Dialogue  January - March, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 

Indian  Inputs to Chinese Art
Radha Banerji 

The cultural intercourse between India and China is more than two thousand years old. During these long centuries of contact, these two civilizations contributed to each other’s fund of goodwill and knowledge in various fields.  Cultural interactions between these great countries form a fascinating study. 

Buddhism came to China when it was being ruled by a later Han ruler. At that time Buddhism was greatly transformed and came to be known for its liberal ideas and universal compassion. It became Mahayana -a great vehicle or religion of salvation or one and all as opposed to old Theravadins outlook who were concerned only with their personal or individual salvation. 

Religion plays a very important role in the life of the people, and Buddhism is a perfect example of how a religion can enrich the art and culture of various nationalities. Buddhism was the main bridge or plank to bring India and China closer to each other. With the spread of Buddhism in China, there arose in the Chinese mind a quest for a new communal understanding as preached by the Buddha whose doctrine of Universal compassion transcended the geographical and individual limitations. How Buddhism transformed the Chinese mind is apparent from Chinese art and culture. In short Buddhism acted as a fertilizer or vitalizer of the latent artistic talent of local artists, besides providing new art motifs in China. 

Buddhist culture penetrated into China in the 1st century A.D., The history of Buddhism in China is not free from hurdles or vicissitudes. But because of its inherent power of tolerance and assimilation and its compassionate character it withstood the initial difficulties and occassional persecutions and became a part and parcel of Chinese life. It is, not however, necessary to dwell on the history of Buddhism and Buddhist art here at length which is fairly well known . We have however to emphasis certain factors which coincided or occurred simultaneously and gave new dimension to this religion.

It was the period  which offered Buddhism  favourable opportunities to spread far and wide beyond the
geographical frontiers of India. King Kanishka and his successors who ruled during the early centuries of the
Christian era and were eclectic in their religious outlook extended their patronage to all the religions that
flourished in their kingdom. Among these religions Buddhism was the most prominent one. Kanishka was a
great patron of Mahayana Buddhism. As a result of this, Buddhism in general and Mahayana Buddhism in
special could spread without any obstacle in his vast kingdom comprising India, Afghanistan, Bactria and also
certain parts of Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan), viz. Kashgar, Yarkhand and Khotan. Kanishka’s reign was an
active force for the dissemination of Buddhism in Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Indian devotionalism, and the widespread influence of Hellenistic iconographic tradition leading to the
representation of deities in human form is a great landmark in the religious history of the east. It is well known that the Hinayanists looked upon Sakyamuni Buddha as a human teacher and in the Hinayana Buddhist art in India before the Christian era his presence was indicated through certain symbols, like the Dharmachakra, Bodhitree, Stupa, etc. These symbols were not enough to satisfy the religious urge of the people as very few people could understand the religious significance of these symbols. But a great change took place during the 1st century A.D. when Mahayana Buddhism came into existence. The Mahayanists look upon Buddha as a divinity, an absolute reality and an eternal principle  and the Buddhists of North Western regions and Gandhara seem to have been the first to take advantage of the Hellenic iconographic tradition. Buddha images in human form were created first by the Gandhara artists who were trained in Hellenistic tradition. 

The example of the Gandhara artists caught soon the fancy of the other Indian artists and revolutionized the
religious outlook of the people, leading to the creation on a large scale not only of Buddha images, but also of
the Bodhisattvas and other deities concretising various Budhhist concepts. The Hellenistic iconographic
tradition was so overpowering an influence that in the course of a short period it replaced the aniconic tradition
by image worship almost throughout Asia. A Pan- Hellenistic tradition became a pan-Asiatic tradition. Even the
primitive Christian church and the Roman-Syrian Judaism came under the spell of Hellenistic iconographic
tradition of anthropomorphic representation. The artists of the Catacombs followed the image of Hermes
Chriophorus to represent the Good Shepherd and the Judio-Greek painters of the large synagogue of
Dura-Europhos in Syrian Mesopotamia (245-256 A.D.) dressed their prophets in the costume of  the Greek

The Silk Route served the purpose of not only trade in material commodities but it was also a traffic for
dissemination of ideas. The Silk Route connected many Asiatic countries from China to Rome and helped the
interchange of various civilizations. The Mahayana Buddhism with its inherent spirit of compassion further
enriched itself when it came into contact with the Silk Route communities and their diverse religious ideas and
spiritual realizations. When it came to China, it was a fully developed religion. Rich  in experience and
understanding,  it provided a new stimulus even to China which had a glorious  heritage in art and culture.
Nowhere did Mahayana acquire greater vitality and response than in China. Though various factors as
mentioned above contributed a lot to the growth of Buddhism, it is the acceptance and enlightened appreciation
of Buddhism in China that proved to be a positive factor for its further development and onward march in East

With the downfall of the Han dynasty, Confucianism lost its preeminence. This time was marked by political
disturbances as well. The situation was greatly worsened by the various chiefs who wanted to expand their
power by fighting and aggrandisement. 

China too was then waiting like the west for a religion of salvation. Neo-Daoism attempted no doubt to respond to this need but failed as it suffered from many complications: “its dietetics, its innumberable purifications, its exhausting control of breathing indeed of all human behaviours, its minute prescriptions, the excesses of its
magic that took its adepts back to the practices of primitive witchcraft. All this failed as it discouraged the best
intentioned”. What China failed to get from Daoism, Buddhism offered to the Chinese people with greater
felicity. The Buddhists, however, adapted Daoist vocubulary to explain various Buddhist religious terms, like
‘bodhi’ and ‘nirvana’ etc. Both the religions however  differed chiefly in principle. 

