Elements of Newar Buddhist Art _ Circle of Bliss - A Review Article

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<p>13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle1/10 .aiana.com/aicle/cicle/inde.hmlFig. 1asianart.com || articlesElements of Newar Buddhist Art :Circle of Bliss - a Review Articleb Gautama V. VajracharyaDecembe 22, 2004Note: users of MSIE will notice that some of the diacritics in this article, particularly the under-the letter dot, result in aspace being inserted after the diacritic and occasionally will result in the diacritic being missing. Please bear with this inreading the article. Netscape 7.0 does not have this problem. (click on small images for large images with captions) This article is a critical study of the Nepalese art and iconography discussed in the Circle of Bliss, Buddhist MeditationalArt, an exhibition catalogue, by John Huntington and Dina Bangdel with the contribution of graduate students of Ohio StateUniversity, Columbus and some other scholars. [1] Huntington and Bangdels articles [2] published in Orientations as theprelude to the exhibition also will be discussed here briefly. The materials are collected and presented in the catalogue andother related works with a great effort to surpass previous scholars in excellence and achievement. This endeavor deservesadmiration. In fact the catalogue is one of the rare examples in the study of South Asian art history where we find a teachersharing his new research and ideas with his students. Greatly encouraged by the teachers generosity, the students, in turn,feed him back with further investigations. Despite such admirable endeavor the work is open to criticism for three differentreasons. First, the catalogue is characterized by misleading information that emanated from defective methodology. Second,it is riddled with the easily detectable mistakes which resulted from the lack of careful observation, and insufficientknowledge of variety of subjects such as epigraphy, language and culture, so essential for the study of Newar Buddhist art.Third, the cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh is treated there without giving any attention to already published importanthistorical sources closely related to the cult. A few examples may suffice.Several Buddhist texts repeatedly describe that prince Siddhrtha was born in the Lumbini grovefrom the side of the queen mother Maya as she grasped a branch of a tree. According to theNidnakath soon after such supernatural birth the newborn baby received an atmospheric showerbath. Often a peculiar phrase is used to describe the event, utum gahpesum "[the gods] caused[the baby] to receive the season." [3] This phrase helps us to connect the concept of the nativity scenewith pre-Buddhist belief associated with the birth of a cosmic child, and with a latent aspect ofNewar Buddhist tradition, which celebrates the birthday of Bodhisattvas as the prelude of the rainyseason during the bright half of the Jyestha month. A significant Nepalese sculpture in the catalogue(fig. 1) depicts the scene almost exactly as described in the text. On the right, Maya is shownclutching the branch of a tree. On the left, immediately above Siddhrtha, two cloud gods holdingglobal water jars are depicted flying in the middle of the stylized cloud. Many years ago whenKramrisch published this image very first time she correctly identified the cloud gods as devaputras [4] because in earlyBuddhist texts such atmospheric deities are often described as varsavalhaka devaputras rain clouds, the sons of thegods ( Aguttaranikvatik 2.2.37 ). In later Buddhist texts the cloud gods are identified as Nanda and Upanandadevaputras or ngas, the serpents. The lotus flowers flowing down from the jars held by the gods symbolize the shower.The authors of the very first entry in the catalogue, which treats of this sculpture, do not seem to befamiliar with such textual reference to cloud gods or to their significance. Thus they identify themale divinities of the cloud as apsaras [5] . This is indeed a big problem. If the authors cannotdistinguish female apsaras from the flat chested male divinities, I wonder how it would be possibleto handle the other complexities of art historical study. In the same entry, they argue that thesculpture should be dated to the 5th to 6th century instead of the previously accepted 9th century.The main point of their argument is based on the stylistic similarity of the lotus shown in the nativity13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle2/10 .aiana.com/aicle/cicle/inde.hmlFig. 