Buddhist sculpture from Amaravati in the British Museum

 

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Like many of the most thrilling human products the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati is something of a puzzle. It is one of the greatest Indian architectural works, but it has been thoroughly dismembered and partially destroyed. Now it seems a building made almost entirely of sculpture, but this must always have been the case to a degree. It was one of the largest structures in India, half-again the size of the more famous Sanchi, and indescribably richer.

In its heyday it was a curious paradox, a circular construction 192 feet in diameter with lavish gates and high walls concealing the dome-like central mass, which appeared to be half sunk in the earth, and thus even huger than one could immediately perceive. But there was no way in, and no enterable interior space. It was a big container for a small body of precious material, physical relics of the Buddha or his saints, a tooth, a bone, a piece of clothing.

The stupa at Amaravati took centuries to build, from the first century BCE until the third after, and many centuries to forget its existence, including its whereabouts, so that it could be stumbled on by a local ruler in search of building materials in the late 18c. Within eighty years the site had become unrecognisable again, and the best carved remnants had been divided between the British Museum in London and the Government Museum in Chennai/Madras, with a scattering further afield.

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About 120 of the best fragments of the wrecked monument came to London c 1860 and languished for twenty years, suffering further in an unsympathetic climate in a polluted city, until they found a home in the British Museum. It wasn’t until 112 years after that that they were provided with the clean, dry air of their present large glass box.

I reckon that now we are seeing about half the pieces of limestone which the Museum has, which were known in the early days as the Elliot Marbles, after one of the officials who helped preserve them from the neglect and interference that dogged them after their un-burial, called that in hopes that some of the Elgin Marbles’ prestige would rub off on these non-Greek non-marbles.

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It’s well nigh impossible to calculate how much of the original wealth survives.   The outer railing just over 600 feet long was ten feet high and two feet thick, coated inside and out with carving from top to bottom.

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In the early stages both the uprights and the crossbars between them were filled with giant stylised lotus blooms carved with concentric rings of identical petals. Even these chaste designs underwent an evolution from incised flatness to richly shadowed depth. By the second century the inner and outer faces of the railings had begun to be treated differently, the outer to be embellished with grotesque dwarves in the triangular crevices between the circles of the lotus blooms and the straight sides of the posts, while on the inner faces the central circular forms were taken over by scenes teeming with carved figures.

There must be missing stages between the concentric lotus and the riot of activity in the scenes as we have them, whose carvers are full of ideas about what to do when fitting stories into circular spaces.   It is such an exciting development, filling all those round surfaces with dozens of figures packed in and busy at this or that.   At first it feels like an overload, hard to take in quickly as one passes.

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There’s a wonderful density in the British Museum display, a concentrated taste of an experience which went on for much longer in the inner passage at Amaravati, one crowded disc after another, for the cross-rails are just the right length to fit in a roundel, giving you roundels on the posts separated by roundels on the bridges between them, resulting in a continuous chain of roundels.   The crowded room at the British Museum starts with an extensive mock-up (seven units long) of the high exterior wall, the outer edge of the monument, behind which lay the narrow corridor via which you would circle the great dome in clockwise direction. But in London the corridor is hard to imagine, and for obvious reasons even the mock-up of its outer boundary isn’t curved.

Behind or inside it lies another mock-up, a replica of the other boundary of the crucial corridor, a second wall about as long as the first, of the base of the drum of the dome, made of big stone panels each of which has its own stupa in miniature carved in such deep relief that they seem to stand full-bodied forth. On top of this row of miniature stupas, four feet tall but still miniature in the larger context, lies another of the greatest treasures of the monument, a row of foot-high friezes full of carved life which would have run as far as you could see, until it curved out of sight around the corner.

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Mounted high on the wall above are pieces of the big decorative borders that ran along the curve of the dome as it climbed and disappeared toward the apex. Like the other elements, these borders are presented flat not curved, and so, some of the life has gone out of them. But you get the idea.

On the way to the reconstruction of the passageway you’ve already been distracted by compelling displays of marvelous reliefs from earlier periods which don’t fit into the diagram of the building’s parts in logical sequence.

