IN­DIAN ART IN EURO­PEAN CHURCHES

FrontLine - - ART - Text & pho­to­graphs by BENOY K. BEHL

Im­ages in early church art in Spain, Por­tu­gal and Italy are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to those of an­cient In­dian

art in the stu­pas at Bharhut, Sanchi and else­where.

DOOR­WAY, CONVENTO DE CRISTO, EARLY ME­DIEVAL PE­RIOD, TOMAR, POR­TU­GAL. It is amaz­ing to see the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the “vases of plenty”, the vyalas and the con­tin­u­ous vine of life, car­ry­ing in it nu­mer­ous crea­tures and joy­ously pre­sent­ing the world of na­ture in the carv­ings around the door­way. These are ex­actly the themes on the door­ways of an­cient In­dian stu­pas. In later In­dian tem­ples of the an­cient and me­dieval pe­ri­ods, these themes are made in par­al­lel bands around the door­way, pre­cisely as we see them here.

STU­PAS are amongst the ear­li­est In­dian mon­u­ments that sur­vive in the Bud­dhist and Jaina tra­di­tions. Re­cent ex­ca­va­tions near Na­landa (in Bi­har) have also un­earthed a large mud stupa built be­tween the eighth and the 10th cen­turies BCE. This may be a stupa of the Ajivikas, an as­cetic sect that were also known to have stu­pas.

In Indic thought, the fi­nal truth is form­less, arupa or nir­guna. The con­cept of the stupa (in Bud­dhist, Jaina and Ajivika wor­ship) and the linga (or a “sym­bol” of the Hindu tra­di­tion) are ex­plained in the Vish­nud­har­mot­tara Pu­rana: “The best way in which the eter­nal is to be imag­ined is with­out form.” The most revered linga of Tamil Nadu is in the Chi­dambaram tem­ple. On the part­ing of the sil­ver cur­tains in front of the linga, one sees noth­ing but empty space. This is the ul­ti­mate pre­sen­ta­tion of the Upan­ishadic con­cept of nir­guna, or the form­less eter­nal.

“For see­ing the true world, the eyes are to be closed in med­i­ta­tion.” Thus, a sim­ple form that does not re­mind us of men or women, an­i­mals, the fruits of the earth or any of the shapes of the ma­te­rial world around us is the best thing to have be­fore us when we wish to med­i­tate upon the eter­nal.

The In­dian tem­ple or stupa com­plex is a place where the cos­mos is repli­cated and ex­plained to the devo­tee: from the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the un­man­i­fest eter­nal to the mul­ti­tude of forms of the world. When the devo­tee comes to the tem­ple (or to the rail­ings around the stupa), he cir­cum­am­bu­lates, or goes around it. Here, on the tem­ple walls or stupa rail­ings, are the mul­ti­plic­ity of the forms of the world around us: men and women, an­i­mals, birds, flow­ers and fruits.

The blos­som­ing of the world of na­ture is a tra­di­tion that is seen in the ear­li­est-sur­viv­ing rail­ings of the stu­pas and even in the walls of tem­ples that are built to­day. A vine of cre­ative abun­dance is often depicted, run­ning up the door jambs and across the ar­chi­traves. The artists play­fully com­bine hu­mans, an­i­mals, birds and plants as com­pos­ite crea­tures. This is the de­pic­tion of the maya or mithya, which is the world around us, al­beit with a play­ful and de­light­ful touch.

A great tra­di­tion be­gan with the ear­li­est-sur­viv­ing Bud­dhist stupa rail­ings of the sec­ond cen­tury BCE in Bharhut and Sanchi in In­dia. It is a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues even to­day, even as far away as in the tem­ples of Ja­pan. While the fo­cus of one’s med­i­ta­tion lies be­yond the rail­ings of the stupa (or in­side the tem­ple), the outer sec­tions of the ed­i­fice rev­er­en­tially present the nat­u­ral forces and the abun­dant fer­til­ity of the world around us.

While trav­el­ling in Spain, Por­tu­gal and Italy, my co-re­searcher Su­jata Chat­terji and I were pleas­antly sur­prised to find im­ages in early church art that were re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to those of an­cient In­dian art; im­ages that are seen ev­ery­where in Bharhut, Sanchi (both in Mad­hya Pradesh) and oth­ers filled the wall paint­ings and other de­pic­tions in the early churches of Europe.

LION DISGORGING THE VINE OF LIFE, de­tail, painted tiles, late me­dieval pe­riod, Pa­tio del Yeso, Seville, Spain. This im­age is re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the themes of an­cient In­dian art seen in Bharhut and Sanchi (both in Mad­hya Pradesh). The lion dis­gorges the vine of life that moves all around him and brings forth the blos­soms of the nat­u­ral world.

Spain and Por­tu­gal were un­der Arab rule for about eight cen­turies from the early eighth cen­tury on­wards. This was the pe­riod in which Western Europe im­bibed many con­cepts in sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, medicine, agri­cul­ture, art, lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic, ra­tio­nal think­ing and knowl­edge of Greek phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence from Arab rulers. This was the pe­riod that trans­formed Western Europe. Much of what the Arabs brought to Europe was In­dian in ori­gin, in­clud­ing Ara­bic trans­la­tions of the an­cient In­dian as­tronomer and math­e­ma­ti­cian Aryab­hatta. In fact, the nu­mer­als of math­e­mat­ics that the Arabs brought to Europe were called “Hindi” by them as they came from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent.