2The main point of their argument is based on the stylistic similarity of the lotus shown in the nativitysculpture as a pedestal on which the newborn Siddhrtha is standing and the same flower held bythe Gana Baha Padmapni. Since the latter can be dated ca. 550 the authors express their opinionthat the nativity sculpture also belongs to about the fifth or sixth century. But stylistic study is notthat simple. The lotus employed for a pedestal and the lotus held by divinities should not be treatedas the same. Compare the lotus pedestal of Gana Baha Padmapni with the lotus he holds (fig. 2). The difference is huge.The pedestal is treated here rudimentarily, rendering only the pericarp of the lotus decorated with vertical linear patternaround its edge, whereas the lotus held by the god is rendered much more elaborately and naturalistically. This means thesixth century Nepalese artist was familiar with the naturalistic treatment of the lotus but it was not used for a pedestal of aBuddhist deity at that time. Such usage compares with that of the beads and flame motif. It appeared for the first time in 467A. D. when it was used for the flaming edge of Visnus shield in the famous Tilaganga Visnu image (fig. 3). But this motifbecame part of the nimbus only after the seventh century. Thus it becomes clear that the fifth century date for the nativitysculpture is not based on a logical explanation. The languorous, elongated body of Maya and her diaphanous sri differwidely from the dwarfish proportion, stiffness, and rudimentary treatment of the sri in the Tilaganga relief (fig. 4) but bearssome similarities with those features seen in the twelfth or thirteenth century bracket figures from Uku Baha (fig. 5). Theabstract space between the crossed legs of Maya and the Uku Baha bracket figures is almost identical. The pleated middlesection of the sri in both examples cascades down from the waist and goes over the left leg in similar fashion before itterminates into the flower bud like end. Thus the 9th century date given by Stella Kramrisch in her seminal 1964 catalogueremains unchanged. [6]Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5The main problem in dating the work of art logically is apparently associated with a lack of ability to distinguish history fromlegend. In the introductory essay of the catalogue Bangdel writes:Although the Licchavi kings were primarily Hindu, inscriptions refer to Buddhist monasteries founded byroyal patronage and grants, such as Mana Vihara built by King Manadeva, Raja Vihara by Amsuvarma,the Syengu Baha at Svayambhu Mahachaitya by Vrishadeva, and Gum Vihara, also a royal foundation butwithout attribution to a specific king. [7]In support of her argument she footnotes Daniel Wrights Historv of Nepal. Although I have been working on Licchaviinscriptions meticulously for many decades I have not seen any Licchavai inscription that refers to Syengu Baha asVrsadeva's contribution. The information that we get from Daniel Wrights work is not based on the analytical study ofinscriptions. Despite the fact that the tittle of his work is Historv of Nepal it is not a history book but a collection oflegends, fabulous stories and some historical materials of the medieval period. Information derived from such materiel cannot be accepted as factual without verifying contemporaneous sources. Therefore citation of such work as inscriptionalevidence clearly indicates an underlying problem, the confusion between history and legend. As we see shortly, the lack ofhistoriography is indeed the main problem in the development of the methodology employed throughout the work.Although the authors of the catalogue show more interest in iconography than stylistic studyneither Huntington nor Bangdel seem to know some basic elements of Tantric Buddhisticonography. Throughout the catalogue the authors explain the technical term dharmodav, asa pair of interlocking triangles. [8] This explanation is erroneous. Several esoteric Buddhisttexts including the Jimalaprabh, commentary to Klacakra, [9] testify that dharmodav isan inverted triangle symbolizing the female principle. Abhaykaragupta, the well-known authorof the Nispannavogvali, explains that in terms of macrocosm (bhva) the triangulardharmodav is no other than the endless sky, in terms of inward (adhvtman) significance she13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle3/10 .aiana.com/aicle/cicle/inde.hmlFig. 6Fig. 7dharmodav is no other than the endless sky, in terms of inward (adhvtman) significance sheis Prajn". [10] Moreover, Sdhanaml no. 97 clearly states that Dharmodav is akin tosky, and appears like the vowel e [Brhm script] because it has a wide upper section andnarrow pointed lower section. [11] Since this vulvate triangle resembles the vowel e in Brhmscript it was also known as ekra the letter e. The interlocking double triangles motif was actually known to the Buddhistas evam or evamkra, signifying nondual unity of female the principle e and the male principle vam, a syllabic letter inancient Indian scripts which was visualized as an upright triangle (fig. 6). Although such a hexagonal double triangle isknown to Hindus as satkona, Buddhists preferred to call it evam. Buddhist texts often begins with the word evam as in themantra like phrase evam mav rutam thus I have heard. The representation of interlocking double triangles is based onthe esoteric interpretation of this phrase.The correct identity of dharmodav may appear to be a trifling matter or an