Amaravati: Buddhist Sculpture from the Great Stupa

Reeviewed by Robert L. Brown

 TThe Journal of the American Oriental Society

 VVol.118 No.2

 AApril-June 1998


 CCopyright by American Oriental Society


                               By ROBERT KNOX. London: BRITISH MUSEUM PRESS, 1992. Pp. 247, 21              figures, 133 catalogue illustrations. [pounds]40.              The two Buddhist sites from Andhra Pradesh, Amaravati and              Nagarjunskonda, have justifiably held the attention of scholars-from              the earliest attempts to quantify, judge, and understand Indian art              in the eighteenth century up until today. The two books are welcome              additions to this research. While neither changes radically our              basic views of the art and architecture of the two early Buddhist              sites, they contribute many nuanced shifts in, and suggest different              approaches to, the extensive stone sculpture from these sites. As              always with Indian sculpture, there is a need to set up a              chronological schema, and both books spend considerable time doing              it. In addition, looking at the two books together helps to clarify              the interrelationship between the art of the two sites.              Amaravati is the earlier of the two. Knox's book is a catalogue of              sculpture from Amaravati in the British Museum, intended, according              to Jessica Rawson's brief preface, as a "general introduction" and              "descriptive catalogue" to the Museum's magnificent collection,              which had been newly installed in the Museum galleries along with              publication of the book in 1992. The catalogue illustrates each of              the 133 sculptures in excellent photographs, many in color and              covering entire pages.              There are four chapters of introduction before the catalogue itself.              These chapters give a history of the site; tell of how the Museum              acquired the collection; describe the great Stupa at the site from              which much of the sculpture comes; and, finally, give a system for              dating and typology of the sculpture. The typology, which consists              of categories of sculpted architectural elements (pillars,              crossbars, copings, and so forth), is used to organize the sculpture              in the catalogue, which is arranged more or less chronologically              within each type. Each object in the catalogue is carefully              described, the most helpful feature, I think, of the book. These              descriptions force the reader to look carefully at the often very              complex sculptures, pointing out details and characteristics that              would otherwise most likely be missed.              Looking at the introductory chapters, Knox ties the form the Great              Stupa finally took to the coming of the Satavahana rulers and the              period of prosperity that they brought. The dating of the Satavahana              kings, however, has long been debated - and for Amaravati they could              have begun ruling either in the first or the second century A.D.,              probably, Knox feels, later - around A.D. 130. The building more or              less ceased with their departure at the end of the third century,              with activities shifting to nearby Nagarjunakonda under the Iksvaku              rulers (the topic of Stone's book). But there was a Buddhist              monument at Amaravati from before the Satavahanas' coming, going              back to Mauryan times in the third century B.C. Knox thus rejects              Douglas Barrett's short chronology for the Amaravati sculpture,              which argued for it beginning only in the first century A.D.(1)              I think most scholars today would agree with Knox, but it is not              clear what was at the site so early. There are massive polished              granite pillars (one is 2.63 m tall) cut to accommodate crossbars              (Knox illustrates one in a photograph of ca. 1880), which appear to              be part of a large vedika that can apparently be dated to the third              century B.C. Some recently excavated fence pieces have, according to              I. K. Sarma, Asokan period inscriptions.(2) Knox does not say it,              but this would make it the earliest stone stupa fence of any size in              all of India, earlier by some 150 years than those of north India,              such as at Bharhut and Sanci, which appear to have replaced wooden              fences. In addition, that the pieces were polished is of great              importance if the polish indicates not only a Mauryan date, but also              Mauryan royal patronage. Add to this the find of Brahmi Prakrit              inscriptions on potsherds from Amaravati which relate to similar              finds from Sri Lanka that date by radiocarbon to 450-350 B.C.,(3)              and thus one or two centuries earlier than any previously known              South Asian inscriptions (and thus writing), and we are forced to              reassess the importance of South India and Sri Lanka to early South              Asian civilization and religion.              The Great Stupa at Amaravati itself was already largely destroyed              when Colonel Mackenzie, an Englishman, visited it in 1797. By then              it had been a source for building materials by local builders, and              the stone was also being burned to produce lime. The site was              cleared completely in 1880; an enormous number of loose sculptures              found their way over the years primarily either to England (and              eventually to the British Museum) or to the Madras Museum. There is              also considerable material today at the site museum. But with the              site's destruction we will never have a clear view of what was there              and how the sculpture was used, and much of what scholars must do,              as Knox attempts, is to reconstruct the monuments from what is left.                           