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Human Gods and Godlike Humans
Aspects of Indian Sculpture
Jan Van Alphen


Over a half century ago, Chintamoni Kar wrote in a short unpretentious work about Indian metal sculpture: ‘Indian sculpture, though comparatively young in age, has been often classed with the ancient arts of Egypt, Assyria and Greece. But it has neither the Egyptian’s overwhelming manifestation of the spirit of the dead, nor the Greek’s passionate admiration of the flesh and muscles of the living.’1

Fifty years ago it was thought that the Indus Valley civilization dated back to around 3000 BCE at most, so that at the time of writing Chintamoni Kar regarded Indian culture to be relatively recent compared to the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek civilizations so admired in the West. In the meantime, archaeological excavations like those at Mehrgarh on the Indus in present-day Pakistan have traced the origin of Indian culture back to around 8000 BCE,2 thus placing it among the civilizations we currently consider the oldest, such as the Egyptian, Assyrian, Chinese.

But the idea that Indian art was not aimed solely at the glorification of the human body or the worship of the spirits of the dead is in itself an interesting theme. Indian visual arts appear to have other stimuli than their renowned classical congeners. This is manifested in stone and metal sculpture throughout the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, and also in the earliest fully-fledged Indian painting such as the frescos of Ajanta, or those of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, both dating from the first half of the first millennium CE.

However, it should be noted that examples of sculpture, in the usual sense of the word, are rather rare before the third century BCE in the Indian cultural area. The Indus Valley civilization produced small ‘mother goddess’ type images, mostly modeled in clay or pressed out of moulds, as well as small terracotta figures of cattle and other animals. A ten-centimetre-high bronze figurine of a young woman from Mohenjodaro dating from the third millennium BCE is one of the few exceptions. Made by the cire perdue or ‘lost wax’ technique, it depicts a slender girl, perhaps a dancer. She is often described as ‘sensuous’, which is significant in itself in view of that distinct impulse in Indian sculpture. However, the skill with which that little bronze figure is made suggests that the craft already had a long history, a history of which, alas, we know nothing as yet.

That metalworking was practiced in ancient India is clear: the Vedas, (from the Sanskrit vid: to know) which consist of four collections of hymns to the gods and date from around 1500 to 600 BCE, glorify the heavenly smith, Tvashta. There are references to metalworking: gold, silver, lead, and tin are mentioned in the Yajur Veda, while the older Rig Veda speaks of gold, copper, and bronze. In the addenda to the Vedas, more specifically in the Brahmanas (c. sixth to fifth century BCE), are eulogies to craftsmen and artists, including metal workers.3 Apparently there were also alloys containing iron. Ananda Coomaraswami writes of the knowledge of steel-making in ancient India and suggests that this was an Indian discovery that was adopted in Greece and Persia for making damascened sword blades.4 However, all these references point rather to implements and utensils than sculpture.


As already mentioned, in India it is only from the third century BCE that we find sculptures that attest to a fully developed and widespread form of sculptural art. These are sandstone columns with animals and Buddhist symbols in their capitals, dating from the time of Emperor Ashoka (272-232 BCE). They were followed, in the second century BCE, by the images and reliefs of the Buddhist stupas: the decorated toranas (gateways) of the stupa at Sanchi in central India, which were carved during the Shunga dynasty (185-73 BCE), are perhaps the finest examples. But other early stupas, such as those of Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Ghantashala in southern India, demonstrate the capability of the Indian sculptor in that period.

With the coming of the Central Asiatic Kushans (first century BCE to fourth century CE) to Gandhara (Afghanistan/Pakistan) and Mathura (to the south of New Delhi), Indian sculpture clearly took a new direction, a direction predominantly Buddhist.5 The tradition—by then five centuries old—of representing the historical Buddha Shakyamuni not as a human figure but by means of symbols was disregarded by the foreign Kushans. They created a figure based, on the one hand, on the Vedic descriptions of the mahapurusha, the ‘great man’, and on the other on Hellenistic ideals of beauty that were still current in the region of Gandhara, occupied by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. These traits were crossed with the iconographic characteristics of the Buddha. In Mathura, the Hellenistic Gandharan style acquired an Indian character, followed by an entirely individual development in sculpture that became canonical in the Gupta dynasty (240-535 CE).

