Pala Sculpture of Ancient Bengal, Part Four


Wall Mural, Ellora Caves, Maharashtra

Dec 13, 2010 — CANADA (SUN) — The last in a multi-part survey of Ancient Bengal art and sculpture, Part Four excerpted from the writings of Ashok Bhattacharyya.

Because Pala miniatures were painted over a number of centuries, they did not remain the same in style. Coming from different centres of the Pala Empire and belonging to different centuries, they reveal more than one trend in pictorial composition and representation of forms.

In the evolution of Pala painting at least two distinctive stylistic phases can be clearly marked. The first one includes the paintings of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, as noted in the manuscripts of the reigns of Mahipala I (c. 995-1043 A.D.) and Nayapala (c. 1043-1058 A.D.), while the second phase is represented by those of the reign of Ramapala (c. 1082-1124 A.D.) and his successors, that is to say, the late 11th to the end of the 12th centuries.

The style of the first phase is found to be closely linked with that of classical Ajanta. Whether in composition or colour scheme, modelling of forms or rhythmic flowing line, the Pala miniature of this phase emulated the ideals of Ajanta murals, though in slightly diluted form. From the discovery of some fragments of Pala mural paintings in an excavated Buddhist shrine at Nalanda it is now evident that murals were also executed in the period.

In the second phase two different aesthetic visions appear to have flourished simultaneously. The more dominant of the two was that found in the miniatures associated with Ramapala and Govindapala, one of his successors. The miniatures of this trend show, not unlike contemporary sculpture, voluptuous figures, especially in representing female deities, with colours more saturated in character. These characteristics are also manifested in the paintings of a manuscript of Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita, prepared in the 19th regnal year of the Varman King Harivarmadeva (c. 1073-1127 A.D.) of southeast Bangladesh. This manuscript is now preserved at the Varendra Research Museum at Rajshahi.

But the paintings of the Panchavingshatisahasrika-prajnaparamita, completed in the 8th regnal year of the same king, and now in the collection of Baroda Museum in India, represent quite a different style. The two-dimensionally conceived figures of the manuscript are delineated in flat colours and delicately nervous lines. They show sensitive fingers, angular limbs, and eyes extended beyond their normal proportions, indicating features of the 'medieval style', which first appeared in the wall paintings of the Ellora caves and matured in western India in the Jain manuscript paintings from about the twelfth century.

Eastern India witnessed the presence of the style in a few copper plate drawings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Though some of the Pala miniatures show this medieval trend, it was never a dominant style, as in Western India. But two Buddhist manuscripts, both retrieved from Bihar, of as late a period as the fifteenth century, exhibit paintings of the medieval style albeit in a fragile expression.

Most painted manuscripts of the Pala period are of the authentic Mahayanist Buddhist text, Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita. The other manuscripts with paintings are of the Vajrayanist cult, namely, Pancharaksa, Karandavyuha, Kalachakrayana-tantra, etc. What is extremely interesting is that there is no thematic connection between the texts and their paintings. The paintings are not the illustrations of the texts of the manuscripts. They are, on the contrary, independent of the content of the texts and, as such, autonomous in the selection of their forms. Irrespective of the texts, the subjects treated in paintings are chiefly from the life of the Gautam Buddha, and depict the events known as his miracles. The eight miracles represented are: (1) Birth at Lumbini garden; (2) Attainment of Bodhihood at Bodhgaya; (3) First sermon at Sarnath; (4) Passing away at Kushinagara; (5) Miracle at Shravasti; (6) Descent from heaven at Sankishya; (7) Supression of the elephant Nalagiri at Rajagriha; and (8) Acceptance of honey from a monkey at Vaishali.

Of these, the first four are recognised as major or more important miracles, representing the cardinal events of the Master's life. Since the paintings belong to a period when the Vajrayana-Tantrayana cult was a dominant force of Buddhism, especially in Eastern India, the depiction of the Tantric-Buddhist gods and goddesses are also found profusely in the miniatures of the time. More popular among the deities painted were Prajna-paramita, Tara, Lokanatha, Maitreya, Vajrapani, Padmapani, Vasudhara, Mahakala, Kurukulla, Chunda, Vajrasattva and Manjushri.

A relevant question is: who patronized the preparation of the painted manuscripts, and why? It is not difficult to answer the first question, as some light on it is thrown by the dedicatory verses of the manuscripts known as Dana-puspika. The manuscripts were prepared under the patronage and close supervision of Buddhist monks, who are mentioned as Sthavira, Upasaka and Bhiksu. In some texts Buddhist followers such as a feudal lord and high state officials are mentioned as donors. The purpose of the patronage was to gain virtue, not only for himself, but also for parents, teachers and preceptors.

Apart from this immediate reason, a deeper source of inspiration for this virtuous work can be noted in the text of the Prajnaparamita itself. The theology preached by the text is found to glorify the nature of the perfect knowledge and its proper application for mankind as well as all living beings. For this liberal humanist viewpoint the Prajnaparamita text was recited in almost all religious functions of Bengali Buddhists. The prestige of the text became so enormous that the votaries of Buddhism worshipped its manuscripts. In fact, many of the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita texts bear the marks of sandal paste and incense. Moreover, in the text it has been repeatedly mentioned that copying of the text is itself a pious act. A terracotta plaque recently discovered from a monastic site at Jagjivanpur (Malda, West Bengal), shows a manuscript, most likely of the Prajnaparamita, placed on a lotus as an object of worship. The representation of Tantric Buddhist deities in miniature in the text is possibly another reason of the paramount position held by it.

Folio from 'Ashtasahashirika-prajnaparamita' (Perfection of Wisdom)
A Bodhisattva Granting Boons
West Bengal, Pala, early 12th century

Bengal was the most powerful centre of Mahayana Buddhism in India from the 8th to 12th century AD; and from here the faith spread to different countries - Nepal and Tibet in the north and Myanmar and Thailand in the east. Along with the monks, the manuscripts also went to these places, resulting in the wide dissemination of the Pala style of painting. In the late 12th and early 13th century, many Buddhists migrated to neighbouring countries with manuscripts and small bronze images. In the following centuries, the Pala art style further developed in those foreign lands. In fact, to have a total view of the Pala miniature style it is essential to take into consideration the painted manuscripts of Nepal.


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