Along with ideas of as­tron­omy and math­e­mat­ics, the Arabs must have been car­ri­ers of the highly de­vel­oped mo­tifs of an­cient In­dian art found in the early Euro­pean churches. Euro­pean art his­to­ri­ans were not fa­mil­iar with an­cient In­dian art and called these thou­sands of rep­re­sen­ta­tions “pa­gan”. Ac­tu­ally, these are highly de­vel­oped philo­soph­i­cal themes of an­cient In­dian art that ap­pear to have trav­elled to Europe.

Thou­sands of com­pos­ite crea­tures found across the early churches in Spain, Por­tu­gal and Italy show a strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity with the themes of an­cient In­dian art from the sec­ond cen­tury BCE on­wards. Just as in the art of the Sunga pe­riod, these crea­tures show the con­nect­ed­ness of all life forms. The end­less vine of life is also seen, often com­ing out of purna-ghatas (vases of plenty). These vines of cre­ative abun­dance move sin­u­ously across the paint­ings and onto the door­jambs of the churches, as they did on the stupa rail­ings and tem­ple door­ways, bring­ing with them the nu­mer­ous forms of the world. In later In­dian tem­ples of the an­cient and me­dieval pe­ri­ods, this theme is made in par­al­lel bands, which are made on the sides and above the door­way. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to see this man­ner of de­pic­tion fol­lowed ex­actly on the door­ways of early churches. Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art his­to­rian and pho­tog­ra­pher. He has taken over 50,000 pho­to­graphs of Asian mon­u­ments and art her­itage and made 142 doc­u­men­taries, which are screened reg­u­larly at ma­jor cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions world­wide. His pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tions have been held in 59 coun­tries, and he has de­liv­ered lec­tures in de­part­ments of Asian art in uni­ver­si­ties and mu­se­ums around the world. His book The Ajanta Caves is pub­lished by Thames & Hud­son, Lon­don, and Harry N. Abrams, New York. His re­cent book The Art of In­dia: Sculp­ture and Mu­ral Paint­ing of An­cient and Me­dieval Pe­ri­ods, in two vol­umes, has been pub­lished by Front­line mag­a­zine of The Hindu Group. His book Bud­dism: The Path of Com­pas­sion was pub­lished in 2018. The present fea­ture is the re­sult of ex­ten­sive travel and re­search by Benoy Behl and his co-re­searcher, Su­jata Chat­terji, over the past eight years.

PEA­COCK AND “VASE OF PLENTY”, mo­saic de­tail, me­dieval pe­riod, Basil­ica San Marco, Venice. Pea­cocks are a favourite In­dian mo­tif in the art of the early churches, just as they are pop­u­lar across Asia, all the way to Ja­pan.

DOOR­WAY OF MADHAVPURA MAHAVIHARA, UDAYGIRI, ODISHA. This Bud­dhist site flour­ished from the sev­enth to 12th cen­turies C.E. By then, the de­pic­tion of the world of na­ture on the tem­ple door­way had be­come quite elab­o­rate. Par­al­lel bands were made de­pict­ing “vases of plenty”, and the spirit of na­ture em­anates from them in the form of end­less vines, play­ful boys and maid­ens who per­son­ify the fruit­ful­ness of na­ture.

KIRTIMUKHA, RE­LIEF ON PIL­LAR, CAVE 1, AJANTA. The life of the nat­u­ral or­der is seen em­a­nat­ing from this “glo­ri­ous face”, as if in the form of aus­pi­cious gar­lands. In this imag­i­na­tive de­pic­tion, other myth­i­cal crea­tures are also seen with wide open mouths to ac­cept the gar­lands.

DE­TAIL ATOP DOOR­WAY, LATE ME­DIEVAL PE­RIOD, PALA­CIO NA­TIONAL DE SIN­TRA, POR­TU­GAL. This “glo­ri­ous face”, or kirtimukha, is above a door­way, as often seen in tem­ples and caves of the an­cient pe­riod in In­dia. As in the In­dian tra­di­tion, we can see the boun­teous life of na­ture em­a­nat­ing from the open mouth.

”GLO­RI­OUS FACES” ABOVE THE DOOR­WAY, NEXT TO CATHE­DRAL OF PALERMO, SI­CILY, ITALY (above and fac­ing pages). Aus­pi­cious gar­lands of the nat­u­ral or­der are seen emerg­ing from the mouths of “glo­ri­ous faces”, as in the kir­timukhas.

DE­TAIL OF MAR­BLE PANEL, CATHE­DRAL OF PALERMO, ME­DIEVAL PE­RIOD, SI­CILY. It is won­der­ful to see the com­bi­na­tion of aquatic life forms with fo­liage and the hu­man in both the fig­ures. They also have birds sit­ting on their heads, com­bin­ing be­ings of wa­ter, earth and air. In the cen­tre, we see a “vase of plenty” ris­ing out of a flower.

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