The Gupta period (third to sixth century) is regarded as the classical artistic and scientific heyday of Indian culture. The Guptas were not Buddhists, like the Kushans, but Hindus. Their greatness was characterized by their openness and tolerance. They allowed Buddhist art to flourish side by side with Hindu art. The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora provide masterly proof of this and show that the Guptas’ universality encompassed Jainism too.

In the meantime, with the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhist art had significantly developed and had spread in practically every direction—to Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan via the Silk Road, and by maritime trade routes to South-East Asia. The representation of Hindu deities had developed in tandem with that of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Most of the gods, demigods and heroes had acquired their definitive iconographic traits and attributes. They were depicted according to iconographic and iconometric manuals, shastras, which were also produced at this time. In short, the Gupta period, between the third and sixth centuries, was the epoch in which Indian art, particularly sculpture, was evolved, established, and spread for the future. It should not be forgotten, however, that in southern India too a number of dynasties were noteworthy for their sculpture, such as the Satavahana and the Ikshvaku in the first centuries of the Common Era.


Around the fifth century CE in India religion, philosophy, science, literature and drama attained their greatest expression. The great salvational philosophies of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism underwent their most significant evolution and determined their direction. In poetry and drama Kalidasa (fifth century) and a number of his contemporaries reached a pinnacle of Sanskrit literature. Great epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata achieved their ultimate intrinsic form. Sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, grammar, and medicine were established and rendered practicable for the centuries to come. In other words, an enormous frame of reference was available from which the visual arts could draw. That was one rich soil. But there was also the original indigenous soul, the original animistic mode of thought, openness to the supernatural, belief in a future better existence engendered by a cyclical worldview and the consciousness of individual (karmic) responsibility in all of this. And there was also the familiarity and bond with the overwhelming Indian natural environment, the sub-tropical forests and their treasury of flora and fauna, the deserts, the rivers, and the high peaks of the Himalayas.

From these notions, we arrive back at Chintamoni Kar who argues further that the priests and poets of classical India metaphorically described human feelings and deeds and that the artists reconstructed the naturalistic shape of humans and animals in order to represent these ideas in a clear and graphic way.6 Thus, a hero or a god is described as someone with the strong shoulders of a bull, with the narrow waist of a lion, with arms like the trunk of a poplar. The artist makes a synthesis of all of those elements for his image of the hero(ine) or god(dess) and creates an imaginary form with which these qualitative elements can be identified. The face of a goddess is compared to the beauty of the full moon, her soft arms with lianas, her long fingers with vines, the fullness of her breasts above her narrow waist with a tree that is slightly bent beneath the weight of its blossoms, and so on. This ideal, to embody the harmony of nature in a person, did not originate because the artist considered the human body too limited or because he had an aversion to the sensual or the corporeal. It was a conscious attempt to meld the material form with the spiritual and cosmic world. By translating every aspect of human feelings to an aesthetic level, little room was left for vulgarity in Indian visual arts. Even the voluptuous yakshis on the gates of the stupa at Sanchi, or the many erotic images in the temples of Khajuraho, display neither more nor less than human nature in a particular experience of the world. But by their exceptional poses they offer the best conditions for surprising and artistically fascinating sculptural images. As with most elements of Indian culture, they form an integrated part of an all-encompassing whole, and that is just what distinguishes the Indian from the non-Indian.

The role of the sacred texts, the epic tales, the classical poems, songs and dramas cannot be overestimated. Everyone grows up with them and uses them as a frame of reference. They are automatically recalled at the sight of the figure of a hero or a god. And for an initiate or those with a good knowledge, that goes further still. Each trait of the figure represented is carefully symbolized. The qualities that distinguish a god from a demon, a sage from an innocent, are translated by particular symbols, signs, attributes, and gestures for each figure. Thus, the figures portrayed are also the bearers of symbols that can convey abstract notions and metaphorical qualities. The depiction of the meditating Buddha is more than just the representation of a yogin. It is the image of a man who through asceticism and meditation has acquired ultimate wisdom, someone who brings infinite blessing and equilibrium to chaos. A good example in the Hindu context is the image of Shiva Nataraja (cat. nos. 6 and 10). Each attribute, each position of arms, hands and legs, each part of the headdress and coiffure, each additional element such as the dwarf beneath his feet and the blazing circle that surrounds him, symbolizes one of the many metaphysical aspects that the god represents.

