Buddhist Jewels from widespread mortuary clusters correlate with the adornment of the bodhisattvas and the divine female directing the fortunes of the departed. Courtesans mirror the yakshi and merge with various goddesses of the underworld. The domical mausoleums gather together interconnectedness of all things; magic symbols celebrate victory over dark death called Mara while the conception of secret signs transform stone into gold, gold into ivory, and ivory into terracotta. From Central Asia to South Asia countless stupa mounds enshrining precious relics are raised and activated by recurring magic motifs to cause superlative Nirvana. Among hybrid guardians of the dead are aerial and waterborne dragons and griffins swooping from the Mediterranean Sea. Afghanistan's Golden Mound filled with mortuary jewels unique to Tillya Tepe necropolis heightens the wide-ranging Roman network of borrowings in the Greco-Buddhist reliquary cult.
Arputharani Sengupta is Professor in History of Art and the author of several books in the field of Greco-Buddhist art. Her research is focused on the unique position of Indian art at the intersection of vibrant cultural exchange during the Roman Empire. Best known for the multicultural history of ancient India, she finds its global core in the groundbreaking symbols bared by the cross-referenced context of Buddhist art and artifacts. These were created by the matrix of transnational jeweler-sculptors with superb inherited skills and intimate knowledge about the mortuary cult booming in the vast domain of the Greco-Scythian Kushana kings. Her latest book (2018), The Silk Road Fabrics: The Stein Collection in the National Museum of India reveals the Cultural Revolution brought by the contact between East and West during the early historic period in South Asia.
Buddhist faith explains polarity in terms of triumphant pure light as opposed to Mara or death and gives the assurance that man has the ability to rise above utter darkness and transform not only mind and matter but also the very nature of human destiny. The relics perpetuating the superhuman Buddha are the crux of supernatural artworks whose value is increased by the magic symbols.
Early on in 1996 and until 2010, when Dr Arputharani Sengupta, D. P. Mishra Chair Professor in History of Art undertook teaching at the National Museum Institute in New Delhi, the exceptional jewels from Taxila excavated by Sir John Marshall in the collection of the National Museum of India captured her keen interest. From then on Buddhist jewels and reliquary cult has been the core of her research, and ever expanding to include archaeological treasures that shaped a new world in Asia.
As a specialist in Roman and Ancient Art of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Sengupta has been fascinated by the early Buddhist artifacts uniting the new and the old from the Greco-Roman world. In The Silk Road Fabrics: The Stein Collection in the National Museum of India published in 2018 Sengupta demonstrates that the universal oneness manifest in the burial silks is an expansion of early Buddhist culture, In her recent most book Buddhist Jewels in Mortuary Cult: Magic Symbols she considers in detail and in depth the context of the vast Greco-Scythian Kushana kingdom linking Central and South Asia. The richly illustrated exhaustive double volume is a valuable addition to her previous two volumes on Buddhist Art and Culture: Symbols & Significance. I commend Dr Arputharani Sengupta's dedicated research and wish her great success.
During the early Christian period numerous relics in distinctive reliquary caskets were preserved deep inside the rounded stupa monuments. The reliquary cult linked to paradigm shift in the funerary practices across Central Asia and Han China altered the entire face of South Asia. Habitually antique reliquaries are worshiped as the purported relic of the Buddha. The legend of a historic Buddha gained momentum and veracity only after the decipherment of ancient Brahmi script during nineteenth century archaeology. Rebirth stories called Jatakam in Pali literature and Mahayana sutras are the source to interpret the first-time sculptured images that once adorned the stupa monuments. Actually the 'Life Cycle' at the core of the Mystery Religion tracks magic rituals associated with death, mystical conception of the soul and rebirth followed by endless life surrounded by immense light called 'enlightenment'. The innovative halo indicates the seductive bio-luminance that makes 'Awakened' humans glow with magical light. For the first time the illumined immortals collectively identified as Buddha and bodhisattva dominate the centrally planned stupa complexes across a vast region. In the community worship of the deified dead the individuality is down played as generic Buddha. Inscribed reliquaries, and occasional portrait cameos in sculpture or on the bezel of signet ring reveals the identity of a person. Customarily carved libation plates and homage tablets depicting religious symbols are offered in the stupa. shrines. At present the well planned funerary complexes in the Indian subcontinent are important pilgrimage centers. The major archaeological sites packed with the stupa monuments of the Kushana period (1st-3rd century CE) are packaged as the landscape where life events of the legendary Buddha (560-483 BCE) took place. However, marvelous sculptures from the stupa sites confirm that primordial confidence in the goddess is fundamental to the new funerary cult. The goddess as wish fulfilling 'Tree of Wisdom' called Kalpavriksha and Salabhanjika confirms faith in splendid afterlife. Furthermore, the goddess image in Greco-Roman style is the main source for various types of jewel that confirm the confidence of the faithful through signs and symbols. The goddess clarifies the astonishing nature of the Buddhist relics fundamental to resurrection. Yet, in the fervent Buddha centric interpretations the supreme importance of the goddess is totally ignored.
