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ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP

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CULTURE AND ART

ICONS OF CULTURAL LINKAGE

D.C. BHATTACHARYA

21

Buddhist iconographical texts often refer to Mahacina as the source of some distinct form of the iconography of the images of divinities. For instance, in the Sadhanamala there is the description of a form of the goddess Tara, composed by one Sasvatavajra, which the latter refers to as the Mahacinakrama form 1, Both in the text of the Sadhanamala and in the colophon; Mahacinakrama evidently implies that the iconographic form concerned was popular in the geographical dispensation of Mahacina, and, as the suffix Krama indicates, the composer of the sadhana introduced the aforesaid popular form to the Indo-Nepalese Buddhist pantheon. This will mean that Mahacina was a land of much iconographical potential holding authenticity and prestige.

An interesting illustrated manuscript of the Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita, dated A.D. 1015 and now in the collection of the Cambridge University Library, there are several illustrations of Buddhist divinities along with inscribed labels not only disclosing the identity of the relevant images, but also associating most of them with a topographical placement. A parallel version of this manuscript, but bearing the date A.D. 1071, is there in the holding of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. Interestingly, this manuscript contains the illustration of a male divinity with the accompanying inscribed label reading: Mahacine Manjughosah.2 The inscription may have either of these two meanings: (i) Manjughosa (a well-known form of the Bodhisattva Manjusri) while he was at Mahacina; (ii) Manjughosa as he is known in Mahacina. In both the interpretations, Mahacina evidently bears a geographical connotation, and that being the case, the second of the above interpretations seems to be more valid because the objective of the Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita manuscript concerned ostensibly was to prepare a visual documentation of the distinctive iconographical forms of divinities which had acquired celebrity at the various shrines and centres of Buddhism.3

The expression Mahacina definitely refers to a land that could be regarded as "Greater China", and not the "mainland" of China. Stael Holstein discovered from the lamaistic establishment, Pao-hsiang Lou (Buaxianglou), in the city of Peiping (Beijing) in China as many as 787 Buddhist bronze images belonging to the pantheonistic community of Chinese Buddhism. These objects of visual representations were studied, along with a series of photographs from three manuscripts in Chinese, admirably by Walter Eugene Clark, and he published the valuable materials in two volumes under the title of Two Lamaistic Pantheons. Clark recovered the Sanskrit names of the images from their Chinese counterparts. These materials not only throw significant light on the inter- relationship between Indian and Chinese Buddhist iconography, but also offer information of much relevance in the history of Buddhist iconography in general. It is interesting to note that Clark's list of images contains the names like Gina Tara and Cinakrama Tara,4 and none of the images bears the epithet mahacinakrama. It seems that the topographical epithets cina and mahacina were two distinct connotations.

That cina and mahacina referred to two separate geographical concepts is known from various other sources. Here we can refer to a glaring evidence to put the point across. In the Laghukalacakrarajatantra- Tika there is the prescription for the composition of the canonical texts in the languages, and perhaps also in the scripts, prevalent in the respective lands. It has the following categorical statement: Tatha bhotavisaye yanatrayam bhotabhasaya likhitam / cine cinabhasaya / mahacine mahacinabhasaya.5 Here three distinct geographical territories, viz., Bhotavisaya, Gina and Mahacina, are mentioned. This leaves no doubt that Gina and Mahacina are two separate entities in terms of the geo-cultural identities. Gina is positively the present-day China, and Mahacina is the land where Chinese culture commuted notwithstanding the orthodoxy of the geo-political boundary. In that case, what is known as Central Asia or the Chinese Turkistan should really be that land referable by the expression Mahacina or Greater China.

However, there is a wrongly upheld belief that Mahacina stands for Tibet. In the above-mentioned statement of the Laghukalacakrarajatantra- Tika, there is the mention of a land called Bhotavisaya which is distinct from Mahacina and Gina. The  sadhana No.127 of the Sadhanamala is ascribed to the authorship of Nagarjuna, and, as per the further information given in the colophon, the iconographical concepts delivered in the sadhana concerned are derived from the tradition of the Bhota country (aryya-nagarjjunapadaih bhotesu uddhritamiti).6 In this sadhana there is the description of three different presentations {2-, 4- , and 8-armed} of the Ekajata form of the goddess Tara. Since all these presentations are quite distinct from the form of the Mahacinakrama Tara of the Sadhanamala, referred to earlier, it seems that Bhota and Mahacina represent two distinct geo- cultural entities. Bhota, in fact, is Tibet and Bhutan forming one cultural unit. The contribution of the Tibet-Bhutanese tradition of Bon-Po culture is of much significance in the evolution of Tantric Buddhist iconography and rituals.7 In the above-mentioned colophon statement of the Sadhanamala the reference evidently is to Tibet (Bhota), and not to Central Asia (Mahacina).