Once one becomes familiar with this concept, the fact that a god may possess multiple arms, legs, or heads becomes an acceptable, sometimes even a necessary fact. Despite these—by Western norms—unrealistic forms of expression, Indian figures are never out of proportion. In this exhibition there are many examples of figures with four, six, eight or more arms which, though they all issue from the same point, never create the feeling that the anatomy of the shoulder is distorted. Moreover, the maker of a divine image was not permitted to depict bones, joints, veins, or muscles. The body must be smooth and resilient, with supple limbs and a soft skin, the waist slender, the shoulders broad, the female breast round and full. The naturalistic classical Greek ideal of the human body is indeed far removed. Indian art is inspired not only by nature but also by the abstract, not only by idealization but also by literary tradition, by spiritualization, the intangible, the cosmic...


In the sixth century in southern India there began a movement of wandering Saivite ‘saints’. They were called Nayanars. They sang Shiva’s praises as they pilgrimaged to every possible temple and shrine. In the ninth century, they were chronicled as a group of sixty-three ‘saints’. Their songs are collected in the ‘Devaram’, considered by Shiva followers as a canonical work. Famous names amongst the Nayanars were Appar, Sundarar, and Sambandar. There is a sculpture of the last-named in the exhibition (cat. no. 8). This popular movement was symptomatic of the religious situation at that time. Perhaps Buddhism, despite the more popular Mahayana schools, was too far removed from ordinary folk. A need had arisen to bring the gods closer to people, to ‘humanize’ them. The Nayanars’ songs represent Shiva and his consort, Parvati, in a very human way; they too undergo the ups and downs of life, along with their children Ganesha and Skanda.

Until the seventh century, usually quite large stone figures of the deities stood in the temples. We know from the songs of Sambandar, for instance, that a new devotional trend had also emerged: darshan, the visualization of the deity. The god reveals himself to the believer and by the act of ‘seeing’ (darshan) the god, the believer receives his blessing. This darshan is to be taken literally and the believers felt the need to touch the figure of the god and to carry it around in procession. This occurred in the period in which the Pallava dynasty of Kanchi ruled in southern India (from the third to the end of the ninth century). It is likely that wooden figures were initially used for darshan. At the end of the Pallava period bronze figures of the Hindu gods appeared. The Pallava bronzes resembled their stone counterparts: elongated figures with long faces, a broad but rather flat nose, full lips, and the suggestion of a double chin.

The custom and especially the art of making sacred images in bronze reached its peak during the Chola dynasty (850-1279), established in Tanjavur or Tanjore, in Tamil Nadu. The Chola rulers themselves provided an important impetus. These wealthy kings commissioned the making of entire sets of bronze sculptures for the temples. And as they were untiring temple builders there was an ongoing need for new sculptures, often by the score. The commissions were particularly for figures of Shiva and images of his consort, children, and Saivite saints. But there was also the ritual side of the business: the active worship and darshan. This meant that the sacred image was bathed by the priests in milk, yoghurt, butter, honey, sugar, water, and sandalwood paste. It also meant that the bronze figure was dressed as a human being, in silken garments, and adorned with jewellery. And that the figure was taken from the temple and carried around in procession so that everybody could see it.

One consequence of this was that the images of the Hindu gods, in contrast to the rather static and somewhat aloof Buddhist icons, were now depicted in much more human and particularly more animated form. Shiva appears in diverse attitudes and poses; sometimes he even dances. His consort, Parvati, sits beside him, one leg tucked up, holding his hand, or stands near him, with a graceful sway of the hips, holding a flower in her hand. This freedom of movement can be attained in bronze far more easily than in stone, by using the lost wax technique. The original image was made in wax and in this malleable medium it was as possible to represent every minuscule detail of the body, as it was to knead the overall forms and contours into exactly the desired poses. The format of the sculptures was also adapted so that they could be carried along in procession. This is why the pedestals of many Chola bronzes have either four openings through which two sturdy bars could be passed for carrying the figures around, or rings by which the figures can be safely lashed to the frames on which they are borne along.

