The study of mediaeval sculpture in the northeastern provinces of India was begun for the first time by the late Dr. Theodor Bloch after his appointment as the First Assistant to the Superintendent of the Indian Museum in 1896. At that time the Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum contained the sculptures catalogued by John Anderson in 1883. Two years afterwards the collection of the late Mr. A. M. Broadley, I.C.S., at Bihar, in the patna District, was transferred to Calcutta. By a combination of these two collections the Indian Museum came to possess the largest number of sculptures of the mediaeval period discovered in Bengal and Bihar. The collection was entirely re-arranged by Dr. Bloch between 1898 and 1900. The new arrangement was not chronological but according to the genus and species. Magadha sculptures were divided into two broad groups, Buddhist and Brahmanical. Each class was subdivided into species; such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Taras or Vishnus, Suryas, Saktis etc. Subsequently, on account of his appointment as the Archaeological Surveyor, Bengal Circle, Dr. Bloch had to give up the idea of writing a catalogue was severely felt by me and by other scholars who came to study in the Indian Museum. In 1907 the late Dr. N. Annandale, the last Superintendent of the Indian Museum, revived the proposal for a new catalogue of the Archaeological Section and during Dr. Bloch's absence on leave Mr. Nilmani Chakravarti, M.A., a pupil of Mahamahopadhyaya Haraprasad Sastri, C.I.E., was appointed as a temporary assistant to catalogue the additions received in the Indian Museum after the publication of Anderson's catalogue. Mr. Chakravarti's catalogue was revised and edited by Dr. Bloch after his return from leave in 1908 and published in the latter's name after his death in 1910, as a supplement to Anderson's catalogue.
When I was studying Indian Archaeology under Dr. Bloch he had pointed out to me the possibility of writing a thesis on the chronological sequence of artistic development in the North-Eastern provinces of India on the basis of palaeography. The collection of mediaeval sculptures in the North-Eastern provinces of India contained a very large number of inscribed specimens. Buddhist images as a rule bear the Buddhist creed as well as a donative record and in the majority of cases the creed is invariably present. At the suggestion of Dr. Bloch I undertook the palaeographical examination of inscribed images from Bengal and Bihar in the Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum as early as 1904. From May 1907 the Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum was practically in my charge up to the 31st July 1917, and I had ample opportunities of examining all specimens from Bengal and Bihar belonging to that collection. The conclusions deduced from the palaeographical examination of the votive records were embodied in a long note in 1914 but for various reasons it has not been possible to arrange for its publication at that time.
The long delay however which has taken place has enabled me to make the work more comprehensive. When it was first written the Museums of Dacca, Rajshahi, Patna and the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad had either not come into existence or were in their incipient stage. The collection in the Dacca Museum has brought to light a new phase of artistic activity on the North-Eastern frontier of India and very great credit is due to Mr. Nalini Kanta Bhattasali, M.A., by whom this excellent collection was formed. This collection is very small but it possesses the advantage of being thoroughly representative. The specimens collected from the districts of Faridpur, Dacca, Tippera, Mymensingh and Noakhali include very few inscribed sculptures but the chronological sequence obtained from the inscribed specimens in the Indian Museum proves definitely that in Eastern Bengal there was a separate artistic development, when the Palas were laying the foundations of their first empire. Art gradually revived in Bihar, specially in the two Buddhist centers of activity, Buddha Gaya or Bodh Gaya and Nalendra or Nalanda; but at that time the artists of Eastern Bengal were able to produce specimens which were exquisite objects of art on account of the delicacy of their outline and expressiveness of form in comparison with contemporary specimens of Northern and Western Bengal.
