Around 150 years ago, when Alexander Cunningham and his team were clearing land around the Bharhut Stupa in present-day Madhya Pradesh, local villagers grew alarmed and suspicious. They thought the white man had come to dig for gold. Cunningham, a world-famous archaeologist and the father of Indian archaeology, was digging up an even greater treasure. He had stumbled upon a Buddhist stupa whose art and sculpture were among the earliest and finest examples of what came to be known as ‘Bharhut sculpture’.
You would never have guessed it if you saw what Cunningham was looking at when he stood at the base of a small mound of bricks on a grassy plain with a gentle hill as its backdrop. When he found it in 1873, the Bharhut Stupa was almost completely destroyed. All that was visible were three uprights of the vedika or railing that once circled the stupa, with its coping stones, and one pillar of the adjacent (eastern) torana or gateway. To Cunningham, these fragments seemed vaguely familiar. Then the penny dropped – he had seen parts of the stupa railing and gateways adorning the houses in many villages in the vicinity!
Cunningham was surprised to see inscriptions on almost all the railing uprights and immediately ordered his deputy, Joseph Beglar, to clear the land around them, to search for more. The excavations revealed an archaeological minefield. Emerging from the ground were scattered fragments of an intricately carved railing and gateways in red sandstone. A large number of them bore inscriptions in the early Brahmi script.
The only other structure visible on the surface was a later Buddhist temple, which belonged to a much later period than the stupa. A large, rectangular slab with a Sanskrit Buddhist inscription was also found at the temple site but has since vanished.
Why Bharhut Is Important
The Bharhut Stupa lies on an ancient trade route that stretches from Ujjain and Vidisha to Pataliputra, where it turns north in the valley of the Mahiyar River towards Kaushambi and Shravasti. Along this historic trail is situated perhaps one of the greatest Buddhist sites in India, Bharhut.
Experts believe the core or the original stupa at Bharhut was built by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE) in the 3rd century BCE and that it was enlarged in the late 2nd century BCE. The other structure found aboveground near the stupa, a Buddhist temple, is believed to date to a much later period, the Gupta era (early 4th to late 6th century CE). However, inside the temple was a late 12th century CE Pala-style image of the Buddha. This was an important discovery as indicated that Buddhism was thriving in this region as late as the 12th century CE.
The region in which the Bharhut Stupa was built is an extension of the area known as ‘Bhilsa’ (later Vidisha) to Cunningham, and in which are found the stupas of Sanchi, Andher, Satdhara, Sonari and Murel Khurd. Interestingly, in the Kurunga Mriga Jataka, both Sariputra and Mogallana, two very important Buddhist teachers, feature in one of their previous lives alongside the Buddha. The mortal remains of these great teachers have been found in the stupas at Bhilsa, Sanchi and Satdhara. Their remains have been identified by inscriptions on the reliquaries found at these sites.
Bharhut’s Artistic Excellence
While still standing, the central stupa at Bharhut was about 21 mt in diameter and made of bricks that had been looted and damaged. There were clearly two kinds of bricks used to build the stupa, which points to at least two phases of construction. The intact bricks, from a later phase, measure 30 x 30 x 9 cm, while the earlier bricks, which were only found as fragments, were 12.5-15.5 cm thick.
When Cunningham found the stupa, only a small portion of its base was intact. This portion revealed that the stupa had originally been plastered on the outside. The pradakshinapatha (path of circumambulation) was clearly demarcated and it was thus possible to measure the circumference. This was a small stupa compared to the two large ones at Sanchi, or the stupas at Bhattiprolu and Amravati, but the sculptural details are phenomenal.
The medallions on the railing depict various Jatakas, or stories from the life and conception of the Buddha, and images of devotees and donors along with fertility nymphs (shalabhanjikas), yakshas, lions, floral motifs and images of many personages including what looks like a Yavana (Greek) warrior. Beglar had made it a point to photograph every sculptural and structural element as it was excavated, something that was way ahead of its time and a first in India.