Quite apart from all these practical inventions, it should be noted that the Chola sculptors achieved an extremely high artistic level in the figures they created. The physical proportions were strictly respected. The torso seems always filled with the dynamic breath of life, limbs are strong and supple, the head is dignified and graceful. The various parts of the body run fluidly into one another. The waist is narrow and the female deities have firm well-rounded breasts. Garments are sober with only a few elements to accentuate the form of the body beneath, such as the ribbons knotted at the hips or around the torso. Ornaments are simple and applied in moderation. Most authors justly use the term ‘sensuous’ when describing Chola bronzes, and it also appears in the titles of several books.

In a recent work on the Chola bronzes, The Sensuous and the Sacred,7 Vidya Dehejia shows that a geographical approach to these sculptures also reveals stylistic differences, so that Chola bronzes can be localized in the various regions or Nadus of the immense kingdom. It was the first Chola ruler, Rajaraja, who from 850 embarked on a campaign of conquest from Chola Nadu, the heartland in the Kaveri River basin. Rapidly he conquered the surrounding south Indian dynasties, which had been fighting for power amongst themselves for centuries. In the north was the Pallava kingdom, Tondai Nadu, in the vicinity of Madras. In the south, around the city of Madurai, the Pandyas of Pandi Nadu held sway. In the west lay Kongu Nadu, around Coimbatore, the home of the Chalukyas and Cheras. Rajaraja Chola annexed them all. But he also conquered Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. He sent missions to the kingdom of Srivijaya in Indonesia and maintained very friendly relations with the Shailendra rulers of Java. In Tanjore, in honour of Shiva, he built the tallest temple ever seen in India up to that time. His son Rajendra (1012-1044) conquered the Chalukyas and sent missions to China. In 1070, Rajendra II (1070-1125) became the new ruler. He was the son of a Chalukya father and a Chola mother. He was known as Kulottunga and he too became the pride of the Chola dynasty. But in the reigns of Kulottunga III (1178-1218) and Rajendra III (1267-1279) the Pandyas gradually regained power and the celebrated Chola dynasty gradually diminished. However, under the Pandyas of Madurai, who remained in power for a century to come, the Chola bronze tradition continued, albeit with small stylistic differences (cat. no. 8).


In the fourteenth century southern India came under heavy pressure from Muslim attacks from the north. In 1336, in an effort to resist these incursions, two Hindu brothers created a new dynasty in Vijayanagar (now Hampi in Karnataka). They assembled the military power of the Hindus in the south of India and thus created a (last) bastion against Islam. It survived until 1565. The kingdom of Vijayanagar prospered because of its agriculture and its trade with the Arabs, the Portuguese, the Persians, Sri Lanka, and South-East Asia. They traded horses, cotton, metals, textiles, spices, salt, and diamonds from Kurnool and Anantapur. The city had half a million inhabitants, an exceptionally high figure for that time. Travellers such as Niccolo Conti, Barbosa, and Abdur Razzak tell of the glory and splendour of Vijayanagar in the fifteenth century.

It was in this period of prosperity that bronze art also received a new impetus. Based on the renowned Chola tradition, the artists of Vijayanagar created a new visual language. They reinterpreted the early Chola realism in more abstract terms. Their modernizing of the forms led to a kind of schematization, actually a further step in the process that was described earlier in this article as the synthetic making clear and graphic of human qualities and feelings. This new aesthetic is typified, for instance, by lines that demarcate areas of the body, such as the creases between the torso and the stomach, around the navel, sharp edges along the tibiae, a pointed nose, and so on. Despite Vijayanagar’s mobilization of one of the most impressive armies in Hindu history, it failed against the superior might of the Muslims. In 1565, the army was annihilated in the battle of Talikot by a confederation of Islamic armies from Golkonda, Bidar, Ahmadnagar. For months Vijayanagar, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world at that time, was plundered and ravaged. The ruins at Hampi can still be seen.


To be able to ‘read’ all the concepts and symbols integrated in a sacred image, clear iconometric and iconographic conventions are required. To this end, from the Gupta period onwards, special instructional handbooks were created, compiled by Brahmin priests and shilpin or sthapati, master sculptors. These manuals or codices are called Shilpa shastra or Vastu shastra. Iconometric rules describe, for instance, how major gods must be presented in relative height vis-à-vis other gods in their entourage, lesser gods, demons, and so on. Female deities are prescribed their own height in relation to these major gods, likewise youthful gods and dwarfish deities.

