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Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2



Naseem A. Banerji

Representations of Scrolls in the Lithic Art of India

Naseem A. Banerji (PhD, U of Iowa) is an Associate Professor of Visual Arts at Weber State University. One of her articles was recently published in Visual Resources Bulletin and others are forthcoming in scholarly journals.


Works of visual art are texts to be read. Doorways to the divine, the gates on the stupas (mounds commemorating the Buddha), at Barhut and Sanchi (dated to the lst century B.I.E., and the Ist century I.E.), with their narrative panels were three dimensional picture books of instruction that guided the faithful to salvation, and reassured them of the promise of nirvana (release) when the trials of the cycle of samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth) were over. Covered with enlightening stories for the edification of the unlettered lay followers of the Buddhist Church, these panels were visual tools to reacquaint the devotee with the mystical presence of the supernatural, to reaffirm his/her belief in the precepts of the dhamma (Buddhist laws), and to serve as reminders of the virtues to be emulated. Though these stupa gate architraves at Barhut and at the Great Stupa at Sanchi have been accepted by art historians as purely decorative, four early scholars of Indian art (Rowland 56, Ray 70, and Barua 85, Kranuisch 70) were of the opinion that the volute ends of the architraves of these gates were crude adaptations of scrolls, traditionally used for entertainment, and for the dissemination of religious and cultural education in India (Figs. I & 2). This paper will suggest [with the help of literature, the decorative arts, the tradition of prosimetric performance arts in India, Java and Bali, and Buddhist relief sculptures,] that scrolls were used in ancient India for didactic purposes, for entertainment, and as vehicles for recording events, and that these architraves with their volute ends are lithic representations of an ancient form of picture-storytelling.

Figure 1:  Black and white drawing of a decorative Indian gateway.

Bharhut Stupa Gate. Reconstruction Drawing. Bharhut, India, Ca. 100 - 80 I.E.
Original-Indian Museum, Calcutta, Indiaa


Figure 2: Black and white photograph of an elegant stone gateway in India.

Sanchi, Grea Stupa Gate. Sanchi, India, Ca. 2nd - 3rd decades of 1st Century I.E.


 As early as the second and first centuries B.I.E., epic tales and dramas were being performed by itinerants who traveled from village to village in India, acting and reciting stories from the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions. In early Buddhist times these performances acquainted the masses with the most important events in the life of Gautama Buddha and with tales of his numerous earlier incarnations. These picture-storytellers known by various names such as saubhikas, yamapatakas, mankhas, chitrakathis, chitrakars and pratimadharins, traditionally used scrolls and single sheet pictures made of cloth (Mair, "Records" 2) or leaves to dramatize didactic stories, often of a religious nature. And their counterparts can be found in twentieth century India in the states of West Bengal, Orissa, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Mysore and Karnataka, where the tradition still persists. The themes of the painting, are taken from the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, from Buddhist and Jain lore and from local leg ends. The performances of these patuas (picture-showmen) are accompanied by prosimetric recitation and music.


At a later stage in India, China and Central Asia, narrative scenes illustrating stories from myths and legends were painted on paper and on cave walls (Mair, "Records" 15-16), and Sharma mentions a Central Asian wall painting dated to the early centuries of the Christian era in which a female is depicted holding a hanging cloth scroll with scenes from the life of the Buddha (Sharma 8). Unfortunately, he does not give the location of the painting or his source of information. This picture-storytelling tradition appears to have been carried to China through Central Asia, along with the Buddhist religion. According to Victor Mair, Chinese pien-wen stories (written versions of oral narrative performances with picture scrolls derived from a type of oral storytelling with pictures) usually began with phrases like, "Please look at the place where" (Mair, Recitation 6). The phrase would direct the audience to a particular section in an illustrated story, and Mair states that this method of narration was derived from the chantefable form of Buddhist Sutras (religious texts) and other such stories (Mair, Narratives 6). It is highly probable, therefore, that if continuous narratives could be painted on scrolls and on cave or temple walls as aidesmemoires, they could also have been directly transposed onto stone to serve as illustrations for performances.

