In 2003 Indian archaeologists working on a remote hilltop in the southern state of Telangana uncovered a remarkable early Buddhist monastic complex. Phanigiri, “the snake-hooded hill,” had clearly been one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in India. All around were found spectacular fragments of sculpture, including substantial sections of elaborately carved ceremonial gateways and a torso now judged to be one of the masterworks of Buddhist art. Many of the statues had been dismantled and carefully buried in soft earth for their protection after the monastery was abandoned in the fifth century CE, and they were found in almost mint condition.
It had long been known from the accounts of Chinese pilgrims that there were once many thriving Buddhist monasteries across southern India, but until the turn of the twenty-first century it was thought that few survived. The most famous Buddhist holy places were all at the other end of the subcontinent, mainly in the eastern Gangetic Plain, between the holy river and the Himalayas. Indeed, for a long time it was believed that only the Amaravati Stupa really qualified as a first-rank Buddhist site in the south. Even there, the East India Company had removed many of Amaravati’s greatest treasures to the British Museum in London. It was as if Buddhism had vanished from southern India.
But over the past few decades, more and more spectacular and extensive early Buddhist sites have begun to emerge from the region’s rich alluvial soils. In the 1950s excavations during the building of a hydroelectric dam at Nagarjunakonda yielded a series of temples and monasteries decorated with exquisite narrative sculpture carved in a style very similar to that of Amaravati. In the 1970s another remarkable stupa at Dhulikatta produced a further series of treasures. Kanaganahalli, a monastic settlement built on a bend of the Bhima River in northern Karnataka and excavated in the 1990s, turned out to be the richest of all, with a set of enormous relief sculptures, some five feet high, including portraits of local rulers and the earliest extant image of the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka. Together these new finds have completely transformed our understanding of the beginnings of Buddhist art. They have also revealed the importance of southern India in the diffusion of both Indian ideas and images across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia.
Most of the art from these sites has never been publicly displayed in India; in many cases, the underfunded Archaeological Survey of India has yet to gather the resources to take objects out of storage in local godowns and to build proper museums for them. But now, in a remarkable coup, the Metropolitan Museum in New York has mounted “Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India,” a groundbreaking exhibition of these newly discovered masterworks, as part of the largest show of Indian antiquities to travel to the West for several decades.
This was no easy feat. India is notoriously wary of lending its artworks, and it took eight years of delicate negotiations for the permits necessary to pull it off. No less impressive were the logistics of getting the art to Manhattan. In some cases barges had to be commandeered to move sculptures weighing several tons over the biggest manmade reservoir in India and across the Krishna River; four planes brought fragile masterpieces from five countries. Among the sixty-five loans, fifty-three of which had never left the country before, the curator, John Guy, sourced unpublished works from little-known sites, such as a magnificent Persian-influenced lion-headed finial from a ceremonial gateway at Kesanapalli that would not have looked entirely out of place in Persepolis.
“Tree and Serpent” is a spectacular achievement for the Met. But it is also a hugely surprising show. The focus on the early Buddhist art of southern India opens a window onto a sophisticated courtly and monastic world previously known to only a handful of art historians. It is a world where bare-chested Indian rajas in elaborate princely turbans and cockades set off on elephant-back pilgrimages as casually as we might jump in a taxi; a world of ecstatic devotion, where a glimpse of the Buddha’s relics could drive a palace full of dignified courtiers into the ancient Indian equivalent of weeping Beatlemania. All this is set amid a sacred landscape where the jungles were alive with wonders—lotus buds that spilled priceless gems and jewels with the abundance of magical cornucopias, and eagle-beaked griffins and many-headed cobras that competed to protect the turban of the Buddha or the dust of his disciples.
“Tree and Serpent” beautifully unveils for us this forgotten world of the early Deccan Plateau of western and southern India. Here the Ikshvaku and Satavahana kings, and particularly their courtiers and merchants—rich from international trade in spices, aromatics, cotton, and ivory—patronized Buddhism with unparalleled liberality, allowing it to flourish. The artistic and theological innovations achieved with the help of their largesse inspired Buddhist art and thought as far away as Sri Lanka, Burma, Java, Vietnam, and even coastal China. They also fed into the aesthetics of the great Hindu temples that succeeded those of the Buddhists across southern India.