The basic unit of measurement is the tala, the distance from the chin to the top of the forehead. Human figures and gods at rest, or involved in some pleasant activity, measure ten talas. When performing heroic deeds, their height increases to twelve talas. In their fearsome aspect, they even grow to fourteen talas. The relative height of goddesses remains limited to eight or nine talas, while children are six talas high. The tala, in turn, consists of twelve angulas. An angula (literally ‘finger’) is a finger’s width and measures one quarter of the width of the artist’s fist. The smallest unit is a paramanu. Between the paramanu and the angula are, successively, and each time multiplied by eight, a trasarenu, a valagra, a liksha, and a yuka.8

Apart from defining the relative height of the various gods, the tala also serves as a module for all representations of each separate figure. A standing figure measures approximately nine talas: one tala for the head, four angulas for the neck, three talas for the torso, four talas and six angulas for the legs. In addition, there are extensive specifications for horizontal measurements such as the width of the shoulders, the waist, the head, the neck, the nose, the distance between the eyes, and so on. This is also the case for measurements of depth such as the distance between the back of the head and the tip of the nose, the back and the nipples, etcetera. There are measurements for the figure in the frontal position, in profile or in three-quarter profile. For such measurements, a central axis line or a plumb line is used, brahmasutra, which runs from the crown of the head through the navel to between the heels.

The position of the body (standing, reclining, seated, dancing, and so on), of the arms and legs, plays an important role in the iconographic determination of the gods. In the case of the standing position, the term used is sthana; the seated position is called asana, while a hand gesture is a mudra or hasta. The attributes carried by the gods also have their iconographic significance, just like the types of ornament, the coiffure, and so forth. For all these iconographic terms and their explanation, the reader is referred to the glossary at the back of the book.


As every proportion, measurement of height, length, width, and other iconographic element was so strictly fixed, one might conclude that the Indian artist was so confined by these rules that there was no scope left for individual interpretation and imagination. In other words: did the artist still have any artistic freedom? Even from just the works illustrated in this book it can be seen that the sculptors allowed themselves considerable freedom, within the restraints of the rules—rather as with the basic notion of raga in classical Indian music. A raga has a well-defined structure: a tonal scale wherein the choice of given ascending and descending notes, the rhythm and the tempo are laid down and determine the raga’s individual character. But within those parameters the musician is free to improvise, so that each performance of the same raga is always a different interpretation.

Music, like all the arts in classical India, involves yet another important concept, namely rasa. Rasa means literally ‘sap’, ‘essence’, and, deriving from this, feeling or emotion. Thus every art form in India is meant to arouse rasa in the beholder or listener. The shastras list nine possible rasas: tranquillity, compassion, eroticism, anger, heroism, astonishment, humour, disgust, and fear. If one or more of these feelings is not aroused in the audience, then the work of art or the raga has failed. This is stated by, for instance, the basic work on music, dance, and drama of the first century BCE, the Natya Shastra. Many Indian writers refer to the links between music, dance, and sculpture, certainly as regards the portrayal of dancing figures. There are few religions that portray their principal god as dancing, as Shiva is depicted in Hinduism. Shiva may perform a variety of dances. In this catalogue he is depicted twice as Nataraja, as he performs his cosmic dance (cat. nos. 6 and 10). But other deities also dance: Krishna (cat. no. 9) and the Saivite saint, Sambandar (cat. no. 8) are in a dancing pose. The Indian sculptor even depicts an essentially ponderous animal like the elephant—in the shape of the popular god Ganesha—as dancing. In the tantric Buddhist pantheon, dancing gods are likewise not exceptional. One other obvious link between sculpture and dance can be found in the many hand gestures, the mudras. Their iconographic term is often identical with the name in dance and is still used by classical dance forms such as Bharata Natyam or Kathak.

The Indian sculptor had enough leeway to give free rein to his talent, certainly as regards images that did not represent gods or goddesses, and which could be interpreted freely. The representation of heavenly beings, nymphs, musicians, hybrid creatures, demons and other underworld and supernatural figures gave rise to images of rich imaginative invention. A good example is the depiction of the Buddha’s temptation by the demon Mara, who sent hordes of weird, monstrous and seductive creatures to the meditating Buddha to prevent him from attaining enlightenment. This scene can often resemble a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The ganas, the dwarfs and tormen ting spirits that make up Shiva’s army, were also a favourite subject for artists, likewise the comely yakshis that personify the sensual alluring aspects of female nature. And then there are the animals, birds, flowers, trees and plants that are an essential part of Indian sculpture and painting. Probably the shastras provided the sculptors with a welcome reference point that allowed them to exercise their abilities freely without running the risk of making ritually incorrect and thus unusable figures.


