Sunday, 3 March 2013

Modernism, B.C.

I'm not quite sure whether I'm disappointed by Sanchi.

The carvings on the great stupa here are tremendous. The human figures are chubbier and less elegant than those at Khajuraho, but the rhythm of the great narratives is superb – they flow across the curved boomerangs of the torana gateways, while the panels on the gateposts are monumental, with palace fa├žades creating a strong horizontal emphasis, or central compositions massing small figures around a stupa or a tree.
There's nothing disappointing about these carvings.

It takes all day to see them. That's the problem with the plan of the stupa; with carvings facing all four cardinal directions, you can't see them all at once in good light. At sunrise, when the whole site is deserted, the western torana is in shadow and the inner faces, equally delicately carved, can hardly be seen at all. At sunset, which I shared with Sri Lankan monks and pilgrims who had come to finish their three-week Buddhist tour of India and Nepal, the west glows beautifully but the eastern faces are in darkness. And of course the northern torana is never properly lit at all, though at sunrise it does, just for a few minutes, get a little sideways light on the edges of the carving, bringing it to momentary life.

And the site itself is wonderful; a ridge of hill above the plain, cool even on a hot day as gentle breezes play. At this season, the plain is green with growing wheat – only in small yellowing patches showing its readiness for harvest, as yet – and patchworked with ditches, scattered with spreading, mature trees. You can see all the way to the strange rock plug of Vidisha, so straight-sided at first I thought it was a crumbling skyscraper, the double hump of Udaigiri with its rock cut temples, and the long low brown ridge of Raisen in the north-east. Up here it's remarkably peaceful; every five minutes you can hear a train hoot in the plain below like a mechanised buffalo or a priest blowing his conch shell (trains in India do puja, I always think), but it's distant, muted. (You can think, compassionately, of all the people squeezed into and squabbling in their dim compartments behind the metal-barred train windows, and the serenity of the heights.)

No, the reason for my dissatisfaction is something quite different. It's the way the great stupa's architecture reminds me of nothing so much as a municipal lido, circa 1930. Municipal Art Deco, mixed with a little hint of Sheringham (or perhaps Hunstanton) Crazy Golf – the genteel, not the garish British seaside. The railings, with their bulky uprights and convex rails, the antenna-like finials of the stupas, the little box-like enclosure at the top of the Great Stupa, even the roughly squared reddish stone (not dressed, because it was plastered over), everything seems rather – oh, I don't know, rather Bexhill.

It's certainly – having seen buildings from previous eras of Indian history – rather un-Indian. There's something shockingly modernist about it. Apart from the great toranas, the stupas are completely unornamented; none of the seething ornament, the bulging and straining and sheer multiplicity of the architecture. It's simple; brutally simple.

I'd noticed that a bit at Bodh Gaya and Sarnath; but it's really stark here. (Temple 45, dating from the tenth century – thirteen centuries later than Ashoka's original Great Stupa – is the only exception, a huge contrast, returning Buddhism to the Indian mainstream with its figures of Ganga and Jumna flanking the doorway, its piled shikara, its boiling ornament. It's not a Buddhist temple – it's a Hindu temple with a Buddha inside; just to prove it, it even has a small but quite explicit erotic scene on the right hand shrine's door jamb.)
I don't think this 'modernism' is just an architectural emphasis. It reflects the nature of early Buddhism; its atheism, its rejection of multiplicity and illusion. For Ashoka's contemporaries, I'm sure, the Hindu temple with its ornamentation, its figure sculpture, its fragmented, fractal outlines, was in the domain of mara, illusion – was actually a tribute to it, just as the Hindu religion with its many deities and avatars focused on the illusory aspects of godhood rather than the nature of deity itself. So this starkness embodied the revolution of Buddhism, and it was only once the Mahayana Buddhists had started sullying the waters with bodhisattas and Taras and demons and Buddhist fairies that architectural exuberance started coming back.
The carvings of the great gateways don't, at first, appear to support this assertion. But a closer look changed my mind. For a start, there are no Buddhas here; the Buddha himself is never shown – only his footprints, his empty throne under the bodhi tree, a stupa or a garlanded tree. The idea and not the man is to be worshipped. (Rather sweetly, the torana shows the whole of creation worshipping him; elephants, ears flapping magnificently, approach the stupa with their trunks upraised, and lions and buffalo worship two by two, as if just arrived on Noah's Ark.) That's a revolution. There is no deity to worship.

And then there's that slow, even rhythm of the carving. It seems, despite the chubbiness of the human figures (for me, it's the lions and elephants, and the two surprising pairs of camels, that are the summit of the Sanchi carvers' art), somehow chaste, sparing, controlled. All the figures in a panel are the same size – no huge deities with tiny assistants, as you see in Hindu work all the time; they're set in real space, not squeezed into architectural niches or spun off into a supernatural void. (If you want the contrast, hire a bike in Sanchi and spin your way across earthen field paths to Udaigiri, where the great Varaha frieze crammed under an overhang of the rock face, with its massive central figure, and its crammed, identkit, skirted Lords celebrating, seems to do everything that Sanchi very definitely refrains from doing.)

Towards the end of my day in Sanchi I found myself circumambulating the Great Stupa. It's a highly efficient meditation machine. For a start, the gateways don't let you straight into the ambulatory path; like gates to a fortress, they're crooked, so you have to turn sharply, twice. The result is that there is nowhere, nowhere at all, that you can see out of the stupa enclosure, or the outside world can force its way in. The railings are large enough, the components so closely spaced, that you can't see out between them; light enters – dimly, and casting shadows on the opposite wall – but nothing of the external world and its illusions can disturb the sacred space.

After a couple of orbits, you realise you are becoming accustomed to the rhythm of the stupa. Dark side, light side; as you walk, you emerge into light, go back to dimness. The rhythm of the railings, utterly even, starts to calm your mind; even the tiny rectangular patches of light cast through the rails on to the pavement start to set up a regular rhythm that accompanies the slow beat of your footsteps. Perhaps this is a kind of hypnosis. The world is stilled.

The architects left no models, no designs, no explanation of their intentions. It's possible that they thought of none of this when they were building the stupa. But I can't help feeling that someone – whether it was Ashoka, or his master architect, or a solitary Buddhist monk advising him – must have known what they were doing, just as the designers of the Bauhaus knew explicitly what they were rejecting with their brutally simple, form-follows-function ethic. More than two millennia later, Sanchi is still an impressive testament to this revolution. If only I could get crazy golf out of my mind...

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