China with her intellectual hospitality and openness of mind welcomed the truths of Buddha as Buddhism was a
great civilizing force all over Asia. The story of Sino-Indian cultural relations or the meeting of enlightened minds
of India and China is a stimulating study in the history of Asia -an event which stood the test of time and has
great promises for the future. 

The nature and extent of Indian inputs in Chinese art and culture are comprehensive and varied. To do justice to
the subject one should be acquainted not only with the Indian and Chinese literary sources but also with the art
history of both the lands. Very few art historians have attempted to give a comprehensive and correct picture of
the western impact on Chinese Buddhism and art. The story of cultural contacts between India and China
begins earnestly with the introduction of Buddhism in China during the Han period; but it took some time for
Buddhism to gain a strong footing in Chinese soil as indicated above. It should be noted that both Hinayana
and Mahayana Buddhism were cultivated in China, though the popularity of Mahayana gradually superseded
the importance of the Hinayana doctrine. 

As a result of the Mahayana teachings, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas came to be presented as timeless entity
with cosmic role as is evident in the design of icons. We know that this idea of transcendentalism added a new
dimension to Buddhist art and thought. From the beginning the Buddhist art in India and China combined two
trends of thought, one was to advertise the person that is to depict the recent and previous lives and miracles of
Gautama Buddha and the other is the Mahayana ideals of transcendentalism. Mahayana art corresponds to
various changes which the religion did undergo. This is true not only in the case of India but also of China. “The
introduction of Mahayanism into China was fully laden with a progressive cultural treasury which the ancient
Chinese could hardly refuse, or remain indifferent. There was a marriage between the Chinese empire which
was the universal system on the ground and Mahayana Buddhism which was the universal system in the
ideological realm. After the death of king Kanishka, Mahayana Buddhism was looking for a universal system on
the ground as husband, while after the Han dynasty China was in search of a universal system in the ideological
arena as wife. Mahayana Buddhism was an India-China joint venture. Mahayana Buddhism is a mighty cultural
river originated in India, but flows away to Central Asia and enters the sea from China. China became the
valleys of its middle and lower streams. Historical vicissitudes have separated the middle and lower streams of
River Mahayana from its Indian sources for nearly a millennium” 

In pursuing our investigation concerning Indian influences on Chinese art.,we encounter some great and almost
insurmountable difficulties. Firstly we hardly have any original Indian work in China like the South Indian standing
Buddha found at Annam There is only some information as to the original Indian works which were brought to
China by Chinese monks and scholars. To give only a few examples. In the year 430 the Indian missionary
Gunavarman is said to have painted a Jataka scene in a temple near Canton. About a century latter the
Chinese monk Hui-seng who was a travelling companion of Sungyun took back to China from India a brass
model whilst in the beginning of the seventh century we have among the court painters of the Emperor Yangdi
names of some Indian artists like Kobodha and Dharmaraksha. Faxian, Xuanzang, and many other Buddhist
monks also carried with them paintings, icons and other Indian objects of art to China. As they are not traceable
now for comparison, we have to depend mainly on the existing Chinese Buddhist monuments to assess the
nature of Indian influence on Chinese Buddhist art. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Buddhism dominated Chinese religious and  sculptural art. Although Daoism
was an indigenous tradition and at periods enjoyed  a high religious and social status with China’s rulers, it was
never able to produce sculptural centres comparable to those of Buddhism. Buddhist images, whether
monumental sculptures carved in stone, or small wooden figures, were made primarily for worship. Large
statues were normally placed in temples or were carved inside caves as part of a temple complex, while some
small images were set on personal altars in family chapels. It was not until the Ming period that religious images
were made as objects of art and for decorative purposes, and even then the great majority of Ming and later
Buddhist sculptures in China were made for  religious purposes. 

All the evolutionary stages of Buddhism are depicted in Chinese cave art as in India. In the early stages the
artists laid stress on Buddha’s life scenes. But in later stages he was sculpted mostly in accordance with
Mahayana ideas of the theory of Trikaya, i.e. Dharmakaya, Sambhogkaya and Nirmanakaya.  The mundane
and transcendental were inseparably mixed in Buddhist ideology. While Sakyamuni is the earthly Buddha, his
cosmic form is Vairocana. While an arhat is a man of the world intent on attaining Buddhahood, Avalokitesvara,
Manjusri, etc are divine Bodhisattvas. Buddhist pantheon did not ignore even the folk deities like Hariti,
Jambhala, etc. Esoteric cults later also were absorbed in Buddhism. This gave an enormous scope for the
artistic activities of the faithful. China incorporated the whole of Buddhist pantheon of India, but with some
modification to suit the local condition. The Chinese were creative people and could include some new
elements in Buddhist art. 

The art of the Six Dynasties continues the Han art of the last phase with the influence of Neo-Daoist mythology.
So far as the non-Buddhist subjects are concerned the period  of the Six Dynasties produced Chimeras or
winged lions in the round adorning the sepulchres of the Nanjing emperors. The lion is not a native of China. It
came there perhaps from Iran. In China i.e. Lions and other animals were used to guard the tombs. The
terracottas  of the Six dynasties show a large number of usual animals, horses, dogs, swine, certain new
creatures and monsters, small chimeras, rhinoceros, camels, etc. The Wei horses are easily recognizable with
slender head and rich trappings. It is not known if any of these animals had any religious significance in China. 