The Pala dynasty was the last Buddhist bastion to succumb to the pressure of the Islamic conquest. The Palas ruled in Bengal from 765 until the start of the eleventh century and until 1199 in Bihar. The dynasty’s founder, Gopala (765-769) was elected by the people after a long period of chaos following the fall of the Guptas. He founded the celebrated Buddhist monastery of Odantapura, not far from the monastery of Nalanda, which was built by the Guptas in the fifth century. His son Dharmapala (769-816) expanded the central region of Bengal and Bihar westward to Punjab and Malva. In the eastern part of Bengal, he also had the equally renowned monastery of Vikramashila built. Devapala (816-855) conquered the central Gangetic plain, where Kanauj, the former capital of King Harsha’s empire, is located. Devapala also took complete control of the regions of Assam and Orissa. He was a great builder of temples and monasteries and maintained excellent relations with the Buddhist kingdoms in Java. A successor, Mahipala (998-1038) came into conflict with the Chola king Rajendra who meanwhile had already conquered Orissa. Ramapala (1048-1120) succeeded in pushing back the Cholas to the south. He was the last powerful Pala ruler. His five successors saw the Pala kingdom gradually fall into the hands of the Hindu dynasty of the Sena (c. 1100-1225).

The Palas are known for their abundant production not only of Buddhist but also Hindu sculpture, both in stone and in metal. From the middle of the ninth century they developed a wholly individual style that is distinct from the Gupta examples (especially the Sarnath style). Early Pala images are lively in design and form, and depictions of female Hindu and Buddhist deities began increasingly to appear. Indeed, tantrism had taken a firm hold in this part of India. The female Buddhist deities, Taras, became the symbols of transcendental wisdom, prajna, as distinct from the male gods who symbolize the element of compassion, karuna. Although the Buddha is traditionally portrayed as an ascetic dressed in a monk’s robe, the Palas sometimes represented him as a crowned figure, mukutadharin, according him the dignity of a universal monarch—an idiosyncrasy that was perpetuated in Burma and elsewhere.

Although free-standing single figures were also depicted, Pala images are typically conceived as shrines, with a pedestal supporting a main figure and two or more smaller subsidiary figures. These are surrounded by vyalis (composite animals in upright position), little elephants and vidhyadharas (flying garland-bearing figures), or, in the case of Buddhist images, by small stupas, miniature images of Buddhas, or scenes from the life of the Buddha. All these elements are placed against a stele that serves as background and is bordered with a circle of flames, or with flowers, or pearls. The pedestal is often made up of so-called ratha projections: three (sometimes five) basic platforms, the central one, on which the principal figure stands, somewhat protruding. This arrangement occurs in large stone sculptures as well as the bronzes. Pala sculptures, whether made for a splendid temple or a simple domestic shrine, are always refined and elegant and also have decorative qualities.

The stone sculptures are cut from a grey-black stone that was often polished until it acquired a metallic appearance. The bronzes often consist of an alloy of eight different metals, ashtadhatu. Smaller bronzes were, of course, ideal for taking on a journey or to safer locations in the face of ever increasing Muslim incursions. Places where many bronzes have been found together, such as Nalanda to the north of Bodhgaya (Bihar) or Kurkihar (Bengal), point to the presence of major bronze foundries, connected to the monasteries. It is assumed that the Buddhist bronze casters also made bronzes for Hindu patrons.

The eleventh century saw a change in style: the figures’ faces become more oval, with a pointed chin and more sharply delineated closed lips and eyes. Folds in the garments become more decorative, more sophisticated, and are sometimes allowed to drape over the pedestal. It is also known that Pala bronze casters sometimes produced figures from moulds and that certain prototypes served as models for innumerable replicas, which inevitably led to a degree of conventionalization.

