'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sanchi - A Gallery Of Fantasies

This post is on some details of the Hinayana Buddhist art of Sanchi; for self, the recent visit there was full of unanticipated personal discoveries.

A pair of animals, kneeling back-to back, with a 'donor couple' sitting atop is a standard Hinayana sculptural element (I don't know the antecedents of this much repeated motif). In the caves at Karla and Bedsa near Pune, one sees only elephants, bulls and horses as the animals. At the Pandava caves near Nasik, I remember seeing a sphinx (!) and what looks like a strange synthetic beast with a monkey's face and antlers.

Sanchi has several such couples. There are also several 'heraldic' pairs of animals; and around the Stupa 2 (halfway down the hill), there are 'medallions' with relief carvings of single animals.

And here is an incomplete catalog of the 'Sanchi Bestiary': Elephants, Rams and ewes, Camels (surprisingly, mostly, the two humped Bactrian ones), Bulls (some of which have the curly-braces-like horns, sported by some modern Kathiawar cattle), Horses, winged antelopes, peacocks, multi-hooded cobras (one of which even forms a grand parasol for some divinity!), a whole array of Lion forms - hefty, winged lions which look very middle-eastern, winged Lions with antlers, winged lions with antelope horns, winged lions with unicorn-like single horns, winged lions with parrot-like beaks, ...

And then, there is a centaur, sharabhas (combination of man+bird+beast) with elephants dangling from their talons (these were on the comparatively later double-story temple), a horse-headed human figure ("Hayagriva"!), a horse with very long canines sticking out of its mouth....

Wikipedia describes the 'buraq' (Prophet Muhammad rode one of these on his trip to Heaven) as a "horse-like creature with long ears and the wings and tail of a peacock. It may also have a man's face". Sanchi has troops of human-faced near-buraqs (they have peacock tails all right, only the equine torso seems to be missing) swooping down from the sky to worship Stupas.

And here is my pick for the craziest of the lot: a chimera with an elephant's head and trunk, deer antlers, a bulls body and hooves and a horse's tail! Even whoever carved/conceived it seems to have thought he had done something cool, so a caption(?) has been provided right above; sad, I can't read the Brahmi script!

Indeed, it is almost a surprise that Sanchi *lacks* sphinxes!

Among humans, one sees mid-eastern types, Greeks, etc.. mostly among those worshipping stupas; elsewhere, a heavily armed Greek infantryman fights a lion... Among one set of stupa-worshippers, there is a chap in a phrygian cap playing a panpipe. Two of his companions play what look like a 'Maddalam' and a 'Timila' (two of traditional Mallu percussion instruments) respectively

On the front face of the single Torana of Stupa 3 are two symmetrically placed carvings of a hero - having grabbed a a gigantic serpent by its jaws, he is poised to tear it asunder (guess: it may represent Indra killing Vritra). The poses struck by the heroes are mirror images of each other and almost identical to the 'Mithras Killing the Bull' statues (eg: of the Greco-Roman world. And one of the Sanchi serpent-killers appears to wear headgear rather similar to Mithras's Phrygian cap!

And a worn relief shows something like a human figure grappling with two lions - Gilgamesh?

There are multiple instances of a lady being bathed by elephants - they are supposed to represent Buddha's mother Maya. This motif was later appropriated into the Hindu iconography - in representations of Laxmi. And if I remember right, the mid-eighties version of Encyclopedia Britannica showed a Sanchi medallion with the caption 'Laksmi' - which strictly speaking, was plain wrong!

The Sanchi museum displays a grand 4-lion pillar capital (this crowned the now fallen Ashoka pillar - that the stump of it used to be part of a sugarcane press in a nearby farm until its rediscovery by the Brits is another story!). The lions are mostly intact. The pedestal has reliefs, not of bulls and horses (as in the Sarnath pillar) but geese. 4-member teams of back-to-back lions also bear the weights of one of the Great Stupa toranas.

Rishyasringa is a mythological figure from Ramayana (the son of a sage and a heavenly nymph, he is Rama's brother-in-law). He is distinguished by deer-like antlers growing forth from his head (a much more recent representation of the guy can be seen in the murals of the Mattancheri palace, Cochin). In Sanchi, he appears as the Pali language equivalent 'Isisinga', antlers and all, as the son of Kassapa, one of Buddha's earlier Human incarnations!

The human donors themselves here are not as interesting as the much larger-scale figures of Bedsa and Karla. One particular pair did catch my eye though - the man (looking very foreign, tunic, boots and all) rides a huge ram, the woman (also looking pretty exotic, and seemingly unclothed!) an ewe. The two animals face opposite directions; so the couple have turned back towards each other and are engaged in what looks like casually intimate conversation...


  • At 9:06 AM, Blogger LuvfromIndia said…

    It would be great if you just add a few photos to your posts that would enliven further your already picturesque writing! or if you do have an online photo archive that i can take a look into would be great. thanks again for the unique observations and interesting perspectives


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