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A slice of Gandhara in Kanaganahalli

Last Updated 29 January 2022, 11:19 IST
The remains of the Buddhist Stupa at Kanaganahalli.
The remains of the Buddhist Stupa at Kanaganahalli.
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Part of the eastern torana of the Sanchi stupa, showing depiction of Bactrian camels. Photo by Srikumar Menon
Part of the eastern torana of the Sanchi stupa, showing depiction of Bactrian camels. Photo by Srikumar Menon
An exquisite depiction of elephants at Kanaganahalli. Photo by Srikumar Menon
An exquisite depiction of elephants at Kanaganahalli. Photo by Srikumar Menon

As dawn breaks on the banks of River Bhima, a devotee hurries along a pathway, clutching an armful of lily stalks. She passes a tall pillar crowned by an image of a seated lion and pauses before the hulking mass of a stupa looming in silhouette against the lightening horizon. A tall railing of limestone uprights and crossbars surrounds the stupa, images of real and mythical animals carved on the heavy coping which runs around its top. The animals are shown moving from right to left, indicating how the devotee must circumambulate the stupa within.

Stepping through an entryway in the railing, she bows before an image of Muchilinda — the king of serpents who once shielded the Buddha from a storm. Proceeding along the circumambulatory pathway, she gazes, in the soft light of dawn, on stories from the life of the Buddha and depictions of rulers who upheld the Dhamma over the centuries after his passing. Some of these are at her eye level, carved on the creamy white limestone slabs cladding the lower drum of the stupa.

To see the others on the tall upper cylinder of the stepped stupa, she has to move to the periphery of the pathway, craning her neck. She moves on, murmuring prayers, occasionally laying a lily on the flower receptacle — a sculptured ledge which runs all along above the lower drum, recognising among the images stories and scenes which the bhikkus at the monastery had narrated to the villagers.

Almost done with the pradakshina, she pauses in the south-west, intrigued by one of the images on the upper drum showing a chariot drawn by two animals, the likes of which she has never seen before. She knew many creatures of fantasy were carved on the stupa, such as winged cats and fish-tailed elephants, but what were these humped beasts of burden, neither horse nor elephant?

This hypothetical scene could easily have played out at the Adhalaka Mahachaitya — a Buddhist stupa at Kanaganahalli, in Kalaburagi district of Karnataka, nearly two millennia ago. The stupa started out as a small mound of earth and rubble in the 2nd century BCE, during the period of Mauryan rule. Subsequently, under the patronage of Satavahana rulers, it was considerably enlarged, and embellished with beautiful carvings in shallow relief on the limestone slabs cladding the structure.

Early artisans

The identities and migrations of early artisans who contributed to Indian monumental architecture have fascinated and puzzled scholars. Often, artisans have left signatures on their creations, and sometimes even the region they hailed from. At Kanaganahalli too, names of a few sculptors — Bodhiguta, Nagila, Kanhila, Nagabudhi etc., adorn the images of their creation.

Were these, and other artisans at Kanaganahalli, local residents or migrants from other lands? It is difficult to guess the identities and origins of the artisans based on available evidence, but some clues offer tantalising glimpses into possibilities. The strange-looking animals pulling the chariot which fascinated our hypothetical devotee from the second century are camels, animals unknown in the region the stupa is situated.

A closer look reveals that the animals are two-humped Bactrian camels, whose historical range covers the cold deserts of China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. There are other depictions of camels at Kanaganahalli, on the coping stone of the railing, on a lower drum slab and another frieze above the upper drum slabs. It is incredible that all of these feature only the Bactrian camel.

Does this hint at the involvement of artisans from the land of the Bactrian camel in the construction of the stupa? After all, there is incontrovertible evidence for the presence of at least one scribe named Chapada, from the Gandharan region (now in Afghanistan) who carved the Ashokan edicts at Brahmagiri, in Chitradurga district. Chapada, who carved the characters of the edict in Brahmi lipi, preferred to inscribe his own identity in his native Kharosthi script.

Many of the images at Kanaganahalli are carved by gifted artisans, evidently familiar with the subject of their creations. For instance, the elephant sculptures at the stupa are some of the most beautiful, and anatomically accurate ones encountered in Indian art. In comparison, most of the camel depictions come across as mere caricatures. Even the relatively better-carved images on the upper drum slab seem inadequate compared to the depictions of Bactrian camels on the eastern torana of the Sanchi stupa, which were obviously executed by artisans familiar with the animal.

Imagery

Stupas in Gandhara, too, frequently featured camels. Camels are often the mounts on which the relics of the Buddha are transported, in imagery at Gandharan stupas, while the elephant is the mount of choice in most Indian stupas. Given the intimate familiarity with which the artisans of Kanaganahalli carved locally common animals like elephants, it appears likely that they were local sculptors, instructed or supervised by Buddhist monks from the Gandharan region.

Prof S Settar, in his book, Early Buddhist Artisans and Their Architectural Vocabulary, discusses the various categories of craftspeople involved in building monuments. He mentions a category of bhikkus called navakamis, some of who were responsible for designing religious monuments, without actually participating in their construction. Could it be that there were navakamis from far-off Gandhara at Kanaganahalli, planning the religious architecture of the stupa, and instructing local sculptors on the images to be carved?

The camels of Kanaganahalli might hold the answers.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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(Published 29 January 2022, 07:18 IST)

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