As Buddhism was progressing in China, it received the patronage both from the masses as well as  the nobility.
The barbarian chiefs also were soon won over by this religion, though the higher circles had a special liking for
Confucius teaching.  Amongst the nobility the Hun chiefs were the first to come forward to support Buddhism
openly though with some opposition in the beginning. In 355, a Hun chief who reigned in Shanxi formally
adopted Buddhism. Another barabarian chief  King Fu-chie (358-385) protected the Indian monk Kumarajiva
who translated a great number of Buddhists texts including the Sutras. Toba chiefs or the Wei kings of China
had extended the wholehearted support to Buddhism with the result that many Buddhist shrines and cave
temples came to existence at Yungang and other sites. The Toba kings’ conversion to Buddhism was to have
considerable influence on the development of Chinese art. The Buddhist sculpture in China from the middle of
the 5th  to 6th century is known as Wei sculpture. 

The Wei kings had lived first (from 398-494) in Ping-cheng about 2 kilo meters west of  Datong in the extreme
north of present day Shanxi on the fringe of the steppe. In 414-415 the Buddhist monks began to build rock
shrines into the cliffs of Yungang 15 kilometers to the west of Datong. The first sculptures have all perished. The
work was resumed in 453. The moving spirit in undertaking this work was the Chinese monk Tan-yao who
followed the doctrine of the Saddharma-pundarika and the teachings of the Indian monks. Between 460-465
Tan yao during the reign of the Wei king Toba Hsun directed the work on caves 14-20 at Yungang including the
colossal Buddha in seated Indian fashion reminding us of Buddha in  dhyanasana at the foot of the Bodhitree
and of the colossal Buddhas of  Bamiyan. 

In 494 the kings of Wei, almost completely sinicized, moved their capital from Ping cheng to Luoyang. Then
came the caves of Kongxian cosntructed in the year 508-575 and then Lien-hua-tan of the same period, of
Wei-tzu-tung as well as of Yueh-fang-tung (about 530) and  Pin-yang-tung. To the  end the Wei soverigns
contributed to the embellishment of the sanctuaries of Longmen. Of the pious works of this dynasty mention may
be made also of the sculptures of Su-ku-su. 

The sculpture of North China before 5oo A.D. belongs to Gandharan Hinayanist tradition, for example Colossal
Buddha of Yungang already mentioned, is inspired by the Lokottaravadin concepts which inspired the earlier
Bamiyan Buddhism and art and it will not be very far from truth to say that the Bamiyan Colossal Buddhas
supplied the model for  Yungang Buddhas. These cave temples at Yuangang were made in accordance with
Indian traditions. The caves which number over twenty are of varying size, the largest one being about seventy
feet deep, the smaller ones only a few feet. A good many of the decorative motives in the Yungang caves are
derived from Central  or Western Asian art. The enormous lotus flowers with two or three rings of ornamental
petals, surrounded by soaring apsaras, sometimes enclosed in trapezoid fields, as on Northern and Central
Indian mounments. The bungled Ionian capitals on some of the polygonal pillars and pilasters and the roughly
executed egg and dart patterns which are also Hellenistic elements in Indian translation. It is hardly possible that
the artisans who worked at Yungang were acquainted with real Gandhara sculptures. They must have known 
those types in rather free translations. As a matter of fact, some of these Yungang figures are more closely
related in style to statues made at Mathura than to the proper Gandhara sculptures. A camparison between the
Buddha standing to the right of the colossal figure in Cave XXII with the sculptures in the Mathura museum can
be made. The types and the features are essentially similar, though the head of the Yungang figure is more
mask-like, flatter and emptier. The long garments are arranged according to the same fashion in a series of 
parallel folds over the front, although simply incised and not executed in relief as on the Mathura figure. However
most of the statues at Mathura are clothed in garments with relief fold in the “tricot” style. It is hardly possible to
indicate exactly where the sculptors who worked at Yungang since the middle of the 5th century found this style. 

There are  a few images of the Six dynasties in true Indian iconography. These are the figures with three heads
and eight arms, riding upon a bull. Opposite to this figure is a deity with five heads and six arms mounted upon
a peacock. These reliefs are executed in the same Central Asian style that characterizes almost all of the
sculpture of the 5th century Scholars have identified them as representations of Siva and Vishnu. The
icongraphical detail of the Mahesvara has been described in the Mahaprajna-paramita sutra with eight arms
and three faces and riding a white ox. The companion figure is to be identified as Kumara, the son of Siva,
whom the text describes as holding a bird, a bell, and a white banner, and riding upon a peacock. This same
pair of divinities may also be found in a Six Dynasties fresco in cave no 120 at Dunhuang. The deities in the
vestibule of the cave at Yungang might be regarded as deities, protecting the worshipper. 

The most captivating group of flying celestials is found in Yungang carved in relief on the inner face of the north
wall. Some play flute, others beat drums and others play pipe and a four- stringed lute, etc. The conductor of this
orchestra is depicted on the opposite wall. These sculptures shed much light on the Chinese musical
instruments and their use. Similarly the flying musicians on the west wall of cave no. 9 are worthy of note.  The
flying figure is just one of the Indian cultural treasures that have been carried to China  by the Great carrier i.e.
Mahayana Buddhism. It was beyond doubt, created to help the disciples of Buddhadharma to expand their
imaginations into the worlds beyond the prosaic surroundings of the ancients. The invention of this motif
strengthens the vivid depiction of the Heavenly bliss of the Buddhist paradise. That the Indian invention and its
aims and functions have been greatly appreciated and even more enthusiastically emulated  by the disciples of
Buddha in China are very eloquently depicted at the Dunhauang Mogao Grottoes. 

