Farewell to a hackneyed vision of religious

Sacred Traces - Bengal
July 2, 2004

These volumes deal with different aspects of the cultural history of eastern India. Sacred Traces is specific, examining the Buddhist sites of Bihar/Bengal, especially those connected with the ministry of the Buddha, and discussing the way in which they were first interpreted by British scholars. Bengal: Sites and Sights is produced by the Bombay-based journal Marg and offers scholarship on culturally important sites in Bengal and Bangladesh.

Sacred Traces, although short, contains stimulating ideas. Janice Leoshko's main thesis is that our view of Buddhism in eastern India (not all of South Asia, as suggested in the title) has been determined by the ideas and obsessions of the workers in the field during the colonial period, especially the pioneers Alexander Cunningham and L. A. Waddell.

Different moral and religious values informed their 19th-century practice and very specific beliefs.

For instance, Cunningham was concerned above all to locate sites associated with the historic Buddha, as detailed by the Chinese pilgrims who visited India in the 6th to 8th centuries AD. Meanwhile, Waddell, clearly a man of astonishing intellect, was unable to distance his scholarly ideas from his personal assessments of Buddhism. He was fascinated with Buddhism in medieval India and the modern variety he found in the Himalayas and Tibet, but he remained ever disparaging in his judgements of it, although consistently informative.

Leoshko stresses the cultural difference that exists between modern Western views of creativity (innovation is the important concept) and Indian ones (continuity is the important concept). This continues her earlier and illuminating discussion of the Buddhist background of Kipling's novel Kim.

There are, however, a number of surprising lacunae. For instance, there is no reference to Cunningham's collection of Buddhist antiquities and site photographs (both at the British Museum) nor of Waddell's Tibetan collection (at the BM); or his archive and collection of eastern Indian sculpture in Berlin, the last published by Claudine Bautze-Picron in 1998.

Even so, Sacred Traces is an important attempt at moving away from old and hackneyed ways of experiencing Buddhist art.

Bengal: Sites and Sights lives up to the high design standards we have come to expect from Marg under present editor Pratapaditya Pal. It is handsomely produced, evoking the Bengal countryside with a colour scheme dominated by the verdant green of sprouting rice and the red/brown of tilled fields, brick structures and clay sculpture.

Happily, the volume deals with undivided Bengal, that is the state of West Bengal in India and the sovereign state of Bangladesh. This reinforces the shared history of these now-separated regions with their many monuments reflecting the variety of religious traditions that have contributed to Bengali culture - Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Christian.

Also, all the contributors are Bengali and the two editors, Pal and Enamul Haque (director of the International Centre for the Study of Bengal Art in Dhaka) are respectively from West Bengal and East Bengal/ Bangladesh.

The first of the sites dealt with chronologically in the nine chapters is Mangalkot, which has a continuous history from c. 1200 BC to the 17th century AD, a range typical for this zone of intense settlement; also described is the nearby town of Burdwan. This essay by Samir Kumar Mukherjee ends, as do all the others, with a bibliography.

Next comes a chapter by Haque on Chandraketugarh, a site from which an astonishing array of terracotta plaques and ceramics has emerged over the past 100 years.

The contribution on Paharpur by Dilip Chakrabarti is the first dealing with the rich Buddhist legacy of Bengal, and the site is poetically evoked. The massive central shrine (late 8th century) may have been the inspiration for later Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, above all the Ananda at Pagan, Burma.

The next essay examines Mainamati, again a Buddhist site of great size and importance, although little known today. Here the earliest structure dates to the 6th century. The author, Gouriswar Bhattacharya, is a renowned epigraphist, and the copper-plate inscriptions are dealt with in detail.

Two outstanding images have been found there, one of the standing Buddha (sandstone) and the other of Vajrasattva (bronze). These are described and illustrated.

Also little known is Mahasthangarh, the subject of the next chapter by Haque. This site is a palimpsest of the history of Bengal and the location of the earliest-known inscription from Bengal: six lines in Brahmi letters.

Enchanting terracotta plaques have also been recovered from many of the pre-Islamic structures of the site.

The only contribution (by Naseem Banerji) dealing solely with Islamic architecture covers the cities of Gaur and Pandua, where surviving buildings date from the 14th to 16th centuries. Most of the structures described are tombs or mosques, with the stupendous Adina mosque being the most fully detailed. Brick was the favoured material and terracotta decoration a constant, continuing earlier architectural traditions.

Terracotta decoration on the exterior of buildings also dominates the chapter on Bishnupur, famous for its temples dedicated to Krishna. These are described by Asok Bhattacharya along with other aspects of cultural life such as the painting of playing cards and musical traditions.

The penultimate essay is an omnium gatherum of information on the Hoogly region by Gautam Sengupta, demonstrating the cosmopolitan nature of lower Bengal over the past thousand years. Both the earliest mosque in Bengal (1298) and the earliest church (1599) are located here, as also were settlements of Armenians, Dutch, French and Danish. The significant monuments of these settlements are listed (the church of St Olaf is but one of several in India modelled on Gibbs' church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square).

Appropriately, the final essay concerns Murshidabad, the last capital of Bengal before the rise of Calcutta (that city is not covered in this volume). Although its political floruit was short (founded, 1704; capital moved to Calcutta, 1757), its cultural influence lingered on into the 19th century.

Pal discusses the architecture, especially that of the colonial period, which is rich, as well as nawabi painting, ivory furniture, metalware, textiles and tilework.

Not all the contributions to this volume are equally strong, but my only regret is the lack of site plans. Otherwise, it is attractive and a useful introduction to the sites of undivided Bengal.

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper of Oriental antiquities, British Museum.

Sacred Traces: British Explorations of Buddhism in South Asia

Author - Janice Leoshko
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 184
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7546 0138 2

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