That Bhota is Tibet, and Mahacina is Central Asia or other than Tibet, can be known from other authorities as well. It is well-known that the Lamaistic form of Buddhism is primarily pertinent to Tibet. In a Nepalese Buddhist work entitled Tantratattvasamuccaya, there is an interesting observation which is as follows: Nepaladese sakyanam sasvatatantram / bhotadese lamanam kambojatantram / cinadese cininam pitatantram / mahacinadese vratyanam misratantram / simhaladese naganam sthaviratantram / etc.8 Here the people of the Bhota country is associated with the Kambojatantra, and they are called as the lamas, and they seem to be distinct from the vratyas who are associated with Mahacina and with the Misratantra. The ascription of the Kambojatantra to Bhota or Tibet is interesting because Amritananda, the residency Pundit in Nepal in the nineteenth century under Brian Hodgson, associates the Lamaistic Buddhists (of Tibet) with the Kambojadesa in the following statement in his Dharmakosa-Samgraha: Asmakam nepaliyanam bauddhanam mate evameva / athaca kesancit kutracit kincidbhedo bhavisyatyeva / paranca kambo jadesiyairlamabhidnanair bauddhairnaiti riti/ etc.9 In fact, cultural nomenclatures differed not merely on the change of time, but also on the personal interpretation of the individuals looking at a culture.

However, it is pertinent to mention that the reference to any culture does not necessarily imply its relevance only to the political boundary of the country of its origin. It is understood that because of the predominantly Chinese cultural traits, the presence of which is not the result of any force or motive, the vast land of Central Asia has been referred to by the ancients as Mahacina or Greater China, and as Chinese Turkistan by the present-day chroniclers. It is true that it is almost impossible to single out the Chinese features from the cultural complex of Central Asia. But the fact remains that the overall Chinese ethos there cannot escape notice. Minute and detailed analysis shows that the Indian, Persian, Turkish, and Mongol elements are also present there in various modes and manners. Central Asia seems to be the land where various cultures seem to have stepped cut of their respective playgrounds in order to revel in a composite game of give and take.10

In view of the stepping out from the boundaries of the orthodoxy, and because of the participation in activities bereft of the consideration of who contributes what, Central Asian culture has been referred to by the Tantratattvasamuccaya, mentioned above, as misratantra, i.e., the amalgamated system, and the people involved in it as the vratyas or the disconnected ones. Once one steps out of the protected realm of orthodoxy, one gets disconnected from the concerns of the maintreams culture. That is exactly what might have happened with the mendicants, monks, and itinerat travellers and merchants traversing Centre Asia through the so-called Silk Route. In their every footstep in the journey between China and India through Khotan, and in the reverse travel, they got themselves distanced from the culture of the land of the origin, and they adapted themselves to the other itinerant culture traits that they happened to meet en route. Being disconnected or distanced from the mainstream culture, they verily were the vratyas, and because of their adopting alien cultural traits during transitory meetings with fellow itinerants, they imbibed a mixed culture which admittedly can be called the misratantra, it is in the fitness of things that the Tantratattvasamuccaya, referred to above has characterized the culture of Mahacina or Central Asia as the misratantra followed by the vratya people.