Luoyang occupied a vital position in both the history of China and the religious history of India. From Luoyang
Buddhism spread further to Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea. There about ten thousand Buddhist temples
were built between Northern Wei and Tang periods. From the archaeological remains and literary evidences it
is crystal clear that India and China had close contacts, at least since the first and second centuries A.D,
onward.  From time to time, Indian monks came to Luoyang and translated Buddhist texts. Likewise , a few
Chinese monks and pilgrims visited India to pay respect to the holy land as well to study the Buddhist
scriptures. This close connection between India and China is well reflected in the sculptural art of Longmen. The
grotto art of Longmen began around the fourth century A.D. and was completed by the tenth century A.D. All the
caves have more or less the same theme and composition and the figures are arranged in an almost similar
sequence. A typical arrangement has Buddha as the main idol of worship flanked by monks and Bodhisattvas.
In Fengxian temple, the Ancestor-worhsip temple, a colosal seated Buddha or Vairocana is flanked by
Kasyapa and Ananda and Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Avalokitesvara. On the sides of this niche, huge figures of
Lokapalas, stand on either side. It is one of the most impressive caves and displays a distinct Graeco-Indian

Cave of Thousand Buddhas (Wan Fuo Dong) was completed during the reign of Emperor Cao Zeng of the
Tang Dynasty. There are about 1000 meditative images hence this cave is Known as Wan Fuo  Dong . Here
we find the Buddha image as seated on a high octagonal pedestal. The uttariya and muscular body of Buddha
recall the Kushan influence. The most interesting part is that the ceiling over the head of  the central image has
a big canopy of lotus medallion, the outer ring having Astamangala symbols in a regular order. Usually the
Astamangala symbols appear in the Jaina Ayagapatta at Mathura. Prof Furer discovered a Buddhist
Ayagapatta among the ruins of Ram Nagar, U.P. 

The Yellow river ferry on the southern route was located in Binglingsi grottoes. These grottoes as Buddhist art
treasury are famous as the Dunhuang and Maijishan grottoes. The Binglingsi temple grottoes and Maijishan
grottoes in Tianshui were built in approximately the same period. Many rare plants and exotic trees grow in the
temple grounds. Most were brought by monks from the western regions and planted here. There also is a  plant
which was planted by an Indian monk. Sandalwood of Indian origin, with fragrant aroma is used to make fans.
The blossom of the agalloch eaglewood tree also from India, produces a famous perfume known as qi nan
xiang (rare perfume from south). Foreign influence is more easily discerned in the Binglingsi than in the
Maijishan grottoes. On the stone walls of Binglingsi there are some niches without Buddha statues, only reliefs
of Buddhist pagodas in the style of Indian dagobas. They are rarely seen in grottoes elsewhere in China. Most
prominent here are a number of small Bodhisattva reliefs, each about half a metre high, standing in various
postures evocative of Indian classical dance movements. Because of its location this grotto was open to foreign
cultural invasion. Local artists accepted foreign influence without hesitation,  blending, it with the art of their own.
The standing Buddha statues of this place are modelled after the Nalanda stucco and Mathura stone examples,
and exhibit closeness to the bronzes of Phopnor (India). The robes in schematic loops or ridges down to central
vested line of the body shown in a network of lines, the snail curls and the large prabhamandala recall Mathura

In the period of the western Jin and the Sixteen Kingdoms the people of the Yellow River valley lived in the
abyss of suffering after protracted warfare. Here Buddhism had fertile soil for its propagation. Moreover, the
rulers vigorously encouraged it for their own benefit. So monasteries and grottoes were founded at this historic
moment. There is no record of the exact time when the construction of the Maijishan caves began. According to
Biographies of Eminent Monks of the Liang Dynasty (Liang Gao Seng Zhuan) in 402 eminent monks Xuan
Gao and Tan Hong lived as hermits on Maijishan with more than three hundred disciples. The grottoes must
have been started earlier, no later than the Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang,  namely the fourth century A.D. 

Maijishan grottoes represented the rare flowering of art. In Cave no 44 we encounter a Buddha statue having a
solemn countenance that would keep one at a respectul distance. Its face is radiant with youth while wisdom
glimmered between the eyebrows. The eyes, which seemed to be open yet also closed, were in meditation or
reminiscenes. Here we recall the typical Gupta introspection of the Buddha figure. 

Another set of very important cave chapels with Buddhist sculptures was excavated during the late Wei period
and early Tang at Tien Lung Shan in Northern Shanxi province. The best work here was sculptured in the late
7th to 8th century A.D. and proclaims the influence of the art of Nalanda of the Pala period. The Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas  there can hardly be distinguised from those sculptured in Bengal and Kalinga. The figures have a
freedom of pose and softness as the Gupta sculptures of Mathura and Sarnath. The drapery and scarfs of the
cave figures cling to the body recalling the technique of Gupta wet cloth drapery of Sarnath , showing the pure
and sensuous beauty of  the limbs. The existence of such a gentle style at Tien Lung Shan may be perhaps due
to the presence here of a group of Indian monks from Magadhan area –the fact of which we are ignorant or it
may be due to the general influence of the doctrine of Amida on art. We know that the doctrine of compassion
of Amitabha and Avalokitesvara  did away crudity in human approach and created an atmosphere of softness 
in life. The whole art was actually humanized. The fullness and radiance of the face, the soft and sensuous
modelling of the torso including the abdomen, the ease and freedom of the lalitasana posture and the slight
sideward tilt of the hips recall Manjusri from Nalanda. 

As to the gentle features of the Tien Lung Shan figures, Mizuna observes “we can discern here the influence of
Mahayanic neo-Buddhism of various forms of worship that had sprung from its doctrines of salvation, with their
infinitely compassionate divinities, such as Amitabha and Maitreya, the Amida and Mahayana pietism. 

