Pala Art of India

From the time of the Pala and the Sena dynasties it is necessary to highlight the abundant production of sculptures, since relatively few vestiges remain from their architecture which suffered at the beginning of the 13th century the massive destruction caused in all these regions by the Muslim invasion. This devastating invasion also contributed to the annihilation of the famous university of Nalanda, in Bengal, which from the fifth century was recognized as a well-known teaching center and a seat of several great Buddhist monasteries where bronzes of beautiful quality were made in the lost wax technique. The Muslim intrusion resulted in the definitive sinking of Buddhism and the halting of Buddhist artistic production.

From the second half of the 7th century until the end of the 12th century, the Pala-Sena style prevailed, inheriting the Gupta and post-Gupta styles (IV-VIII centuries), whose survival and transmission was thus secured not only in India itself but also overseas.

However, of the great art of the Gupta and post-Gupta that together had created an admirable aesthetic and narrative repertoire, the Pala art devoted to perpetuate only its iconography: thus, the Pala art was mainly represented by cult images in bronze or stone, and exceptionally by low reliefs circumscribed in panels; the very few paintings (illustrations of manuscripts) that have survived are dated at the end of the style, approximately at the XII century.

The main Pala workshops were those of the famous Buddhist university of Nalanda, those of the neighboring places of Gaya-Bodh Gaya and Kurkihar, as well as the numerous located in East Bengal. Their production reveal elegance and balance, a certain mannerism* in gestures and attitudes, and a pronounced taste for the representation of ornaments.

The cult images in stone were presented in the form of a big character framed by very small assistants, the whole group stands out in sharp relief on the background of the stele. During the three and a half centuries in which the Pala style developed, it is noticeable a progressive tendency towards the loading of the images with ornamentation: the characters wear increasingly numerous and ornate jewels and the background of the stele, initially almost empty and with a rounded top, was gradually covered with symbolic accessories.

Examples of Pala stelae. From left to right: -A stele with the image of Varaha, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, from western Bengal, 10th century. -Stele with Shiva as Mrityunjaya, the Conquerer of Death, a 12th century Pala period black stone stele from Eastern India. -A black stone stele of Durga Mahishasuramardini, Northeast India. -A stele with the image of Vishnu.

In the course of the tenth century, when the political power of the Pala suffered a decline, the artistic production was more variable: as a whole, the silhouette of the characters was progressively lengthened and more refined, the jewels were less important, the features of the face were thicker and more accentuated, and the modeling was looser particularly that of the legs. The subjection to the iconographic canons was more rigorous as the Buddhist pantheon was enriched under the impulse of the Mahāyāna Buddhism and was heavily tinged with tantric* expressions. In the 11th century and in the first decade of the 12th, the same style persisted but became heavier, drier, and its grace appeared more affected. Since then, the stelae had a pointed top, in the form of a leaf, and its background was ornamented with symbols and small characters that in the best sculptures showed fretwork* in some areas. To the ornaments and jewels of the preceding centuries, a thick garland falling from the neck to the ankles and forming a U shape in front of the legs was added later. The Brahmanic deities are now more numerous than the Buddhist divinities, and the tantric forms multiply. A then frequent iconographic form was that of the “adorned Buddha”, who wears a tiara and jewels in spite of his monastic robe.

As for the bronze icons, these were usually of small sizes, although examples are known that reach or surpass human stature: for example, the standing Buddha of 2.25 m high found in Sultanganj, Bhagalpur district, and now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (England). These bronzes, which were cast in lost wax with an alloy composed of eight metals (copper, tin, lead, antimony, zinc, iron, gold, and silver) were sometimes coated with a weak layer of kaolin or clay dyed green or brown, which acquired the appearance of a patina*. In general, these bronzes followed the evolution of the cult images in stone mentioned before, with the difference that they often had a fretted appearance, with the background of the stele replaced by a frame in which the themes are cut out in a vacuum which gives them a kind of dynamism that the stone stelae are devoid of.

Pala sculpture. Left: A basalt statue of Lalita flanked by Gaṇeśa and Kārttikeya (British Museum). Right: The Sultanganj Buddha, a Gupta-Pala copper sculpture, the largest almost complete copper Buddha figure known from that period, ca. 500-700 AD (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England).

The Pala style does not seem to have had any direct artistic descendants in India. On the other hand, particularly fruitful artistic relations between the Pala imagery and the Indonesian imagery had to be established from the beginning of the ninth century. Not only many Indonesian bronzes of the 8th-9th centuries reflect, to the point of being confused with them, the characteristics of the Pala bronzes of this period, but more than two hundred bronzes of this origin have been found in the ruins of the monastery No. 1 of Nalanda consecrated under the reign of Devapâla (around 810-850) on the occasion of an embassy of the King of Sumatra and intended to house pilgrims from this region. These contacts had to be renewed several times and for this reason we can notice surprising analogies between the Pala stelae and the cult images of East Java visibly inspired by the Pala art and hence perpetuators of their characteristics well until the 14th century, long after the disappearance of the Pala schools in India.

Pala style bronze figures. Top left: A 12th century Tibet avalokiteshvara by the Pala school. Top center: Marichi, the ray of Dawn, from Eastern India, Pala period. Bottom left: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara found at Kurkihar. Bottom center: Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra, a bronze from ca. 9th-10th centuries (Indian Museum, Kolkata). Right: Avalokiteshvara from Northeast India, late Pala period.

The Pala schools also influenced the Burmese art. Direct religious relations united Burma and India Pala: thus, King Kyanzittha (1030-1113) ordered restorations at the famous shrine of the Mahâbodhi at Bodh Gaya, and King Nandaungmya also known as King Htilominlo  (1211-1231) had a replica of this same temple built at Pagan (the regions that would later constitute modern-day Burma in Myanmar). It is also possible that the cruciform temple of Paharpur (Northern Bengal), the Somapura Mahavihara, had undergone Burmese influences: in it, we see the use of the ashlar vault, very exceptional in India and frequent in Pagan. In this same temple there is also a group of more than two thousand terracotta plaques adorning its basement and dating from around the 10th century. These plaques bear low reliefs with characters of a diligent and picturesque style, whose simplified compositions very closely resemble those of the enameled plates that decorated several Burmese sanctuaries from the 9th to the 12th century.

Finally, the Pala art was transmitted to Nepal, whose geographical proximity and whose adoption of the Buddhist and tantric traditions designated it as a natural receptacle to receive the artistic forms and the iconographic repertoire of the Pala art. In the art of Nepal this transmission of the Pala forms is undeniable and it is there where the Pala and Sena styles continued in use until the contemporary era, introducing them in part in their neighbor the Tibet.

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