Literary references to itinerant performers of dramas and prosimetric recitations are found in many ancient Indian texts. Panini, the Indian grammarian of the sixth or fifth century B.I.E., refers to pictures of deities exhibited by itinerant Brahmins, called saubhikas, who earned their living by displaying images and by singing of their exploits (Panini 2: 975). Kautilya's treatise on statecraft, the Arthasastra (1: 343), dated ca. 321-296 B.I.E., recommends that spies dress as actors, picture-reciters, dancers, puppeteers, etc., to blend with the populace (Thomas 480-481, Shamasastry 343-344). Asokan inscriptions (c.255-237 B.I.E.), refer to displays with images for purposes of religious propaganda (Basak 19-20, and Mair, "Records" 15-16). Patanjali's Mahabhasya written ca. 140 B.I.E., refers to saubhikas or dramatists who used pictures for their performances. Saubhikas are mentioned in the Mahavastu (37-38), a Buddhist text compiled between the second century B.I.E. and the fourth century I.E., where they are included along with a group of entertainers who flocked to visit the Buddha in the city of Kapilavastu Uones 110-111). hi the Vidhurapandita fataka there is reference to a group of entertainers among whom the sobhiyalsaubhika or illusionist is listed along with the mayakara or conjurer (Cowell 6:135). Bana's Harshacharita (7th century I.E.) also mentions such entertainers (Kane 4:11). In the first act of Visakhadatta's Mudrarakshasa (before 9th century I.E.), Nipunaka, who is spying for Chanakya, disguises himself as a picture-storyteller and exhibits stories of Yama, the God of death (Coomaraswamy 184-185).

The reference to the term saubhika has been translated by Mair from the 10th century Nitivakya as, "one who displays at night various types of individual beings by means of a screen made up of sticks and cloth" (Mair, Recitation 22) While Hillebrandt and Coomaraswamy were of the opinion that saubhikas were people who earned their living by explaining pictures, Luders felt that saubhikas were shadow-puppeteers, and that mankhas were picture story-telling mendicants (698-737). In any event, it is clear, that though the term used to describe these picture-reciters / story-tellers may be in dispute, the fact that they were known to exist in ancient India is not.

Intriguing evidence for the connection between storytelling and performance, as well as between performance and the scrolled ends of the gate architraves of the stupa at Barhut and the Great Stupa at Sanchi, is provided by the interior arrangement of a cave at Sitabenga in Central India, which has been dated to the 2nd century B.I.E. (Pischel 482-502). An inscription on the wall refers to it as a lenasobhika or a cave for the performance of picture-storytelling. At the entrance into the cave, two round holes are cut into its stone floor, while the interior has tiered stone seating as in a semicircular amphitheater. A possible explanation for these holes can be found in the arrangements made for the Wayang beber, a form of entertainment in Java and Bali in which a horizontal scroll painting with a series of sequentially related scenes is displayed by the dalang or storyteller who narrates the story in prosimetric form (Mills 97). To facilitate his performance, the dalang holds his scroll open by fixing it on two wooden poles the lower ends of which fit into two holes on the top of his scroll box (Mair, Recitation 25). As the story illustrated on the first scroll comes to an end, it is replaced by the one setup behind it, thus eliminating any awkward pauses during a performance. At Barhut and Sanchi, the gate architraves ending in volutes give the appearance of carved scrolls. Viewed together with the two supporting columns on which the lithic scrolls are placed, the gates convey the impression of a stage set for a performance. Thus, the gates can be understood as monumental representations of the way in which picture-storytelling was performed in India.

A 2 inch wide silver scroll found at Taxila, which is now housed in the National Museum in New Delhi, is dated by its kharosthi inscription to the year 78 B.I.E., making it the earliest extant Indian scroll (Corpus Inscriptonum Indicarum 11:1119291: 70-77. See Fig. 3). It is clear from its inscription that scrolls were used to record events, and it is highly probable that narrative scenes were also illustrated on similar scrolls. A number of relief sculptures from the Gandhara region and from various sites in Central Asia have depictions of a standing figure holding a rolled scroll or a bundle of rolled scrolls, offering visual proof that scrolls were known and used in the first and second centuries I.E.; and Mair states that Asian picture-performers were in the habit of carrying their bundles of rolled scrolls in just such a fashion (Mair Recitation 16. See Figs. 4 & 5)

Figure 3:Black and white photograph of silver scroll found in Taxila, India.

Scroll. Taxila, India Silver, Ca. 1st Century I.E. National Museum, New Delhi


Figure 4: Black and white photograph of a carved stone relief showing the bier of Buddha.

The Bier of Buddha. Sanghao, Gandhara, Afghanistan. Ca. 2nd Century I.E. Lahore, Pakistan Central Museum



Figure 5:Ink drawing of Buddha and his disciples.  Drawing made from a relief stone carving.

Buddha and his Disciples. Drawing of relief from Takht-i-Bahi Ca. 2nd Century I.E. Original-Berlin Museum.


 Incidents from the life of the Buddha and from his earlier incarnations, as well as purely symbolic representations were portrayed on the gates of the stupas at Barhut and Sanchi. The narratives were chosen to inspire the pilgrims and householders who flocked there for spiritual sustenance and entertainment. At Barhut, captions in Pali, the language of early Buddhism, helped viewers to identify the scenes, but on the gateways at Sanchi, which were erected more than a century later, captions were no longer felt to be necessary, Buddhists being expected by this time to be familiar with the most important of the illustrated events (Barua 47-48).

