Pala Sculpture of Ancient Bengal


Krsna Slays the Keshi Demon

Dec 27, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A four-part survey of Ancient Bengal art and sculpture, Part One excerpted from a paper presented by Shamsul Alam.

During more than four hundred years of Pala rule (8th-12th century AD), many centres of sculptural art flourished simultaneously in different regions of the extensive empire of Bengal and Bihar. The products of these centres were not only varied but also numerous. Thousands of sculptures of this period have been discovered and they now form part of the collections of a number of museums in Bangladesh and India. Many of them have also found their way into a number of museums in Europe and America.

Except for the Paharpur group of sculptures, the number of early Pala sculptures so far discovered in Bangladesh is negligible. A large number of early sculptures discovered from Nalanda, Kurkihar, Bodh-Gaya, and other ancient sites of Magadha (southern Bihar) exhibit characteristics of early Pala sculptures similar to the ones discovered in Bengal. Throughout the early Pala period Bengal sculptures continued to follow the styles found in Bihar.

Pala sculpture derives its origins from the late Gupta style, but later on deviated from it. One of the main reasons for this deviation was the fusion of classical mannerism with the indigenous style of Bengal. The mixed style that was an experiment in the mid-7th century continued through the 8th century and culminated in a specialized idiom of art in the early 9th century.

As the sculpture derived its strength and inspiration chiefly from the exigencies of religious need, they exhibited a sincere reflection of the idea of beauty and physical charm laid down in religious texts.

Central shrine carvings
Somapura Mahavihara, Paharpur

The largest concentration of early Pala sculptures can be seen in Paharpur of Naogaon district. As many as 63 stone sculptures were found in situ at the basement wall of the central temple of the famous Somapura Mahavihara built by Dharmapala. Except for half a dozen nicely carved sculptures and another dozen or so independent representations of divinities, the main characteristic of a majority of the sculptures is their free and lovely movement. They are crudely executed and seem to have originated from an indigenous trend. They are almost of the same size, and executed in grayish or white spotted sandstone.

In subject matter and plastic [realistic] quality they are akin to the huge number of terracotta plaques that decorate the facades of Bengali temple walls. A few exceptionally well carved reliefs, such as Krishna killing Kesi demon and Krishna uprooting the twin Arjuna trees, are not only of pleasing quality but also remarkable for their expressiveness, lively action, and dynamic movement.

Among the independent representations of divinities, which are marked by a comparative heaviness throughout, an image of Padmapani, fixed in the middle of the southern basement wall of the structure, seems to be specially made for the temple. The sculpture also clearly shows an advance in style over the other pieces.

Visnu on Garuda

An image of Hari-Hara from Burdwan, now in the Asutosh Museum, Calcutta is a noteworthy example of early Pala sculpture. From the stylistic point of view, it is similar to an image of Surya recovered from Surjan Giri, Barabar Hills, Gaya (Bihar) which is dated to late 8th century AD. A number of sculptures discovered from the northern region of Bangladesh have been traced to the late 8th century. Among these, Garudasana Vishnu from Agradigun, now in the Asutosh Museum, Calcutta is remarkable. The sculpture is identical in style to a figure of Vishnu from Bodh Gaya, now in the Bodh Gaya Museum, Bihar. The images in these sculptures exhibit the same stockiness of body form and similar ornamentation. The stele with rounded top is almost free from decoration, except for the rim.

The stylistic qualities of late 8th century sculptures were retained to a great extent in the 9th century sculptures. The general tendency is one of the fullness of figures. The images, mostly carved in black stone, are modeled in a delicate manner so as to give the impression of soft-textured flesh and skin. The dated sculptures of the 9th century include an image of Surya on the Bodh-Gaya lintel dated to the 26th regnal year of Dharmapala, a miniature Vishnu, and an image of Buddha taming the Elephant from the reign of Vigrahapala. Among other well-known sculptures of the 9th century, mention may be made of the stone image of Tara from Sukhabashpur, Dhaka, and of Buddha from the Comilla region, now in the Bangladesh National Museum (Dhaka), the stone image of Surya in the Rajshahi Museum, and of Vishnu from Mangalbari, Dinajpur.

A number of Pala sculptures have been discovered from Bihar and Bengal. Important examples from Bihar are the images of Vagishvari, Saugati-Sandarshana Lokeshvara, and Avalokiteshvara, all dated to the first year of Gopala II. From Bengal at least three dated images are known. These are the images of Ganesha of the first year of Gopala II, Ganesha from Baghaura dated in the third regnal year of Mahipala I, and Ganesha from Rajbari, now in the National Museum, Dhaka, dated to the reign of the same ruler.

On stylistic considerations, a number of sculptures, mostly from the northwest region of Bangladesh, have been dated to the 10th century AD. The most well-known among these are the stone image of Rishabhanatha from Surohor, Dinajpur; the Garuda from Nagail, Rajshahi; the Varaha from Silimpur in Bogra; Manasa from North Bengal, now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta; the Manasa from Khidrapali, Rajshahi; the Tara from Dhonadi, Rajshahi; the Durga from Mangalbari, Dinajpur; and the Indrani from Paogacha, Bogra. The stone image of Bhrkuti Tara from Bhavanipur, now in the Dhaka Museum, is almost identical in style to the image of Vagisvari mentioned above.

All the 10th century sculptures mentioned above clearly show that the characteristics of 9th century sculptures have been retained in them to a great extent. All the male figures have massive body forms, shaped with a disciplined vigour that shows conscious strength that seems to swell the outline of the figure from within. Almost all the specimens are moulded in high relief. Some of the images of the period show a tendency for elongation of the body and of the limbs. The elongated body form is more evident in the large torso of a bronze image of Buddha discovered in a damaged condition from cell No. 37 of the Paharpur monastery in 1982.

(To be continued…)


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