In a previous post, I introduced you to some architectural and religious principles with the help of Stupa 2. Today, I am going to try to be clear while describing Stupa 1 or Great Stupa to you.
The Great Stupa was commissioned by Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC. At that time it was a brick stupa but then, during the Sunga dynasty in the 2nd century BC, the stupa was covered and expanded by a stone structure. After the Sunga, the Satavahana modified the stupa by adding the vedika and torana made of stone. Its dimension are now 15 m high and 36 m diameter. In front of the south torana, there was a column to mark the importance of the monument but it was destroyed in the mid 19th century. The vedika has no decoration, as all of it can be found on the four torana depicting scenes from Buddha’s life or historic scenes from Ancient India (such as the king Ashoka going to the tree where Buddha had his Awakening, which is depicted on the east torana). Here the torana are made of two pilasters linked to three architraves by dwarfs, lions or elephants. The south torana is probably the oldest one by its style, and the column and the staircase giving access to the hemispherical construction show its importance. The north torana is the best preserved one with buddhist symbols and a wheel at the center.
The low relief is evolved. The composition is more thoughtful and there are no empty spaces. There is no vanishing point nor reduction to create depth. Important elements are in the bottom of the relief while the top one are supposed to be further away from the viewer. If you want, the top part of the relief is supposed to depict the background. Foliates of leaves or flowers are a recurrent motif, which is usually used on the outer parts of the architecture. Another recurrent motif is the makara. It is a composite hybrid animal whose head and upper body are from an elephant and lower body is from a fish. It has a fin with scales and the huge mouth of crocodile. The makara symbolizes the aquatic world.
On either side of the torana, we can see some dvarapala, who are gatekeepers. They are armed with flowers and have a princely aspect to their clothing. On top of them there are rectangular scenes. One of the most famous ones is the descent of the Buddha from the trāyastriṁśa heaven. In this scene, Buddha is not depicted because it was carved during the aniconic period, bur there are two empty rectangles to show his presence. The scene is set after the Awakening but before Buddha’s first sermon. Buddha goes to heaven to teach the Buddhist path to the gods and his mother who died 7 days after his birth. The gods are in the oran position and mankind thanks Buddha for coming back to them.
On the torana, there are also shalabhanjika (young women standing near trees). From an architectural point of view, they are there to reinforce the architrave. They are also an expression of Indian erotism by their swayed hips and suppleness, even though the Buddha advocates the abstinence. When looking at them, it seems that they are nude, but in fact they have a very thin fabric on their skin. They are fertility symbols because they make the trees bloom.
This description of the stupa and its decoration can seem quite long but there is a lot to say about it. Indian art is complicated, but once you understand basic principles it becomes easier. This art is so beautiful and interesting that we should take the time to admire it and understand it!