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Posted on : October 15th, by
Buddha statue in my garden
Buddha statue in my garden

I remember walking around Sanchi on a warm winter’s day. Amidst the ruins – I actually walked first around the halls, the educational places, the monasteries. I thought of those ancient universities of Takshasila. It was only later that I approached the Great Stupa. And as the guide pointed out various kings, I keep hearing names like Ashoka The Great, Samudragupta the Great, Kanishka the Great.

Years later I reflected on this sobriquet ‘The Great’. We all know it and accept it. It is almost as if the adjective has become the noun. When someone says Akbar the Great, or Ashoka the Great or even Alexander the Great, we just do not get phased by it. The sobriquet has become their name. Once when I searched wikipedia, I found a whole list of people known as the great http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_known_as_The_Great and yes, Akbar and Ashoka were there and so was Kanishka. But is this just a transliteration of ‘Maharaja Kanishka’. And suddenly the transliteration diminishes in the reverse journey. I remember the guide pointing out a statue of a seated Buddha and saying this was bequeathed by Kanishka. I lapped it up. I clearly remember as if it was yesterday thinking that even though so many great emperors associated with this place they have not gone overboard with the modifications of the edifice. The place is still subtle in its presence and beauty. The statue of Buddha looks beatific….

But who was this man Kanishka? It is an extraordinary story. Why was he interested in Sanchi, was he just another great name, used today as a way of drumming tourist interest? But actually, there is much significance in this name. Kanishka was an emperor of the Kushan dynasty. He ruled from 127-151 AD and straddled the mountains. His empire extended from modern Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and through Northern India to about Pataliputra (today’s Patna). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kushanmap.jpg

And yet his coins are like no other Indian ruler. Wearing huge oversized camping boots and what looks like a trench coat, the attire belongs to the mountains not to the plains of Mathura. His coins show him with very different characteristics to Indian Kings. And so they would . He had Chinese blood. Belonging to a Chinese tribe called Yeuh-Chi, they migrated out of China to today’s Swat valley. Then the area was called Gandhar and it is in the times of the Kushan dynasty that Gandhar flourished. And now there is a school of art called Gandhara school . When you see a Buddha sitting and serenely looking like here in my garden – it is the Gandhara art that echoes down the centuries. The Kushan empire lasted about 200 years and Kanishka himself ruled for 24 years. There he straddled the area at the edge of Western civilisation. He dominated the silk route which carried trade but, of course ideas too. Trade led to prosperity and peace and during peace people travelled. That was the journey of Buddhism in many ways.

Before Gandhara art Buddha was represented as a symbol – a lotus (for purity), a foot (that has left it’s mark on earth) or a parasol (representing a crown) or a wheel (of Dharma). You see all this symbolism here at the Stupa of Ashoka and Sunga. These had been based on the interpretations of Buddhist teachings. During his time and thereafter, the oral tradition of handing down wisdom continued. But later developments meant that many disciples wanted to venerate their master. These nuances led to heated debates and politicking. Possibly fed up or for other reasons Ashoka the Great inscribed the punishments due for those monks bringing religious strife and schism in the Sangha (brotherhood of monks) at Sanchi.

Ashoka's edict warning monks
Ashoka’s edict warning monks

That was the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhism in 320BCE and yet 250 years later here is a statue of Buddha given by Kanishka. It signifies a turning of the Royal patronage. It was now okay to pray to Buddha as a God. In fact, in a casket of Kanishka where some ashes of Buddha were reportedly placed, Buddha is shown receiving prayers from other Hindu Gods – Indra and Brahma http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanishka_casket

Kanishka casket
Kanishka casket

And now with the establishment of Buddha as a God a form was needed. And here the artisans of West and East worked together. Greek influences came via Iran and mixed with local Indian perspectives. A fusion happened.

I remember a Greek statue – a poster of this was in my friend’s room in the men’s hostel. It was a headless torso – called Nike of Samothrace http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_Victory_of_Samothrace.

