Searches for the many lost pages of the history of Indian art offer a very fascinating, though sometimes a very tantalising, occupation for the student. In the realm of painting, Indian art has recently yielded some quite interesting documents which have helped to fill up many gaping lacunae. The enormous archaeological output in the branch of Indian sculpture, every year, is likely to mislead students as to the real paucity of material in many important branches. In spite of the almost superabundance of examples of the Gupta period, it is seldom realised how poor is the available material for the study of Buddhist metal sculpture. It is very well known that almost all the examples of Buddhist sculpture in India are in stone and, excepting the famous Sultangunge image of the Buddha (reproduced in Rupam No. 21) and one fragment in the South Kensington Museum, we practically know nothing of the quality of Buddhist sculpture in metal in India, until we come to the ninth century. At Nalanda some mutilated metal images discovered in 1918 hardly uphold the quality we meet with in stone pieces from the same site. Yet metal statuary must have been produced in fairly large quantities if not in abundance, and we have literary evidences of gold and bronze images of Buddha having been carried to China by Chinese pilgrims. Until we come to Nepal in the tenth century we hardly meet with the important Buddhist metal images of outstanding merit. Any document that is likely to throw light on the obscurity of early Indian metal image is thrice welcome to students of Indian art.
We claim that the sensitively modelled and well-preserved example of copper-gilt Avalokiteswara discovered in China in 1921, which we have reproduced in the frontispiece, by the courtesy of Messrs. Ton-ying & Co., offers important evidence of the quality of Indian metal images of the earlier period. The example bristles with many problems of which a detailed study is likely to yield important data for the history of early metal statuary of the Buddhist period. In the magnificent repose of its sama bhange pose it has a freshness of conception and vigour and a sense of movement even in the static quality of its design, which is rare to find in examples of stone sculptures. Indeed, it is difficult to recall any example in stone which comes near the conception of our example. In all iconographic details, particularly in the prominent symbol of the Buddha Amitabha on its matted locks, the image answers to the conception of Avalokiteswara. For the headgear (usnisa) the image has a thin plated crown with a trefoil ornament flanked by two bosses. The elaborate earrings hang down the elongated earlobes and reach the necklace of beads, closely touched by another necklace which bears characteristic arabesque designs of the Gupta period. The most peculiar archaic ornaments are the pair of armlets on the upper arm curiously recalling patterns met with in Bharhut monuments. They are hardly, if ever, met with in any sculpture of the Gupta period. They offer one of the significant indications of the early date of this piece of bronze. The hand, depicting the vyakhana mudra,' the pose of exposition, carries a bangle of beaded patterns; while the left hand, posed in the varada mundra ' is empty of all ornaments. The most important ornament is the ratna kodara vandha, the jewelled belt, placed a little lower than usual, adding another touch of archaism to the figure which is also emphasized by the wholly schematic treatment of the chest and the abdomen. The kativandha with an embossed knob on the knot at the centre keeps the dhoti in position. The other important element is the hanging portion of drapery, perhaps, the dupatta tied in festoons on both sides above the thighs. The mannerism hardly, if ever, occurs in Gupta sculpture and is only met with in certain early Buddhist sculptures of Amravati and later, in Ceylonese, and further Indian images. It must be taken to the survival of an earlier fashion and must have dropped out in India by the Gupta period. The image was discovered in China but, excepting the somewhat Mongolian eyes, there is practically not a single feature in the image which could by any chance be attributed to a Chinese artist. In several obviously Nepalese pieces the Mongolian eyes are very enigmatic features, as for instance the famous ‘Maitreya’ and ‘Padmapani’, from Nepal, of the Government Art gallery, Calcutta (Havell: ‘Indian Sculpture and Painting; 1908, Plates X and V. So that the so called Mongolian eyes cannot by any means be taken as a determining factor in ascertaining the origin of the figure. The treatment of the lower chins, giving the lower part of the face an