The Varendra Research Society of Rajshahi, founded in April 1910, has collected an immense number of specimens from different parts of Bengal proper and arranged them in the Museum built by Kumar sarat Kuamr Roy of Dighapaitya at Rajshahi, the principal town of Northern Bengal. The majority of specimens in this Museum come from Northern Bengal i.e., the Districts of Rajshahi, Malda, Pabna, Bogra, Dinajpur and Rangpur; but many of them have been collected from other parts of Bengal also; viz., from Rampal in the Dacca District and different parts of the Hughly District. The collection contains a few inscribed specimens, none of which are earlier than the 11th or the 12th century in date. The examination of the Rajshahi collection proved definitely that a certain class of writers were wrong in ascribing the conventionalized style and stylized forms of these specimens to the 8th and 9th centuries, instead of to the 11th and the 12th centuries. Subsequent discoveries made by the members of the Varendra Research Society prove that though artistic development in Northern Bengal was parallel with that of Magadha or Southern Bihar, yet during the first empire of the Palas, the artists of Northern Bengal were decidedly in a minority compared with those of Eastern Bengal and Southern Bihar. An image of Vishnu discovered by Mr. Nani Gopal Mazumdar in the Malda District and the Buddha discovered at Biharoil in the Rajshahi District prove that, as late as the end of the 7th century, the artists of Eastern Bengal were followers of the decadent Gupta style of the School of Pataliputra. The impulse which enabled the artists of Northern India to shake off the servile obedience to the tenets of the older school had not come as yet. When it came it was felt in Magadha, the metropolitan district of Northern India for at least one millennium. The artists of Northern Bengal may have felt the tremor but it had weakened considerably before reaching the new metropolitan district. Stray specimens discovered in Northern Bengal show the beginning of the change in artistic motives, in the broadness of vision and forceful delineation of the human figure which we find in the image of Tara (I.M.No.5862). Such is the torso of the Boar incarnation of Vishnu from Kashipur in the Dinjpur District in the Rajshahi Museum. The founders of the Varendra Research Society, specially the Director of that institution, were inclined to think that conventionalized images of the 12th century like the image of Tara in the Indian Museum (I. M. No. 5618) were really the products of Dhiman and Bitpalo, who were mentioned by Taranatha as the founders of the Eastern School of Mediaeval Sculpture in the 8th century A.D. A comparison of the inscribed specimen of Tara (I.M.No.5862) with the majority of specimens in the Rajshahi Museum proves definitely that such specimens cannot be earlier than the 12th century and that they belong to the decadent conventional style which came into being during the rules of Ramapala and Lakshmanasena.
The palaeographical examination of the inscribed specimens in the Indian Museum proves further that the decline of artistic activity in the Eastern provinces in the 9th and 10th centuries was not parallel with the decline in the political fortunes of the Pala kings. In these two centuries also the artists of Eastern Bengal were much more active than those of Northern and Western Bengal. The specimens from the Eastern provinces of Northern India, which can be definitely assigned to the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. come from Magadha or South Bihar and the Dacca District of Eastern Bengal only. The vigour of expression and correctness of delineation of the 9th century is absent in the tenth but we do not as yet find the preponderance of hard and fast rules of the School, which begins in the Eastern School of Sculpture only from the end of the 10th century onwards.
With Mahipala I, came the liberation of the Eastern provinces from the yoke of the Gurjaras of Kanauj, their re-union under one sovereign and the establishement of the second empire of the Palas. It brought about an artistic renaissance in which Northern Bengal took the leading part. The new style was a descendant of the old style of the 10th century, but lacked the supreme vigour of the 8th. It had peculiar characteristics of its own. In the reproduction of ideal beauty of form and benign expression adhering rigidly to the canons of the silpa-sastras, Northern Bengal specimens of the 11th century show that sufficient latitude was given to its artists for individual capability or genius. The collection in the Rajshahi Museum now comes to the forefront and future students will have to devote more attention to it in studying the sculpture of the second Pala empire than to the older collection in the Indian Museum. But here also we find that the special characteristics of Eastern Bengal were not completely overpowered by Northern Bengal.
