Remains of Bharhut Stupa In The Indian Museum

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Item Code: NAE149
Author: Arabinda Ghosh
Edition: 2006
Pages: 126 (94 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 7.5 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description
About the book

The present work deals with the remains of the Railing (vedika) and Gateway (torn pa) of the Bharhut Stupa which form one of the most remarkable collections of the Indian Museum, Calcutta. It gives a general description of the remains as they stand in the Indian Museum and also of their discovery at Bharhut by Sir Alexander Cunningham during 1873-74. The main purpose of the book is to describe and explain the reliefs carved on the Railing and Gateway. This Part I deals with the so-called ‘decorative reliefs’ and gives an account of a number of such art motifs occurring on the monument and tries to bring out their meaning and significance as well as the reason of their occurrence on the Railing and Gateway.

About the Author

An M. A. in Ancient Indian History & Culture from the Calcutta University and a Diplomate in Archaeology from the School of Archaeology, Govt. of India, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi. Shri Arabinda Ghosh was formerly Curator to the Museums Branch, Archaeological Survey of India. In that capacity he served at the Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum (from 1956 to1959 and again from 1964 to 1976) and also held charge of the Archaeological site museums at Sarnath, Khajuraho, Fort St. George, Madras, Nalanda and Bodhgaya. Since 1976 he had been working as the Deputy Keeper, Archaeological Section, Indian Museum, Calcutta.


The Bharhut Gallery is at once the pride and a wondrous introductory chapter of the rich art and archaeological collection of the sprawling multipurpose Indian Museum in Calcutta this is the gallery that welcomes and leads the visitor to the rich treasures of the Museum.

By the time Cunningham discovered the ruins of the Bharhut stüpa in 1873-74 little had remained of it except on its south-east face, but whatever did Cunningham recovered and removed to the Indian Museum. This was in 1875. Some stray pieces which still lay buried there were also recovered later and removed eventually to the same Museum. But quite a few, recovered still later and from time to time, found their way to a few other museums in India and abroad. The fact remains, however, that if one has to form an idea of what the sapa was like with its elaborate gateways and railings, one must go to the Indian Museum since nothing remains any more at the village of Bharhut except perhaps the thousands of bricks that had gone to the building of about two hundred and odd structures of the village.

The basic text in regard to the remains of the Bharhut stupa, its gate, railings and the rich array of relief sculpture, is still the voluminous descriptive report of Cunningham’. Since then these remains have been studied in parts, aspects and segments by several scholars, the reliefs and the short votive and label inscriptions engaging, very legitimately, much more attention, relatively speaking. Nanigopal Majumdar who was at one time in charge of the Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum, made a good though modest contribution in this regard, for instance. But much more detailed and meaningful work was done by Benimadhab Barua.

The present monograph, in two parts, by Arabinda Ghosh, Deputy Keeper of the Archaeological Section of the Museum, is a continuation of the work, initiated by Cunningham and carried forward by scholars like Barua, Majumdar and others. It was somewhat inevitable perhaps that Ghosh should have taken advantage of the work of his predecessors and trodden parts of the same ground, but, by and large, he has discussed and analysed aspects and themes which were not given adequate attention heretofore. And this he has done methodically and systematically, which has enabled him to throw new light on many a point. He has also brought to bear upon his studies in a modest but straightforward manner a wider recognition of historical and ideational background of the motifs symbols and legends on which students of Indian art and iconography are now somewhat better informed.

I feel the author has been able to carry forward and bring up to date our knowledge of this great monument of early Buddhism and of early Buddhist art and iconography.


The remains of the Railing and Gateway of the Bharhut Stupa form one of the most important exhibits of the Indian Museum, Calcutta. The sculptures and inscriptions engraved on these remains constitute some of the main sources for the reconstruction of the political, social, economic and cultural history of India during the second- first centuries B.C., when this monument was erected. The sculptures, which attract the attention of the visitors at the first glance for their unsophisticated but lyrical loveliness, appealing, as they do, directly to the popular sense of the beautiful and the divine, are of inestimable value they form the main evidence for an evaluation of the artistic achievements of the Indian people during the period of their execution.

