Sister Nivedita.

Footfalls of Indian history [microform] online

. (page 9 of 17)
Online LibrarySister NiveditaFootfalls of Indian history [microform] → online text (page 9 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

beauty covering every inch of the walls behind
them no array of colleges or cathedrals in the
whole world could make such a thing seem ordinary.
For it was doubtless as colleges that the great task
was carried out in them, and we can see that it
took centuries. That is to say, for some hundreds


of years Ajanta was thought of in India as one of
the great opportunities of the artist, or maybe as
a grand visual exposition 'of the monkish classics.

We can judge of the length of time over which
the work spread, the time during which the tradi-
tion was growing up, by the fact that the paintings
in Cave Sixteen, which is older, are stiffer and
more purely decorative, such of them as remain,
than those in Seventeen. But even those of
Sixteen are not the oldest pictures at Ajanta.
When we enter Cave Nine for the first time, we
find ourselves in the company of a great host of
rapt and adoring worshippers. They stand on
every face of the simple octagonal pillars, with
their looks turned always to the solemn looking
stupa or dagoba. They have each one of them a
nimbus behind him. They might be Bodhisattvas,
but the feeling of worship so fills the little chapel
that instinctively one puts them down as the early
saints and companions of Buddha, and turns with a
feeling of awe to join their adoration of the dome-
like altar. They are not archaic in the sense of
crudity. But they have the feeling of an early
world about them. They are like the work of Fra
Angelico, but may be anything in date from the
second century onwards, that is to say a thousand
years before his time ! In the aisle that runs
behind the pillars the walls are covered with simple
scenes from the Teaching of Buddha. Here we
find the mother bringing her dead son, and the
Master seated with his disciples about him. But



we return to the nave, and, again looking at the
forms on the pillar-faces, let ourselves dream for a
moment, till we seem to hear the deep Adoramus
with which they fill the air around us.

This silent throng of painted worshippers sug-
gests to the mind's eye the worship itself that once
filled the little cathedral chapel. We see the pro-
cession of monks that must have entered at one
door, made pradakshina about the altar, and gone
out on the other side. We see the lights that they
carried, the incense they waved, the prostrations
they made, and the silent congregation of lay-folk
and students who may have looked on them from
the back of the nave, as even now at a Hindu arati
one may kneel apart and watch. We hear the
chanting of the monks as the incense was swung,
and we realise the problem that Buddhism had to
solve in giving solemnity and impressiveness to a
worship denuded of the splendours and significance
of sacrifice. It must have been this consciousness
that led to the rapid organisation of a ritual whose
elements were all indeed derived from the Vedic,
but which was in its entirety the most character-
istic and organic expression of democratic religion
that the world had ever seen. The history of
Christian worship has not yet been written, but it
is open to us to believe that when it is, its debt to
the chaityas will be found greater than is now

The host of saints and apostles brings us face

to face with another thought. We see how much



the stupa-shaped altar meant to the Buddhist
worshipper. We begin to feel our way back to all
that it implied. Sanctified by ages of consecration
for there was a pre.-Buddhistic stupa-worship ;
Newgrange, the Irish Sanchi, is a thousand years
older than Buddha men saw in that domed
mound more than we now can ever fathom. Yet
we may look at it and try to summon up all that we
have felt for this symbol or for that. How curious
are the things to which the heart of man has gone
out in its fulness from time to time ! A couple of
spars lashed together at right angles ; a couple of
crescent-shaped axes back to back ; a cairn. And
each of these has had the power in its day to make
men die joyfully and merrily as a piece of good
fortune ! Usually it is easier to imagine this when
the emblem has taken to itself an icon or image.
The crucifix might better make martyrs than the
cross, one thinks. The stupa with the Buddha
upon it stirs one deeper than the stupa or dagoba
alone. Yet here amongst the choir of saints we
catch a hint of quite another feeling, and we under-
stand that when the icon was added to the emblem
faith was already dim.