With the rise of the Senas and the last attempt of the Palas to reassert their authority over the lost provinces of the empire under Ramapala we find Bihar and Eastern Bengal once more taking the lead in the field of artistic activity. Sculpture of the 12th century is degraded, mean, disproportionate and impeded in its movement by hide-bound tradition, yet the artists employ their skill in depicting a smile or in imparting to the countenance of Lokesvara an expression of ethereal grace. The slavish obedience to the rules of the Silpa-sastras gradually leveled all peculiar characteristics of the locality and in the 12th century it is impossible to distinguish a Bihar image from an Eastern Bengal example. With the fall of the stronghold of Uddandapura (modern Bihar) and the sack of the celebrated University of Nalanda in 1199 by the predatory bands of Musalman Turks under Muhammad bin Bakhtyar Khalji, the history of Magadhan art comes to a sudden end. Even after the collapse of the Palas the artists of Magadha continued their activity. Patronage was rare and image few and far between; but the sudden blow at the vast monastic establishments of Nalanda and Vikramasila paralysed all artistic activity. Magadha ceased to have a separate existence either on the political map of India or in the long and varied history of its later plastic art.
The contagion spread to Northern and Western Bengal soon afterwards. Lakshmanavati fell within the next two decades and central and North-Central Bengal was devastated for a century by continued Musalman inroads. Artistic activity came to a sudden end in North-Western and West-Central Bengal in the earlier decades of the 13th century. Protected by its network of rivers Eastern Bengal continued its existence as an independent kingdom till the first quarter of the 14th century. Its artists continued to produce decadent stylized imitations of the 12th century when it was overtaken by the same fate as had befallen the Hindu, the Buddhist and the Jain alike in the north-western and central District of Bengal in the beginning of the 13th century. The supply of slates and basalts from Bihar had stopped and the artists of Eastern Bengal were compelled once more to have recourse to wood as the only cheap material available for plastic work. Wooden images are being discovered in different parts of Dacca District and in the majority of cases they are pitiable specimens which betray poverty of imagination and extreme decadence.
Modern stone carving of Bengal is but a mere shadow of its former grandeur. Modern sculptors imitate the soulless hybrid schools of stone carving now prevalent at Benares and Jaipur and it has no connection in any direction with the ancient school of sculpture of Bengal. The Musalman kings of Bengal employed Hindu artists in decorating their Masjids and tomb and the decorative motifs of the mihrabs of the Adina Masjid, the Eklakhi tomb and other splendid specimens of the pre-Muhammadan styles into the Muhammadan; but that narrative is too long to be included in this monograph.
The second chapter contains a complete description of sculpture, recovered in the eastern provinces of Northern India, during the first seven centuries of the Christian era and the third is devoted to a detailed consideration of the palaeographical analysis, which forms the framework of this monograph. The special style adopted by the artists of the Eastern Schools of Mediaeval Sculpture in the delineation of the life of Gautama Buddha is described in the fourth. The fifth and sixth chapters are devoted to the Buddhist and Hindu pantheons. Much of the original fifth chapter had to be left out on account of the long delay in printing of this book during which the material from the Buddhist sadhanas has already been utilized by other writers, specially Dr. Benoytosh Bhattacharya the author of "Buddhist Iconography". The excavations of Nalanda and the activities of the members of the Varendra Research Society, the Dacca Museum and the Bangiya Sahitya parishad have brought to light hundreds of metal specimens and therefore it became necessary to devote a special chapter to metal casting and images. The last or the eighth chapter is devoted to a discussion of such specimens of temple architecture as still remain in the eastern provinces of Northern India, along with such architectural members as had been discovered from time to time in different parts of Bengal and Bihar.
The conclusion which I have sought to establish in these pages is that from the 8th century to the 12th, in the eastern provinces of Northern India artistic activity is evident on a scale, which other provinces of the north and the south failed even to approach in magnificence, excellence and extensity. Here the Pala and the Sena excelled and even the proud Gurjara-Pratiharas of Kanauj, the Haihayas of Tripuri, the war-like chahamana lords of Sakambhari, the learned Paramara chiefs of Ujjayini and Dhara and the proud Chaulukyas of Anahilapataka were compelled to yield the first place to them. Mediaeval sculptures have been discovered, in varying numbers, in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajputana and the Antarvedi but nowhere is their total number comparable to the output of a single century in Bengal and Bihar.
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