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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 32

China is the land of the “Three Teachings” – Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Buddhism, the lone foreign teaching among this triumvirate, migrated to China two millennia ago from its birthplace in northern India. A current exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City showcases early Buddhist art that subsequently developed in southern India and is an ancestor of Chinese Buddhism.


Buddhist Art in Southern India (The Early Years)

Buddha’s footprints, limestone, late 3rd-4th century CE, Phanigiri Monastery

Buddhism developed in northeast India (though he who became the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born a bit further north in Lumbini, Nepal) during the several centuries prior to 200 BCE. As its acceptance and popularity grew, Buddhism migrated southward in India and then ultimately across the seas to Southeast Asian lands and along the Silk Roads and maritime routes eastward up to China and beyond.

Buddhism arrived in China during the second century CE and has evolved there as time marches on. I have written about this here and here. India itself is no longer Buddhist. An exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE, explores an ancestor of Buddhism as it existed much closer in time and place to its point of beginning.

Buddhist sites in Deccan region of southern India

The Met exhibition “…presents the origins of Buddhist art in India through the lesser-known sculpture of southern India. It traces these beginnings from images of pre-Buddhist nature deities that populated the religious landscape to the fully realized Buddha image. The authority of the nature spirits was acknowledged by the Buddha and he, in turn, was honored by them.

The focus on nature spirits in both the antecedents to Buddhism and early Buddhism in India are harmonious with the nature worship of China’s native Daoism. This is likely one reason for Buddhism’s ready acceptance into China so long ago.

Stupa model

Stupas are central not only to early Buddhism in India, but also to the organization of The Met exhibition. Stupas were the hearts of monastic sites (viharas). They held relics of the historic Buddha within. They were adorned with reliefs of jataka tales (Buddha’s life story) on the outside. Worshippers circumambulated the stupas absorbing the Buddha’s story and his teachings.

The viharas are favorable environments that provide ritual and devotional settings to nurture individuals and offer enclaves for self-inspection, contemplation, and the cultivation of philosophy.1 Yet Buddhist monasteries were “…not only sanctuaries for retreat and meditation but also places of intense social activity, frequented by local worshippers, pilgrims, and traveling merchants alike.

Outer railing pillar with nature imagery, sandstone, 2nd-1st century BCE, Pauni

The spirits and demigods of pre-Buddhist India took natural forms. They inhabited trees, rocks, rivers, and ponds. Representations of yakshas and yakshis (male and female deities) and nagas (snake spirits) were prolific in art. So was water imagery as the fundamental element of life. Trees became “…synonymous with the Buddha, represented from the beginning of Buddhist visual culture as a metaphor for the awakened Buddha.

Drum panel detail, limestone, 1st century CE, Dupadu Great Stupa

Until approximately the mid-third century CE, the Buddha was not represented in narrative art in human form. Rather, symbols were used to “evoke the Buddha’s presence in ways that devotees could readily understand.

On the drum panel detail above, there are four faceted pillars with lotus medallions that create three panels depicting key moments in the Buddha’s life. A riderless horse in the center is framed by a Torana gateway with three crossbars indicating the Buddha’s Great Departure from his father’s palace on his spiritual journey. The empty throne beneath a Bodhi tree on the left represents the Buddha’s Awakening. The domed structure raised on pillars at right enshrines a tooth relic and symbolizes the Buddha’s Demise.

Drum panel venerating relics, limestone, Dupadu Great Stupa

This large, inscribed drum panel (first century CE) faced devotees as they entered the northern circumambulation pathway at its stupa. Front panels depict two ayaka (altar) platforms each supporting five pillars. One represents enlightenment and the other teachings.

Two naga snake deities coil together on the stupa dome, their three-headed hoods rising behind. The honorific umbrella above the stupa represents a tree canopy. There is also an open display of a reliquary. Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian was the first to report on the regular ritual display of reliquaries at festivals during his travels in India in the early fifth century CE.

Stone reliquaries recovered from inside a stupa

These two reliquaries are lathe-turned steatite stone from Sonari Stupa 2 (first century BCE or earlier). The smaller was originally located along with three others inside the larger stone reliquary. The smaller contained ash and one calcined bone and bears the inscription “of the Worthy Majhima Kodiniputa.” While stupas originated as burial and ceremonial sites for relics of the original Buddha, they eventually expanded to include relics of disciples and revered teachers.


This copper alloy Dharma-wheel (200 CE) is a rare example in metal. It is a double-sided, spoked wheel with a pair of makara and yakshi bracketing the base. A makara is a mythological sea creature combining a fish, crocodile, lion, and elephant that symbolizes the life-giving powers of water.

The Dharma-wheel became synonymous with the Buddha’s teachings and spiritual journey. This piece at one time connected with a shaft and might have been a processional object. Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian also witnessed a religious festival while traveling in India in the fifth century where the parading of portable images of the Buddha like this was a central part of such ceremonies.

Railing pillar medallion, sandstone

This enclosure railing pillar medallion (150-100 BCE) is from Bharhut and presents a tree shrine marking the Buddha’s awakening. It is inscribed at top as “The Bodhi tree of the holy Konagamana.” Konagamana is one of the six past Buddhas. The circular carving is framed by two lotus stems. Two female devotees kneel before a throne seat where the Buddha attained awakening. Two, Indian fig Bodhi trees grow above, and two standing male worshippers present a garland and bowl in offering.

Standing Buddha, limestone

The figurative representation of the Buddha eventually became accepted and widespread. This large, standing Buddha (third century CE) comes from a monastery at Nelakondapalli. This site contained a great stupa with a twenty-four-spoke-wheel-configuration floor plan that was forty-two meters in diameter.

This Buddha presents with the four principal laksanas (auspicious signs and marks) – spiral hair on forehead, tight clockwise spirals of hair, a topknot, and distended earlobes. A unique feature of this Buddha is his eyes. His pupils are rolled back and up into his skull reflecting a graceful pose of deep meditation.

Dome cornice fragment, makara disgorging garland, limestone, Amaravati Great Stupa

Early Buddhism was a religion and a philosophy of life, but it was also a business that needed funds and resources to operate. Local villages provided land and food from the fields. People donated money to build sites in order to gain karmic merit. Political leaders supported the development and worship of specific sites as part of their rule. Cash came in and out for business ventures. Investments were made and liquidated. The Buddha sanctioned this commerce when he said, “‘if a monk buys without seeking a profit, and if a monk sells without seeking a profit, in both there is no offense.’”


1 The quotes in this Issue come from John Guy, Tree & Serpent, Early Buddhist Art in India, The Met, Yale University Press, 2023, Pages 25, 77, 107-108, 112-113, 119, and 215-217.


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