The University of Ajanta departs in its paintings
from primitive simplicity. Cave Sixteen is highly
decorated, and Cave Seventeen a veritable labyrinth
of beauty and narrative. Everywhere flames out
some mighty subject, and everywhere ;are connect-
ing links and ornamental figures. Not once does
inspiration fail, though the soft brightness to-day



is for the most part dim, and the colours have
largely to be guessed at. What are the subjects ?
Ah, that is the question ! Here at any rate is one
rendered specially famous, for the moment, by the
recent labours upon it of an English artist, l which
evidently portrays the Maha Hansa Jatak from the
Jatakas or Birth-Tales. 2 These were the Puranas
of Buddhism. That is to say, they were its popular
literature. History is to a great extent merely the
story of organisation, the gradual selecting and
ordering of elements already present. And in that
sense the Puranas form a reflection and imitation
of the Jatakas. The elements of both were present
before. Buddhism organised the one in Pali, and
Hinduism, later, the other in Sanskrit. But in
some cases it would appear as if the Mahavamsa,
with its history of the evangelising of Ceylon, had
been the treasure-house of Ajanta artists. There
are in some of the caves, notably One, pictures of
ships and elephant-hunts which seem to corre-

1 See the reproduction in the Burlington Magazine for June 1910,
together with Mrs. Herringham's valuable notes.

2 Queen Kbema has a dream about golden geese, and entreats
Samyama the king to find one for her. The king has a decoy lake
constructed and his fowler captures the king of the geese. The
monarch is deserted by all his subjects save one, Sumukha, his chief
captain. Then the two are brought before the king, who treats them
with great honour, and when the goose-king has preached the law to
him, they both return, with his permission, to their own kith and kin
on the slopes of Chittrakuta.

" The Master here ended his story, and identified the Birth : at that
time the fowler was Channa, Queen Khema was the nun Khema, the
king was Sariputta, the king's retinue the followers of Buddha,
Samukha was Ananda, and the Goose-king was myself, Maha
Hamsa Jataka, p. 534. Vol. v. Cowell's Jataka.


spond to known fragments of that story. Yet
again, in the same cave, there will be another
picture of something frankly Puranic or Jatakyan,
such as the king stepping into the balances, in
the presence of a hawk and a dove and it is
impossible in the present state of the paintings to
make out the sequence. Here also occurs that
political picture which dates the paintings of Cave
One as after, but near, A.D. 626. It would be
natural enough that the story of Ceylon should
dispute with the Jatakas the interest of the Buddhist
world. It formed the great romance of the faith.
The same efforts had been made and as great work
done in many other cases, but here was a country
so small that the effort told. The whole civilisation
yielded with enthusiasm to the stream of impulse
that came to it from the home-land of its sovereigns.
The Sacred Tree, with the prince Mahindo and the
princess Sanghamitta, had formed an embassy of
state of which any country might be proud. And
the connection thus made had been maintained.
We may imagine, if we please, that there were
students from Ceylon here in the Sangharama of
Ajanta. Kings and nobles would doubtless send
their sons to the monasteries for education, even
as is still done in the villages of Burma and Japan.
The East was early literary in her standards of
culture, and the fact that monastic instruction
would no way have benefited a Norman baron
need not make us suppose that the ministers and
sovereigns of India, early in the Christian era,


From Drawing by Nanda Lai Bose of the Fresco
painting at Ajanta.


boasted an equally haughty illiteracy. The whole
aspect of the caves, with the viharas containing the
shrine of the Great Guru, tells us of the develop-
ment which their functions had undergone, from
being simple bhikshugrihas to organised colleges,
under the single rulership of the abbot of Ajanta.
Hiouen Tsang was only one out of a stream of
foreign guests who came to the abbey to give
knowledge or to gather it. And we must, if we
would see truly, people its dark aisles and gloomy
shadows with voices and forms of many nation-
alities from widely distant parts of the earth. In
Cave One is an historical painting of the Persian
Embassy which was sent by Khusru II to
Pulakesin I about A.D. 626.

