Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature

Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature

Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature, and it was the later forms that lost this form of representation. The reason behind this is the origins of the art and is a phenomenon that is witnessed in various forms found around the world, including India. Renowned and famous historical figures typically deemed a presentation of them in human form as being unworthy to their own self-perception. The religious leaders were also aware that there was a gap between the actual being and the way he or she was presented in art. This had its own associated risks, and the religious leaders were aware of these as well. In the case of Buddhism and ancient Buddhism art, the influence of the Theravada meant that it developed as a symbolic, non-iconic form, which is referred to as “aniconism”.

The viewpoints and opinions about aniconism and the early Buddhist art vary, and the articles by Susan Huntington and Vidya Dehejia present two such contrarian stands. They provide views on both the theory of Aniconism as well as the manner in which Buddhist art is supposed to be seen and understood. Both the authors agree on one aspect, which is the existence of aniconism. Where they have their differences is on the evidence and the explanation that they offer, and on why or why not aniconism is the perfect theory to understand examples of early Buddhist art.

Dehejia’s interpretation of early Buddhist art begins with the Buddha’s descent at Sankissa Swat, Gandhara and as being an aniconic representation. Dehejia looks at the manner in which the Buddha is leading to the pilgrimage, and focuses on the footprints seen at the bottom of the ladder. Using this seemingly innocuous addition to the art, Dehejia argues for the existence of aniconism and says that the footprints point to the artist wanting to show the presence of the Buddha without depicting his actual form.  It is also possible to have varying interpretations on the same artifact. The artists responsible for the creation of such works tended to merge various ideas and meanings. Dehejia is of the belief that this merging was intentional and meant to create multiple meanings in the visual narratives of early Buddhist art.  She feels that the interoperations can be made in three distinct ways. Apart from being just aniconic representations, they may also be seen as attributes of the faith or depictions of worship on Buddhist sites.

The other article titled Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism by Susan Huntington presents a view that the aniconic signs do not show the events of Buddha’s lives, but only adoration and worship at sacred locations (Huntington 1990; 1992) XXXX.  Huntington’s article breaks from the general perception of the theory of aniconism and even questions its validity. She begins by utilizing the arguments with the context of Buddhist doctrines such as impermanence, humility, etc. In her belief, many pieces of evidence, whether they are archeological, literary, or inscriptional, have been ignored for the sole purpose of satisfying the Aniconic theory. Relating the iconism in art only to the tradition of Mahayana is not right, as it, along with the Hinayana was involved with images (Huntington, 1990, p. 401-402) XXXX. There is only a minority within the Buddhist sects that are against creating any pictures of Buddha. Moreover, there have been recent archeological findings that show Buddha’s images which date to the Kusana dynasty XXXXX. This implies that they were made during the same time period when other depictions were being prepared in a non-iconic way. These findings contradict the root belief of the aniconic theory. The main thrust of Huntington’s article then is that the artists of the period were not interested in showing the events of Buddha’s life, but instead, the various religious practices of the ordinary people.

One of the first examples that Huntington presents is of a sculpture from Amravati in Andhra Pradesh, India. It looks to be a representation of Buddha, but a more detailed study shows that it is Buddha image on a throne. Thus, neither does it present any specific event from the life of Buddha, nor does it show a place where one of the events in the life of Buddha occurred. This sculpture and others like it seem to indicate just the form in which lay people practiced their religion and worshipped, rather than any instance from the life of Buddha. Other sculptures from the period defined as aniconic also have inscriptions beneath them refer only to the places, which lend further credence to Huntington’s arguments. Another example discussed by Huntington is where there is a temple visible behind the Bodhi tree in an illustration. This marks the illustration as being post-Asoka event rather than of the enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha (Huntington, 1990, p. 402-405) XXXXX.

Huntington’s develops her hypothesis about the theory of aniconism on misunderstandings of the first scholars, such as Foucher. They may have believed these artworks to be depictions of Buddha’s life, and the omission of his figure was a form of “monstrous Abstention” by the artists (Huntington, 1990, p. 406) XXXX. Before the formation of the theory, the notion of aniconism made the scholars study on what was missing from the artworks, rather than focusing on what was present.   Huntington’s approach is one of reversing the methodology to explain that the illustrations do not represent Buddha’s life. It manages to negate many of the aspects of the theory of aniconism, as well as symbolism used in early Buddhist art. However, it fails when it comes to other reliefs, such as the representation of the departure of Buddha from Kapilavastu. Dehejia’s support of the argument finds some basis in such works because there does seem to be a level of intentional abstention when representing the enlightened being in a form that is anthropomorphic. Thus, this may be an argument that can continue, but it seems that the artist of the period practiced aniconism selectively.



