view of iconography as well because the four sculptures may indicate the buddhas having directional significance. In each case, the Buddha is seated in vajraparyankasana and is displaying dyana mudra with his hands which is indicative of deep meditation.
Mathura
Mathura and Gandhara was important centres of sculpture in the Kushana period and according to Harle played important roles in the development of Indian sculpture. He says that the first stone sculptures of india were produced in large quantities there. Again, it was here that the first Buddha images were produced and a real iconography was developed. The Mathura style influenced other regions as well. In sarnath for eg, local copies were made of famous imports like the standing Buddha of Friar Bala.
Exactly when the Kushana style declined is hard to determine. What we do know is that a brief maturity was followed by a long decline. The later kushana Mathura sculpture consists of Jaina images. A sculpture of a seated tirthankara is one such example. Both elements of the mature gupta style as well as the later kushana styles can be seen here. The head is covered with snail curls. The halo that used to be plain in the earlier period now is ornamented, with a central lotus rosette and a pearl band. The treatment of the body is very different from the kind of naturalism that prevailed in the Kushana period. The heavy raised eyebrows and wide upper lips are characteristics of later kushana style while the lower part of the face hints the kind of spiritual expression that can be seen in the Gupta Buddhas and Jnas.
It was the standing Buddhas, however, that that came to define Mathura Gupta style of the 5th century. The standing Buddha from Jamalpur, Mathura is carved of a red sandstone that is typical of the region. It is approximately of human size. When compared with the kushana style, we can see that the contours of the body are more fluid and the body is more slender. The drapery is portrayed in a series of regular folds shown as ridges on the surface of the body. Such folds were absent from the drapery in kushana period Mathura scultures. However, the buddha’s body is revealed through the drapery that clings between ridges of the folds in what Huntington calls “a characteristically indic manner”.
Now we come to sarnath and this is the last site that i will be talking about. The developed style of sarnath emerged around the 3rd quarter of the 5th century. There are three images that support this. All three were dedicated by a monk named abhyamitra, but one of the sculptures was given during the reign of Kumaragupta II i.e. c. 473 CE and the other two during the reign of Buddhagupta, i.e. c. 476 CE.
Each central Buddha stands in the abhanga posture with a slight bent in the body as indication by the bent position of one leg and the gemtle thrust of the hip to one side. The general sense of relaxation can also be seen in the position of the right hand of the figure dating from 473 CE, as the abhaya mudra is considerably lowered in position from the shoulder height of kushana period examples, giving the effect of a less rigid, less commanding position.
A major feature of the late 5th century Sarnath Gupta style is the way the drapery is treated. The figures are all fully dressed, but the drapery is so clinging that it reveals virtually all of the forms of the bodies beneath, almost as if the figures were unclothed. The drapery is most visible at the neck, sides and the hem. However this invisibility can be explained by the assumption that the images were probably painted. The facial features are characterized by the downcast eyes, gently smiling expression and refinement of the treatment individual elements of the face. As seen before, a feeling of introspection is conveyed by the face, symbolising the inner calmness of the Buddha.
The figures dating to 476 CE seem to be identical and differ slightly from the image dating from 473 CE. A major difference is that the earlier sculpture has a halo decorated with a scalloped ray motif with which are pearls, a garland and floral motifs. The later pieces do not have a halo. Instead they have an elongated aura that is rounded at the top. These buddhas stand on 3D lotuses and are attended by figures on each side, flying vidyadharas above and small devotees below. One can see a hierarchy is maintained in terms of size. This is in accordance with textual descriptions where sizes of beings are according to their spiritual achievement.
Another sculpture dating from about CE 475 is an image of a seated Buddha that symbolizes both the high style of late 5th century and the message of sarnath itself, i.e. the First Preaching of Sakyamuni Buddha at the deer park at sarnath. The dharmachakra mydra that is shown here became the most common indicator of this event and of Buddhist teachings in general. The Buddha is seated in padmasana and below his throne there are a number of Buddhist monks who are kneeling in worship on either side of the chakra. This chakra symbolizes the wheel of law that was set in motion when the Buddha preached his first sermon. Harle says that the stiffness in the torse and a lack of vitality in the designs of the halo may suggest that this was a work of a time when the classical period in sarnath had passed its peak.
Another important sculpture in sarnath is the khasarpana avalokiteshvara. In this sculpture the bidhisatva is shown to be standing in a slightly relaxed abhanga pose. He is heavily ornamented, has a smiling face and is approximately 16 years old. He is holding a lotus stem in his left hand while his right hand displays the varada or the gift bestowing mudra. On his headdress there is a representation of Ammitabha/Amitayus in his dhyana mudra that signifies the family from which the bidhisatva descends. There are 2 preta (ghosts of beings who were greedy in their past lives and r doomed to be hungry forever) figures beneath the right hand of th avalokitesvara. His compassion for all creatures can be seen here from the nectar that flows from his gift bestowing hand to feed these beings. The slender body clothed in almost transparent drapery suggests ties to the 3 buddhas of the late 5th century. Like those buddhas the half closed eyes indicate the inner tranquillity of the Buddha.

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