This is essentially what he does in the two chapters (III and IV) on              architecture and sculpture. His reconstruction of the form of the              Great Stupa basically follows Barrett's of 1954, and he illustrates              the reconstruction in drawings that follow those in the earlier              study. The stupa was axial, with a massive circular fence whose four              entrances brought the worshiper directly to the four projections of              the stupa's base on which five pillars were erected. These pillars              and projections, called ayaka-pillars and - platforms, are found              almost exclusively (something similar has been found in relief on              two votive stupas at Ratnagiri in Orissa) in Andhran stupa              architecture. The sculpture is on the fence and gates, and on stone              relief slabs that were stacked in rows against the body of the stupa              itself.              This is not the place to go into the details of the complicated              arrangement of the sculpture, but Knox's reconfiguration, as those              in the past, is largely speculative. Indeed, the organization he              suggests does not fit in many ways with the organization of              sculpture depicted on the extensive and highly detailed stupas              carved in relief on slabs meant to decorate the actual mahastupa              itself (many examples of which are included in the catalogue). The              often-repeated notion that these reliefs show the mahastupa raised              above the fence, pushed up like a stick of deodorant out of the tube              in an artistic convention, so that the relief carving against the              stupa that would actually be hidden by the fence can be seen, does              not, in fact, explain the organization that scholars, including              Knox, have attempted to propose for the loose architectural pieces.              Further, which figures are intended as people and which as images on              these stupa reliefs is also frequently not clear. None of these              issues is mentioned by Knox.              But what I feel is the most serious concern with the book is that              Buddhism is not introduced in the discussion. Not only is there no              attempt to inform the reader about even the most basic facts about              Buddhism, how it works, and why people might be Buddhist, but the              descriptions of the reliefs name the stories and their characters,              all of them Buddhist, but fail to tell the stories and what they              mean and why they are important. Knox freely uses Sanskrit terms in              his descriptions, but there is no glossary. I cannot imagine how a              reader, unless he is already very familiar with Buddhism and              Amaravati, will be able to make heads or tails out of these              otherwise helpful descriptions.              The second book reviewed here deals with a nearby Andhran site (some              100 km away as a bird flies and connected by rivers) that is closely              related to Amaravati in time and in style. Elizabeth Stone's book,              however, is a very different undertaking from that of Knox. Stone              has been working on Nagajunakonda since her graduate student days,              and it was the topic of both her Master's thesis and her Ph.D.              dissertation (written under her maiden name, Rosen). She has              published a number of interesting and important articles on the site              over the years. We in Indian art history have long been anticipating              her book-length study.              It turns out that its focus is on the stylistic development of the              site's sculpture, and it has some surprises. But before discussing              this "evolution," the topic of her second and much the longest              chapter, I will say something of the other four. The first chapter              introduces the site, its ruling dynasty, and its architecture.              Unlike Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda was recognized by scholars only              very late, in the 1920s; by the 1960s it was under water, at the              bottom of a dammed-up lake. In preparation for the inundation, the              site was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India from 1954              to 1960. Unfortunately, only the briefest excavation reports have              thus far been published. Stone does not tell us where the official              excavation data are and why no report has been published after some              forty years. In an odd twist, and apparently according to a wish of              Jawaharlal Nehru, some of the monuments, and much of the sculpture,              were transported to a hilltop which, with the flooding of the              reservoir, became an island, and can today be reached only by boat.              Stone feels, as did Knox anent Amaravati, that the building activity              at Nagarjundakonda is directly related to dynastic patronage, in              this case of the Iksvakus, of which four kings are mentioned in              inscriptions, reigning some seventy-five to one hundred years, from              about A.D. 225 to the middle of the fourth century. The Iksvakus              were perhaps Satavahana feudatories who rose to power with the              Satavahanas' downfall. But unlike the Satavahana kings, the Iksvaku              kings were Hindus, worshippers of Siva; it was their queens who were              the Buddhist patrons. Thus, there are Hindu shrines and images from              Nagarjunakonda. Interestingly, these temples are built in an unusual              technique, of a stone veneer over a core of brick or rubble, that              Stone suggests is Roman in source. While she says that such a              building technique is restricted in India to Nadarjunakonda, this is              not exactly true, as temple 17 at Sanci is built with this              technique, and it brings up the intriguing possibility that this              enigmatic little temple, dating to about 400, or only perhaps some              one hundred years later than those at Nagarjunakonda, might also              have been a Hindu temple.              