In 1199, the Muslim conqueror Mohammed Khalji made a brutal end of this last Buddhist dynasty in India. The destruction of the temples and monasteries and the massacre of the Buddhist monks was exceedingly thorough. When shortly after the bloodbath a sultan wanted to know what had been in the books of the destroyed monastery libraries, he found not a single living monk left to tell him. Many of the monks had seen the danger coming and fled via Nepal to Tibet. They took with them not only the traditions of tantric Vajrayana Buddhism, which had meanwhile developed, but all the images and manuscripts they could carry. Inevitably, therefore, the Pala style had a strong influence on the images that were made in Tibet and Nepal—as indeed was also the case in Kashmir.


Kashmir’s location between India, Central Asia, Tibet, and China has always made it a special place. During the Kushan dynasty (first century BCE to the fourth century CE), it was part of Gandhara, with Takshashila (Taxila) as its capital. Kashmir became a bastion of Buddhism after the monk Madhyantika introduced the teaching of the Buddha to the region in the third century BCE. The fourth Buddhist council took place there in 120 CE under the auspices of Emperor Kanishka. In the fourth century the celebrated monk Kumarajiva was born and studied there before taking the Dharma to Kutcha (Central Asia) and continuing his mission to Chang’an in China; the famous Chinese pilgrim Fa Xian, who travelled to India (399-414) was his disciple. Kashmir is also known from the writings of that other Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, who in the seventh century even stayed in Kashmir for two years.

It was the Karkota dynasty (seventh to ninth centuries) that made Kashmir flower as an independent kingdom. King Lalitaditya (725-756) and his prime minister Chankuna are particularly known, thanks to the chronicler Kalhana (twelfth century) and his Rajatarangini, the history of Kashmir. We know from this account that there was a very rich tradition of bronze casting in Kashmir. The text mentions that in the sixth century a gigantic bronze statue of the Buddha was dedicated by King Jayendra and that the same statue was melted down in 950 by King Kshenagupta in order to make an image of Shiva from it. Kalhana tells of colossal bronze Buddha images that ‘filled the heavens and rivalled the Buddhas of Bamiyan’. Nevertheless, no traces of these monumental bronzes have ever been found. Kashmir happens to be on the route that many conquerors took to India. The plundering White Huns (fifth century) and Mahmud of Ghazni (eleventh century) alone wreaked enormous havoc in Kashmir.

Our knowledge of Kashmir bronzes dates only from the nineteen-fifties, when Tibetans began to flee to India to escape the Chinese. They brought with them Buddhist bronzes, which art historians initially classified as Tibetan. Only later was it shown that many of these figures were old bronzes (seventh to twelfth century) from Kashmir that had been preserved in Tibetan monasteries all that time. In those former times, they had been borne in the opposite direction, from Kashmir to Tibet, by Buddhist monks fleeing Islam. This also explains why it is mainly Buddhist bronzes from ancient Kashmir that are known today; the majority of Hindu bronzes, which must certainly have existed in large numbers as well, did not survive the iconoclasm. This of course is not to say that bronzes coming from western Tibet are all originally Kashmir bronzes. Kashmir bronzes have had a huge influence on production in Tibet itself, so that one can rather speak of Tibetan bronzes with Kashmir stylistic traits.

In the small bronzes of Kashmir and the Swat Valley present in this exhibition the evolution can clearly be seen, starting from the Gandharan style that persisted for a long period in the Swat Valley (cat. no. 14). Especially the Buddha’s outer garment with its regular folds is very akin to the examples from Gandhara. But it is also clear that the Gupta style is gradually gaining ground. The Buddha has acquired small curls instead of waving hair and the face is fuller. Many examples of standing Buddhas wear an outer robe which has a few curving pleats around the stomach but is otherwise smooth and clearly reveals the shape of the body beneath, while the back falls in a wide arc to midcalf. Sometimes the robe falls in a wide collar across the shoulders. It is striking that many figures are surrounded by a mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole of flames), with an additional nimbus behind the head. There is also a predilection for thrones supported by two lions, on which the Buddha or Bodhisattva Maitreya sits, often in the so-called ‘Western posture’, pralambapadasana or bhadrasana, with both legs pendant from the throne. This may still derive from the representation of the Kushan kings, and be intended to confer a royal dignity on this image of the Buddha. When the figures stand on a lotus pedestal, this often has very large petals that are sometimes compared with artichoke leaves. If the pedestal is a double lotus, it is tightly waisted.

