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Buddhism: Visual & Material Culture: South Asia

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Image: Buddha statues in a contemporary shop in Bodhgaya, India. Source: Unsplash. | Creator: Kasturi Laxmi Mohit. | License: Unsplash license.

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This book explores the generative relationships between artistic intelligence and tantric vision practices in the construction and circulation of visual knowledge in medieval South Asia. Shifting away from the traditional connoisseur approach, Kim instead focuses on the materiality of painting: its mediums, its visions, and especially its colors. She argues that the adoption of the pothi-format manuscript as a medium for painting in Indic religious circles enabled the material translation of a private and internal experience of "seeing" into a portable device. These mobile and intimate objects then became important conveyers of many forms of knowledge--ritual, artistic, social, scientific, and religious--and spurred the spread of visual knowledge of Indic Buddhism to distant lands. By taking color as the material link between a vision and its artistic output, Garland of Visions presents a paradigm-shifting material history of Indian painting.

Pal Puja and Piety cover artPuja and Piety: Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Art from the Indian Subcontinent, edited by Pratapaditya Pal. University of California Press, 2016.

This book celebrates the complexity of South Asian representation and iconography by examining the relationship between aesthetic expression and the devotional practice, or puja, in the three native religions of the Indian subcontinent. This stunning and authoritative catalogue presents some 150 objects created over the past two millennia for temples, home worship, festivals, and roadside shrines. From monumental painted temple hangings and painted meditation diagrams to portable pictures for pilgrims, from stone sculptures to processional bronzes and wooden chariots, from ancient terracottas to various devotional objects for domestic shrines, this volume provides much-needed context and insight into classical and popular art of India. Featuring an introduction by the eminent art historian and curator Pratapaditya Pal; accessible essays on each religious tradition by Stephen P. Huyler, John E. Cort, and Christian Luczanits; and useful guides to iconography and terms by Debashish Banerji, this richly illustrated catalogue will provide a lasting resource for readers interested in South Asian art and spirituality.

DeCaroli Image Problems cover artImage Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha's Image in Early South Asia by Robert DeCaroli. 2015.

This deft and lively study by Robert DeCaroli explores the questions of how and why the earliest verifiable images of the historical Buddha were created. In so doing, DeCaroli steps away from old questions of where and when to present the history of Buddhism’s relationship with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations within the Buddhist community and in society at large. By comparing innovations in Brahmanical, Jain, and royal artistic practice, DeCaroli examines why no image of the Buddha was made until approximately five hundred years after his death and what changed in the centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era to suddenly make those images desirable and acceptable. The textual and archaeological sources reveal that figural likenesses held special importance in South Asia and were seen as having a significant amount of agency and power. Anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists, helping to explain why images of Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites also are absent from the material record of the centuries BCE. DeCaroli shows how the emergence of powerful dynasties and rulers, who benefited from novel modes of visual authority, was at the root of the changes in attitude toward figural images.


Linrothe Collecting Paradise cover artCollecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies by Robert N. Linrothe. Rubin Museum of Art, 2014.

From the 7th to 11th centuries, Kashmir -- a lush valley connected to the Silk Road -- was a wealthy center of transcultural trade, culture and religion. Beginning in the 10th century, Buddhists in the Western Himalayas traveled to Kashmir to acquire, preserve and emulate its sophisticated art. Kashmiri artists also accepted invitations to travel to the Western Himalayas during this period to work with and teach local artists. The distinctive workmanship of the Kashmiri style became integrated into the identity of Tibetan Buddhism in this period and experienced a revival in the Western Himalayas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Centuries later, beginning in the 1900s, artworks from Kashmir and the Western Himalayas became prized acquisitions for collections in the U.S. and Europe. Western explorers, scholars and travelers removed these works -- often surreptitiously -- from their places of origin. Today many of these works reside in public and private collections. Collecting Paradise features Buddhist objects, including manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures in ivory, metal and wood, dating from the 7th to 17th centuries. With 44 objects, the exhibition presents an original and innovative look at art from the region of Kashmir and the Western Himalayas, as well as how it has been collected over time.

Kim Receptacle of the Sacred cover artReceptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia by Jinah Kim. University of California Press, 2013.

In considering medieval illustrated Buddhist manuscripts as sacred objects of cultic innovation, Receptacle of the Sacred explores how and why the South Asian Buddhist book-cult has survived for almost two millennia to the present. A book “manuscript” should be understood as a form of sacred space: a temple in microcosm, not only imbued with divine presence but also layered with the memories of many generations of users. Jinah Kim argues that illustrating a manuscript with Buddhist imagery not only empowered it as a three-dimensional sacred object, but also made it a suitable tool for the spiritual transformation of medieval Indian practitioners. Through a detailed historical analysis of Sanskrit colophons on patronage, production, and use of illustrated manuscripts, she suggests that while Buddhism’s disappearance in eastern India was a slow and gradual process, the Buddhist book-cult played an important role in sustaining its identity. In addition, by examining the physical traces left by later Nepalese users and the contemporary ritual use of the book in Nepal, Kim shows how human agency was critical in perpetuating and intensifying the potency of a manuscript as a sacred object throughout time.

