The stone slabs displayed in the special Amaravati enclosure of Chennai Museum are all sculptured with finest bass reliefs. Such good is the workmanship, that it becomes quite apparent that the job has not been done in a decade or even a century. The work must have continued for a much longer period. The designs, themes also change, from which we can estimate the time, when these must have been created. As an example, one can consider the famous theme of a continuous string of garlands carried by bearers, a theme that is influenced directly by Gandhara art, which clearly shows its later sculpturing. However, before I go into some finer details of some of the bass reliefs, I think that it might be worthwhile to know, how the Stupa actually looked like.
From the history of the site, which we have seen earlier, when Mackenzie discovered the Stupa, it was covered completely with earth. He however made detailed notes of what he saw. As I have explained earlier, in the subsequent period there were repeated excavations at the site, further demolishing the structure. It was Mr. Percy Brown from Indian Educational service and former curator of Victoria memorial hall in Kolkata, who first managed to reconstruct the great Stupa on paper using three sources, Detailed notes left by Machenzie and Sewell, other Stupas excavated carefully in Andhra region and finally the most authentic source, 'Selfie' kind of bass reliefs sculptured on the stone slabs of the Stupa itself. Here is how the Stupa was constructed.
A fragment of outer rail coping; the scene is known as Mayadevi's dream
At the outermost perimeter, the Stupa was enclosed by a circular railing constructed out of stone, measuring 192 feet in diameter. Along the four cardinal directions, this railing was pierced by gates, which consisted of stone pillars about 9 feet high and 3 feet wide. The pillars had on top of them stone copings 2 ½ feet high and a foot thick. The entire perimeter of the Stupa was covered with 136 pillars and about 800 feet of coping resting on top of it. To support the vertical pillars, three rounded crossbars of about 3 feet diameter were joined to the pillars. All stones were joined with perfect Mortis and Tenon joints. The coping on top of pillars was carved on both faces throughout. The decoration of the outer face consisted of a continuous floral garland carried on the shoulders of bearers. The inner face of the coping was reserved for scenes from the life of Buddha and from stories of his previous births. Thus as the devout circumnavigated the Stupa within the rail, the texts of their faith were unfolded in stone. The vertical pillars were mostly decorated with Buddhist motifs like a blown lotus, Bodhi Tree, Wheel of Dhammachakra and Stupa. The round cross bars also were carved on both outer and inner sides. Outer sides mostly with lotuses and inner surfaces carved with some great events from Buddha's life. Experts consider the bass reliefs on cross-bars as the best specimens of sculptor’s achievements. At the four gates, the coping was crowned with four seated lions at each gate, two facing each other and two facing outward.
A fragment of a frieze; floral garland with bearers
Within this outer rail lay the processional circular path thirteen feet wide and paved with slabs of grey limestone; Along the inner circle of this path, stood another circular rail about 4 feet high and 162 feet diameter along the drum of the Stupa with entire circumference covered with stone slabs carved with some of the finest sculptures.
A fragment of a pillar: Asitas visit Syuodhana
Between the slabs, Pillasters with elaborate carvings were placed and a circular frieze adorned the top of the stone slabs. Two copings, one between the stone slabs and the frieze and another one above it also were provided around the circumference to separate out the stone slabs, frieze and the dome wall. Burgess describes these in following words and I quote.
A fragment of Stupa casing slab; king with is two consorts
“ The slabs composing the inner circle are remarkable for the beauty of the sculptures upon them, which are small and consist of figures, festoons and a variety of ornaments very neatly executed. On the side are the pillars. On the sides are pillars, which are either finished with figures of lions and horses, or of men and women; and over the top is an entablature replete with figures in various acts of devotion or amusement. These inner slabs have been cemented to each other with strong mortar, and supported by a wall of masonry rising to a moderate height (4 feet) in the rear. Slabs are either 6 or 9 inches thick and of rectangular shape. Most of the slabs are at British Museum, yet a few finest in Madras.”
A fragment of a pillaster; Yakshini
The drum of Stupa was about 6 feet in height and along the perimeter were placed the 4 feet high stone slabs described by Burgess. Above the drum, the dome wall rose vertically to a height of 20 feet or 14 feet above the drum, totally cased with large sculptured slabs surmounted by two friezes. The lower of running animals and the upper with “Trishula” symbols. Above the dome slabs began the curve of the dome, which was stucco plastered and decorated with friezes of lotus filled vases and dwarfs carrying garlands. At the top there was another square railing with each side measuring 26 feet. From the centre of the railing rose an octagonal pillar and some smaller pillars. The entire dome was probably painted white with friezes painted gold making a splendid show.
A fragment of a frieze; running animals
At the four cardinal points and facing the gates were projections to the drum about 32 feet long and 6 feet wide. On these projecting platforms stood five pillars, about 10 to 14 feet high with rectangular bases and octagonal shafts. The slabs here were decorated with Buddhist motifs like arches and stupas.
A Model of the great Stupa
I sincerely hope that readers would be able to imagine in their minds, how grand and spectacular, this monument must have looked in its glory days. I shall now try and describe few of the stone carvings, which once decorated the mighty stupa of Amaravati.
26th July 2014
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