We should deal here at some length with the art and religion of Dunhuang as it has a long histoy of over
thousand years. Dunhuang is the repository of the Mahayana paintings and sculptures. It is a desert oasis in
northwest China and an artistic pearl at the foot of the Qilan Mountain. The old Silk road which  began from
Chang’an goes forward through Dunhuang. It was the major hub of the Silk road. The murals, sculptures and the
structure of the caves and niches reveal both direct and indirect ties with the Silk Road. The Mogao Grottoes
came into being after Indian Buddhism had been introduced into China’s hinterland through the Yangguan and
Yumen passes on the Silk Road. If there were no Silk Road, there would have been no Mogao Grottoes. In the
year 366  the monk Le Zun (Lo Zun) travelled from the Central Plains west to the foot of  Mount Mingsha hill  in
Dunhuang. When he looked up, he saw thousands of Buddhas in the midst of dazzling golden rays on  Mount
Sanwei opposite. He considered the site to be a holy place and had a cave hewn here. If it is regarded that art
and culture is a holistic growth of mankind without the notion of national  boundaries, then Dunhuang art can be
placed at the midstream of the long river of the Buddhist culture and art which orignated from India. The first
Indian monk to settle at Dunhuang was Dharmaraksha. It is said he knew  thirty six languages. Dharmaksema
another Indian monk also lived at Dunhuang for many years and translated many scriptures. Subsequently many
other monks visited Dunhuang. Therefore we can say with certainty that the content of the Dunhuang cave art is
undoubtedly Indian though the art styles became sinicised during the course of time. Four hundred ninety two
caves are still extant, dating back to Ten dynasties from the Eastern Jin and the sixteen states through the
Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou,  Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Western Xia to the Yuan.  The
Tang was the period of splendid achievement. This period was the climax of China’s military expansion
westward; Chang’an, the capital was a centre where not only Indians but Persians, Turks and Syrians met.
Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity were also practised side by side with Buddhism. It saw not only
the greatest expansion of the Chinese political powere but also the highest development of the Chinese art and
literature. It was the unprecedented internationalization of the Chinese culture, with the foreign commnunities
mainly from Central Asia who brought with them new religion, food, music  and art traditions. By the 9th century
the city of Canton  had a foreign population of 1000,000. 

One of the greatest Indian contributions to Chinese painting is the development of art and skill of “Human
figures” as opined by Prof Duan Wenjie of the Dunhuang Academy. This genre in Chinese painting was not well
developed in China. The Dunhuang art may be regarded as the hightide of this genre. Nowhere in China so
much attention has been paid in perfecting the human images as has been done in Mogao Grottoes. The artists
of Dunhuang benefited much from the Indian Buddhist paintings and sculptures. All the oldest Chinese Masters
of human figures such asYan Liben etc. made their careers in Buddhist painting. They were self trained
disciples of Indian Masters. There was, however,a long process of Sinicization in human figure painting of the
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. 

The greatest gift of the Dunhuang artists in this period was the illustrations of many Mahayana sutras. Dunhuang
is the only place where the work of sutra illustration was taken up with greatest gusto, leaving a glorious artistic
and literary heritage for China and the world. During this period Sukhavati or the western Paradise where
Amitabha is the highest god and ever kind to the sentient beings received a considerable attention of the
Dunhuang painters. Amitabha’s mission is carried out by his spiritual son Avalokitesvara/Guanyin. In the
Sukhavati the souls of the blessed are born in the lotus buds that spring from the lake; and above are pavilions,
peopled by beatified spirits, for whom celestial music is forever played, and the celestial dancer forever dances
in their midst. Many are the pictures of Paradise found at Dunhuang, such as the paradise of Maitreya as well
as that of Akshobhya and others besides the paradise of Amitabha mentioned above. Some of these are most
elaborate compositions, crowded with figures in the Indian manner of design; yet with all their intricacy there is
no sense of confusion, there is on the contrary a sense of abounding space. The Chinese gift for creating
harmony by a continuos relation between the forms is subtly exerted to control the multitude of figures into an
ordered whole. These heavenly beings are more ethereal than natural,  but they too are living. They give one the
persuasion of being individual persons, with their gracious movements and gestures. How natural is the pose of
the celestial nymph  seated at the upper window of a pavilion! The type is Indian , but with a difference. 

Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot Missions have discovered undeniably authentic paintings and frescoes
belonging to the Tang and Five Dynasties. They provide us with examples revealing various influences,
sometimes Graeco-Roman sometime Gupta, sometimes Iranian along with donors and  other secondary
figures and episodes in pure Chinese style. By the second half of the 6th century A.D. influences from the highly
plastic Indian sculptural art of the Gupta dynasty began to be felt clearly in China. The new style, with its stress
on physical forms and naturalism was introduced from India, rather than being a development of the older
sculptural styles. As regards Chinese Buddhist sculptures of the 6th century, it is not easy to point out examples
of direct assimilation of Indian sculptural ideals, which were often interpreted in quite a different fashion by
Chinese craftsmen. Again, the silk paintings and banners discovered from a walled up chapel of Mogao
Grottoes are of highest interest as far as Indian inputs to Chinese art are concerned. These objects dating from
7th to 10th centuries give us a clue as to how Gandharan, Gupta and Pala schools of art and Iranian styles
penetrated to the Dunhuang region. To our great satisfaction there are some pieces which show Sakyamuni
attended by two Bodhisattvas with nude torso of elgance derived from Ajanta and Pala schools. Again there are
instances of Devatas and Apsaras on upper banners descedending from sky with fluttering scarfs and
streamers serving as a link between their Ajanta prototypes and those of the Korean tombs of Sammyori. 

A Samanatabhadra Bodhisattva from Dunhuang, now in the Pelliot Collection in Musee Guimet bears
unmistakable Ajanta and Pala influences. The nude torso (decorated only with ornaments) in attenuated pose
and floating scarfs and the treatment of hands betray Ajanta style while the short legs, more or less static, point
to affinities to some Eastern Indian Buddhist figures. Predominant Chinese influence is apparent in a
Kshitigarbha figure hodling a jewel (mani). 