The cave I myself like least is Number Two.
Here we have side-chapels containing statues of
kings and queens or it may be pious patrons of
less exalted rank, in one case with a child. The
painting also in this cave has in some cases de-
teriorated in quality, although some great master-
pieces are to be found here. There are parts where
we can only think that a master has painted the
principal figure and left the background or the
retinue to be done by pupils or subordinates ; and
in some places we find foreshadowings of faults
that were afterwards amongst the peasant painters
to be carried far. There is an air of worldliness in
placing the great of the earth almost in a line with
the Master himself, though this must have been
done long before the paintings were put on the


walls, and the fact that some of these are also
wanting in severity and style is a mere accident.
There is another cave at the other end of the line
where we find the same order of paintings as here.
I think it must be Twenty-one. Indeed throughout
the series from Nineteen to Twenty-six, any paint-
ing that remains is very inferior to that in Caves
One to Seventeen. The subjects are full of life and
energy. The fault is only that there is not the same
learnedness and grandeur of treatment as in the
best works of the Ajanta masters. Nowhere in the
world could more beautiful painting be found than
in the king listening to the golden goose in Cave
Seventeen, or than the Masque of Spring which I
should have liked to interpret as the entrance of
Queen Maya into the Garden of Lumbini on the
top of a pilaster in the same cave. According
to the distinguished critic who has just been at
work upon them, these pictures have many of the
characteristics that appear almost a thousand years
later in the best works of the great Italian masters.
This is seen not only in general effects, but also in
many of the details in method. The painters knew,
for instance, how to graduate the outline so as to
vary the intensity of its expression. And the same
authority says that the anatomical knowledge shown
in the modelling of limb and flesh is almost un-
approachable. All this implies not only the
advanced contemporary development of painting,
but also the highest degree of concentration and
respect for the work on the part of the worker.


It |is this quality which seems somewhat to have
lost its intensity in certain instances in Cave Two.

My own favourite amongst the caves is Four.
But it is unfinished, and appears never to have
been painted inside. Its proportions are wonder-
ful wide, lofty, vast. " This might have been our
Westminster Abbey ! " sighed an Indian fellow-
guest, as we entered it for the first time. And the
words exactly express it. It might have been
India's Westminster Abbey.

But as they stand, it is Cave One that contains
the masterpiece. Here on the left of the central
shrine is a great picture, of which the lines and
tints are grown now dim but remain still delicate.
A man young, and of heroic size stands gazing,
a lotus in his hand, at the world before him. He is
looking down and out into the vihara. About him
and on the road behind him stand figures of
ordinary size. And in the air are mythical beings,
kinnaras and others, crowding to watch. This fact
marks the central personage as Buddha. But the
ornaments that he wears as well as his tall crown
show that we have here Buddha the prince, not
Buddha the ascetic. A wondrous compassion per-
vades his face and bearing, and on his left that is,
to the spectator's right stands a woman, curving
slightly the opposite way, but seeming in every line
to echo gently the feeling that he more commonly
expresses. This picture is perhaps the greatest
imaginative presentment of Buddha that the world
ever saw. Such a conception could hardly occur


twice. Nor is it easy to doubt, with the gate behind
him and the waving palms of a royal garden all
about him, that it is Buddha in that hour when the
thought of the great abandonment first comes to
him, Buddha on the threshold of renunciation,
suddenly realising and pondering on the terrible
futility of the life of man. His wife awaits him,
gently, lovingly, yet with a sympathy, an heroic
potentiality that is still deeper than all her longing
sweetness. Yasodhara had a place, it seems, in the
dreams of the monk-painters of Ajanta, and it was
the place of one who could cling in the hour of
tenderness, and as easily stand alone and inspire
the farewell of a higher call. It was the place
of one who was true and faithful to the great-
ness of her husband, not merely to his daily
needs. It was the place of one who attained as
a wife, because she was already great as a woman.
These were the forms that looked down upon the
noble Mahratta and Rajput * youth of the kingdom
of the Chalukyas in their proudest days. Students
trained here may have been amongst those who
officered the constant wars of their sovereigns
against the Pallavas of Conjeeveram, and repelled
the invasions that began to fall upon India by the
west coast from the late seventh century onwards.
In their country homes in the rich Indian land,
or round the bivouac fires on the field of battle in

1 The Mahrattas are described as the people of the Ajanta country
by Hiouen Tsang. The throne was held in the sixth, seventh, and
eighth centuries by Chalukya Rajputs.