In general, bronzes from Kashmir are readily identifiable by the face: the rounded cheeks, small mouth, the rather flat nose, and especially the large, widely spaced eyes which often protrude and are inlaid with silver. The eyes have a somewhat drowsy stare. The head is often large in proportion to the body. Some images, despite their small size, display a tremendous dynamic, such as catalogue number 16, in which the figures’ limbs are chubby and have an almost Rubens-like corporeality. Thanks to the many influences from outside a very eclectic style developed in Kashmir with characteristics derived from all the surrounding counties. Many sculptures are in brass, but there is no lack of bronzes. And though many sculptures are hollow cast, solid casting was also carried out. The frequent use of silver and/or copper inlays is striking.

The Buddhist Karkota dynasty was succeeded by the Hindu dynasty of the Utpala (856-1003). They were followed by two dynasties of the Lohara (1003-1171). In 1337, after a series of sovereign Hindu rulers, the Islamic sultans of Shah Miri took power. In 1568, the renowned Moguls became the rulers of India, but they would continue to treat Kashmir as a kind of country retreat.


According to tradition, Buddhism had already reached Sri Lanka by the third century BCE, during the reign of Devanam Priya Tissa (247-207 BCE). The nephew of the Emperor Ashoka, named Mahinda, is said to have introduced the teachings of the Buddha. Throughout its history, Sri Lanka alternated between independent rule and domination by the great south Indian dynasties, the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, and Vijayanagar.

In the first phase of the great historical ‘Anuradhapura period’ (c. 250 BCE to 432 CE), which takes its name from the then capital, large stupas were built, larger than those in India at that time. The sculptures of that period depict standing Buddhas with the stylistic characteristics of the Indian Amaravati school. This school from the Krishna Valley in Andhra Pradesh was distinguished by the realistic rendering of the Buddha’s head, with small curls and a low, almost flat ushnisha (the protrusion from the crown of the Buddha’s head). Some art historians detect in these Buddha heads an influence from Roman portraiture, but taken overall these standing figures have much in common with the early Indian school of Mathura.

In 432, the Anuradhapura kingdom was occupied by South Indian Tamil rulers. But barely thirty years later, a second flourishing began in Anuradhapura which lasted until 993. In this period the influences of various Buddhist schools can be seen. Images of bodhisattvas appeared and many new monasteries were built, with stupas of smaller size than previously. The Pallavas of South India regularly invaded the island, sometimes as conquerors, sometimes to seek alliances against southern Indian rivals such as the Pandyas. In 925, the Pandyas in turn sought an alliance with Sri Lanka against the Cholas. Anuradhapura finally fell in 993 and the Cholas ruled for seventy-seven years.

Despite these various changes in political power, in the course of the second Anuradhapura phase Sri Lanka still managed to develop an individual sculptural style. Typical of many figures, some of which are of colossal dimensions, is the exceptionally fine drapery of the Buddha’s robe. The right shoulder is always uncovered and the right hand makes the ‘fear-not’ gesture, abhayamudra, sometimes with the hand in profile rather than with the palm turned to the beholder. The splendid little bronze (cat. no. 1) with which the exhibition opens is itself also an example of the fame of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist art in the seventh and eighth centuries: several similar bronze figurines have been found as far away as Kalimantan (Borneo) and South Thailand.

In later stages of Sri Lanka’s history, southern India continued to exercise a significant influence and magnificent Hindu bronzes were also produced, such as the Saivite bronzes made in the Polonaruwa period in the eleventh century, which are clearly related to the Chola bronzes. Nonetheless, the predominantly Buddhist figures from Sri Lanka would retain an individual style, despite, or thanks to, the many missions that came to the island from Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, and China.


1 Kar, C., Indian Metal Sculpture, London 1952, p. 11
2 Jarrige, J-F, ‘De oudste culturen in Pakistan en hun ontwikkeling’ in Oude Culturen in Pakistan, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, 1989.
3 Sivaramamurti, C., South Indian Bronzes, Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi, 1963, p. 44.
4 Coomaraswami, A.K., The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, Edinburgh 1913, ch. 5.
5 Van Alphen, J., The Buddha in the Dragon Gate, Antwerp 2001, p. 18 ff.
6 Kar, C., 1952, p. 12
7 Dehejia, V., The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola bronzes from South India, American Federation of Arts, New York 2002, pp. 19-27.
8 Sivaramamurti, C., 1963, p. 18.



all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp | exhibitions