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If you enter at the left-hand end, right in front of you is a patchwork of four of these pieces from an earlier phase, in a simpler mode than the intricate richness that prevails in most of the surviving carving.  The spirit of most of the other carving is so un-classical, so un-pared down, in some way so reckless. By contrast, the spirit of these early panels, in spite of voluptuous nudity and mysterious incident, is calm and collected, planted firmly on the earth and striving always for essential qualities.

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Some writers find Greek and Roman echoes in these panels, but these four reliefs are classical in a broader sense, in being big-boned and bare in parts, but keeping a few hints of intricacy in their subsidiary place, like the skirts and nets swirling round the legs of the Universal King and his company. Here is a convincing idea of kingship, expressed in attitude, not action, in a ruling symmetry that leaves room for deviations in detail. Every being and appliance has its space, free of interference, respecting the integrity of the parts. Symmetry can seem mechanical, but this is a world pervaded by an uncanny rightness.  Yet it is a place that leaves room for mystery or enigma.

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Versions are legion of the Great Departure, when the prince who will become the Buddha leaves home on a sudden impulse, setting off in the middle of the night to roam the world seeking the truth. The story comes equipped with many charming details: his servants – often represented as plump dwarfs – muffle the horse’s feet, one dwarf per hoof, so as not to wake the city’s sleepers. Sometimes he is accompanied by crowds of excited acolytes who would presumably cancel out the quiet of the muffling.

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Not in our version here, which leaves out all that, and the primary element as well. Here the horse is riderless and must stand in for the prince, for we are still in that time where a spiritual shyness prevents us from seeing the Buddha even in the phase before he has assumed his mature identity. Not just the riderless horse, but the umbrella with no one to shelter under it, expresses the Buddha’s way of not being there too. It is pure accident but appropriate that two flying attendants are now present only in a detached arm and a stranded hand.   We know what the missing figures would look like because more garrulous versions survive and fill in the gaps. So the flying hand, instead of a blemish, can become a mystic sign.

In the same vein, we know what lay above the Chakravartin or Universal King, who is another stand-in for the Buddha in the times when he couldn’t be seen. Above the King’s umbrella, which escapes the scene’s frame, are two tiny animals, one trying to sleep, the other sitting upright. They aren’t palace pets but deer, who are code for the forest in which Buddha gives his first sermon. We don’t need to know more. Buddha wouldn’t be there in the scene above, only his empty throne which fills the space between the deer like a big solid block. It’s a scene we have already imagined, stirred into thought by a discreet sign.

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There’s a kind of safety in focusing on these single scenes, especially those of the calm earlier periods. But the essence of Amaravati is the exuberant carving of later pillars which are alive to an almost alarming degree, on which the lotus blooms have been thoroughly eaten away by a filigree of figures and scenes, which are themselves surrounded by further scenes, which look as though they are clamouring to get in, spreading hungrily onto more of the remaining surface as time goes on.

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Trying to imagine the progression from those chaste lotus foci to the uproar of the later scenes with their surprising depths of carving, all at a scale heading toward miniature, you might hypothesise something like the example below (a crucial piece which isn’t displayed) that I came upon in Robert Knox’s invaluable catalogue of 1992, when I was far enough into the subject to recognise it instantly as the missing piece in the long progression from austerity to abundance. The scenes it shows are formulaic and repetitive – the Elevation of the Bodhisattva’s Headdress above and the Adoration of His Begging Bowl below.

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The revolution doesn’t come in these staid motifs but in the outrages against the very idea of a pillar, embodied in the gouging away of a considerable depth of stone to make little shadow-boxes or rooms for these events to take place in. The spaces are small but the energy is frenetic, and show every participant carried away by enthusiasm. The pillars are on the way to becoming scenes of passion instead of dumb, well-behaved posts.

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We could follow a gradual process of encroachment on the stone, leading to the final destination in the ruined pillar which confronts the Buddha with the wife and son he ran away from, who accost him on his triumphal return to his birthplace, a moment of contradiction in spite of the crowds of devotees, a moment which includes two delightful lapses into the everyday at the bottom of the circle, toy animals on wheels that belong to the child, who happen to be the very same noble animals that accompany kings in Buddhist legend, the elephant and the horse.