The largest reclining Sakyamuni in a recumbent posture, nearing the Mahaparinirvana, is an example of a hand
modelled divine figure entirely built in straw-wood and clay from cave no. 158 (780 A.D.). Its total lenth is 15
meters. The glow and calmness of this striking Indian figure is awe inspiring. The circular pillow double moulded
and embroidered with lotus or chakras is truly an Indian copy. And the mourners   shown in a row on the top
register in the Dunhuang examples are, however, unlike Ajanta. 

Cave no 285 dated to A.D. 536-538, amidst the Buddhist themes, contain, as noted above, a three-headed,
six- armed seated Siva on a bull mount. and at the lower register a four- handed seated Kartikeya He holds in
the upper right hand a spear, in the left a bunch of grapes, and in the lower right a short trisula while in the
corresponding lower left a flower bud. The portrayal of Brahmanical gods in a purely Buddhist context is not very

We find some pure Indian elements in these figurines. Occasionally we see a bare torso of the Gupta type, the
use of the dhoti cloth and the ornaments like the necklaces, bracelets and anklets which were more in vogue in
India than any other part of the Asiatic mainland. The darker skin of the Indians seems to have interested some
of the Chinese image makers. In Dunhuang Buddhist temple banners, as well as on the Chapel walls, the artists
portrayed the darker skinned people as attendant of the  vehicles of Samantabhadra and Manjusri, two very
important Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana pantheon. A dusky curly hair and thick lips, bare torso wearing  Indian
jewellery are found in the paintings showing the meeting between Manjusri and Vimalakirti and sometimes
Sakyamuni and Prabhutaratna. 

Northern Wei caves at Dunhuang  consisted of two types. The forechamber of one type is square, without a
central column. A number of neatly arranged small Buddhist niches were hewn at the four walls. This type of
grottoes was used for meditation (Vihara, Pure Dwelling). The other type of Northern Wei grotto bears the
traces of Indian Chaitya cave, mainly for holding religious services. The Chaitya cave has a stupa in the centre
around which Buddhists used to do  circumumbulation. In the Mogao Grottoes of the  Northern Wei period there
is a square central column, obviously a variation of the stupa. The round space around the stupa was
correspondingly changed into a square. 

The Mahayana Buddhist art of China is varied and complex as it is based mostly on the Mahayana Vaipulya
sutras. Again as the time passed, the Mahayana system moved closer to Hinduism. The reconciliation of the
Hindu and Buddhist doctrines in Mahayana gave a new strength to its faith and its  art. The result was the
emergence of  certain deities whose inner core constituted of Indian ideas but the outer garb is Mahayanistic.
This point can be illustrated with the help of some images  like Vairocana Buddha and the Double Headed

The region of Khotan including Balawaste and Farhad beg-Yailiki and Dunhuang  have produced some
interesting  Vairocana figures which are endowed with some esoteric and auspicious symbols like srivatsa,
flaming pillar, svastika , mount Meru and celestial horse (Ucaisravas) and the elephant (Airavata) etc.  These
figures are synthetic and composite in nature representing the attempt on the part of the artist to bring about a
reconciliation between the Hindus and the Buddhists. On the model of Krishna of the Bhagavadgita the
Buddhists have described Vairocana as an all embracing reality. It may be interesting to note the description
given of the Vairocana Buddha in the Avatamsaka sutra which speaks of the deity as follows: 

      “In every particle of dust 

      Throughout the Buddha-world 

        The creative power of Vairocana 

        Buddha is perceivable” 

      This can be well compared with the descriptions of Krishna given by Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita: 

 “You are the primeval deity and the ancient being. You are the supreme substrate of this universe; you are the
knower, the knowable and also the highest abode. You are of inflinite form and you pervade the universe.” 

“You are the Wind God, death, Fire, Sea God ,the Moon, Prajapati (Brahma) and also the great grandsire.
Salutations, a thousandfold salutations to you; Salutations again and again to you”. 
On the basis of this the author of the Lankavatara sutra has amplified Buddha’s stature as quoted below: 

“We are told here, just in other cases there are several names for one and the same thing, e.g., Indra and
Sakra, hasta and pani (both of which mean “hand”), etc., similarly, there are countless names for Buddha too;
some call him Tathagata, others Svayambhu, Nayaka, Vinayaka, Parinayaka, Buddha, Risi, Vrsabha,
Brahmana, Visnu, Isvara, Pradhana, Kapila, Bhutanta, (the end of the beings, death), Aristanemi, Soma
(moon), Bhaskara (sun), Rama, Vyasa, Sukra, Indra, Bali, Varunas and others again: Anirodhanutpada
(non-destruction and non-originating),. Sunyata, Tathata, Truth, Reality, Highest Being, Dharmadhatu, Nirvana,
That which is Eternal, the Four Truths, etc. 

The Cosmic or Visvarupa aspect of Buddha was not unknown to the Chinese artists because all the Mahayana
sutras describing the Vairocana Buddha as a supreme reality and all covering personality were translated into
Chinese and as result of  this the Chinese and Central Asian artists could produce many significant and very
beautiful images of Mahavairocana. 

