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Buddhist art during aniconic and iconic period

By Devik Balami at
greco buddhist art

When Siddhartha Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, he first taught his knowledge to his five disciples. Later along with other disciples, he wandered places and spread the knowledge and true meaning of life to different peoples. Gradually, people joined with him and became a monk. He gave the discourse on many topics. The knowledge had been transferred orally through one disciple to another. The knowledge was not recorded by any means. As time passed by, the teaching was then represented in the art forms in order to spread the knowledge and awareness about the life history of Buddha. This art form can be divided into two distinctive phases- Aniconic and iconic phase

Aniconic Phase

In the 2nd to 1st century BCE, the buddhist arts were made representing episodes of the Buddha's life and teachings. These arts took the form of votive tablets or friezes and were generally used as the decoration of stupas or Buddhist pilgrimage sites. In this phase, the Buddha was represented through symbols. He was never represented in the human form. As Digha Nikaya reports, this act was connected to one of the Buddha's saying that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body. Since the artists were reluctant to represent Buddha anthropomorphically, they developed more sophisticated symbols to represent Buddha. The Buddha was then represented through symbols - empty throne, Bodhi tree, a riderless horse with a parasol floating above an empty space, Buddha's footprints, dharma wheel, etc. - in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear.

This form of art was also seen as late as the 2nd century CE in the southern parts of India. The antique Buddhist art, Mara's assault on the Buddha was the art form from Amaravati School which also is the example of Aniconic Buddhist art. Other examples are from Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya and frescoes at Sigiriya. It is recorded that the frescoes at Sigiriya are older than the Ajanta Cave paintings.

Iconic phase

In the south of India, Buddha was represented through symbols even after 1st century but in the north India, the artists were coming up with the different verse of art forms. It was in the north India where the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha started. The anthropomorphic Buddha images were developed from two different areas, the region of Gandhara and the region of Mathura. The Gandhara is in present day North West frontier province in Pakistan and the Mathura in central northern India.

It is recorded that Gandharan art was the result of interaction with Greek culture. This interaction was possible due to the conquests of Alexander the Great in early 4th century CE. It is believed that this school of sculpture contributed artistic features in the image of Buddha. These are mainly wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes, and sandals, etc.

The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition. The art by Mathura school included anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas along with the Buddha. This school of art contributed clothes covering the left shoulder of thin muslin, the wheel on the palms, the lotus seat, etc.

It was recorded that both the region strongly influenced each other. It is a matter of debate whether the anthropomorphic representation of Buddha was a result of the local evolution of Buddhist art at Mathura or a consequence of Greek cultural influence in Gandhara. Even though the Buddhism was spread through the art form, it was not included in music and dance.

Later in the 4th-6th century CE, during the Gupta period, the new version of Buddha images of Mathura, pink sandstone sculptures, evolved. With the development of this art form, it was believed that the Buddhist art reaches a new height of fineness of execution and delicacy in the modeling. The art of the Gupta School was extremely influential almost everywhere in the Asian countries. With the development of silk trade route and maritime trade route, the art and culture strongly influence other parts of Asia, mainly south Asian countries. South Asian countries built the Buddha art - antique Buddha statues, fresco- at various locations but later these arts blended with their local art forms and hence lead to their own verse of Buddhist arts.

In the present time, the anthropomorphic representation of Buddha is created based on the different basis of Buddhism- Mahayana, Theravada - in particular.