The most sophisticated developments in filling round forms with narrative come in the crosspieces between posts, a stage of embellishment which occurs later in the sequence.

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One of the boldest solutions to the conundrum of the unanchored space is fractured vertically, as if the building where it happens had split in two, leaving teetering fragments, leaning toward a gap, almost an abyss, and hanging overhead like a threat. The two main foci, a standing man and a lounging woman, are both oblivious, undressed and self-absorbed. The man looks like a Renaissance courtier, the woman like a classical goddess, stretching languorously on a chair-bed of wondrous complexity.

The circle is divided confidently into unequal halves, the larger half, crowded, the smaller one spaced out, with room for a fish pond, vertical like a miniature cliff-face, in the foreground. There is architecture galore at the back – where is all this space conjured from? — and there are unheard-of depths in the crevasse between man’s world and woman’s.

The long friezes on top of the walls of the inner corridor give us narratives in a very different mode from the roundels, as if unrolling events from a spool rather than impacting them in a tangle, a tangle which makes everything present at once, though often with multiple centres and their own ways of doubling back.

Unrolling sounds simpler, but the friezes facing each other on opposite sides of the corridor are not always moving in the same direction, or even moving forward at all, as if this long thin thread of narrative didn’t hold these sculptors’ interest for long, or it may be that relentless forward movement doesn’t agree so well with contemplation? In any case, the best long reliefs seem prone to dropping the thread.

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It’s hard not to be influenced by the damage old carved stones have undergone. You may even find yourself brooding on the suffering of the old artifacts, which are not, of course, sensitive beings. But it matters greatly to me that one of these pieces has a different, more ruined colour and texture from all the others, which seemed to mark it as inferior but before long came to seem a badge of honour. Later I learned that this stone had got separated from the others after arriving in London, and ended in a barber’s yard in Great Montague Street near the museum, so that a curator heard of it while having his hair cut and then arranged its purchase.

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This bit of frieze seems the richest of all in its subject matter, which separates large and complicated scenes with exotic couples, one under an extraordinary palm tree, their faces now cruelly erased, but preserving the beguiling Robinson-Crusoe-flavour of something from an entirely different clime.

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Then there are the bulging lotus bosses, an extremely tactile form of punctuation marking parts, with the tiniest, most obscure scenes in the central bulges of the rows of three. These seem almost a taunt by the sculptor, who boils down the idea of the roundel so frequent at Amaravati, to indecipherable smallness. These figured bosses have driven one critic to claim that these little kernels contain the secret of the whole relief, even arguing that the knob which shows a flying horse is the Great Departure, and thereby trumps the most moving of the large scenes, Siddhartha sending back his horse and groom, who are both heartbroken at this new sacrifice (see first frieze segment).

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The crowning challenge of the piece is that it lacks its other half, now housed in the Government Museum at Chennai. Placing the two of them together, you find that the central scene is that old standby the Elevation of the Turban, now split between the two places, of which we have almost exactly half the gladness in London, expressed in rows of ecstatic figures swimming or flying through the ether in syncopated tiers.

I think we might be disappointed in the result if we were to link the two halves of this relief. The jagged edges match, yet the hard-bought ruin and mysterious depths of the London piece would have to put up with the dull smoothness of its mate in Chennai and with its bland emptiness instead of the jammed excitement of our figures standing on ground made wobbly by the creatures moving to a contrary current under their feet.

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Next to the London half of the Turban frieze is presently mounted an even more fragmentary and ruined subject, with unknown gods and rulers threatening each other, raising heavy weapons overhead or striking dance postures in the midst of conflict, their limbs reduced to spidery thinness which lets us peer even further into the depths that open beneath features that have become almost abstract since their decay made it impossible to be sure what they represent. The traveler down this corridor would always have got plenty of raking views. In that perspective the most timeworn relics of Amaravati sometimes seem the most satisfactory, all their complexity reduced to a final uncertainty.

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