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Art and Performance in the Buddhist Visual Narratives at Bhārhut


The reliefs carved on the vedikā of the Bharhut stūpa in the Satna District of Madhya Pradesh are some of the earliest artworks extant in India to articulate the Buddha’s life stories and the essence of his teaching in a complex visual form. This article proposes that the reliefs from Bharhut depicting episodes from Śākyamuni’s life and jātakas were informed by narrative practices established in the traditions of Buddhist recitation and performance. The inscriptions engraved on the Bharhut vedikā that function as labels for scenes, characters, and places, point to the use of specific storytelling strategies attested in oral recitation and picture scrolls that likely existed as aide-memoire.

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  1. See Barua (1934-37), Coomaraswamy (1958), Bajpai (1967) and Ghosh (1978). For a complete review of the scholarship on Bhārhut see Hawkes (2008:1–3).

  2. Dehejia 2007:106–107, and 55–72 for a broader discussion on the relationship between text and image.

  3. A preliminary discussion on the relationship between oral traditions and Buddhist iconographies appears in Ray 1994-5.

  4. Shulman 2021a and b.

  5. Fraser 2004.

  6. Fraser 2004: 179.

  7. Cunnigham 1879: Plate XVI, Left side, middle bas relief.

  8. Cunnigham 1879: Plate XVI, Left side, upper bas relief.

  9. Cunnigham 1879: Plate XV, Lower bas-relief, outer face.

  10. Marshall and Foucher 1982: II, plates LI b, XVIII b, XXXVb, XLIXa.

  11. See Barua 1979, v. 1: 29 and Huntington 1993: 65.

  12. Cunningham 1998: vi–vii. More recently, research on Bhārhut has been carried out by Hawkes (2008 and 2009).

  13. A few other reliefs from Bharhut are scattered in museums around the world. See Hawkes 2008: 8.

  14. The Marine Archaeology Unit in Sri Lanka tentatively identified the remains of the SS Indus in Lankan waters off Mullaitivu in the Northeastern Province of Sri Lanka. In 2013 the shipwreck site was measured and mapped but no certainty remains about the identity of the ship; in 2017 work resumed but given the depth and condition of the wreck there was no significant progress done (Muthucumarana 2019).

  15. Lüders 1963: 11–15.

  16. Cunningham 1998: 8 and pl. VIII; Salomon (2006) discusses in detail the use of Kharoṣṭhī syllables as location markers in Gandharan stupa architecture.

  17. On stone carving workshops in Gandhara see Brancaccio and Oliveri 2019.

  18. An architectural relief from Kafir-Kot (Dera Ismail Khan District of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan), now in the holdings of the British Museum Acc. No.1899,0609.12, well exemplifies the Gandharan-Corinthian capital type.

  19. For an overview of these tales and associated images at Bharhut see Appleton, Jataka stories, University of Edimburgh,

  20. It has been proposed that these panels positioned by the entrances may be slightly later than the vedikā however no studies have been carried out on this issue (Hawkes 2008).

  21. Cunningham 1879: pplate LXV.

  22. The Mahākapi-jātaka appears twice at Bhārhut in a roundel (Cunningham 1879: plate XXXIII) and in a corner pillar (Cunningham 1879: plate XXXIII), as well as on a corner pillar at Sanci I as a testament to its popularity among early Buddhists (Marshall and Foucher 1982: II, plate LXIV a). The Samugga-jātaka is illustrated in Cunningham 1879: plate XV while the Vaṇṇupatha-jātaka in Coomaraswamy 1956: plate XXXI.

  23. For Sanchi see Marshall and Foucher 1983 volume III; for Kanagahanalli see Zin 2018.

  24. Cunningham 1879: plate XXXIII and Dehejia 1997: Fig. 65; Marshall and Foucher 1983: II, pl. XLIV.

  25. Appleton 2010.

  26. Shulman 2018.

  27. The subject of orality in the Pali tradition has been thoroughly explored by Collins 1991, Allon 1997, Anayalo 2007 and 2009, and most recently Shulman 2021. For bhāṇakas and their continuing practices in modern Sri Lanka see Deegalle 2006.

  28. Except for the Māyā’s dream and the donation of the Jetavana vihāra. There might be reasons why the Bhārhut patrons chose to represent these two important moments of the Buddha’s life on the vedikā among jātakas, as they do not necessarily imply the Buddha’s presence. In the scene of Māyā’s dream, Śākyamuni is not yet born; in the Jetavana vihāra the actual donation goes to the benefit of the saṅgha, and the Buddha’s presence is not the focus of the event. Judging from their visual execution, these two life episodes were treated more as edifying jātaka. The prodigious conception scene, with its white elephant, fits well among the jātaka stories, having as protagonists animals engaged in extraordinary actions, as does the donation of the grove, an act of generosity that emphasizes the surreal incident of the layer of coins entirely covering the ground. See Brancaccio 2005.

  29. Brancaccio 2005.

  30. Of the 225 inscriptions documented on the Bhārhut vedikā, 77 record acts of donation while 84 are labels to the sculptural representations (Salomon, 1998: 141 n.77).

  31. Brown 1997: 66.

  32. See Zin 2019 and Dehejia 1997.

  33. From the study by Allon (1997) of approach formulas recurrent in the Dīgha-Nikāya, it seems that the various localities of the action were identified even before the protagonists of the story were introduced. The same is true also for Sanskrit sūtras.