The Double- headed Buddha is also a product of mixed Brhamanical and Buddhist ideas. The German mission
has discovered a couple of Double headed Buddha figures from Turfan area. Scholars have also noticed the
presence of Double headed Buddha in Dunhuang art. The story of the Double headed Buddha seems to be an
old one. It was current as early as the Kushan times as is apparent from Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang’s report.
The pilgrim found a Double- headed Buddha image sixteen feet high, painted on the southern face of the
ascent to the great stupa erected by Kanishka (2nd century A.D.). In connection with the curious image of
Buddha the pilgrim has narrated a local story. The story goes: “Once a poor man having obtained a gold coin
requested an artist to make a Buddha figure with beautiful points of excellence for him. After sometime another
poor man wanted to have a picture of painted Buddha from the same artist. As the painter failed to produce two
Buddha images for his customers he made a double -headed Buddha . When the men came to pay reverence
to the picture they ordered for . He told them '‘here is the figure of Buddha which you ordered to be done."This
story does not explain the true significance of the Double-headed Buddha figure. The actual fact seems to be
that this figure is an intersting example of the synthetic character of Buddhism. This figure partakes of the
attributes of the Hindu god Agni, who is often represented in Chidambaram in South India as a double headed
figure. If we go through the Vedic verses describing Agni and compare them with Buddha’s description in the
Mahavastu and other Buddhist texts we find many similarities between Buddha and Agni. It is well known that
some of the Mahapurusa -laksanas of Buddha are based on Agni’s attributes. Both have a golden colour and
a lion jaw and very white teeth (E.J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, London, 1952,

The Mahayana Buddhist pantheon included not only the higher and hieratic Buddha and Bodhisattva figures but
also several popular deities to enlarge its base of influence. The subject is vast and can be dwelt on at any
length but we should confine ourselves with the description of the Lokapala figures which were very popular
both in India and China. 

As to the Lokapalas  they were originally Hindu divinities, They seem to have been completely absorbed in 
course of time in the Buddhist pantheon of Central Asia, China and Japan. The Lokapalas in Hindu mythology
are eight in number as the guardian deities of the four cardinal points as well as the four intermediate
directions. They are Indra of the east, Yama of the south, Varuna of the west and the Kuvera of the north, and
Agni, Nirriti; Vayu and Isana are respectively the guardians of the south east , southwest, northwest and
northeast. In the Ramayana however only four Lokapalas are recognized in  Indra, Yama, Varuna and Kubera. In
Hindu tradition, the number and names of the Lokapalas are not constant. Manu, the Indian Law-giver
recognises the importance of the Lokapalas as follows:’A king embodies in his self all the eight Lokapalas’, viz,
Soma, Agni, Arka (Surya), Anila (Vayu), Indra, Vittapati (Kubera), Apapati (Varuna and Yama. In Buddhism,
they are only four Lokapalas of the cardinal directions.The four well known Lokapalas are Dhristarashtra,
Virudhaka, Virupaksha and Vaisravana. They  are conceived in the Buddhist pantheon as Caturmaharajas, who
guard the world against the Asuras. Each  Lokapala (guards) one side of heaven. Dhritarashtra, King of
Gandharvas and Pisachas, guards the east, Virudhaka, the king of Kumbhandas,, the south; Virupaksha, King
of Nagas, the west; and Vaisravana or Kubera, king of Yaksas, the north. 

In popular Indian cosmography Mt. Sumeru a magnificient mountain of gold and gems shaped like a cup or the
seed vessel of the lotus, was believed  to form the centre of the world, where all the planets revolved around it.
On each face of this mountain a regent of the four quarters resided, and at the summit was the heaven of
Brahma, and meeting place of the gods. This system was assimilated into Buddhism, where it later became
part of the symbolic Triloka (three worlds) composing the Buddhist universe. The four regents were absorbed
into the Buddhist pantheon to become important guardians of the faith. The fragments of the Bharhut railing
dating around the middle of the 2nd B.C. indicate that their statue as Buddhist guardians was established at
that time. The protectors of the Four regions appear there ivariably as warrior longs arravyed in gorgeous dress
and armour and accompanied by supporters symbolising the hosts of Yaksa, or demons, over whom they rule 
according to Indian notion. 

The guardian monarchs of the four quarters (Tian Wang) are among the most widely known supernatural figures
in Buddhist art of China. Sir Aurel Stein in his earliest finds in Chinese Turkestan found the stucco figure of
Kubera in Dandan Uliq which shows him accountrad in elaborate scale armour and with his feet on a crouching
demon without any trace of Chinese influence in the treatment and  again the four Lokapala statues at the 
entrance of Rawak Vihara of Khotan are in Gandharan tradition. The worship of these god became very popular
in Chinese Buddhism during the Tang period. Earlier they occur in the rock curvings of Yungang and Longmen.
The Tang Lokapalas are represented as warriors as they are supposed to guard the temple as well as the

The Indian Lokapalas had a fixed norm of presentation but while they migrated to China and Japan, they
acquired certain new elements. The Hindu concept of Lokapalas (Dikpalas), as the  guradians of the quarters 
is very old and again the list of the Lokapalas  varies. The Jaina concept of Lokapalas also is  based upon 
Hindu Mythology. 
The Mahayana faith and art are pervaded by an idea of Universalism. It covers all realms, space and time, like
the three steps of Trivikrama (Vamana), they  covering the three worlds, the heaven, the earth and the nether
region. Buddha’s concern for the welfare of many (Bahujana hitaye and Bahujana Sukhaye)was converted by
the Mahayanists into the all pervasive ideal of welfare for all the sentient beings. It is said in the
Saddharma-pundarika that the sentient beings of eight kinds formed part of the audience of Buddha’s
discourses. They are the Deva (the gods), Naga (the snake deities) Yaksa (the tutelary deities of the earth),
Gandharvas (the celestial musicians) originally akin to the centaur and later imagined as half human and half
bird and Mahoraga (the deified terrestrial serpents. They are all amanusa (non-human beings) but devoted to
Buddha. Many of them are frequently represented in art in India. They received the attention also of Chinese