almost singular features, seen in profile throws into relief the cheek bones and gives them an exaggerated appearance and seems to stamp the face with the characteristic of a Mongolian if not a Chinese physiognomy. In many Tibetan or Nepal-Tibetan metal figures Mongolian physiognomy is very common, but the character of the physiognomy cannot be accepted as always a sure indication of provenance or authorship. Our figure here may have been the handiwork of a Tibetan or a Nepalese artist. Tibetans cannot be credited with having developed a local school of Buddhist sculpture until sometime after the accession of Sronbtaanagarnpo (629 A.D). If our gilt-bronze Avalokiteswara is earlier than the seventh century, which is somewhat unlikely, it could not be of Tibetan origin; but there is a strong inclination in the general feeling of the figure to relate the figure to some Indian prototypes, possibly Tibetan-Nepalese example. Copper-gilt metal images have been profusely produced in Nepal at least from the tenth century, if not earlier, right up to the end of the nineteenth century. But it is equally certain that copper-gilt images of Buddhist figures were produced in china as early as the sixth century (compare, for instance, the gilt-bronze Chinese buddha’s dated 518 A.D, recently acquired by the Louvre Museum from the Peytel collection), And one is very much tempted to relate our figure to the Nepalese school of metal sculpture. ‘Though somewhat remote in feeling from the characteristic features of the Nepalese school of the ninth century, it may be taken to represent the general features of the native Indian Buddhist School before it develops provincial Nepalese or Tibetan features. If not actually Nepalese, our figure must be taken to represent the echo of some native Indian type of which the Indian prototypes are now lost. It is very well known that early Chinese representations of Avalokiteswara followed, in all essential iconographic features, the original Indian visualization of the deity; and the Chinese masters who sometimes would master the technical iconographic niceties before they could turn out images like this with perfect accuracy and maturity in technique. From this point of view one cannotascribe the piece to any time previous to the T’ang period (618-907 A.D). Yet the general archaic feeling and the treatment of the ornaments and dress prompt one to push it towards an earlier date. This may perhaps be explained by the fact that it reproduces iconographic features of an earlier epoch. The image of Avalokiteswara had, long ago (at least about the fifth century), been formulated in stone. And the earlier Indian example in metal is the eighth century bronze figure from Ceylon now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (No. 12.2312); though extremely simple in treatment, the iconographic features of the miniature replica of the Amitabha on the head is already an important characteristic of the image.
If our figure stood by itself, it would have been difficult to answer all the problems it raises. But fortunately there are available three, somewhat cognate, examples which offers important comparative data and which we are able to reproduce here by the courtesy of Dr. Salmony, Mesars. L. Wanniech, the authorities of the Boston Museum and the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. The first one, lately in the collection of Messrs Leon Wannieck, Paris (first reproduced by Salmony in “Chinesische Plastic, Ein handbuch fur Sammler,” Berlin, 1925, Abb 124) is almost an exact replica, except that the left arm is missing in this example. There can be no doubt that this type was very popular at one time, and repeated in numerous replicas, following the same common formula. Dr. Salmony instead of claiming the figure as ‘Chinese’ has ascribed it to Tibet thus, indirectly, conceding it’s predominate Indian features. He, however, dates it about the fourteenth century, though he considers the piece to be an early Lamaistic example. He remarks: “Stricter and more style-bound than anything known to us of the period subsequent to the thirteenth century, this early statue signifies a derivative but independent beginning, foreign to the races, at the end of a period of art development. In contemporary schematic and naturalistic art this bronze displays in a confused state what was later freely developed.” We are unable to accept Dr. Salmony’s characterization of the figure as displaying any ‘confusion’. One is struck more by the unity of its technical quality corresponding to the equanimity of its psychic conception. The figure must also be placed a good deal earlier than the thirteenth century. It rather belongs to the