  34. Shulman 2021.

  35. On the role of bhāṇakas see von Hinuber (1996: 25); Drewes (2011) and Gummer (2012) explore in detail the role of dharmabhāṇakas in the Māhayāna tradition.

  36. For Kanagahanalli see von Hinuber and Naknishi 2014; for Sanchi see Marshall and Foucher 1982, I: inscr. 529 pl.135.69 and inscr. 691 pl. 137.60; for Karle see Luders 1973: no. 1095; this inscription is re-edited and illustrated in Brancaccio and Ollett forthcoming: Fig. 6.

  37. The role of navakammika/navakarmika is discussed in detail by Silk (2008:75–99).

  38. Shiri (2020: 62) suggests that the navakarmika at Kanahagahanalli was the one who also conceived the labels inscribed on the narrative reliefs.

  39. Collins 1992.

  40. Lenz 2003.

  41. Lenz 2004: 210.

  42. See Sarma (1985: 19). This stela is also mentioned by Salomon (1998: 120). For a discussion of the Ajaṇṭā labels see Schlingloff (1987: 245–249).

  43. The labels in the Ajaṇṭā caves were certainly unreadable, lost in the densely painted wall surfaces of the dark caves. The inscriptions placed beneath jātaka scenes in cave 2 and cave 17 correspond precisely to Sanskrit verses found in Aryāsura’s Jātakamāla, while in caves 2, 16, and 17, there are only descriptive labels identifying the painted characters. They are addressed by Cohen 1995 appendix A, 328–330, inscription nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; 362–378, inscription nos. 68, 79, 83. See also Schlingloff (1997: 250), who examined Aryāsura’s verse and the visual narrative from cave 17.

  44. On this issue see also Shiri 2020.

  45. On the connections between Gandharan art and performance see Brancaccio (in press).

  46. Robert Brown discusses the labeled jātaka scenes painted high up on the walls of this structure, pointing out that the Mōn inscriptions accompanying the images, which correspond exactly to the Pāli jātaka titles, were not legible. He suggests that the inscriptions had some sort of emblematic, iconic value, much like a visual form of the Tripiṭaka. Brown (1997: 89).

  47. Cunningham 1998, Luders 1963, and Barua 1979.

  48. In the context of the Kanagahanalli epigraphs, Zin (2019: 148, n.23) suggests that references to unknown places may be considered proof of the existence of a lost written tradition, as the relief where based on texts that were redacted locally and are now lost. The existence of a lost canon associated with the nikāyas present at Kanagahanalli is also posited by Tournier (2020). While concurring with these scholars that Buddhist literature, regional in nature, surely existed in antiquity and is now irretrievably lost – and this may have been the case at Bharhut as well, my hypothesis would like to suggest that the visual material was disengaged from the written. A thriving oral tradition, concurring with the existence of written texts, was crucial in morphing the early artistic narratives. As shown in the case of the Gandharī avadāna analyzed by Lenz (2004), the presence of a written canon does not at all exclude the importance of oral storytelling. Observations put forth by Barua on the mixed-use of speech and lack of consistency under the linguistic profile of Bhārhut inscriptions confirm that we should envision regional traditions and unwritten sources behind the visual formulation of the Bhārhut vedikā. Barua (1979: v. 1, 48).

  49. Dehejia (1998:22) has argued for the didactic experience of reading the narrative at Bhārhut, suggesting that visitors were taken around by monks explaining the scenes. The issue of literacy should also be considered when examining these inscriptions. While it is possible that some monks and middle-class patrons at Bhārhut were literate, certainly not all the worshippers were able to read the inscriptions. In a different context, labels on archaic Greek vases have raised similar issues. See Hurwit 1990.

  50. Snodgrass (2000: 33) remarks that labels appear on Greek vases only in the Archaic Period and mostly in association with “especially complex ‘synoptic’ pictures,” which is something that, mutatis mutandis, can be observed in India as well.

  51. Translation by Salomon (1991: Appendix, no. 3, 267–268). See also Luders 1963: 105–109, B32–34 and Cunningham (1998: 84–89).

  52. Jyotindra Jain discusses the ancient tradition of picture showmen and illustrates some of the images that accompany the oral narrative (1998: 8–21). See also Chatterji (2020) and Kadekar and Chasley (2020).

  53. See Jain (1998: Figs. 5 and 6).

  54. See Mair (1988: 103).

  55. See Patua Art (1989: 5).

  56. De Selva (1996: 190).

  57. As pointed out by Chatterji (2016) in the context of the Chitrakar tradition, it is assumed that the stories told are known in advance and nothing is ever narrated for the first time.

  58. In 13th century Japan, Buddhist itinerant preachers would deliver teachings to the lay followers using picture scrolls to collect funding for the renovations of major Buddhist temples (Kaminishi, 2006: 103–118) - one wonders if a similar scenario could also be envisioned for the funding of the monumental stone enclosure at Bharhūt.

  59. Patua Art (1989: 12). These picture scrolls in Gujarati are called tipanu, which means ‘recording’ or ‘remark’.

  60. Dehejia 1997: 25–28.

  61. Singh (1998: 101).

  62. See Singh (1998: 8) and Varadpande (1987: vol. 1, 86–88).

  63. See Coomaraswamy (1929).

  64. Coomaraswamy (1929: 25).

  65. Collins (1992: 123).

  66. Mair (1998: 47).


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Brancaccio, P. Art and Performance in the Buddhist Visual Narratives at Bhārhut. J Indian Philos (2022).

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