The funerary cult centers intended for obscure rituals, now identified as monastery, has yielded numerous unmatched votive objects including engraved gems and precious pieces of jewelry Especially the nested reliquary caskets contain variety of beads, coins, jewels, inscribed gems and scrolls, embossed charms in gold foil and other offerings along with ash, earth and bits of human bone. The exclusive crystal reliquary, and the occasionally gilded stupa shaped casket lathe turned in schist is characteristic of Gandhara now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Intriguingly caskets in gold, silver and bronze resemble eastern Mediterranean metalwork. At the same time a type of spherical reliquary in stone with divided compartments, found also in Ai-Khanoum, has strange affinity to the wooden containers still used by the Yoruba diviners of Nigeria in West Africa. Frankly, function is the key to form. The reliquary cult burgeoned in proportion to the faith in resurrection expressed by anagrammatic Amitabha, of immense radiance (a-mita-abha)) and everlasting life (a-mita-ayus).
Foremost is the role and reception of the goddess in the rebirth process of enlightened immortals shrouded in mystery. To believers Maya is mother of Buddha. Maya is literally magic or illusion-soon after giving birth she ascends heaven. Surrounded by handmaids, Maya Devi in the sala grove gives rebirth holding a branch that identifies her as the Tree of Life. Etymologically Maya is linked to Maia the Roman goddess of magic and childbirth. Just like the branch of sala tree, situla identifies Isis among Maya's female assistants. Among them the sheaf of wheat brands Demeter, usually in the company of Persephone and Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic who escorts the dead and helps childbirth. A bevy of divine maidens labeled in Brahmi stand on the remarkable sandstone parclose of Bharhut stupa in Central India. Maha Maya coexists with the newly installed Hindu goddess Gajalakshmi recognized by lustrating elephants. Time and again, from Oxus to Amaravati, the royal elephants that glorify the goddess carry the numinous essence of immortals in reliquary processions.
The goddesses modeled after priestess-courtesans wear fabulous pieces of jewelry incorporating various religious symbols. Series of lotus medallions carved on the stupa enclosure at Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati is integrated in multiple ways in all the other Buddhist relics to convey rebirth assured by Maha Maya Lakshmi known as Padma the lotus. Pushkalavati, the Lotus City named after the goddess was the capital of ancient Gandhara. Vaishali in the Bihar state of India and Lumbini in Nepal believed to be the birth place of Buddha, are also renowned cult centers that exalt the prosperous goddess known for her beauty. Similar to Srichakra or the Wheel of Fortune on the Retribution stele, homage tablets carved with the footprint of the goddess called Sripada and Bhudpada invoke the benevolence of the goddess. The scaffolding of meaning through symbols such as Srichakra, Triratna and Srivatsa is typical of logocentricism peculiar to carly Buddhist art that treats words and language as fundamental expression of existential reality, which by design appears as visual reality. The goddess of immortality holds goblet of wine or stands on the womb like pot of ambrosia (Amrita) while the idiosyncratic girdle (Manimekala) proclaims her as the endless wave that encircles the entire world. Thus the logos represented as an original, irreducible object is created specifically for a special purpose. In western scientific and philosophical terms the design of logos is the perfect representation of the Platonic Ideal Form: enormously trendy in the unprecedented Neo-Platonic Greco-Buddhist cult.