Tartakov Dalit Art cover artDalit Art and Visual Imagery, edited by Gary Michael Tartakov. Oxford University Press, 2012.

This volume creates a seamless narrative of Dalit identity through use of visuals and accompanying explanatory texts. Spanning the historical and contemporary period, the volume investigates the representation of Dalit identities in Buddhist imagery, Hindu temples and traditional caste system, popular art and painting, and state-sponsored architecture and sculpture. Raising the face of contemporary untouchability into view, it explores the uses of visual imagery by, for and against Dalits in Indian society. Where are the images of Dalit oppression in the Hindu temple or Dalit triumph in the Navayana Buddhist viharas? How have Dalits used images of B.R. Ambedkar to bring their reality before the nation? How are Dalits attempting to use visual imagery to describe the world around them, work out their own identities and to shape their destinies?

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The “monumental bias” of Buddhist archaeology has hampered our understanding of the socio-religious mechanisms that enabled early Buddhist monks to establish themselves in new areas. To articulate these relationships, Shaw presents here the first integrated study of settlement archaeology and Buddhist history, carried out in the area around Sanchi, a Central Indian UNESCO World Heritage site. Her comprehensive, data-rich, and heavily illustrated work provides an archaeological basis for assessing theories regarding the dialectical relationship between Buddhism and surrounding lay populations. It also sheds light on the role of the introduction of Buddhism in changing settlement patterns.

Siudmak Sculpture Kashmir cover artThe Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Ancient Kashmir and Its Influences by John Siudmak. 2013.

This work is primarily based on the study of the largely unpublished corpus of sculpture, mostly of stone, in the Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar, and of other examples in situ elsewhere in the valley. The disparate nature and fragmentary condition of these sculptures as well as their artistic and iconographical influences have for long defied accurate analysis. The method used in the classification of these sculptures is based on close analysis of their style concentrating on recurring features such as facial and physical typology, modelling, dress and ornamentation. Comparisons are made with other examples of Kashmir bronze, ivory and stone sculpture in private and public collections both within India and abroad.


Quintanilla Mathura cover artHistory of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura, ca. 150 BCE-100 CE by Sonya Rhie Quintanilla. 2007.

This volume provides the first comprehensive analysis and chronology of the earliest known stone sculptures from the north Indian city of Mathura, dating prior to the famous Kushan period. It includes numerous new attributions of objects based primarily on epigraphic and visual analysis. The sculptures attributable to these pre-Kushan periods reveal new evidence for the reasons behind the emergence of the anthropomorphic image of the Buddha at Mathura, the predominance of a heterodox sect of Jainism, and the proliferation of cults of nature divinities. This book provides a wealth of reference material useful for historians of early Indian art, religion, and epigraphy. The book is illustrated with over three hundred photographs, and it includes epigraphic appendices with complete transcriptions and updated translations.

Luczanits Clay cover artBuddhist Sculpture in Clay: Early Western Himalayan Art, Late 10th to Early 13th Century by Christian Luczanits. Serindia Publications, 2004.

Luczanits (Buddhist art, U. of Vienna, Austria) draws on extensive research, including numerous visits to the many temples he documents in the Himalayas in this beautifully illustrated and very thorough survey of clay Buddhist sculpture there. The text is divided into sections that provide an initial overview, a survey of Buddhist temples containing clay sculpture, a comparison of the sculpture, and a brief look at later examples. The sculpture are described in situ, with attention to their condition, appearance, decoration, grouping, and date. The traditions associated with the various temples and sculpture are described briefly. In comparing the sculpture, Luczanits considers details of iconography, styles and composition, ornamentation a nd frames, and construction techniques.

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This collection of essays explores the centrality of ritual practices and the agency of people? patrons, ritual specialists, devotees? in creating and amplifying the efficacy of Buddhist art. Jinah Kim and Todd Lewis highlight the unparalleled contributions of Nepal?s artisans, patrons, and ritualists in engendering artistic heritage that is an endearing continuation of Indic Buddhist traditions. The publication presents paintings, illuminated texts, statues, and ritual implements from the Newar tradition in the Kathmandu Valley. Richly illustrated with photographs of contemporary rituals, religious observances, and historical examples, the essays provide cultural, historical and ritual contexts in which objects collected in art museums were used, and animate them. By recentering the historical imagination on communities, their rituals, and popular narrative traditions, Dharma and Punya challenges prevailing misconceptions about Buddhism in the West and expand our understanding of Buddhism.

