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

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Kolkata and Bharhut

"Brahmanism, instead of being an unchanged and unchangeable religion which has subsisted for ages, is of comparatively modern origin, and has been constantly receiving additions and alterations and (this fact) proves that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed." - Alexander Cunningham

Thanks to several happy circumstances, I could revisit Kolkata in mid Feb. Due to what had, at some point at least, looked like rank bad planning, I traveled both ways by train. Indeed, 3rd class A/C coaches can be very frustrating - there is little space and thick windows reduce landscapes to a dull glimmer. So, one goes and stands at the doorway, a very risky thing to do ...

I got a total of 5 hours - spread over two twilights - at Chennai Central. Curiously, it was the first time in several hundred visits there that I really noticed the Victoria Town Hall - and it is such an elegantly proportioned red building, wonderful to look at in fresh morning sunshine. The European cemetery just across the road from Central is another place I had passed by so often but never looked at; while a detailed exploration will happen only on a future visit, I saw enough to be impressed by its unique atmosphere.

There was boredom only between Chennai and Vijayawada - this stretch has generally dull and scrubby landscapes and the Coromandel traverses them when the day is at its harshest. The rest went swimmingly well - maddeningly green rice fields at twilight between Krishna and Godavari, the awesome bridge at Rajahmundry, a bracingly chilly and brightly sunlit morning in the far north of rural Orissa, a glorious sunset in the same setting on the way back... And the real highlight of it all was spotting (what almost certainly was) a Great Indian Bustard inspecting a rice field near Gannavaram.

Howrah City looks just as rundown as it was a decade ago - milling rickshaws, fig trees sprouting out of all sorts of disused buildings - but the GT Road didn't seem as clogged as it used to be. The great bridge was just as great to walk across and Kolkata proper looked pretty much where I had left it in 2011 but for fewer trams and the metro having gotten extended to Naupada from Dumdum ... and rising way above everything, a pencil-thin tower that hasn't yet reached its full height. Even in the inner city, the traffic hasn't become much worse and the crowds haven't got denser. Perhaps chronic stagnation has saved this once capital of India from going the Bangalore or Bombay way.

Bharhut During my 2009-11 spell in Cal, I had been to the Indian Museum many times but the Bharhut Stupa gallery was always closed. Now it is mercifully open and I spent over 4 hours staring and re-staring at this pre-Christian Buddhist monument (over a century ago, it was assembled here out of fragments brought from Bharhut village in central India by Alexander Cunningham.).

The Wikipedia article on Bharhut is very detailed and for a more thorough account, there is the descriptive volume written by Arabinda Ghosh and brought out by the museum itself.

Here, I try to give only a taste of Bharhut with pictures of details gathered from various online sources and books. I also try to compare some of these details with what I had seen at Sanchi a decade ago (At Sanchi, the best sculpture is on the gateways leading to the Stupa and the stone fencing surrounding the stupa is left elegantly plain; Bharhut is primarily about reliefs carved on the fences. Whatever, let me exhort all my Readers to go see both treasures!).

1. This is, to my knowledge, the only female equestrian figure in the whole of ancient Indian Art - it is also a standard bearer. The figure crowning the standard has a very Persian look...isn't it?

2. The only equestrian figure with a rearing horse (again, as far as I know) from ancient Indian sculpture:

Among the details above is a curiously upside-down human figure. Another guy seems to be twisting the tail of the rearing horse.
Note: I did look carefully but none of the Bharhut riders uses a stirrup - not even a rudimentary toe-stirrup (unlike their counterparts at Bhaja and Sanchi).

3. On the stone railings are several medallions, with faces carved on many. Here is the most remarkable among them - I call it the 'Yoda'

Note: Figures with similar weird features are also carved in a scene depicting (probably)Buddha's cremation.

4. A troop of monkeys getting an elephant to extract a giant's tooth. Note the rich detailing - a monkey bites the elephant's tail and another is doing something to the giant's palm...:

5. Peeping over a curtain - a quaint motif I don't recall seeing anywhere else in Indian art, Sanchi included - except in the 'Thiranottam' segment of a Kathakali performance:

6. One of the several 'donor couples'. This might well be a portrait of real people - else how would one account for the lady being clearly taller?

7. Two frequently used decorative motifs - jewellery and jackfruit!

Note: I once wrote here about how the jackfruit frequently features in ancient Sangam poetry (at least some Sangam poems were composed in Kerala, aver experts) and its total absence from later poetry in Malayalam. Moving North, one sees a visual version of the same phenomenon - clusters of jackfruit lovingly carved in Bharhut (along with mangoes and custard apples) and hardly ever finding favor with subsequent generations of artists!

8. Bharhut almost always shows worshipful 'donors' as performing a 'twisted Namaste'; the 'proper' version of the gesture also features, albeit very sparingly, among the hundred plus human figures carved here.

Note: As is the lot of a lot of our ancient art, almost all human figures are elaborately coiffed and heavily ornamented and just as sparsely attired - a subject on which I had quoted a rather racy passage from Britannica in a post here a few years back.

9. Carvings at Sanchi show greater numbers and variety of fantastic beings. But these Bharhut 'hathtimis' (name courtesy Sukumar Ray) can hold their own among the best Sanchi specimens:

10. Potbellied, load-bearing dwarfs... again Sanchi has more and more dramatic specimens. But Bharhut is no pushover!

11. A pair of hands emerge from a tree, one holding a 'kindi'. Wonder which Jataka story is being illustrated here!
12. Among Buddha's adventures shown at Bharhut is the 'Stairway to Heaven', a story illustrated rather similarly in Sanchi too.


  • At 10:33 PM, Blogger oceanofsecrets said…

    Sir, your grip on ancient Indian architecture and literature continues to amaze and enlighten. Glad to know Calcutta hasn't been entirely corrupted like the 'metro' cities. The part about you spotting a Bustard, a highly endangered species, gives hope. I implore you to collect these writings and consider publishing them. Meanwhile, do keep posting. Wishing you happier sojourns in the future


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