Besides Hindu architecture, there are also secular structures at              Nagarjunakonda, and these are unique in India, including a theater              or, according to Stone, a boxing stadium. But it is the Buddhist              monuments that dominate. And Stone introduces in this first chapter              several of her ideas, mostly already presented in her articles,              regarding the development of architecture, and more generally of              Buddhism, at the site. These include that the site shows, in its              monastic architecture, the development from Hinayana to Mahayana;              that Mahayana developed largely from lay patronage, which focused on              the worship of the stupa and Buddha images (following Akira              Hirakawa); and that the different sects at the site can be placed on              a scale of innovation (or movement toward Mahayana doctrine)              depending on the monks' acceptance or rejection of stupa and image              worship.              Jumping to chapter III, Stone deals briefly with sculpture from two              other Andhran sites, Gummididurru and Goli. She uses sculpture from              Western museums, basically unprovenanced material, to show that it              can be placed at one or other of the two sites because it is              stylistically distinct, different from sculpture from              Nagarjunakonda. The sculpture from Gummididurru relates, however, to              the early sculpture at Nagarjunakonda, while that from Goli is              later, perhaps post-Iksvaku (first half of the fourth century). The              Goli sculpture, Stone feels, particularly relates to, in fact              influenced (is "evidence of the transmission of the Andhra Style"),              the later art of north India of the GuptaVakataka era.              Chapter IV is very short, but takes the transmission of Andhra style              even further geographically, to Afghanistan, in a discussion of the              Begram ivories. Stone dates the ivories, also a topic of a              previously published article, to the third or fourth centuries. She              suggests that, while made in the northwest, they have close              stylistic and iconographic parallels in the stone sculpture of              Nagarjunakonda. Similar ivories must, she feels, have once actually              existed in Andhra, and they reveal, as do the stones, an intense yet              subtle awareness of classical Western art. The point here is that              these styles and influences are pan-Indian, reflecting a surprising              interchange of peoples and goods, all feeding into, Stone thinks,              the style that develops in the Gupta period. The final chapter (V)              is a brief, two-page conclusion.              Now I want to return to the heart of the study, chapter II, "The              Evolution of the Nagarjunakonda Style." Stone "will demonstrate in              this chapter (that) the stylistic changes in the art of              Nagarjunakonda are allied to the development of the architectural              ground-plans of the site." While this may not sound unusual, it has              never, as far as I am aware, been argued for any other site in              India. What Stone means, and goes on to demonstrate, is that each              monastic or stupa site at Nagarjunakonda had its own style. This              means, for example, that the two contemporaneous and contiguous              sites 2 and 3 had two different styles. That is, the artists of one              monument, working at the same time but a few meters from artists at              another monument, were working in two different styles. This differs              from the rest of India, where artistic styles are broadly              geographical and chronological, but monuments and art from the same              site share the same style, and do not even show sectarian stylistic              differences.              Another surprise is the relationship of the Nagarjunakonda art to              that at Amaravati. Stone's dating for Amaravati is roughly the same              as that of Knox; it was around A.D. 225 that, with the downfall of              the Satavahanas, the Iksvakus' first king Camtamula I came into              power at Nagarjunakonda. But the art she assigns to his reign is              not, as might be expected, a continuation of the late styles at              Amaravati. While some of the art does reveal an Amaravati              connection, much of it shows influence from a north Indian site,              Mathura. It is not, according to Stone, until the reign of the third              Iksvaku king, Ehuvala Camtamula (ca. 265-75 to ca. 290-300 A.D.),              that Amaravati influence becomes more powerful. The Nagarjunakonda              artists then changed the Amaravati art, moving it toward lower              relief, more decorative style, and more formalized compositions.              Stone makes it clear that she feels this is a decline in artistic              quality from that of Amaravati - a somewhat distressing tendency              toward personal judgment shared, to an even greater extent, by Knox.                           Both books deserve to be widely read, and contain many important              points that I have not been able to bring up here. Nevertheless, the              sculpture and architecture from Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda is so              rich, varied, and significant, and continues to present so many              important questions, that scholars should be encouraged to continue              research on this wonderful material.              1 Douglas Barrett, Sculptures from Amaravati in the British Museum              (London: British Museum, 1954).              2 I. K. Sarma, "Early Sculptures and Epigraphs from South-East              India: New Evidence from Amaravati," in Indian Epigraphy: Its              Bearing on the History of Art, ed. Frederick M. Asher and G. S. Gai              (New Delhi: Oxford, 1985): 15-23.              3 See F. R. Allchin, The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia:              The Emergence of Cities and States (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.              Press, 1995), 176-79.              ROBERT L. BROWN UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES