Bodhi Yatra: An Exhibition of Harmony, Art and Assimilation

The Indian Museum, Kolkata established back in 1814, has recently organised an impressive exhibition on its foundation day. The exhibition entitled “Bodhi Yatra: Revisiting Buddhist Ways to Nirvana” showcased a selected series of important Buddhist artefacts.

The series depicted the chronological development of Buddhist iconography from the early 2nd century BCEE to the 12th century CE. Icons, as we know, are not just objects related to religious beliefs, but they speak of economy, power, and culture. From the Jataka stories to Buddha’s cremation relics, from the Buddhist council of Mauryan period to tantric Buddhist idols of the Pala era- the exhibition offered a vivid journey through the chapters of India’s history.

(This panel shows Bodhisattva offering his elephant to the Brahmanas after pouring water into his hand from a vessel during a ceremony)

The exhibition started with a coping stone fragment containing a scripture dating back to the Shunga Period, roughly 2nd c. BCE. This stone medallion had been excavated and collected by Alexander Cunningham, founding father of Indian Archaeology, from the Site of Bhahrut in Madhya Pradesh. This coping stone fragment tells the story of “Vessantara Jataka”. This legendary Jataka story narrates the tale of one of Buddha’s previous births, when he was born as a prince named Vessantara in the Kingdom of Sivirattha. The sacred white elephant Peccaya, who had the power of bringing rain, was born at the very same moment. After his father Sanjaya retired from royal duties, Vessantara was enthroned as the king. Already famous for his charity, he was requested by some Brahmanas sent by the King of Kalinga, a state that was suffering severe drought, for his favourite elephant. Vessantara, in his quest to attain perfection, donated Peccaya, against the opposition of enraged citizens of Sivirattha. This was the very beginning of a long journey of sacrifice that would ultimately lead him to perfection. This absolute devotion to dana-dharma or charity led him to be born as Siddhartha Goutama.

(A medallion of panel from Mūgapakkha Jataka, Sunga Period, Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh 2nd c. CE)

Opposite to the panel of Vessantara Jataka, another medallion belonging to the Sunga period was placed. This is a square-sized stone panel, telling us the story of “Mūgapakkha Jataka”. The story goes that Buddha was born as Temiya in one of his previous births. Temiya had the incredible ability to recall the memories of his previous birth. When he was one month old, he remembered that he had reigned as the King of Kashi for twenty years and as a result he had suffered for twenty thousand years. Anguished at the thought of becoming a king again, he began to remain dumb and incapable of any action. Ultimately, he was sentenced to death. When the royal charioteer Sunanda was digging Temiya’s grave, he broke his silence and spoke of his purpose of becoming an ascetic. Impressed by his words, Sunanda himself wished to become an ascetic.

(This stone scripture shows the great departure of Buddha by his horse Kantaka in the lower panel, where the upper panel shows the moments before his Renunciation)

Afterthe Jataka section, stone scriptures were placed depicting some of the most valuable life events of Buddha. The title being “The Great events from the Life of Buddha”. The scriptures were quite magnificent examples of Gandhara art, inscribed in the 2nd c. CE. Other than the birth of Siddhartha, the most important event that was depicted, was the mahabhiniskramana or the Great Renunciation of Buddha. This was the moment when Siddhartha leaving behind the endless luxury of royal life, started his journey towards nirvana. The medallion was collected from Loriyan Tangrai in Pakistan. Greek influence is abundantly visible here in the depiction of minute muscular details and dresses.

(Panel showing the “dharmachakrapravartana” of Buddha, with his first five disciples at Sarnath in a Deer Park.  Longra Tarai, Pakistan, 2nd c. CE)

Next, there was a stone inscribed with Buddha’s first sermon which known as “dharmachakraprabartana”. Buddha preached his first religious discourse in Sarnath. This panel shows that Buddha is surrounded by his first five disciples.

(Casket Relic with Brahmi Script, Taxila Pakistan, 3rd cent BCEE)

The last part of this section showcased reliquary caskets. One of them was a rare relic casket, made in 3rd c. BCE, and found from Taxila, Pakistan. Discovered by Alexander Peppe in 1898.