In particular, the show highlights how surprising and unfamiliar so much of early Buddhist art is. It is very different from the pure and philosophically abstracted Buddhism admired around the world today, with its familiar image of the Buddha lost in meditation, hovering on the threshold of enlightenment. Instead, early Buddhist art is every bit as vibrant, crowded, and cacophonous as so much later Buddhist art is still, silent, and quietly meditative.
For early Buddhist art is shot through with the cosmology of ancient animist cults that existed before the arrival of the new teachings. The first Buddhist monks believed that they lived in a spiritually charged landscape, alive with powerful local godlings and spirits—called yakshas when male and yakshis when female—who took up residence in the trees and stones and streams around monasteries. These spirits personified the forces of nature and revealed themselves at will.*
No scriptures associated with these cults survive, and all we know about them comes from their Buddhist rivals who subdued and appropriated their deities: according to the Atanatiya Sutta, for example, the nature spirits “haunt the lonely and remote recesses of the forest…where breezes from the pastures blow, hidden from men, suitable for meditation.” They were believed to be capable of attacking or defending, seducing or possessing their monastic neighbors, depending on how the monks fed and propitiated them. They were part of a landscape filled with ghosts howling in the charnel grounds and dangerously seductive yakshis hanging from tree branches. This world was ruled by royally attired yaksha-rajas who could be persuaded to act as guardians of Buddhist monasteries if properly honored. In one text, “gods and nagas [snake deities] and yakshas…devoted to the Buddha” are said to protect his monasteries from the appetites of the “hungry ghosts” who wished to enter.
As the chosen residences of such spirits, trees themselves became objects of worship. A sculpture from the early Buddhist site of Bharhut included in the exhibition shows two ecstatic female devotees bending down to worship the altar of a caitya, the sanctified area surrounding a shrine to a sacred tree. In another image from the same site, a turban-wearing spirit emerges from the trunk of a tree to answer the calls of a supplicant, while in a third a devotee offers food to the tree; a disembodied hand emerges from the trunk to pour water over the man in acknowledgment.
Long before the Buddha, the cult of yakshas had already found expression in monumental stone sculpture. Freestanding and carved in the round, they began to appear in north India in the third century BCE. The most spectacular of these is the great yaksha from Parkham—near Mathura, “the city of the gods,” which is now associated with the cult of Krishna. The image, inscribed as being made “in the guild of Manibhadra by Gomitaka, a pupil of Kunika” and dated 275 BCE, is sometimes said to be the oldest freestanding statue in Indian religious art. Like other yakshas of the period, it is built like a heavyweight wrestler or nightclub bouncer and carries attributes of wealth (a bag of coins), health (a flask of medicine), and protection (probably a sword or club; the statue is now armless). These yakshas, which sometimes tower eight feet tall, are images of extraordinary strength and power. But there are other species of yaksha too, and “Tree and Serpent” is also filled with small, potbellied orc- or goblin-like figures with pointed ears and sharp teeth—quite different from but no less arresting than the giants.
With the rise of Buddha, yakshas made the leap across faiths. Some particularly burly yakshas were recruited as dvarapala (door guardians): for example, the Bharhut stupa, from circa 120 BCE, was guarded by a series of nearly life-sized and individually named yaksha-rajas. The inscriptions proclaim the monks’ success in taming and converting these fierce giants to the Buddha’s dharma.
The smaller goblin-like yakshas, meanwhile, reappear as armed defenders of the court of the Indic god of riches, and as the protectors of the wealth of the earth. They take the form of the purse-bearing yaksha prince Kubera, often flanked by sacks of gold, and his two henchmen, Shankha and Padma. These dwarfish sidekicks, plump and squat, are shown with streams of coins cascading from their heads, symbols of the prosperity with which they enrich their most faithful devotees.
For each yaksha-raja, there is a yakshi standing in perfect poise, as gorgeous as the yaksha is grotesque. Yakshis are sensuous, seductive, and voluptuous figures, associated with fecundity and procreation. They are carved with narrow waists, full breasts, broad hips, and strong, tapering thighs. The yakshis of Mathura, which emerge from a background of dense vegetation, are especially beautiful: auspicious fertility figures resembling palace women with their braided hair and forehead gems, diaphanous drapes, and bejeweled girdles.
While yakshis are associated mainly with trees, the serpentine nagas are creatures of the deep. They were affiliated with rain, rivers, lakes, and the high seas, where they were believed to guard vast subterranean treasures. They were honored most extravagantly in the south of India, where their cults became especially well integrated into the life and worship of Buddhist monasteries. Particularly prominent in the region is the naga-raja Mucalinda, who was believed to have sheltered the Buddha while he was deep in meditation in the sixth week after his awakening. To protect him from rising floodwaters, the naga-raja enveloped the Buddha in his knotted coils and extended his hooded canopy for shelter.