From the 12th century forward, the temples of south India were made a series of concentric circles called the Prakaras. The purpose of these was to provide protection. Additionally, some towers were erected at the entrances of these circular walls, constructed from brick and plaster over a stone base. These towers were known as the Gopuras and could rise as high as fifty meters. These Gopuras resemble the Mandala and had similar sculptures of mythical creatures. They were derived from the  Hindu mythology which pertained to the deity that was placed in the temple at the gopuram’s location. The Gopuras and the entrances symbolized the deity’s feet, which is the reason why Hindus touch the floor at the gates of temples before entering. The implication is that of paying respect before entering the inner temple and leaving the world outside. Over a period of time, the threat of invasion grew constant, which is the reasons why these temple cities, such as Madurai, started building a protective wall to defend not just their palaces and temples, but also their towns and cities. The entrance towers provided openings from one enclosing wall to the next, and thus served as watchtowers, as well as defensive towers. These were all hallmarks of Dravidian architecture and its evolution over centuries.

The Dravidian style of architecture can be classified into various phases. It begins with the Pallavan style which spanned from the seventh to the tenth century AD. It culminates with the Nayak/Madura style in the seventeenth century AD. These various phases define a distinct evolution of temple architecture in South India, which is marked by the changes in the way the temples were planned and their architecture. The plans became more and more complex largely due to the increasing complexity of the rituals that were observed in the temples. Thus, where the Pallava temples were structural ones cut out of rocks, the later ones were built with high walls, more massive and more numerous towers, and finally the temple cities.

Dravidian architecture was also influenced by the Bhakti movement. Bhakti implies complete devotion to one god, and the most common of these were the gods Shiva and Vishnu. Bhakti temples began their life as small shrines and evolved into the massive temples of the Pallavas. This movement spread to the northern part of India even though it was under a predominantly Muslim rule.

The planning of Hindu temples is governed by sacred geometry, and the entire structure is visualized as a Mandala XXX. This holy geometry governs the layout of the temples in conjunction with the heavens and the cardinal directions.  The Mandala is essentially shaped like an intersection of square and circle. The square symbolizes the earth and represents the four directions that define it. The circle is representative of heaven, as it is considered to be the perfect shape in Hinduism as it has no beginning or end. It symbolizes eternity, which is a divine attribute.

Form the seventeenth century onwards, there were repeated incursions by the Muslim rulers of the north, and this guided the evolution of the architecture in the south. First, the capital of the southern kingdom was shifted to Madurai, and the temple-city came into being. This was the period of the Nayak dynasty, and architecture flourished during the rule of Tirumalai Nayak. The Madura style that came into being was effectively a revival of the Pandya style from centuries before. The complexity of the temples grew due to the demands of the elaborate ceremonies which required specific arrangements of the buildings.

One of the most well-known temple-cities of South India is Madurai. Recorded history shows that it existed as far back as the 3rd century where Megasthenes mentions it as Methora XXXX. It was also the seat of the Pandya dynasty of rulers. The old city of Madurai was designed according to the Rajdhani plan as described in the Manasar, which is one of the Shilpashastras XXXX. There is concentric rectangular fivefold formation, and at the center is the Meenakshi temple XXXX. The old city was very well planned with wide roads, many markets, and mansions lining the streets. However, the focal point of the city was the temple, and the entire city expanded around it.

In this manner, the temples of southern India started becoming the principal focus of the urban architecture in eth cities. Some of the most famous temples in the region are Kumbakonam, Madurai, Kanchipuram, and Thanjavur or Tanjore. In the period between the eighth and the twelfth century, these are the places where temples were more than just a place for religious matters. They started to turn into administrative centers and controlled large areas around them. Thus, the number of people that were associated with the temple continued growing, as did the size of the town where the temple e was built. New walls had to be constructed to contain the growing township, and this is seen the concentric circles or squares that are present in the temple cities. An example of such a city is around the Srirangam temple of Thiruchirapally. This temple has seven rectangular enclosures, one within the other, which shows how the temple and its associated town expanded.

Hindu temples have always had an economic influence in whichever part of India they were built. This was especially true in the ace of south India. Here, the temple has always been seen as the focal point in what was primarily an agrarian society. This was the case right until the time when the British took control over the economy of the region in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The temples of the south had many functions in the south Indian society. They were not just the landholders, but also served as bans, employers, and consumers of a large percentage of goods and services from the surrounding town. This is the reason why much of south Indian urban expansion of the period, as well as systems of irrigation,  were strongly connected to the temples in the region. Apart from this, they were also instrumental in providing financial support to agricultural development in the areas around them. Temples always receive some form of Dakshina, sometimes in the form of goods, but mostly as money, gold, or other valuable items. This money was lent b the temples to villages around them for development purposes, whether through agriculture or trade. Thus, temples managed to assume city-form due to the support they provided to the people and developed with the temple as the center of the town. External factors also gave them a distinct architectural style that is seen in cities such as Madurai.


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