            The composite character of the art and iconography of the Central Asia centres cannot notice. Several interesting examples illustrating this point can be cited. In a number of drawings and banner paintings from Dunhuang one notices the representation of a bearded male figure holding in one of the hands a stupa or caitya-like item.11 The represented divinity has rightfully been identified as one of the directional guardian deities (maharajika or dikpalas) referred variously as Vaisravana, Jhambala, Dhanada or Kubera in the Buddhist and Brahamanical pariance. But the ascription of a stupa or a caitya as an attribute in the ahnd of any aspect of this divinity is not supported either by the Buddhist or Brahamanical texts. In the Pratimalaksana of the Visnudharmottara, however, Vaisravana-Kubera is associated with a sibika or a conveyance of the palanquin type.12 It is interesting to note that both Ravana and Kubera, the two sons of the sage Visrava, and both of whom are known as Vaisravana, are associated with the celebrated divine chariot known as Puspaka, as per the Kiskindhya-Kanda of the Ramayana. A caitya or a stupa does not bear the sense of a conveyance, but the gradual transformation of the concept of a chariot (a la Puspaka) into that of a palanquin (sibika) in course of time cannot be ruled out as an impossibility. Although the caitya or stupa primarily has funerary connotation, one should not miss its relevance to the concept of a journey -the Great Journey or.Mahaparinirvana, to be precise, in the Buddhistic tradition. The interpretation of a divine chariot (Puspaka), originally associated with Vaisravanas (sons of Visrava of the Ramayana) to that of a caitya or stupa of Vaisravana-Jhambhala of the Buddhistic contexts is indeed an ingenuity of the Central Asian artists.

Another interesting example of the metamorphosis of a visual symbol in Central Asian art should also be referred to here. In a very interesting article entitled "The Sun and Moon as gods in Central Asia", Professor Hans-J. Klimkeit has made the following pertinent observations: "... sun and moon are not only symbols held in the hands of Buddhicised Hindu deities, as in the case of the Mahesvara figures of Dandan Ulik, near Khotan, or symbols adorning the figure of a Buddha, as in the case of Maitreya with his lunar symbolism or the tattoed Vairocana from Khotan. At least along the northern silk route there had been indigeneous deities who were assimilated to the growing circle of gods incorporated into Central Asian Buddhism."13 Following Klimkeit's disclosure, the present writer investigated into the possible meaning of the sun-and-moon symbolism in the Brahmanical and Buddhist contexts, and it was revealed that the motif represented the concept of the complementariness of the male and female principles -the purusa and prakriti in the Brahmanical context, and the prajna and upaya in the Buddhistic parlance.14 In the Sadhanamala and Nispannayogavali, the Buddhist deities are often referred to as seated on the candrasana and suryasana. The real meaning of these terminologies are explained in the Kalacakratantra-Raja where it is made clear that these imply the male and the female principles (prajnopayabhede bhavati hi kamalam candrasuryasanam ca).16

The simultaneous presence of the sun and the moon as attributes in the hands of Buddhist deities in Cemral Asian art, in fact, is the visual interpretation of the concept of Yuganaddha or the complimentariness of the male and female principles which, in the Tantric Buddhist viewpoint, is the comprehension of the concept of prajnopaya viniscayasiddhi, i.e., achievement lies in the coordination of the end (prajna) and means (upaya). Although the artists of Central Asia were detached from the culture of the mainstream, it is interesting to note that they did not forget the intrinsic concepts of the theology that sustained their roots. The iconological interpretation of a profound ideology upheld in the mainland culture is a unique example of how the artists of Central Asia were simultaneously traditional and contemporary. In the trials and travails of a series of adoptions and adaptations, they lived with a visual language that satisfied their inner urge, and, at the same time, was communicatively relevant to the people around hailing from miscellaneous cultural stocks.

A unique banner painting from Dunhuang has been noticed with unusual iconographic features. It represents Avalokitesvara in the standing posture. It is captioned in the Catalogue of the Dunhuang banner paintings as "Kuan Yin a neuf fetes et six bras,"17 i.e., Avalokitesvara with nine heads and six arms. A common form of this divinity shows him with eleven heads; nine heads for him is doubtless unusual. In view of this, the Catalogue describes the representation as an "aberrant form."18 The illustrated iconographic form needs a descriptive analysis for its proper appreciation in terms of a subtle cultural amalgamation.

The figure shows its principal serene face singularly disposed. Overhead this there are three tiers of subsidiary faces: five in the lowest tier surmounted by two and one at the upper two tiers in the succeeding order. All the heads, excepting the topmost one, wear bejewelled tiaras. The head at the top shows a monk (Buddha)-like knot of hair, making it conspicuously that of a separate personality. It is apparent that the painting illustrates a divinity not with nine heads, as claimed in the Catalogue citation, but with eight heads, while the topmost head is that of a Jina, perhaps of Amitabha, the usual sire (kulesa) of Avalokitesvara. In that case, the paintings depicts an eight-headed and six-armed form of Avalokitesvara.