“When one is strict in practice and sincere in conduct,” noted the Chinese Buddhist monk Yijing on his pilgrimage to India in the seventh century CE, “one is followed by nagas, spirits, devas [godlings] and men.” An earlier Chinese pilgrim, Faxian, was surprised to find that a naga who lived near a monastery was said to be
the patron of this body of priests. He causes fertilising and seasonable showers of rain to fall within their country, and preserves it from plagues and calamities, and so causes the priesthood to dwell in security.
At another monastery, a “white-eared naga…always ate with the monks,” and in return for his board he “ensured clement weather in the region.”
Nagas and yakshas dive in and out of illustrations of the Jataka stories telling the past lives of Buddha. The spirits and demigods dwell in an exuberantly depicted natural world in which jungle tendrils curl, geese dance, birds sing (and sometimes talk), elephants lumber through the forest, and lines of tiny ants mount banana fronds. Here the biological boundary between the human and the natural worlds is profoundly blurred.
In all this early art, you feel strongly the Buddhist intuition that the natural and animal worlds are closely related to humankind through great cycles of reincarnation: a neglected Elephant Queen may be reborn as the Queen of Varanasi, yet she remains the same soul. Animals are therefore depicted with the same love and respect as humans. After all, in a world where trees could be spirits and the waters are alive with sentient beings, ethical living requires treading softly on this earth, guarding the purity of water and preserving the life of both trees and animals.
“Tree and Serpent” contains other surprises too, not least the very clear influence of Persian art. In one room, John Guy has placed a lion-headed gold Achaemenid Persian rhyton, or drinking horn, beside an almost identical lion’s-head capital from Ashoka’s palace in Pataliputra. These close Persian borrowings only add to the mythological phantasmagoria: eagle-beaked griffins and snarling Persianate winged lions join battle with fabulous beasts born in the wildest recesses of the ancient Indian imagination, as makaras—part crocodile, part tiger, part fish—and other creatures unknown to zoology snap their jaws and toss their horns at winged bulls that seem to have flown in from Persepolis.
Some art historians have speculated that Persian sculptors took shelter in India, fleeing the phalanx of Alexander the Great. Or maybe Indian sculptors were enchanted by the golden treasures brought by Persian traders to their shores in exchange for Indian spices and ivory, and then absorbed them into their repertory. Either way, Persian elements look quite at home in early Buddhist India, many thousands of miles east of the echoing halls of Ctesiphon.
Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, whose ideas brought all these different forms together, was the son of a king who in the sixth century BCE ruled the small kingdom of Kapilavastu, on the borderlands of India and Nepal. At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha renounced his kingdom and became a shramana, or “one who strives”—a spiritual reformer whose life’s work was a solution to the age-old problem of human suffering. Today, we know him as the Buddha.
During his youth the Buddha had been sheltered from the horrors of the world by his loving father, who refused to let his son leave the palace. But when the cosseted prince, aided by a faithful servant, broke out and first encountered suffering, old age, disease, and death, he was horrified by his belated exposure to human pain. Distraught and suddenly disillusioned with his privileged life, he abandoned both his father’s kingdom and his pregnant wife, setting off on a lonely quest to understand the roots of suffering and to find a way to escape it.
Like many others at that time, the Buddha renounced worldly attachments and retreated to the wilderness. He initially tried the path of severe asceticism and rigorous penance. “My body became extremely lean,” said the Buddha. “When I thought I would touch the skin of my stomach, I actually took hold of my spine.” But asceticism was not the answer—it led only to more suffering—and the Buddha eventually abandoned self-denial in favor of his own solution: the Middle Path, the way of moderation between the extremes of self-torture and sensual indulgence, between worldliness and asceticism.
The Buddha’s discipline led to perfect control over his mind and body, and at the age of thirty-five, sitting under a sacred peepul tree and meditating without moving for forty-nine days, he at last achieved enlightenment. He realized that this transcendent moment of bodhi (“awakening”) derived not from punishing his body but instead from simply learning how to extinguish desire. Thus he found the peace he was so desperately looking for.