(Worship of tri-ratna, Pakistan, 2nd c. CE)

According to Buddhist philosophy the tri-ratna (or the three jewels) stands for Buddha (the enlightened one), Dharma (teachings of Buddha)  and Sangha (The Monastic Order). This beautiful medallion shows the worship of tri-ratna symbolically represented by three wheels. The panel also depicts two seated monks and four royal persons who stand for the virtues of adoration.

According to Buddhist philosophy the tri-ratna (or the three jewels) stands for Buddha (the enlightened one), Dharma (teachings of Buddha)  and Sangha (The Monastic Order). This beautiful medallion shows the worship of tri-ratna symbolically represented by three wheels. The panel also depicts two seated monks and four royal persons who stand for the virtues of adoration.

(Worship of the Bodhi Tree Representing Kanakmuni Buddha, inscribed with a one-line Brahmi inscription on the top. Bharhut, 2nd c. BCE,)

Almost three centuries after Buddha departed, the Bodhi Tree of Sarnath was not only a sacred entity but also a symbol of Buddha himself. This panel entitled ‘Worship of Bodhi tree representing Kanakmuni Buddha” has Brahmi inscription which means the Bodhi tree of Lord Kanakmuni. This stone inscription had been found from the same Bharhut region in Madhya Pradesh.

In the Mahayana section, iconographic figures of Buddha in various Mudras were shown. Mudras were specific bodily gestures with very specific meaning. Some of them – vajra mudra (knowledge), varada mudra (charity, compassion), anjali mudra (devotion) and vitarka mudra (intellectual debate) were of utmost importance to the worshippers.

The last section of the exhibition depicted the iconographic representation of tantric Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Buddhism adopted various aspects of tantric practises prevalent in eastern India. Thus, philosophical schools like Vajrayana and Sahajayana were born.

Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (one of the incarnations of Buddha) was extremely popular during the Pala era (c. 750-1151 CE) . The term Avalokitesvara means “the watchful god”, who is also known as Padmapani or Lotus bearer. Images of Tara, the shakti or consort of Avalokitesvara was also displayed here.

(Twelve handed Avolotikesvara, Pala dynasty, 10th c. CE)

There were also the images of varjradharma lokeswara, sukhavati lokeswara and trailyokovijaya on display from the Vajrayana school of the Pala period. Perhaps the most significant idol from this section was of Yuv Yam’s. The God popular in Tibetan Buddhism represents the primordial wisdom and compassion. The female counterpart of this image or the Shakti are sitting on the lap of the Yuv Yam. She represents insight here.

(Yuv Yam- The Multi headed Buddhist God with his Shakti, Nepal, 12th c. CE)

Idols of some important feminine deities were placed at the end of the gallery. One of them was Ushnishavujaya, a three headed feminine deity worshipped in Tibet. Ushnishavujaya represents exceptional intelligence, sitting in a vajraparyanka posture each of her right arm either showing veranda or abhaya mudra. She symbolises the force of nature and holds various implements in her hands (i.e., arrow, bow and vivipara).

Ushnishvijaya, Bihar, 11th c. CE

In the end, it was rightly asserted that although the glory of Buddhism has gradually ceased in India, some of the traditions have lived on among various sects. The bauls and sahajiyas of Bengal still bear the traces of Sahajayana Buddhism.

Overall, it was a well curated exhibition both in terms of arrangements and selection. Satyakam Sen, curator of the museum remarked that the exhibition was noteworthy as it indicated the evolution of various Buddhist ways of attaining Nirvana or Salvation. The variety of paths speaks of the harmonic cultural coexistence of different thoughts that were present in India, said the curator.

Aritra Roy Barman
Aritra Roy Barmanhttp://indiaworldview.con
Aritra Roy Barman is a student of History, in Presidency University. His research area includes ancient and early modern Indian History, archaeology, economic history, and Buddhism

More from author

Related posts

Latest posts

Indian cinema: environment and engagement

Cinema’s relationship with society is well documented yet the question of its influence and capacity to trigger behavioral change remains a matter of investigation....


There is a row of shuttered shops opposite an abandoned dusty ground on the outskirts of Ajmer. On any routine day, this is a...

Mangroves Provide a Bio-shield Against Natural Disasters

Recently, the Indian government has announced a scheme for mangrove plantation along the coastlines (Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes, MISHTI). Mangroves...