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The role of art and architecture in the sacred Buddhism

Buddhism is the religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as, Gautama Buddha, a renowned spiritual leader of the Eastern countries. Buddha was known to be the only one who was able to achieve a life of total liberation and enlightenment, and thus, was also called the ‘Enlightened’ one. Buddhism advocates a life of renouncement from luxury and all worldly things, it urges one to find their true life’s purpose through leading a life of good thoughts and good intentions with the eventual goal of achieving enlightenment or nirvana (the release from earthly bounds). Just like other spiritual traditions of India, Buddhism also believes in the concept of rebirth. Thus, for the common man, nirvana is a far-fetched concept. It is believed that with every birth, mankind gains the opportunity to live a better life than that of his past life. It is one’s karma that determines the fate of their future life. After his enlightenment, Buddha spent the next 40 years preaching about his attained knowledge. After his death, his body was cremated, as is the custom in India. 

The cremated relics of Buddha were portioned and distributed in different relic caskets. These caskets were then encased within huge mound-like, hemispherical structures, known as stupas. These stupas are iconic pieces of architecture in the Buddhist tradition. It paved the way for Buddhist architecture today. Today, they are regarded as the chief monument of Buddhist monastic structures. During this time, there was a shift in the materials that were used by Indian artists. Stone became a popular material used as opposed to the perishable materials used before such as brick, wood, thatch and bamboo. Railings and gateways with relief sculptures made out of stone were added to the stupas. The most popular themes of Buddhist architecture revolved around the history of Gautama Buddha’s life. This was accounted for in the popular tales of Buddhism, known as the ‘jatakas.’

The earliest records of Buddhist art showcase Buddha through signs such as footprints, empty seats, or empty spaces instead of through his human form. This was then followed by the predominance of Buddha’s human form in the first century. The first circumstance of this was seen in the northwest frontier of India, in an area called Gandhara. With aesthetic elements inspired by the Hellenistic world merged with analogies and metaphors, Buddhist art in India uses a unique style to express their ideologies and traditions. The common depictions of Buddha during this time were youthful representations of him with wavy hair reminiscent of the Roman statues of Apollo, with a robe that covered both of his shoulders draped with heavy classical folds that resembled a Roman toga. Other depictions capture him during his princely life before his enlightenment. This, then, developed the concept of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya. The artists of Gandhara used stone as well as stucco to create these pictures which were kept in the stupas. On the contrary, the Kushan period artists belonging to Mathura, India represented Buddha with his sacred breath (prana) with his monastic robe draped to leave his shoulder exposed. 

Another prominent form of Buddha that was represented in Buddhist art, was in the depictions of him in South India, namely, Andhra Pradesh. In these representations, Buddha is seen with a serious face, clad in robes with the left shoulder left bare. These depictions were a great inspiration to the Buddhist art of Sri Lanka. Several sculptures of these images are found throughout Southeast Asia. 

Then came the Gupta period in North India. Their depiction of Buddha creates an ‘ideal’ image of this historical figure. Fusing the traits of the Gandhara region and the Mathura region art, the Buddha that was represented by the Guptas was usually seen with tiny individual curls, and robes with an array of strings to represent draped folds or with transparent covers. This became the blueprint for the upcoming artists not just in India, but in all parts of Southeast Asia.

In the years that followed, art in Buddhism witnessed a significant change. With the introduction of the bodhisattva concept, there was the emergence of new Gods and Goddesses in Buddhism. Usually seen in sculptures and painted scrolls, they were believed to be protectors and ferocious in nature. They were further used to depict the transcendental notion that deliverance is attained through the fusion of wisdom (female) and compassion (male).


Q1. What are the main traits of Buddhist art today? 

The most popular characteristic of Buddhist art is mandalas. Their motive is to encourage Buddhist followers to concentrate and gain focus through meditation, in order to direct them on Buddha’s path of enlightenment. 

Q2. What is Zen and is it different from Buddhism? 

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that exists predominantly in East Asia in countries such as China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Zen focuses on the enlightened mind and believes that it exists within oneself, while Buddhism is the broader spectrum to which Zen belongs.