From this moment of revelation, the Buddha left the shelter of the sacred bodhi tree and the nagas who protected him while he meditated, and he wandered through northern India teaching that everything is impermanent and that desire brings only the most fleeting of pleasures. One who pursues material pleasures is “like a man who dreams of a fine house with fine gardens and sumptuous delights. Yet when he awakens all of it vanishes. Distinctions of wealth and poverty, noble and common are like a dream.”
The Buddha also taught his solution to this problem: the dharma (moral path) to the cessation of both desire and suffering. He passed on this message of striking emotional clarity not in the complex Sanskrit of the Brahmins, but instead in the common Prakrit vernacular. His message was based on love, compassion, detachment, and nonviolence, as well as intense meditation and personal self-discovery. Following this path, he said, others could break free from the cycles of rebirth and so become enlightened or awakened ones. In this way they could obtain nirvana, which means simply “a flame blown out by the wind.”
For its first two hundred years, Buddhism is almost completely invisible in the archaeological record. There are no inscriptions. Not one Buddhist text survives from the period and only a handful of early sites show even the slightest hint of occupation. All those that do—Lumbini, Sarnath, Rajgir—tend to be in the same small area of the plain of northeast India and Nepal, bordering the banks of the Ganges, where the Buddha lived and preached. Nevertheless, by the third century BCE, promoted by the powerful emperor Ashoka, the teachings of the Buddha made their way along the Dakshinapatha, the great Southward Road that cuts its way through the passes of the the Vindhyas.
It is probable that the Buddha originally envisaged his monks leading a peripatetic life—the life of the wandering thinker that he himself had led. “You cannot travel the path,” he said, “until you become the path itself.” But by the second century BCE, Buddhist monks had already begun to turn away from the road to embrace a more sedentary and communal life. For the rains made travel impossible, and since the Buddha did not want his monks drowning in floodwater, he allowed them a rain-retreat. During this time the bhikkhus—literally “beggars,” as the Buddha called his followers—were allowed to congregate on higher ground and to live in huts, or better still in natural caves in the Himalayas. It was from these sites that the great Buddhist monasteries later arose. Around them, the first great stupas containing the relics of the Buddha began to appear, first in northern India, then central India, and then, around 150 BCE, rock-cut viharas (monasteries) began to be dug into the slopes of the Western Ghats in the Deccan.
Arguably the most ancient near-intact Buddhist monastery is the great hall of Bhaja, built into the side of a cliff high in the Western Ghats in the early second century BCE. Open to the elements at one end and entered by a magnificent thirty-foot-tall horseshoe arch, it still miraculously preserves its ancient wooden roof beams, like the wrecked keel of a prehistoric ark smashed against the rocky ceiling of the cave. Today these hard teak blades of the rafters cut the light from the shade with the same Manichaean clarity as they did two millennia ago. This amazing masterwork of early Buddhist art and architecture, every bit as spectacular as anything at Petra, is a prototype of the cave monasteries that spread with Buddhism over the Himalayas to Afghanistan, China, and Japan, and by sea to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Though little visited and much neglected, over one thousand early rock-cut cave monasteries still honeycomb the ghats and overlook the west coast of India. A further group can be found on the east coast, filling the fertile river valley of the Krishna River in what is now Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Both groups of monasteries flourished especially under the rule of the Satavahana dynasty, whose members were Hindu yet welcomed the Buddhist monks and allowed them to build.
These cave monasteries were also some of the very first spaces in Asia made for congregational worship. They provided a setting for a new form of communal Buddhist devotion directed at domed stupas cut out of the solid rock, an austere and minimalist symbol of great simplicity and power, which in time came to be seen as the living embodiment of the Buddha. The relics, and the stupa that enclosed them, soon emerged as the defining focus of early Buddhism.
It is entirely appropriate that “Tree and Serpent” contains at its heart a wonderfully still, bare, white room, filled with the sound of Buddhist monastic chant. Around a simple circular model of a stupa are arranged the circular lathe-cut reliquaries that were found inside some of the great stupas of the south, along with their precious contents: the sacred relics themselves, and with them golden gardens of daisy chains cut from paper-thin gold foil and interspersed with starbursts of translucent rock crystal chips, coral, and pearls. Here the chattering schoolchildren visiting the Met fall silent; the sense of the sacred is instantly palpable.