Of the six hands of the deity, the two uppermost hands exhibit the sun and the moon motifs, a common feature of Central Asian representations of Avalokitesvara. The two middle hands on both the sides display the abhaya pose with an entwined lotus stalk in each of them. The lowest right hand holds the water vase, while the left shows the rosary. Six-handed forms of Avalokitesvara are not rare in Buddhist iconography, both in the textual and artistic dispensations. But the simultaneous presence of eight heads and six arms in a form of Avalokitesvara is not a common phenomenon. The image seems to hold some special meaning put to it by the artist who might have desired to represent a concept that he had inherited from the varied sources to which he had a privileged access.

One of the possible interpretation of the image could be that it represents Avalokitesvara as the saviour from eight great perils (astamahabhaya), just like his consort Tara who also is known to have an Astamahabhaya form. But in neither of the forms of Avalokitesvara and Tara in such a concept there is the provision for the representation of the deity with eight heads. Avalokitesvara representing such a concept is usually shown flanked by panels depicting the eight perils that he is supposed to rescue the devotee from.19 In a similar role, his consort Tara is described in the texts as being surrounded by eight subsidiary goddesses (astadevyantarale tu bhavayet tararupini).20 In other words, in the latter dispensation, altogether nine (one central and eight subsidiary) divinities are represented, as could be seen in the labelled illustration in the manuscript of the Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita,21 referred to above.

            The present representation of Avalokitesvara from Dunhuang does not bear much proximity to the Astamahabhaya concept either of Avalokitesvara or his consort Tara. However the abhaya pose in the middle hands, both right and left. In the image does bear a predominant sense of protection against fear (abhaya). In view of this, the image is likely to be associated with the concept of Avalokitesvara as the saviour from eight great perils, although with an unconventional visual rendering.

            But the image could perhaps be read in a different perspective. In the Nispannayogavali there is the reference to the digdevas (divinities of the cardianal directions) and vidigdevas (divinities of the subsidiary directions)22 complementing the principal deity. The concept ostensibly represents the all-pervasive character of the divinity. It is not unlikely that the Dunhuang image under discussion represents the omnipresence of Avalokmitesvara, visualised through making the image as an eight-headed one. Such an interpretation, although seemingly contrived, is endorsed by the fact that the concept of Avalokitesvara as digadhisa (lord of the directions) and as relevant to all the six seasons (sadritusu bhaktavatsalah) is known in the Nepalese Buddhist tradition.23 A dharani manuscript contains both these concepts in diverse contexts. Although the astral content of the Dunhuang image of to read in the image a distanced note of conceptual sharing. The six hands of the image could perhaps be a notional reminiscence of the six seasons to which Avalokitesvara has been equated, as in the aforementioned dharani tradition. Avalokitesvara indeed is an all-pervasive and timeless divine presence in the Buddhistic tradition. It is not likely that some creative genius of an itinerant Central Asian artist visualized a from which is unconventional, but not at all irrelevant.

            Although detached from the mainstream culture, the Central Asia artist had good grasp of the inherited and adopted traditions. He had a good comprehension of things to enable him a selective view of any visualization. That is why he was able loften to conceptualise an expression with a preferential visual vocabulary. For instance, in the numerous caves at Kizil in Central Askia there are representati8ons of some major Buddhist Jataka tales in the pictorial from. Interestingly, most of these paintings depicting the Jatakas have a selective representation of the story with only a single panel24. Invariably the most representative episode of the narrative containing the core of the dramatic intent has been chosen by the artist to convey the message intended. This shows that the artist as well as the viewer mentally resusciated the episodes not painted in the caves. Many of the same Jataka tales are represented in the paintings as Ajanta caves. But there the narrative runs into a number of panels dealing with episodic details.

            In fact, brevity is the essence of Central Asian art, and it is characterized by a unique sense of composite participation by artist belonging, either by inheritance or by adoption, to diverse racio-cultural affiliations. The art of the region has therefore to be appreciated as a uni-voiced eacho of a cultural diversity in which individual contributions are made redundant.