From Drawing by Nanda Lai Base of the Fresco
painting at Ajanta.


the after-years, they would turn in their thoughts
to these faces, speaking of a nobility and pity that
stand alone in human history. A man is what his
dreams make him. Can we wonder that that age
was great in India whose dreams were even such
as these ?


AMONGST Indian historical documents there is none
more fascinating than the books of their travels
written by the early Chinese pilgrims. Of these
the two now best known to us are those of Fa-
Hian, who came to India about A.D. 400, and
Hiouen Tsang, about A.D. 640. Hiouen Tsang,
owing partly to the accident that his life was after-
wards written by his disciples, appears to us as
a personality, as the head and master of a large
religious following, as a saint as well as a scholar,
a monk as well as a traveller. But Fa-Hian is a
lonelier, more impersonal figure. Monk and pilgrim
as he was, it is rather the geographer that im-
presses us in him. Grave and sparing of words,
he tells us little or nothing of himself. For all we
know, he may have been the very first of the
travellers who came to India on the task of Bud-
dhistic research. From the surprise with which he
is everywhere received and the complimentary ex-
clamations that he records, it would appear indeed
as if this had been so. On the other hand, from
the quietness with which he comes and goes, from
his silence about royal favours, and his own free-
dom from self-consciousness, it would seem as if
the sight of Chinese visitors had not been rare in



the India of that period, though the errand on
which he and his party had come might single
them out for some special degree of reverence and
interrogation. " How great must be the devotion
of these priests/' said the people in the Punjab,
"that they should have come thus to learn the
law from the very extremity of the earth ! " And
yet frequent references to " the Clergy of Reason "
in Kosala and in the south, these Clergy of Reason
having apparently been Taoist monks on pilgrim-
age, involve a curious contradiction in this matter.
Hiouen Tsang's is really a work of autobiography,
but Fa-Hian's is rather the abstract of a statement
made before some learned society, perhaps a uni-
versity in the south of China, and countersigned
by them.

In a certain year, with certain companions, Fa-
Hian set out to make search in India for the Laws
and Precepts of Religion, " because he had been
distressed in Chhang'an (Sian in Shen-si, evidently
his native province) to observe the Precepts and
the theological works on the point of being lost,
and already disfigured by lacunae." Such are the
quiet words with which the narrative begins. So
colourless can be the phrases in which the passion
of a life is stated. From that moment when Fa-
Hian set out, to that other day when " at the end
of the summer rest, they went out to meet Fa-Hian
the traveller," who had surmounted obstacles in-
credible, and borne difficulties innumerable, was
to be fifteen long years !


His book consists of some forty short chapters
or paragraphs, each one dealing as a rule with a
separate province or country. Of it he himself
says :

" The present is a mere summary. Not having
been heard by the Masters hitherto, he (Fa-Hian)
casts not his eyes retrospectively on details. He
crossed the sea and hath returned, after having
overcome every manner of fatigue, and has enjoyed
the happiness of receiving many high and noble
favours. He has been in dangers, and has escaped
them. And now therefore he puts upon the bamboo
what has happened to him, anxious to communicate
to the wise what he hath seen and heard/'

We can hardly doubt that this is a form of super-
scription, offering his paper on his travels to the
consideration of some organised body of scholars.

Those travels themselves had occupied fifteen
years. From the leaving of his native province of
Chhang'an till his crossing of the Indus, " the river
in the west," was a six years' journey. He spent
six years in India itself, including two in Orissa.
And finally, reckoning apparently two years spent
in Ceylon, he was three years on the voyage home.
Each stage of the journey is described, from the
time of leaving Chhang'an. The kingdoms which
he has traversed, he says in closing, number at least
thirty. But, though the provinces south and west
of Khotan are called "India of the North," he
scarcely seems to think that he has reached India
proper till he comes to Mathura. This he treats