It should, however, be borne in mind that the Bharhut Stupa is a monument raised for the glorification of Buddhism. As such, it forms one of the greatest evidence for the reconstruction of the history of Buddhism during the period of its construction. Attention of scholars has naturally been devoted to a great extent to the elucidation and identification of those sculptures which depicted scenes from Buddhist legend and history. Considerable work in this respect has been done by Cunningham1 and Barua2. But mere identification of the scenes with legends and traditions preserved in Buddhist scriptures, which attained the shape in which we find them much later than the monument of Bharhut was erected, does not help us much in getting an idea of Buddhism as it stood during the second-first centuries B. C. As a matter of fact, Barua’s attempt to interpret all the Bharhut sculptures by reference to the Buddhist legends preserved in the scriptures has been severely criticized by Luders3.

Buddhism began as a way of life and thought revealed to the Buddha for the attainment of salvation. In its pristine form this way of life and thought was in vogue amongst a few followers of the Teacher (satiha), who “wandered away into homelessness” and ultimately formed a monkish order (samgha). But as the way to salvation revealed t and promulgated by the Buddha was meant also for the benefit of the people at large, it did not and could not remain for long limited to a select few who walked after the Teacher. Soon a number of lay devotees (upasakas) gathered around the Lord and Master (bhagava) and his followers, who heard their sermons and venerated them. The presence of these lay worshippers led to a great change in the doctrines and practices of Buddhism which may be designated as “popular Buddhism” in contradistinction to “monkish Bu4dhism” current in the viharas and sahgharamas of the bhikshus governed by the doctrines of the law and the rules of discipline as codified in the Dhamma-vinaya promulgated by the Master.

The stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati etc. are, in reality, monuments raised for the glorification of this “popular Buddhism” current during the centuries immediately preceding and succeeding the Christian era. Much of popular belief and tradition about the sacred and the divine had to be incorporated into the pristine Buddhism of early days to make it attractive and intelligible to the people at large. Thus the rational doctrines promulgated by the Master gave way to and got mixed up with a religion of devotion (bhakti) and belief in the supramundane (lokottara) nature of the Lord (bhagavat) and his immediate disciples. Many of the popular gods and goddesses had to be alloted a place in this “popular Buddhism” as belief in them was ingrained in the ways and mores of the people at large, and could not be dispensed altogether.

The popular affiliation of much of the Bharhut sculpture is revealed by a large number of reliefs which depict the myths and legends current among the common people of the time. These sculptures harken back to a world of thought and belief which is very dissimilar from those we find in the earliest of the Buddhist scriptures. They in reality form the iconography of a primitive stratum of popular religion and mythology which may be designated as “Water Cosmology”. Comparative studies in religion have shown that “Water Cosmology”, that is a belief in the origin of the Universe (Cosmos) from the primeval waters, was current among many of the peoples of the ancient world, including India. This belief was so firm in the popular mind that it could not be dispensed with, and the Buddhists had to succumb to this popular impact.

In the following pages an attempt has been made to describe and elucidate the significance of some of the motifs and symbols of the iconography of “Water Cosmo. logy” as they occurred on the Bharhut Railing and Gateway preserved in the Indian Museum. Pioneer work in this filed has been done by the late A. K. Coomaraswamy4, and the author has followed in his footsteps. If this small volume may render a little help to scholars and students in their understanding of the so-called “decorative” reliefs of Bharhut, the author will find his efforts amply rewarded.

