Inspired by Mumbai’s rock-cut cave temples, I set out this afternoon to explore the sculpture gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Yup, it’s a mouthful. 🙂 Formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, it is one of the finest museums in the country. The quiet, tasteful sculpture gallery—a crash course in Indian history, religion, and art all rolled into one—is its highlight.
Indian sculpture traces itself back to the Harappan Civilization. Following a ‘dark’ period from which no remnants survive (1500-400 BC) it resuscitated under the Mauryan Empire taking on the mantle of a variety of styles.
A common thread running through this diverse mix, each unique to the region and materials it emanated from, was religion. Ancient Indian sculpture was religious sculpture solely created for Hindu, Buddhist and Jain places of worship. This shared attribute gives the gallery an almost sacred air.
The gods and goddesses, in the round or as friezes in temples and rock-cut caves, were in all likelihood worshipped in their previous abodes right up to the time they were brought into the museum. Some still are, such as the 6th Century image of Shiva which till recently was in the Baijanath Mahadeva temple at Parel, 12 kilometres away from the Museum, and now is prayed to every morning before the gallery opens to the public.
The revival of Indian sculpture in the 4th Century BC commenced as imagery depicting Buddha in the Greco-Buddhist (Gandhara) style following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Combining Roman and Greek realism with local Indian traditions, the Gandhara Style produced elegant classical Buddhist images paving the way for later Hindu and Jain religious art.
Where Buddhism went, Hinduism followed. The result was that many of the sculptures created in the early period were almost identical until bit by bit Hindu sculpture started coming into its own unique inimitable form.
The Hindu pantheon is celebrated for its eclectic collection of gods subscribing to the principle of one Supreme Being and its many manifestations. A key philosophical concept in Hinduism is the triad or trinity embracing the three elements of natural law: creation, preservation and destruction.
When translated to sculpture, this concept took the form of Brahma (God of Creation), Vishnu (God of Preservation), and Mahesha or Shiva (the God of Destruction), each with its own recognizable attributes. We hence have Shiva with his matted locks, crescent moon and third eye. Vishnu meets us with a lotus and a conch symbolizing purity and eternity. Brahma’s four heads are believed to be where the four Vedas came from.
Another significant concept in Hinduism is the acknowledgement of the feminine energy and its role in the creation of the universe, giving rise to the profuse representation of goddesses as consorts or in their own capacity in Hindu sculpture. Their presentations as magnificent, young, full-breasted women in the nude in striking athletic poses tends to be frontal, almost as if the figures were posing for the viewer.
The feminine energy against negative forces emerges in mythology and sculpture as Durga destroying the buffalo demon Mahisha, from where she acquired the name Mahishasura Mardini, and as Kali-Chamunda killing the demons Chanda-Munda and Shumbha-Nishumbha. Her more benevolent forms include Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) and Sarasvati (Goddess of Learning).
Jainism completes the circle of Indian sculpture with its sensitive, refined carvings of the Jain Tirthankaras (teachers) and other divinities, taking the art form to an ethereal high. A style focused around Rajasthan and Gujarat, the sculptures and temples are meant to evoke celestial assembly halls in the heavens above.
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So was I at a museum? Or an amalgamation of temples? When no one was looking I quietly touched the bases of the effigies and prayed. It seemed reasonable to do so. 🙂
Dvarapalas (door keepers), replete with fangs at the gallery entrance, would once upon a time also have stood guard at a temple (12th Century, South India, Granite)
Left: Mahadeva, in the saptamurti form as Ashta Shiva (5th-6th Century, Parel, Mumbai, Plaster replica); Right: Shiva in Western Indian style synonymous with Gupta period sculpture (mid-6th Century, Parel, Mumbai, Basalt)
Shiva Gana; Shiva’s followers, the Ganas, are dwarves and revered as minor deities (5th Century, Khoh, Madhya Pradesh, Red Sandstone)
Left: Dvarapala Yaksha, a semi-divine protector from the Buddhist cave temples in the Deccan (2nd Century BC, Pitalkhora, Maharashtra, Basalt); Right: Garuda, the eagle vehicle of Vishnu in human form (late-11th Century, Dohad, Gujarat, Dolerite)
Vishnu, the preserver—my favourite sculpture
Three ceiling slabs from a collapsed 7th Century Chalukyan temple depict the trinity Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu in exquisite detail. Top: Brahma …
Uma Maheshvaramurti (Shiva with his consort Uma)
… and Sheshashayi Vishnu (all three ceiling slabs: 7th Century, Aihole, Karnataka, Pink Sandstone)
Left: Mahishasuramardini, the cosmic feminine energy destroying the demon Mahisha (9th Century, Madhya Pradesh, Sandstone); Right: Narasimha (13th Century, Orissa, Black Stone)
Left: Shantinatha, 16th Jain Tirthankara, with classic refined detailing archetypal of Jain sculpture (12th Century, Veraval, Gujarat, Marble); Right: The simple serenity of Buddha (12th Century, Orissa, Granite)
Art, religion and history, “… Proper courtesy to slaves and servants, reverence to elders, gentleness to animals, and liberality to Brahmanas and Shramanas; these and other such are called the practice of morality.” ~ The 9th Ashokan Edict (3rd Century BC, Sopara, Maharashtra)