It is the image of the stupa, and its protectors from the local spirit world, that became the focus of the early Buddhist art of the Deccan. “Tree and Serpent” has several stupas topped by foliage, like an honorific cluster of parasols. At the bottom, curled around the dome or weaving themselves around the drum, keeping watch over the relics within, is a tangle of protective, many-headed nagas. Why these serpents assume a much more prominent role in the early Buddhist art of the south than they do in the north is not clear, but it is known that many southern Indian royal families, such as the Pallava dynasty, traced their ancestry to the dalliances of naga-rajas, and the names of many southern sacred sites, including Phanigiri, contain echoes of earlier naga-worship.
Initially, the Buddha was never depicted directly, as though it would be inauspicious and disrespectful to imprison him again in human form after he had escaped with such effort from his mortal coil. Instead the Buddha was shown only through widely understood symbols of his presence, such as an empty throne, a tree, a turban, a flaming pillar, or a pair of footprints. This changed only in the early first century, and soon large numbers of fully realized iconic Buddha images were being sculpted, both as a focus for devotion and as a source of merit for patrons. Exactly where and how this happened is still a matter of fierce debate.
It is probable that the development first took place in the Indian religious center of Mathura, where cults of yakshas had already found expression in freestanding monumental stone sculptures. These yakshas were the models for the first Buddhas carved at Mathura in mottled red sandstone. We even know the names of those who commissioned them: “the learned nun Buddhamitra and [her teacher] the monk Bhikshu Bala who knew the three Pitakas [scriptures]” left their names on no less than three separate early Buddha images made in Mathura around 130 CE, in one of the most radical and far-reaching acts of innovation in the history of art.
Like the monumental yakshas and images of warrior kings, these early standing Buddhas are massive—in some cases more than eleven feet tall. They also share with the burly yakshas that preceded them wide-open eyes, broad shoulders, muscular arms, sumo-wrestler tummies, and powerful chests. They are altogether different figures from the later images of the sensitive meditating Buddha, cross-legged and eyes downcast, with which we are familiar.
But while Mathura has the most convincing claim to producing the earliest indigenous Buddha statues, there is also good evidence that contact with classical Roman imports inspired the development of the Buddha image further north, in the Gandhara region of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. After the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE opened up the sea trade between Roman Egypt and India, Buddhist artists in Gandhara began producing increasingly Roman-looking artworks. These include the beautiful Bimaran reliquary, ordered around 20 CE from a jeweler in Pushkalavati, the “city of the lotus,” near modern Peshawar. The tiny casket—less than three inches high, made from solid gold, and studded with glowing garnets—shows the oldest known examples of the classical Gandharan Buddha in a monk’s robe with Hellenistic drapery and wearing his hair in the Romano-Greek style, clearly influenced by depictions of Apollo.
It is possible, of course, that the image of the Buddha developed simultaneously in both Mathura and Gandhara. Either way, these new iconic forms, clearly popular with both devotees and patrons, quickly spread around India, leading to the flourishing of spectacular Buddhas carved in a remarkable new fusion of styles.
Intriguingly, it was not until the early third century CE that the Buddha began to be depicted in human form in the south. Initially his seated form was merely included in the crowds of figures illustrating the Jataka stories on the railings of monasteries like Amaravati, in scenes filled with small figures, as busy as the battling soldiers on a Roman sarcophagus. Indeed, some scholars think imported Roman coins or medallions, or maybe even sarcophagus templates, may have guided the composition of the panels in sites such as Nagarjunakonda. It is quite possible, but here the Buddha is waging war not on his enemies but on death and suffering itself.
It is only in the magnificent final room of “Tree and Serpent” that the single, familiar Buddha image finally appears, self-contained and commanding, with pupils that seem to have rolled back into his skull, his hand raised in protection. He is shown standing, tall and imposing in folds of white marble carved into close-clinging robes and wrapped to expose his right shoulder. These were iconic images that were immediately exported to Sri Lanka and from there spread first to Burma and then further east to Southeast Asia. Here the image lives on today in daily worship.
“Tree and Serpent”—beautifully curated and spectacularly well lit—is accompanied by an exceptional scholarly catalog. Both the show and the book are extraordinary achievements by the Metropolitan Museum and the curator John Guy. They will astonish even those who think they are familiar with the art of Buddhism. “Tree and Serpent” is a remarkable ambassador for the arts of ancient India and one of the most striking shows the Met has put on for a long while.
For more on nagas, yakshis, and the ancient animist cults of India, see Robert DeCaroli’s groundbreaking and utterly fascinating study Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2004). DeCaroli’s Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (McLellan/University of Washington Press, 2015) is an excellent study of a subsequent stage of Buddhist worship, the emergence of the stupa, and the iconic Buddha image. ↩