effort at faultfinding. But a careful study of thissymbol is actually very important for understanding the characteristics of Newar Buddhism. Newar Buddhists ofKathmandu identified this inverted triangle with an aboriginal female divinity of a waterhole or waterholes. We know thisfrom several sources including the observation of her unique shrine and its symbolic representations in stone relief.One of this divinitys shrines is located in Hmasinga, currently known to Nepalispeaking people as Phulbari near Balaju, the other one in Mrigasthali, east offamous Paupati temple. Both these shrines are actually underground, fresh-watersprings covered by a repousse lotus. [12] The Hmasinga shrine (fig. 7) isconsidered to be center of the primordial lake of the Kathmandu valley andaccording to Buddhist Newars the rainbow like variegated light representingJyotirpa Svayambh emerged from it. Some Buddhist Newars believe that thereal Hmasinga is located on the northern slope of Svayambh hill. The wordHmasinga literally means the depression located in the place called Hmasin. Anineteenth century colophon of a Newari manuscript in the collection of BabukajiVajracharya at Ombahal Kathmandu identifies this hole with the Buddhistgoddess Khagnan Bird Faced, who is also known as Guhyevar. [13] The Newar Buddhist scholars are of the opinionthat the minor deity with the same name, Khagnan, mentioned in the Sdhanaml no. 218, and Samvarodavatantra 7.19 is identical with this Buddhist goddess. This view may be correct because in Umapatis JafravrhsdhanaKhagnan is described as the goddess of the Himalaya. [14] However, due to her association with the waterhole andSvayambh she is not a minor deity in Nepal. The significance of the waterholes in the valley can be understood properly only if we give an attention to the fact that themain source of water is believed to be rain and the mother sky itself is considered to be a big hole, mahbila. Newarsoriginally believed that the sky is mother, which sharply contrasts with Indo-European concept of father sky. [15]Rainmaking rituals are performed around these waterholes during droughts and some of these water sources are namedafter the kagag, the milky-way which is viewed as celestial water in both Sanskrit literature and Newar tradition. [16]The Svavambhpurna prescribes worshiping the waterholes (falotpannarandhrni) on the full moon day of rvanamonth, when the copious monsoon rain is expected. [17] The waterholes are believed to be the reminiscent of the primordiallake of the Kathmandu valley. Both Hindus and Buddhists agree that the main deity of the waterholes is Guhyevar, andworship her as their tutelary lineage deities, variously called istadevat, kuladevat or degudva. However, the NewarBuddhist tradition of the valley prefers to identify her with the dharmodav triangle. This is evidenced by a brief statementfound in the Svavambhpurna, where the symbolic representation of this goddess is described as a voni likedharmodav (vonvkrena samft dharmodavsvarpena trailokve ca prakhvpit). [18] Such vulvial symbolsare often represented in stone relief. An seventeenth century inscription found at the western section of the Cilamco stpa inKiritpur tells us that such stone relief was known to the Buddhist community of the valley not exactly as dharmodav but asdharmadhtu shrine. This is understandable because in esoteric Buddhist literature the word dharmadhtu is synonymouswith dharmodav. For instance, Hevafratantra Tk (folio 33b) explains that dharmodav is dharmadhtu because theworldly phenomenon or the noble dharma [directly] rises from here. [19]Such dharmadhtu shrines are very different from the dharmadhtu mandalas which are round and laid flat on plinth-likehigh structures. The dharmadhtu shrines, on the other hand, are vertical stone slabs with pointed arch adorned with theGaruda or krtimukha motif flanked by two makaras (fig. 8). Locally these shrines are also known as torana, a gate notonly because the shrines appear like the gates of Newar palaces and temples but also because the inverted trianglesymbolizes both the vulva and a celestial gate. The author of the Samvarodavatantra 2.25 clearly states that dharmodav13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle4/10 .aiana.com/aicle/cicle/inde.hmlFig. 8Fig. 9Fig. 10symbolizes both the vulva and a celestial gate. The author of the Samvarodavatantra 2.25 clearly states that dharmodavis both a voni and a gate (dharmodav-voni-dvrnm). This concept goes back to the early Vedic period. TheAtharvaveda 10.2.31, 10.8.43 for instance, describes the human body with nine apertures as an unconquerable city(avodhv) with nine gates.Although the gate like Dharmadhtu shrines are seen all over the valley, one finds them also on thevalleys great stpas including Svayambh stpa, Tukan Bahal stpa in Kathmandu and PulanSyangu stpa at the western slope of Svayambh hill. The famous Dhando stpa of Chabhil isalso surrounded by multiple dharmadhtu shrines of this type. Earlier versions of the shrines arewell illustrate...</p>