The first-time votives and Hellenistic images of cult and devotion across the Indian subcontinent and in the North West Frontier Provinces had close links with Macedonian Greek tradition of Alexandria connected to Parthia by way of historic caravan trails through Palmyra The resulting cross-cultural knowledge transfer and globalization presented the need for the implementation of successful cultural models learnt from Roman, Egyptian, Asiatic and Persian Imperial cults. It spread across the eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea and Caspian Sea and Central Asia and expanded into the new territories world-wide reaching up to China and South Asia. The successful expansion of Persian cult of Mithras was a counter movement that crisscrossed the Silk Road to thrive in the Roman Empire. In the Kushana Empire the gold dinars of Huvishka (circa 152-192) representing Mithras, Serapis and Hercules is a measure of cross-cultural influences in the Buddhist cult that subsumes the unique identity of Mithras. The international mergers and alliances is indicated by the plethora of Greco-Roman design, vine scroll, winged griffin, amphora, heart and Swastika. Cupid on dolphin, Venus and Ma Cybele are mystifying elements in Buddhist art and artifacts. The sudden process of self-organization in isolated stupa complexes as remote as the Swat Valley in Pakistan or Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh seem to be spontaneous geomancy of the grave. The synchronized social behavior indicates that this strange coordinated movement was accelerated simultaneously by a tremendous external force. In the swarm behavior the individual in the scheme is but one among many swept together in huge wave similar to the murmuration of the starlings. The secret of this complex system in nature applied to the community worship of deified individuals advocates effective control of the cult by an influential mediator within the system. Presumably a college of crudite high priests now identified as 'monk' held the central command of the outside world in the incredibly remote recesses.
Ancient cemeteries and memorial complexes are the happy hunting grounds for hidden treasures. The earliest ornaments and precious artifacts along with human relics come from the peculiar reliquary caskets deposited in the unprecedented reliquary stupa monuments and in its surroundings. Indeed, almost all the Buddhist jewels that can be classified under different materials and design are closely related to the oldest funerary sites in the Indian subcontinent. The amazingly portentous early record of "Buddhist Gold Jewelry reported by Marshall in the Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report (1902-3) is from Tordher and Charsadda in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, Hadda and Bimaran in Afghanistan, Priprava in Nepal, and Bhattiprolu in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh in India. Those excavated in Charsadda are two gold rings and two gold cylinders attached to a circular disc. Notably, a bluish garnet en cabochon set on one of the gold cylinders is backed by flimsy silver disc. Among seventy bronze earrings from the site, the simplest type is in plain copper wire. Some of them with silver coating are threaded through small beads of crystal, silver, or faience described as vitreous paste native to Egypt. Seventeen cylindrical amber beads, a transparent glass bead with blue and white striations and a variety of beads made of bone, ivory, agate, cornelian, lapis lazuli and faience are among more than a thousand beads from the stupa sites in Charsadda.
In the 1902-3 ASI Report, Marshall records thirteen relics salvaged from a mound in Tordher village located close to the Indus River; about 76 km north-west of Islamabad. It includes a cylindrical copper charm covered with a thin lamina of gold and a small casket containing a calcined bone identified as the third phalanx of the second toe of a human foot. The ornamental gilded cylinder usually worn around the neck contained a waxy substance believed to be congealed blood. The hoard contained a remarkable pair of vase pendants with Eros riding a winged sea-lion with a tassel of pearls and bells suspended from four chains, each bobble ornamented with a tiny pyramid of five fine granules. The step-pyramidal base of the vase is also ornamented by a cluster of graded gold balls. The vase dangler is hooked through an ornamental cylinder and ring to a gold ear top composed of a central flower inside a square flat gold wire frame ornamented at the four-corners by a tiny flower amplified by granules. The polychrome temple car-pendant enhanced by now displaced gems still has at every conceivable traces of blue-green paste inlay in the wings of Eros and the ear of the sea monster. Apart from this remarkable piece of jewelry in the Taxila style (1.85), the Tordher hoard deposited in the Lahore Museum includes an intricate earring with typical field granules ornamented by series of domical gold bullae arranged like smooth breasts. It also has two fanciful heart-shaped cloisons soldered to each side. A domical gold medallion backed by a gold plate and surrounded by concentric rings packed with an organic hard paste is a unique stupa pendant suspended from a gold chain. Ornamented with filigree and edged with wire beading, it has a projecting umbrella (chatra) crowned by red cabochon garnet called carbuncle backed by silver foil. The suspension ring with a pearl on either side is also inlaid with garnet en cabochon Pliny's observations on Greco-Roman gem inlay techniques are entirely validated by the silver foil placed in the cloison gem setting. The coins of Kanishka and Huvishka found in the Tordher hoard suggest probable date of the jewels.
The marvelous but mystifying Buddhist material culture can be most conveniently treated in one of two ways. It can be painstakingly divided as one cuts coconut from its shell, taking the pieces as they come. Or it can be sliced like wood along the grain. The two methods don't match at all: in the nut shell method the dates and names never come in the natural order Sternly attached to the local geography, it displays a particular belief based on a stylistic tendency. But the wood grain is organic and flows true like a continuous river. The commentator who desires to move onward with the life of an epoch, is thus required to run back and forth not only among its truly: vast geographical extent and events along the way, but has to continually shift between contextual dates. It behaves like a branch bending under the weight of the tree goddess in Greco-Buddhist mystery cult.
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