Among all these beings, the Nagas and Garudas deserve our special attention for their enormous size and
nature, and they play a significant role in both Indian and Chinese Buddhist art and legends. They are depicted
as early as the art of Bharhut and Sanchi (2nd-1st century B.C) in India. In Chinese art too, Garuda occurs as
early as the first century B.C. on a Han tomb. It is significant to enquire whether the Garuda on the Han tomb is
an autochthonous device or it was imported from India where Garuda enjoys a high position. This is due to the
fact that Garutmat, or prototype or ancestor of Garuda is mentioned in the Vedas as a sun-bird and later on as
the vehicle of Vishnu. This position is well explicable in view of the fact that in the Rigveda Samhita Vishnu was
treated as one of the twelve Adityas (solar deities). But very soon he (Vishnu) rose into a high position and
Garuda became his vehicle. Garuda’s association with Vishnu is vividly testified by the Garuda pillar of the 2nd
century B.C. at Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh. The inscription on the pillar is a valuable document for the history
of early Indian Vaishnavism (called Bhagavatism) and it records that the Garuda Pillar (that is the column
surmounted by Garuda was erected in honour of Vasudeva (Krishna) by Heliodoros, son of Diya (Dion). He
came from Taksila to Besnagar as an envoy from the Yavana king Antialkidas (2nd century B.C.). 

Garuda and Nagas were hostile to each other though they were born to the same father, Kasyapa. Both Garuda
and Nagas are known for adventurous deeds and were great devotees of Buddha and they were frequently
represented in Buddhist art (as they, especially the Nagas, rendered many services to Buddha). The wide
diffusion of Naga cult is explicable by the fact that the serpents are most uncanny of all creatures.  The Garuda
of the Han tomb has, it appears, no religious significances. Its main purpose was perhaps to guard the Tomb
as the Chimeras did. The Chinese artistic symbols like the dragon and phoenix incorporated some of the
features of Garuda and Nagas 

Apart from the religious ideas and art styles, and hierarchical Buddhist gods and goddesses many popular
auspicious symbols also migrated to China. The Astamangalas (eight auspicious symbols) occur in Longmen
caves. This is the case also with Dunhuang. Dunhuang art  also displays number of other religious symbols like
lotus petals, Mount Meru, flaming pearl, Svastika, Srivatsa, Full vase, etc. All these symbols are clearly derived
from India. 

Symbols and folk lore have played a very significant role in Indian art,, based on ancient Indian religious
hieratic  as well as folk tradition. Indian has retained some of the earliest representations of Svastika which is a
universal symbol. Srivatsa occurs on the chest of Vishnu as well as on the body of the Trithankara and
Vairocana Buddha. Sumeru is variously called Meru, Hemameru, Mahameru. According to Indian tradition
Sumeru is 168000 Yojanas in height half of which is submerged in the sea. It is the abode of gods and axis
mundi of the universe. The jewel as Cintamani fulfils, according to the Buddhists, all wishes. By its luminosity it
symbolises the Buddha and his doctrine. According to esoteric doctrine the Cintamani represents the manas
or the sixth sense and is the glorious vesture of the soul, ‘the radical vehicle of the divine essence’. By analogy
the jewels, because of their indestructibility denote the brilliance of the Buddhadharma. Triratna indicates the
Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Lotus is the symbol of purity and is the attribute of many gods and goddesses.
Flaming pillar in Buddhist context denotes Buddha’s  superiority not only over the Hindu Trinity, but also over
Agni and Surya. Vajra represnts indestructibility. It symbolises  the Law which is eternal. Most of these symbols
occur on Vairocana figures of Central Asia and Dunhuang. India was the store house of symbols. In this
connection we may note for comparative study the Jaina and Buddhist Ayagapatas of the 2nd century A.D. with
various symbols.  Vincent Smith in his Jaina Stupas and other antiquities of Mathura has reproduced some of
the Ayagapatas (Tablets of Homage) affliliated to Jaina faith. These tablet contain eight beautiful auspicious
symbols which belonged not only to the Jaina sect but were a common property of all the sects of India. These
Ayagapatas were discovered from Mathura by Dr Furher. According to him the eight auspicious symbols
(astamangalas) are the mystic cross (Svastika), mirror (Darpana), Purnakalasa  (symbolizing plenty), cane
seat like an hourglass (Bhadrasana), two small fish (Matsya-mithuna), flower garland (malya) and book

In the realm of secular art there are motifs like the duck or goose (hamsa) with a small branch of Asoka leaf in
his mouth which became enormously popular in the Tang period. In the early Buddhist  carvings of the stupas of
Mathura, Sanchi, Bodhgaya and Amaravati the motif was included perhaps as a part of the Hamsa Jataka; the
birds were also moon symbols. In the secular art of Begram, carvings in bone and ivory attest the appeal of the
bird and flowers design outside the confines of India proper, and mark a stepping stone in its advance across
Central Asia into China. It is quite possible that painters of India were transported to China. 

This is but a brief survey of the Sino-Indian cultural interactions. The subject has many dimensions. I have
confined my discussion only to the major problems or issues concerning the study. 


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Bussagli, Mario. Central Asian Painting,  Geneva, 1979. 
Gray, Basil. Buddhist Cave Paintings at Tun-huang, London, 1959. 
Grousset, Rene. Chinese Art and Culture, London, 1959. 
Grousset, Rene. The Civilizations of the East :China and Central Asia, vol. 3, 1995. 
Hopkins, E.W. Epic Mythology, Delhi, 1968. 
Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art  on the
trans-Himalayan Trade Routes, USA, 1982. 
Radhakrishnan, S, India and China: Lectures delivered in China in May 1944, Bombay, 1954. 
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Tan Chung. Across the Himalayan Gap:An Indian Quest For Understanding China, IGNCA/ Gyan Publisher,
Delhi, 1998. 

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                                                 Astha Bharati

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