The present work was begun as a descriptive catalogue of the sculptures displayed in the Bharhut Gallery of the Indian Museum. But it soon dawned on me that mere description of the sculptures would serve no useful purpose. What is much more necessary is an interpretative description which would make the reader understand the significance of the sculptures to the best advantage. This led me to contemplate a work on Bharhut in two parts, of which the present one (Part I) deals with the so- called “decorative” reliefs. In a future monograph (Part II) I propose to deal with the sculptures depicting scenes from Buddhist legend and history and the inscriptions. While publishing the monograph I avail myself of the opportunity to express my deep gratitude and reverence to my teacher Dr. Niharranjan Ray, formerly Bagisvari Professor of Fine Arts and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Calcutta University, who has been kind enough to go through the monograph, suggest corrections and improvements and also to write the fore ward introducing this insignificant work to the readers. I also remain beholden to Shri S. M. Bhattacharyya. Honorary Secretary to the Board of Trustees of the Museum, and to Dr. S. C. Ray, Director, Indian museum, for the interest they have taken towards the preparation and publication of the book.

It is a pleasant duty to acknowledge my debt to those of my colleagues who have helped me by their labours and advice in the preparation of the monograph. Miss Jayasri Lahiri, M. Sc., Guide Lecturer (Botany), has helped me in augmenting my meagre botanical knowledge by her explanations and in getting the drawings of botanical specimens illustrated in the monograph prepared. Shri Rathin Ray, artist, has prepared all the line drawings on Figs. 1, 2, and 3 and also the cover design. Photographs of sculptures illustrated in the Plates are the work of Shri Benu Sen, Photographer, and his colleagues Sarvashri Kshirod Roy, Subhas Chakravarti and Swapan. Kumar Biswas. I am deeply beholden to all of them for their ungrudging Co-operation and quick service.

Last, but not the least, are my thanks due to Dr. Amal Sarkar, Publication Officer of the Museum, who has conducted the book through the Press.

Introduction to the Second edition

The remains of bharhut stup a spride possession of the Indian museum since 1875 housed in a gallery were thrown open to the public in the year 1878. The gallery was recently modernized recreating the ambience of the period with addition of pare of fabricated gateways and a through renovation of the floor area after the lapse of one hundred and twenty two years of its installation.

In the light of this development the reprint edition of the present monograph by late arabinad ghosh formerly keeper of the archaeology section Indian museum will sure to attract attention of scholars and visitors alike.

Foreward to the third edition

The remains of the railing and the gateway of the Bharhut stupa are the most valuable archaeological treasures of the Indian Museum, Kolkata. These remains were accidentally discovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham, Father of Indian Archaeology, during his exploratory mission to Bharhut village in 1873-74, which was then under the Nagod State. These invaluable relics were ultimately removed to this premier museum in 1875 and are exhibited to the public at the Archaeological Section. The major bulk of the Bharhut remains that were retrieved from the ruins are still the pride possession of this museum and a few remains recovered later from the site are in the collection of the Allahabad Museum, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

The entire panorama of the railing pillars and the Eastern gateway with labels form the primary sources towards the reconstruction of the social, religious and cultural history of India during the 2nd-Ist centuries B.C. when this monument was erected during the rule of the Sunga dynasty. We should remember that the prime aim of erection of this stupa encircled by the railings and the gateways was to glorify Lord Buddha and Buddhism. As such, one can easily form an idea about the prevailing nature and character of Buddhism at its beginning. Pioneering attempts have been made by Sir A. Cunningham, Dr. B.M. Barua to interpret the details of the various episodes from the life of Bodhisattva and Buddha. Through the help of accompanying labels depicted herein, N.G. Majumder of the Archaeological section of the Indian Museum for the first time published a guide book in 1937 which was rather popular in nature to understand the various Jataka stories and other episodes represented on the railing pillers and the gateway.

The present monograph by A. Ghosh, former Keeper (Archaeology), Indian Museum may be treated as a continuation of the earlier works that began with the pioneering works of Sir Cunningham, Dr. Barua and N.G. Majumder. The interpretative analysis of various decorative symbols, motifs depicted on the railing pillars and the gateway by A Ghosh deserve admiration. I hope that this book will bean another addition in understanding the Bharhut relics in all its aspects.


Foreword by Dr. Niharanjan Roy7
Chapter IGeneral description of the vedika1
Chapter IIThe decorative reliefs20
Chapter IIIDescription of plates57
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