Monday, February 27, 2012

Stupa art at the Freer Gallery

It was Saturday and I desperately needed to get out and do something fun, quickly, before I despaired at the massive amounts of homework and studying awaiting me this weekend.  So I hopped on my bike and rode through some freezing, buffeting winds to the Freer Gallery on the Washington Mall.  A quick look on the Smithsonian Institute website had informed me that they had an exhibit up called Birds in Chinese Painting, and I figured that was just what I needed to give me a little relaxed enjoyment.  

But before I reached the Chinese bird paintings, I got distracted by a room of art from ancient India.  Back in 2004, as a freshman in college, I had taken one class on Indian and Southeast Asian art history.  I loved the class; I felt as I was taking it like it was the kind of course that could open up whole new directions for my life... and yet, I realized upon as I entered room in the Freer Gallery, that this was probably the first time I had seriously looked at a work of Indian or Southeast Asian art since the class final.  So much for new life directions.  Nonetheless, though Indian Art hadn't become my life's work, I savored every minute in that gallery; it was so fun to be reminded of all that I had learned.  

Parallel to how medieval European art pretty much always had to do with Christianity and various forms of spiritual and religious practice, ancient Indian art pretty much always had to do with Buddhism or Hinduism and the various forms of spiritual and religious practice associated with these two religions.  The most important form of worship for the ancient Buddhists was circumambulation of the stupa.  A stupa is a mound-shaped structure inside which are buried relics of the Buddha.  The stupa is solid; you don't go in it when you visit, but enter through gate in the fence that surrounds it onto holy ground, and worship by walking clockwise around it, kneeling before it, and touching it.  The gates around a stupa were often fully decorated with relief carvings, like the two images here. 

Worship at a Stupa, 2nd Century BCE, Northwest India

In a move that is quite poetically self-referential, this first relief is an image, taken from a stupa gate, of worship at a stupa.  Notice the worshipers circumambulating, and kneeling, and even the handprints around the bottom of the stupa to show where people touched it in worship.  The flying guys above, (I didn't know this and had to look it up) are apparently celestial beings adorning the stupa with garlands.  

Birth of the Buddha, 3rd Century CE, Pakistan-Afghanistan Border

This is a relief from a different stupa gate 5 centuries later.  You can see the influence of classical Greek aesthetics on the modeling of the bodies.  Although she has a greco-roman body and hairstyle, the central figure of the Buddha's mother Maya stands in the traditional pose of an Indian female nature-spirit; feet crossed and one hand grasping a tree above.  The relief shows the story of the birth of the Buddha out of his mother's side (did you even see the tiny Buddha there before I pointed him out?).  My favorite thing about this image is that the guy in the crown receiving the Buddha is the Hindu god, Indra... wait, Hindu?  Isn't this a holy Buddhist image?  The ancient Indian people saw no contradiction in including holy beings from other religions.  All religions are valid paths to holy enlightenment... a tenet humans would do well to remember today.

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