The Sunga dynasty was established by Pushyamitra Sunga in 185 B.C. The center of Sunga Empire was Magadha and extended to Malwa in Central India. Although the first Snunga ruler mistreated Buddhism, the religion of Sakyamuni and its art enjoyed one of its great creative periods under the later rulers of this dynasty.
One of the main stupas that are surviving since the time of the Sunga dynasty is the relic-mound at Barhut in North Central India. At Barhut and other places the gateways are imitations in stone of the wooden portals of early Indian towns. In the same way the construction of the railing itself is a replication in stone of a post-and-rail fence with lens-shaped rails fitted to openings in the uprights. At Barhut there are three rails surmounted by a heavy stone coping. Most prominent in the decoration of the railing are the carvings of Yakshis on the uprights. This is a symbolism that goes back to a period in Indian history when trees were regarded as objects of worship, and is associated with old fertility festivals, when youths and maidens gathered the flowers of the Sal tree. The male counterparts of the Yakshis, or Yakshas, are also represented on the Barhut railing, and Kuvera, chief of the Yakshas and guardian of the North, is among these deities precisely identified by an inscription. These divinities at Barhut are only one degree above humanity. There are also medallions filled with floral motifs, busts of turbaned rajahs, Jataka tales, and scenes from the life of Buddha.
The carving of the figures of tutelary spirits, as well as the workmanship of the medallions and gateways, varies considerably in quality and technique. Art and sculpture under Sunga period extended over many years and were executed by many different craftsmen from all parts of India. The figures engraved in relief are basically a continuation of a stylistic and technical point of view already distinguished in the sculpture of the Maurya Period. The depiction of the human figure is in every case theoretical rather than realistic. Although no examples of jewellery and the like have survived from the Sunga Period, one can gain some idea of the character of personal ornaments from the detailed realistic representation of these accessories from the sculpture at Barhut. The deities at this site are seen wearing an elaborate series of necklaces. These strands appear to be made up of metal beads, rather than precious stones. At the centre of each is a little box or casket to contain amulets or spells to ward off evil forces. The absolute harness of necklaces and strings of amulet boxes, with which the figures are decorated, serves a function beyond the possible iconographical significance and the expression of contemporary taste. These pieces signify, by contrast, the softness of the flesh parts that are provided in smooth, unbroken convex planes.
The sculpture at Barhut is completely archaic in character. An individual figure is incorporated with multiple details. For instance, in the treatment of the drapery of the standing Yakshi figure, although the garment is completely flat, there is a categorical definition of the borders and seams of the skirt, so that the whole can be described as an ideographic and entirely decipherable presentation of the idea of drapery, without in any way suggesting its volume or separateness from the body enclosed. The descriptive quality of the style extends to the very specific definition of every detail of the manifold necklaces and anklets worn by the figure. There is a certain effort on the part of the sculptor to impart rhythmic movement to the figure by the repeated shapes of the left arm and leg. The reliefs are consciously flattened as much as possible against the background of the uprights to which they are attached. This flattening of the relief was a conscious attempt to make the figure an integral part of the vertical accents of the railing uprights.
A very early monument of Sunga art that clearly demonstrates the painful surfacing of a native tradition of stone-carving is the ornamentation of the second Stupa, generally designated 'Stupa 2', at Sanchi in Bhopal State. The Stupa consists of a circular base and around this was constructed a sandstone railing with its gateways disposed like the claws of a swastika attached to the circular plan of the enclosure. The sculptural beautification consists of medallions carved on the uprights of the interior and more complicated rectangular panels emphasising the posts of the actual entrances. The subjects of the medallions are generally constrained to a single motif set off by realistic or ornamental foliate forms, such as the Wheel and the Tree, to typify moments from the life of the Lord Buddha, or animals and birds intended to evoke the stories of his former incarnations. The repertory of motifs is not large, and is probably copied in stone from ready-made prototypes in wood or ivory.
A monument certainly to be associated with the very early Sunga Period is the old vihara at Bhaja, a sanctuary located in the green hills of the Western Ghats to the south of Mumbai. The vihara which was a monastic retreat for the Buddhist during the rainy season, comprises of a rectangular chamber or porch hollowed out of the rock. The carved decoration of the Bhaja monastery consists of panels with representations of Yakshas and, on either side of a doorway at the east end, reliefs of a deity in a four-horse chariot, and, confronting him, a personage on an elephant striding through an ancient landscape. Another monument which should be mentioned to complete the survey of art in the Sunga Period is the railing at the famous Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya. Originally it was erected to enclose the area where the Buddha walked after his Illumination; the ground-plan of the railing is rectangular rather than round. The carving consists in the decoration of uprights and railing medallions and, most probably, is a Sunga dedication of the middle decades of the first century B.C. The medallions are packed with a repertory of fantastic beasts of western Asiatic origin, which, in the heraldic simplicity of their presentation, are prophetic of later Sasanian motifs. In the Bodh Gaya relief the chariot is seen in front view, but the horses are deployed to right and left of the axle-tree so as to be shown in profile. This is simply another instance of the abstract point of view. It is an arrangement that also conforms to the archaic fondness for symmetrical balance.
Thus though the early Sunga rulers despised Buddhism but it continued to impart a profound effect in the art of this period. Art flowered in this period with the rise of the Mathura school of art. The Sunga Empire played a pivotal role in patronising Indian culture at a time when some of the most significant developments in Hindu thought were taking place. The Sunga rulers facilitated to set up the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art that would be sustained by later dynasties, ensuring that Indian culture remained imperative and creative.
|More Articles in Art In Ancient India (3)|