almost as if it were a capital. He seizes the moment
of his arrival there to give one of his gem-like
pictures of the whole country and its civilisation.
He describes the Government, the freedom with
which men come and go, untroubled by passport
regulations, and the self-restraint with which justice
is administered and the criminal punished. We
must remember that these were the times of Vikra-
maditya, said to have been " of Ujjain." Was Ujjain,
perhaps, the name of all Western India, and Mathura
its metropolis ? Compared with Mathura, Pataliputra
appears relatively unimportant. It was older, grayer
perhaps, and more imposing. It had been "the
capital of Asoka." Its palaces were still marvellous.
Ecclesiastically, too, it was strong as well as noted.
Royal delegates were posted there from each of the
provinces. But commercially, and perhaps even
politically also, we feel that the centre of power in
India was at the time of Fa-Hian's visit at Mathura.
From this he makes his way, by Samkassa and
Kanauj, into the heart of Buddha's own country
Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Kusinagara, and so on, down
to Ganga, a chain of sites that by the painstaking
labours of so many archaeologists have now been
in great measure recovered. From Ganga he re-
turns to Pataliputra, and thence makes his way to
Benares and Kausambi. Again making Pataliputra
his headquarters, he seems to have spent three
years in the Buddha country learning Sanskrit and
copying manuscripts. And finally he sailed down
the Ganges, through the kingdom of Champa, and


came to Tamluk, or Tamralipti, where he stayed
two years. When he left Tamralipti in a large
ship for the south-west, he appears to have reckoned
himself, though he was yet to spend two years in
Ceylon, as already on the return journey.

The journey, as he describes it, constitutes an
abstract of all that concerns Buddhism, and quietly
ignores everything else in the country. " Brahmans
and heretics " is Fa-Hian's comprehensive term for
Hinduism in all its non-Buddhistic phases. We
are able to gather a great deal nevertheless about
the state of the country from his pages. In the
first place we learn as we do with still greater em-
phasis later from Hiouen Tsang that to a learned
Chinese, who had made an exhaustive study of
Buddhism in Gandhara, and the kingdoms of the
north-west frontier, India proper, or " India of the
Middle," as he calls it, was still the country in which
to seek for original and authentic images. Travers-
ing Gandhara, Swat, Darada, Udyana, Takshasila,
Purushapura, and Nagara (probably Kabul), it was
not in any of these, but in Tamralipti that our
traveller spent two years copying books and painting
images. Again ; already, at the time of Fa-Hian's
visit, the old city of Rajgir, he tells us, is " entirely
desert and uninhabited." It follows that the carvings
and statuary in which to this day that site is rich
are to a great extent of a school of sculpture which
had grown, flourished, and decayed prior to A.D.
400. This in itself is a fact of immense importance.
We constantly find in the travels that sacred places


are marked by "chapels, monasteries, and stupas."
Now a chapel of Buddha is undoubtedly an image-
house. Nor is Fa-Hian himself entirely without
feeling for the historical aspect of that Buddhistic
sculpture which is one of the chosen objects of his
study. He speaks always as if images were common
enough in Buddhism, but he tells us that " the first
of all images of Buddha, and that which men in
aftertimes have copied/' was a certain bull's head
carved in sandal wood, which was made by
Prasenajit,kingof Kosala, at the time when Buddha
was in the Tusita heaven preaching to his mother.
The difference between an image and an emblem
does not seem here to be very clearly apprehended,
but the statement shows once for all that men in
the fourth and fifth centuries looked to the eastern
provinces, and to the country of Buddha's own
activity, as the historic source of Buddhistic statuary.
Again, when travelling in the kingdom of Tho-ly
north-east of the Indus, east of Afghanistan, and
south of the Hindu Kush ; or, as has been suggested,
Darada of the Dards he tells us that there was once
an arhat in this kingdom who sent a certain sculptor
to the Tusita heaven to study the stature and
features of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Three times the
man went, and when he came down he made an
image of heroic size, about eight English feet in
height, which on festival days was wont to become
luminous, and to which neighbouring kings rendered
periodic worship. "This image," adds the pilgrim,
in the far-away tone of one who speaks on hearsay,


" still exists in the same locality." It was after the
making of this statue, he further tells us, that the
Buddhist missionaries began to come from the far
side of the Indus, with their collections of the books
and of the Sacred Precepts ; and the image was
erected three hundred years after the Mahanirvana.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibrarySister NiveditaFootfalls of Indian history [microform] → online text (page 9 of 17)