Early Buddhist monks were wandering ascetics who spent the monsoons in resting places close to a community. The itinerant lifestyle of early Buddhist monastics was, however, not suitable for all monks, and over time, with the spread of Buddhism, these resting places evolved into monastic centers or sanghas. Because the Buddhist fraternity was not supported in any consistent fashion by royal land-grants or monetary gifts, their economic dependence on their followers made it necessary for these centers to be located close to trade routes and trading towns, and for their rules and customs to take into consideration the needs of the community that supported them. With the expansion of Buddhism, large numbers of monks settled in monasteries or sanghas, and lay devotees motivated by piety financed the building of chaityas and stupas. Corrunissioned and selected by lay Buddhists, the subjects carved on the gate architraves at Barhut and Sanchi illustrate stories dear to these often unlettered people. The reliefs combine elements from Buddhist doctrines with popular behefs; in them we see the ideal elements of the religion mixed with folk superstitions as well as with ideas that are against canonical teachings. Inscriptional evidence found at a number of monasteries attest to the fact that as a result of improving communications, people from distant places were increasingly able to visit sacred sites, place their offerings at stupas, and offer donations to the sangha (Dutt, Monks 122).

In early Buddhist times, the yearly celebration that ended the annual rain retreat and the bimonthly uposatha or holy day were occasions that brought the monastics and lay followers together (Banerjee 187). The provision of recesses for lamps at the base of the stupa at Barhut suggests that arrangements were made for illumination. Though such exterior illumination would not have been required in the day to day life of the sangha, it must have been necessary for special events such as fairs, festivals and other religious demonstrations that helped the monastic fraternity, "to attract annually a large number of pilgrims and heighten the importance of the place" (Barua 44).The narratives on the gates architraves were illustrated for the edification of the visitor to the monastery. These morality books of the unlettered probably emerged out of the popular Hindu/Buddhist oral storytelling tradition which at a later period also included written texts.

Though the life of the sangha was cut off from the social life of the community that supported it, the monks and nuns were, nevertheless, responsible for the spiritual and moral welfare of the communities that supported them. At the conclusion of the period of austerities that constituted the rain retreat, a holy day was celebrated in every monastery. For the members of the sangha this occasion began with a public meeting during which transgressions against their fellows were brought up and offenders were required to ask forgiveness. This was followed by the donning of new robes as a symbol of purification and renewal. The celebration brought to an end the austerities of the rain retreat during which the monks and nuns had avoided contact with the lay community. The confessions, fasting and religious discourses were concluded with a feast.

The uposatha, celebrated twice a month on full and new moon days, was observed in different ways by the monastic and lay communities. The monks and nuns fasted and meditated and listened to discourses on the philosophic doctrines of the faith. For the lay devotee, on the other hand, it was observed by the acceptance of the eight rules of morality as a result of which the occasion began to be called the "uposatha of the eight parts" (Dutt, Monks 104). The aim was to purify the stained mind by abstinence from eight specifically disapproved acts. Lay men and women spent the day within the confines of the monastery. They confessed, fasted, took vows of abstinence, presented material, spiritual, and symbolic offerings and performed liturgical observances for the dead. In the evening they celebrated with a feast, listened to edifying stories or took pleasure in puppet shows, dramatic performances and recitations from the scriptures or in watching role-playing performers act out scholarly disquisitions. The texts for delivery were not canonical, but they were composed by authorities on the sastras, and were intended to attract people to the holy teachings through magnificent displays and vivid examples (Mair, Recitation 41). It was, a day of rest from normal labor and in Theraveda Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka such holy days are still observed in essentially the same way (Walpola 258). Like the celebration of the Ghost Festival in medieval China, the occasion became a feast day during which the monastic and lay followers converged in prayers and festivities that were to the benefit of both (Teiser 8).

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate five points. First, the existence of the itinerant performer of moralistic/ religious stories is supported by numerous literary sources and by the continuing tradition of picturerecitation in rural India. Second, the evidence of the Javanese Wayang beber performance, as well as the method used by the dalang to support the scrolls during a show, support the theory that these gates were in fact lithic representations of an ancient form of storytelling. Third, the interior arrangement of the Sitabenga cave with its tiered seats and holes for scroll posts is additional evidence to suggest that performers used scrolls to help with dramatic performances. Fourthly, the Taxila scroll confirms my contention that scrolls were made in ancient India as early as the first century I.E. Most importantly, the visual evidence of the volute ends of the gate architraves at Barhut and Sanchi clearly reveal their origins in the tradition of the scroll format that was used for dramatic performances in ancient India.



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