Nike of Samothrace
Nike of Samothrace

It haunted me – I did really want this poster. In fact for many years I searched for it and never found it. I still haven’t. But a few years ago I stood in front of it at the Louvre museum in Paris amidst the crowds of people and I lost myself. Made in 2nd century Greece, it is truly magical. The flowing robes make you feel the wind in its folds. And why not – a figure like this would have adorned an ancient Greek ship at the helm and the wind would naturally billow through the folds.

Sultangunj Buddha
Sultangunj Buddha

And now see the Buddha of Sultanganj http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultanganj_Buddha. I saw this in Birmingham. A large bronze made in 500 AD (so that is just a few centuries after Kanishka). But look at the folds in the fabric. A similar design but suddenly there is stillness in the air. The folds gently drop – there is no gushing activity. Instead all is still. The folds here reflect a different mood. You can see Eastern sensitivities and ideologies and the Western or rather Greek influence, too. In fact, now when you see a Buddha seated in the famous Yoga Padmasana pose with folds of fabric draped over his shoulders and with a serene smile – just think of how much it represents a union of East and West – at Gandhara. The area may have derived its name from ‘Gandh’ a Sanskrit word for perfume or smell – the bazaars were probably laden with spices of the Silk Route. And their prosperity led to financing Stupas.

You will recall that I had wondered why the overall effect was so subtle at Sanchi. There is no grandiose overbearing stamping of personalities or so it seems. Why would Maharaja Kanishka or any other ruler for that matter not completely transform the building and image of Sanchi. Only years later I realised that in fact Kanishka did do so. He changed the practice of Buddhism by giving it royal patronage. 300 years ago, Ashoka had inscriptions in Sanchi warning the monks living there not to have in-fights , but now Kanishka made it okay to have a schism and a new way of thinking. Buddha now had a form 400 years after his death and here at Sanchi, you see him as you enter one of the Toranas or gateways – his form smiles gently, welcomingly. and signals a new order for Buddhism.

And how this Buddhism blossomed. Monks travelled to China, manuscripts were translated, ideas spread. And in return other peoples travelled to Kanishka’s land. And when they did, they talked of a monumental Stupa – five tiered building with gold streamers in the winds and sounds of bells in the air. Michael Wood shows a sketch he made from the annals at Calcutta. That particular series called ‘The Story of India’ is absolutely wonderful. For those who have not seen it, I would recommend it. Michael Wood is a historian and in love with Indian history and it shows. He is insightful, and you can see the joy in his eyes, hear the enthusiasm in his voice and feel the enchantment in his demeanour. The book sits at my bedside table but if you are looking for video excerpts, here is the link http://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/timeline/3/. If you go to episode 3 on ‘Spice Routes and silk roads’ – go to the time line on Kanishka (it is called Kanishka rules) and there you will see a virtual film on the huge stupa at Peshawar which does not exist anymore. It seems to have been a skyscraper of a building and even the renowned Buddhist scholar Hsuan Tsang http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xuanzang who visited India 500 years later gives a great description of it wherein the base is 150 feet high, the cupola 400 feet and above it a metal pillar and a cupola lantern with 25 copper umbrellas making the whole structure some 600 feet high! Astonishing dimensions!

While Peshawar was a central capital Kanishka also lived in Mathura. There is even a temple to a God in Mathura. This God wears mountain boots and a strange overcoat. The idol has now fallen – much like Ozymandias in Shelly’s poem http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias. But this fallen and now morphed idol had once ruled thousands of kilometres of land, straddled two civilisations, built a currency in gold and pegged it on Roman currency, got the economy going with the Silk road, fostered and allowed Gandharan art to blossom, built the largest monumental Stupa the world had seen and here in Sanchi, left the idol of Buddha in Gandhara art – a form that till today dictates how we imagine Buddha – from the Buddha of Sultanganj in 500 AD to the sitting Buddha in my garden in 2013. He truly deserved to be called – Kanishka the Great.

Buddha statue in my garden
Buddha statue in my garden