thirteenth or, at least, to the crest of an epoch rather than to a beginning. We are inclined to place it about the ninth century if not earlier. The example recently acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago is also a very close parallel to one reproduced in the Frontispiece. The feature of the face is perhaps less Chinese, Asian innovation has been introduced in making the eye-brows, echoing, the Samhita-bhav of the Indian imager’s cannon. The example in the Boston Museum stands on a somewhat different footing. It is certainly much later than the first of the examples, though it closely follows all the details of the iconographic pattern of the image. The most curious feature is the beaded bangle (valaya) on the right upper arm, which faithfully reproduces the feature from the three earlier examples. It is quite apparent that this type was repeatedly reproduced from some famous original, now lost. The Boston example, though conforming to the general features and feeling, is less refined and is somewhat crude in technique. In the treatment of the lower ends of the drapery near the feet, it introduces an innovation, in undulating the somewhat monotonous and almost horizontal lines in the two earlier figures. Dr. Coomaraswamy suggests it is Siamese, though it hardly answers to any predominating characters of Siamese images. He ascribes it to the Ayuthia period (1350-1750). Compared with the other two examples, it is perhaps impossible to claim for the Boston figures any date earlier than the fourteenth century. Incidentally the Boston example, by comparison of style, pushes the dates of the other two examples to earlier periods. We have refrained from alluding so far to the Chinese inscriptions on the wooden pedestal on which the figure in our first specimen stands. Though the inscription is of much later date, it affords very interesting comments on the quality of the image and makes very significant suggestions as to its early date. The inscriptions which have been kindly read and translated by our friends, Rev.S. Wan Hui, run as follows: “Buddhism came to China during the later Han Dynasty in the time of Ming-Ti. From the time of the Tsin Dynasty (269 A.D. to 316 A.D. and 317 A.D. to 423 A.D.) the custom of casting bronze (‘thung = copper= bronze’) image was first initiated. The making of image became more common during the time of the Northern Wei and is very similar to the ones made in long-men near Lo-yang. After more than 1,000 years the gilding is intact. This is rather rare. For during the period of Peh-Wei (Northern Wei) images were made very carefully by asking the famous artists to design ( hua-cheng = having drawn) first, then to ask the craftsmen to make earthen models and then give it to the image-casters. Therefore it is so fine and delicate. This could not have been made after the T’ang Dynasty. In the year of Chi-wei (Earth-shape year) in the eighth month on the tenth day. Recorded by Sung Ch’ang.”
Sung Ch’ang, who is supposed to be the recorder of the above inscription, was the Curator of the Collection of the Viceroy, Tuen-Fong (1890-1911). It is impossible to say if the inscription is an authentic one. Whoever may have been responsible for the writing, the opinion recorded as to its early antiquity is likely to be endorsed by the severest critic. The opinion recorded in the inscription asserts somewhat dogmatically that the piece could not have been made after the T’ang Dynastty (618-907 A.D.). The claim that it belongs to the Northern Wei is certainly absurd. These extravagant claims throw considerable doubt as the authority of the inscription. The judgment of the Curator of the Viceroy Tuen Fong loses much of its weight by these exaggerated attempts to characterize the figure as very old. It is believed that various Chinese Buddhist figures carved in marble and belonging to the Sui Dynasty (581.618 A.D.) bear important consanguinity to our Avalokiteswara, but without actual comparison it is impossible to say how far such claim can be supported. There is no doubt that our figure belongs roughly to about the eighth century, and represents a very close reflection of an Indian original which must have enjoyed a large popularity and for that reason copies, in numerous replicas, of which at least four examples, here cited , have survived. These figures one would hesitate to designate as ‘Chinese’ though they may have come from Chinese Buddhist temples, as they are very far removed from the manners and mannerisms of naturalisedChinese Buddhist images. They perhaps represent a process of translation from the language of Indian Buddhist sculptures to its Chinese equivalents.
BibliographyPublished in Rupam 1927