 



1.  Sadhana No.101 of the Sadhanamala, Vol. I.

 

2. Saraswati, S.K. Tantrayana Art' An Album, Calcutta, 1977, p. LXXXV and coloured illustmtion No.238. Also see P. L XXIX and coloured illustration No.217 from the Ms. dated A.D. 1071 bearing the inscription. Pancasikhaparvate vagirattah. Vagiratta obviously a scribe's error for Vadirat, a form of Manjusri which is akin to the Manjughosa form. Pancasikhaparvata might bear a reference to the multi-peaked mountaineous region of Central Asia alluded to in the other Ms. dated A.D. 1015 as Mahacina.

 

3. These pnceless documents have been studied by various scholars of whom the most distinguished is Alfred Foucher. See his pioneering work Etude sur I 'Iconographie Bouddhique de /'Inde, Vols. I & 11, Paris, 1900 and 1905.

 

4. Clark. Walter Eugene, Two Lamaistic Pantheons, 2 Vols, Cambridge Mass., pp. 218 and 282.

 

5. Manuscript No. G 4727 in the collection of the Asiatic Society of calcutta, quoted in H.P. Shastri's Descriptive Catalogue of SanskrIt Manuscripts in the Government Collection under the care of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1917, p. 77.

 

6. Sadhanamala, Vol. I, p. 267.

 

7. See Per Kverne's "A Bonpo version of the wheel of Existence', Tantric and Taoist Studies, ed. Michel Strickmann, Bruxelles, 1981, p. 274 ff.

 

8. Ms. No. Ta.32, folio 11 B, in the collection of the Darbar Library, Kathmandu, Nepal.

 

9. See H.P. Shastri's above-mentioned Catalogue (note 5 above), p. 193.

 

10. For interesting discussions on Central Asian Culture, see P. Bane~ee's New Ught on Central Asian Art and Iconography, Delhi, 1992.

 

11. Bannieres et Peintures de Dunhuang conservees au Musee Guimet, Paris, 1976, No.191.

 

12. Pratimalaksana of the Visnudharmottara, ed. and translated by D.C. Bhattacharyya, New Delhi, 1991, pp. 53-54.

 

13.  Kilimkeit, Hans-J. "The Sun and Moon as Gods in Central Asia", Bulletin of the South Asian Religious Art (SARAS), Reading (U.K.), No.2, April, 1983, pp. 11-23.

 

14. Bhattacharyya, D.C. "Metamorphosis of a Central Asian Motif", Buddhist Iconography, Tibet House, New Delhi, 1989, pp. 149-53.

 

16. Sri Kalacakratantra-Raja, ed. Biswanath Bane~ee, Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1985, p. 104.

 

17. See Musee Guimet Catalogue (mentioned in note 11 above), illustration No.92.

 

18. Ibid., p. 174.

 

19. For instance, in the illustration No.53 of the Musee Guimet Catalogue mentioned above. Also, in the Kanheri cave of India Avalokitesvara as the savior from eight Great Perils is represented as being flanked by the eight panels depicting the Perils.

 

20. This characterisation of the goddess Tara is contained in the sadhana No.99 of the Sadhanamala dealing with the Astamahabhaya form of the goddess. See p. 207 of the latter.

 

21. Saraswati, op. cit., coloured illustration Nos. 131 and 132. For an elaborate discussion on this motif in manuscript illustration, see D.C. Bhattacharyya's "The Transformation of the Ardhanarisvara Image in Buddhist Art", Buddhist Art And Tflought, ed. K.K. Mittal and A. Agrawal, New Delhi, 1993, p. 47 ff.

 

22. Nispannayogavali, ed. B. Bhattacharyya, Baroda, 1949, p. 23.

 

23. A Dharani Ms., dated in the Nepali Samvat 711 (varse candraditya-matrikayam), which is equivalent to A.D.1591 , contains these concepts of Avalokitesvara. This Ms. belonging to a Buddhist monk named Mahendra Sakya which could be consulted by the present writer during his visit to Kathmandu in Nepal in 1975. Although comprehensive notes from this Ms. were taken at that time, the monk did not allow any of the documents at his disposal to be phtographed.

 

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