Cunningham collected all the fragments he could from the nearby villages as he realised that many of them could be refitted as they had been broken in attempts to reuse them as building material. He moved the entire assemblage to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Although there was some debate about moving them, Cunningham felt they could be safely kept and displayed in Kolkata. He was adamant about them not leaving India as he said they would simply languish in the storerooms of the British Museum, like so many artefacts and inscribed blocks from India. The railings and the gateways were re-assembled and restored in the museum in Kolkata and are on permanent display to this day.
Some of the most striking sculptural features are the amazing narrative medallions on the railing preserved in the museum. These medallions tell the story of the ‘dream of Maya’, i.e. the conception of the Buddha when his mother Maya dreamt that a celestial white elephant had entered her womb. The purchase of the Jetavana or ‘grove’ by Ananthapindika at Shravasti is portrayed on another beautiful medallion, where you can almost see the punch-marked coins covering the ground.
Another medallion on the railings of the stupa has a scene of the veneration of the Bodhi Tree at Gaya. It portrays a stone throne that is almost identical to the Vajrasana throne donated by Emperor Ashoka and which stands in front of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya to this day. Many of the Jatakas are portrayed, including the Vessantara Jataka, Karaka Jataka, Mahakapi Jataka, Nigrodha Mriga Jataka, Kurunga Mriga Jataka, Temiya Jataka, and many others.
There’s also a medallion that portrays a Yavana warrior with royal headband, short hair, lack of turban, tunic and boots. He stands out as an alien warrior and his sword bears a nandipada, a very Buddhist symbol. He is standing in as a Dvarapala (guardian of the gateway). Many of the stones used in the railing bear mason’s marks in Kharosthi, a script used in the ancient Gandhara region in what is now Pakistan and parts of North-Western India.
One of the panels on the railing depicts the adoration of the ‘Wheel of Dhamma’, and below it is a beautiful example of a quadriga or a chariot drawn by four horses. One of the most amazing sculptures is a medallion with a Gajalaxmi image. This is probably the earliest such image and is strikingly similar to the 1st century BCE Gajalaxmi image on the coins of Azes, the Indo-Scythian ruler of North-Western India. Gajalaxmi is an image of a standing (in this case) woman being bathed by two elephants flanking her, bearing pots of water in their trunks. It is a very important Indian image in Indian Mythology and persists right up to the 13th and 14th centuries CE.
Archaeologists and art historians have long debated the dating of the stupa on the basis of its artistic style, the palaeography of its inscriptions, and the very interesting inscription of a Sugana Dynasty ruler named Dhanabhuti. The word ‘Sugana’ is considered by some to mean the ‘Sungas’ and by others a dynasty known as the ‘Suganas’, which ruled in Punjab from the city of Sugh. This could very easily explain the Kharosthi mason’s marks on the stones here.
King Dhanabhuti is mentioned in another inscription at Bharhut and is perhaps the same Dhanabhuti mentioned as the donor of a gateway/railing at Mathura to the Buddhist Sangha. However, the Bharhut letters are in Ashokan Brahmi (3rd century BCE) while the ones from Mathura appear to palaeographically be from the 1st century CE.
Ajit Kumar, archaeologist and art historian, stylistically dates the stupa to the 1st century CE, while Cunningham was sure it went back to the 2nd-3rd century BCE. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. What cannot be argued, however, is that the Bharhut sculptures are a very important testament to the early aniconic phase of Buddhist art and architecture in India, and are therefore an indelible and incredible part of the early art history of the subcontinent.
The remains today are secure but not necessarily in the best way. The railings and other structures are cemented to the floor of the Indian Museum in Kolkata, and cannot be removed without causing major damage to these archaeological treasures. The actual site at Bharhut is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India but it is a forlorn place shorn of its finery. It is bereft of its sculptures and structures, and there is no site museum or even photographic records. A museum with replicas and a reconstruction with ‘before and after’ photographs would go a long way towards evoking local pride and making the location a spot on the Buddhist trail in Madhya Pradesh, thus giving it its due.
Cover Image: The Bharhut Stupa Gateway and Railings at the Indian Museum, Kolkata – Wikimedia Commons
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