Furger Gilded cover artThe Gilded Buddha: The Traditional Art of the Newar Metal Casters in Nepal by Alex R. Furger. LIBRUM, 2017.

This book celebrates in words and images the traditional metal crafts practised for over a thousand years by the creators of religious Buddhist statues in Nepal. The skills of these artisans are nurtured with deep respect for tradition, regarding religion, iconography and technology. Wax modellers, mould makers, casters, fire-gilders and chasers are among the specialists of the Newar ethnic group, whose work is characterised to this day by a melding of age-old technology, great skill, religious observance and contemplation. There are numerous books and exhibition catalogues dedicated to Buddhist art and iconography but little was available about the craft of the artists who turn the religious imagery into metal casts. This book fills this gap, with a thoroughly documented and historical account of the development of this "archaic" technology. The well-informed text and comprehensive photographic coverage constitute the only up-to-date account and full documentation of an art that is 1300 years old but dying out: the "ritual" production of Buddhist statues in the lost wax casting technique.

Slusser & Jett cover artThe Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment by Mary Shepherd Slusser & Paul Jett. University of Washington Press, 2010.

Mary Slusser’s work on the history of the art and culture of Nepal is marked by a series of discoveries and critical reassessments that have advanced our comprehension of this extraordinarily rich culture and art in a revolutionary way. In this work, Slusser drastically revises our perception of the marvelous wooden sculpture of the Kathmandu Valley. Previously considered to be no earlier than the thirteenth century, the earliest of these wooden masterpieces have now been clearly demonstrated to date from the sixth or seventh century, the time of the Licchavis, lords of Nepal from about 300 to 850. Slusser has used an important scientific tool, radiocarbon dating, to help realign -- and correct -- our overly conservative accepted perceptions of the antiquity of Nepalese wood sculpture. The book is bolstered by the meticulous and painstaking research and documentation that are among the hallmarks of Slusser’s works. It is also enriched by her extraordinary photographic archive. Beautiful struts and architectural details that have long been missing from the sites where Slusser first saw them are shown once again in situ in this work, and new photographs, largely the work of Neil Greentree, reveal a wealth of previously unsuspected detail.


Bartholomew & Johnston cover artThe Dragon's Gift: Sacred Arts of Bhutan, edited by Terese Tse Bartholomew & John Johnston. Serindia, 2008.

This book offers a rare opportunity to introduce, to the wider international audience, some of the most sacred Buddhist images of Bhutan. From the wealth of material surveyed, the organizers of the accompanying exhibition have selected over one hundred objects of superior aesthetic achievement and deep religious significance, the vast majority of which have never before been seen in the West. Nearly all of the works of art presented in this catalogue are from active temples and monasteries and remain in ritual use. Most of the items are painted or textile thangkas or gilt bronze sculptures which date primarily from the 17th to the 19th centuries a golden age in the Buddhist arts of Bhutan. Ranging from depictions of Tantric deities to individualized portraits of Buddhist masters, the exhibition and catalogue present outstanding works of art with a wide iconographic scope. For the Buddhist people of Bhutan, these sacred items are conceived as supports along the journey to enlightenment, and are of vital spiritual significance.

Kreijger Kathmandu cover artKathmandu Valley Painting: The Jucker Collection by Hugo Kreijger. Serindia, 1999.

For most lovers of Nepalese art, the Jucker collection will come as a revelation. The core of the collection was assembled during the 1960s in India, with a few well-judged additions in recent years filling in the remaining stylistic and iconographic lacunae. The collection as it stands gives excellent overall view of the painting tradition in the Kathmandu Valley from the thirteenth to the early twentieth century - including several extremely rare scrolls for which there are no comparable pieces in other private or public collections. This catalogue is the first to treat the Kathmandu Valley painting tradition. As such, its scrolls, bookcovers and sketchbooks are an indispensable resource for all students of Nepalese art.

Hutt & Gellner cover artNepal: A Guide to the Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley by Michael Hutt & David N. Gellner. Adroit Publishers, 1994.

Essential for both the traveller and scholar alike. Nepal fills a long dorment gap in the literature of this spectacular region and is a product of many years of individual research by scholars of Nepal's history, religion, art and sociology. It draws on a variety of authoritative studies of Nepal's cultural history that have been published in Europeon and Nepalese languages. The guide begins with an overview of the history of Nepal. This focuses on the Kathmandu Valley, with its rich and sophisticated culture, but also outlines developments of historical importance outside the valley. This is followed by a detailed introduction to religion as it is practised in Nepal: here, the focus is on Hinduism and Buddhism, and on the major deities of each tradition, their relationship to one another, and their representation in art and sculpture. There are also introductory chapters on the main forms of architecture and the principal art forms: painting, stone sculpture, metalcasting and woodcarving.