Posted on: 22 October 2015

Railing crossbars from the Great Stupa of Amaravati - 1853
Artist: Murugesa Moodaliar (c. 1853)

Wash drawing by Murugesa Moodaliar of railing crossbars from the Great Stupa of Amaravati. This is one of 42 sheets (89 drawings) depicting sculpture from Amaravati and S. India. Inscribed with numbers 2 to 90 (1 is missing) and with measurements; signed:' P. Mooroogasa Moodr', dated c.1853.

The great Buddhist Stupa of Amaravati, the Maha chaitya, is one of the greatest architectural achievement of ancient India. The monument was situated on the outskirts of the town of Amaravati near the ancient ruined city of Dharanikota. It was founded in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC and enlarged in the 1st-4th centuries AD under the Satavahana and Ikshvaku patronage. It was a centre of religious activities for hundreds of years and then fell to disrepair. By the mid-1790s the ruin of the Great Stupa had deteriorated into a mound of rubble with fragments of sculpture scattered about. In 1797 the British colonel Colin Mackenzie heard about the site and visited it. He was able to return again only in March 1816. In the 19th century a series of excavations took place at the site. The monument now only survives in the collections of the Amaravati sculptures kept in various museums. Stupas are the most characteristic munuments of ancient Buddhism. The Mahacaitya of Amaravati consisted of a huge, solid dome standing on a cylindrical drum-like platform; the whole was surrounded by a great railing made of tall pillars separated by crossbars and crowned by a high decorated coping. The railing was completely covered with narrative reliefs and elaborate decoration. At each of the cardinal points there was a gateway. Between the railing and the drum there was a circumambulatory passageway. The enormous cylindrical drum was elaborately decorated with sculpture. The outer surface had a series of alternating slabs and pilasters. The slabs are carved in great detail with representations of the stupa and represent an invaluable source of information about the original aspect of the Great Stupa.

In 1845 Sir Walter Elliot uncovered sculptures at Amaravati and sent them to Madras where they were left exposed on the green in front of the College. In 1853 the Court of Directors made enquiries about their condition and they were moved into the front entry of the newly founded Central Museum, Madras. Edward Balfour, the officer in charge of the Museum, commissioned the Rev. W. Taylor to report on them. It seems probable, in view of the water-marks, that these drawings were made for the Company at this time by an Indian draftsman, Murugesa Moodaliar. In 1859, one hundred and twenty-one Amaravati sculptures were sent to London, including the ones depicted here.

The drawing No.34 depicts the relief on the inner face of a railing crossbar. The scene represents the vist of Suddhodana to Maya in the Ashoka Grove. Maya, the mother of Buddha, is depicted seated on a high divan, surrounded by female attendants. The king stands under his umbrella held by another figure. The relief is assigned to the 2nd century AD, first phase of the High period of sculptural activity at Amaravati. The drawing No.35 depicts the relief on the inner face of a railing crossbar. The scene represents the visit to the Buddha of Ajatashatru, King of Magadha, followed by his women and attendants. The Buddha is symbolised by an empty throne. The drawing No.36 depicts the relief on the outer face which represents a lotus with five rows of petals. These two reliefs are also assigned to the 2nd century AD, first phase of the High period at Amaravati.

Text and image credit: © The British Library Board

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Some of the best railings of Amravati are today housed in National Museum, Delhi. This is Asita's visit to Saddadhana ...

And the sculptors of Amravati have sculpted themselves. A selfie ?