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Buddhist Art of Kashmir

By Sayan Lodh

Kashmir played a unique role in the dissemination of Indic civilisation into Central

Asia, besides acting as the northern gateway of India. Kashmir’s ‘Buddhist’ past had been

largely overshadowed by other aspects of its past, being available only to those who search for it. The centrality of Kashmir to Buddhism is evident in the organisation of 4th Buddhist council (72 CE) at Kundalvana (near Srinagar) by Kanishka. About 500 erudite Buddhist monks and scholars gathered under the presidentship of Vasumitra, and codified the Buddhist canons like the Tripitakas. Buddhist schools such as Sarvāstivāda, Mahayana, Madhyamika, and Yogācāra were also centred around Kashmir. However, the Kashmiri Buddhist pantheon was much more limited than those of Bengal and Orissa in the total number of divinities.

Iqbal Ahmad opines that the Kashmiri artists played a major role in the development of Gandhara art in the Kushan era. During the rule of Indo-Greeks, Hellenic influence penetrated into Bactria and possibly Kashmir which led to the realistic features of Kashmiri Buddhist art in later times. This art form later travelled into Central Asia, Tibet, and China through Buddhist monks, emissaries, and traders. Kashmiri artists were even hired by foreign patrons to create marvels. (Ahmad 2019)

In contemporary times most of the Kashmiri bronze sculptures have been discovered

from Tibet. This indicates the Kashmiri influence on Tibet’s culture, religion, and script in

ancient times. Most of these sculptures were casted during Karkota (circa 625-855 CE) dynasty’s reign. However, Kashmir had a long tradition of Bronze art which reached stylistic maturity during Lalitaditya’s period (8 th century CE) which is hailed as the classical period of Kashmiri bronze art. Most of the bronze sculptures depict Buddhist imagery with a few portraying Hindu ones (Shaivite and Vaishnavite). Pratapaditya Pal noted four distinctive characteristics of Kashmiri bronze images. First, the heavy and sturdy naturalistic bodies, especially evident in the muscular male ones. Second, the distinctly shaped faces possessing round and chubby/fleshy features. Third, the treatment of petals in the lotus-themed base looks more like artichokes than lotus. Fourth, unlike the dark copper-based bronzes of remaining parts of India, Kashmiri bronzes are lighter coloured and brass-based. Silver and copper were employed for inlay works in eyes and garments. While being Kashmiri in style, most statues bear Tibetan, or Sanskrit inscription at bases. The style of these bronze statues is recreated in wall paintings in monasteries of Western Tibet in 10th -11th centuries. (Pal 1973, 728-730, 745)

Three different types of images can be discerned- two depicting Buddha, and the third one Bodhisattva Maitreya. The simplest ones depict Buddha seated in a classic yogic style atop a lotus, his right hand extended in a benevolent gesture, and left hand upholding the upper garment’s edge. In some variations, the Buddha is seated upon a throne flanked by lions and a yakshas. An 8 th century sculpture at Norton Simon Foundation is one of the best examples. The image shows an enthroned Buddha flanked by four figures at bottom revering him. Two are Bodhisattvas, and the remaining two figures are King (presumably Jayapida, Lalitaditya’s grandson) and Queen on two sides. The base represents a mountain in archetypal Kashmiri style. (Pal 1973, 730-734)

The second style depicts Buddha being seated in a European style like Gandhara images of the past. This depicts the Buddha as both spiritual and temporal conqueror, and was developed during Kushan era. While the lower portion of the garment is plain, the upper portion shows schematic folds. In some figures a collar-shaped cloth is added around the neck. This Sassanian influence is peculiar to Kashmiri Buddha images. The best examples are perhaps the ones at Rockefeller (where Buddha’s frilled collar is quite distinct) and at a private collection in New York. Although the dress is Scythian, and the facial features Central Asian, the inscriptions at bottom are Sanskrit. The one at New York shows Buddha blessing King Nandi Vikramaditya. While the former was commissioned by a Kashmiri feudal lord as evident from the title Gajapati or Lord of Elephants at bottom, the second was commissioned by someone belonging to Kashmiri royalty as depicted by the title Maharajadhiraja Paramesvara. (Pal 1973, 735-736)

The image of Bodhisattva Maitreya at Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of the best specimens of the third type. It roughly represents portrayals from the Gupta era indicating pre-8 th century origins. The absence of naturalism in body and face coupled with the fan shaped jata styled hair seems to be directly derived from Gandhara. Unlike the sitting Buddha images, it is in standing posture and contains a lotus base. Probably it served as an attendant figure to the Buddha organised in a triad. (Pal 1973, 739-740)

The Gilgit manuscript containing figures of Bodhisattva Padmapani has been traced back to the Kashmiri school of 9 th century. It depicts a perfect amalgamation of Gandhara facial features with Gupta iconography in Kashmir. The wall paintings of Mangang and Western Tibetan manuscript are generally attributed to Kashmiri painters. Reminiscent of Kashmiri bronzes, these paintings depict the final stage of evolution of pre-medieval Kashmiri art school that bears some relevance with distant Ajanta cave paintings. The artists have brilliantly executed the embroidered designs of ultra-fine garments to give a realistic look. (Kak 2021, 41-42)

One of the best examples of Kashmiri Buddhist art is present at Alchi, near Leh. The five temples of the Dharma-mandala escaped destruction at the hands of Ladakhi princes who embraced Islam. The earliest of these, Du-Khang, contains well preserved mandalas depicting Kashmiri Buddhist pantheon, besides images of Hindu gods in Buddhist style. The three level Sum-Tsek building besides Du-Khang contains gigantic two-storied images of Avalokistesvara (east), Maitreya (north), and Manjushri (west) to remove impurities in speech, mind and body respectively. It also contains an image of Prajnaparamita holding a book, and rosary beads (Figure 4). A tall structure besides Prajnaparamita image within the same painting seems to be the famous chaitya constructed by Lalitaditya at Parihaspura, according to Subhash Kak. (Kak 2021, 41-42)

Through a comparison of Murals at monasteries- Guru Lakhang, Lotswa Lakhang in Henatsku, Tsatsapuri Lakhang and Kubum Chorten in Alchi; Nils Martin suggests that they were painted by master painters belonging to the same school as depicted in similar local styled designs and motifs. Ladakhi rulers looked towards the rulers of Kashmir for legitimisation and support, explaining the Kashmiri influences in Ladakhi art. (Martin 2020, 31-32, 43)

Susan Huntington opined, ‘Kashmir served as a source of imagery and influence for the northern and eastern movements of Buddhist art.’ She traces the origin of Chinese cave paintings like Yunkang and Qizil, and Japanese iconographic manuscripts to Kashmir. It can be concluded that a study of Asian Buddhist Art is inconceivable without the inclusion of Kashmiri art. (Kak 2021, 41-42)

Situated at the crossroads of India and Central Asia, Kashmiri art developed with influences from both these regions, and in turn influenced others. Kashmir being a major centre of Buddhism till about 9 th century, Buddhist pilgrims came from various regions to learn and take back scrolls, and even art forms. Tibet became the last bastion of Kashmiri Buddhism (which later influenced and got absorbed into the Tibetan variant) after the arrival of Islam in Kashmir. Although, Kashmiri Buddhist art ceased in Kashmir post Islamic conquest, it continued in Tibet. Hence, in contemporary times, most specimens of Kashmiri Buddhist art are found in Tibet and not in Kashmir.


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