Sunday, December 03, 2006

Not just another tree

If you stand at the Police Headquarters on Regal Circle and look towards the Prince of Wales Museum, you'll spot a large pipal tree.

How do I recognise the pipal, you ask? By the leaf, of course! What other Indian leaf has such a perfectly pointed end?

And what other tree has inspired so much devotion? This is the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

At Bodhgaya, the place of his enlightenment, people still worship this tree. And everywhere in India, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists treat this tree as sacred. Women pray to the pipal to be blessed with children. (By the way, the Latin name for this tree is Ficus Religiosa).

In the early years, the Buddha forbade images of himself - so his followers looked to other symbols for inspiration. The pipal tree, the wheel of dharma, the deer recalling the sermon at Sarnath, Buddha's footprints, all symbolized him till about the 1st century AD. This austere form of Buddhism is called the Hinayana tradition.

It was only later, when Mahayana Buddhism transformed the Buddha into a God, that carven images of Buddha came to be made. Legends of Buddha's previous births, the Jataka tales, and episodes from his life, all formed sources of inspiration for Mahayana painters and sculptors. You can still see the austere legacy of Hinayana Buddhist monks at Kanheri Caves in Mumbai.

And because Kanheri was a thriving settlement for many centuries, you can also see how more and more ornamentation crept into this beautiful simple religion as Mahayana became popular. Check out the add-on Buddhas carved into niches in the first four photos on this page. They're so clearly an after-thought! And on the other hand, in the more recent caves, there are large figures of the Buddha hollowed out of stone, very much a part of the planned design.

No comments: