Buddhism is a living religious culture in Arunachal Pradesh. As a religion and a philosophy, Buddhism traces back to Siddhartha Gautama who lived in the ancient Indian city of Magadha in the sixth century BCE and attained enlightenment to be known as the Buddha. Over time, Buddhism became a monastic institutional religion and was widespread in the Indian subcontinent for more than a thousand years. During its efflorescence, the religion was spread across Asia by Buddhist monks and a few monarchs of India.
It is interesting to note that when Buddhism was on its decline in mainland India by the eighth century, almost going extinct by the twelfth century, it was flourishing in the country’s easternmost periphery. The religion is believed to have reached Arunachal Pradesh through two different routes, Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, which are two of the major Buddhist traditions. While Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Arunachal Pradesh with Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet in the eighth century CE, Theravada Buddhism came much later in the period between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries when several Buddhist groups from Southeast Asia, particularly Burma (present-day Myanmar), settled in various parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Thus, Mahayana Buddhism and the Burmese tradition of Theravada Buddhism are both prevalent in Arunachal Pradesh today in the form of monasteries, temples and stupas scattered across the state, some of which have been in use for centuries. The religion’s deep impact on Arunachal Pradesh’s cultural landscape is visible in the form of art and architecture as well as people’s way of living.
Introduction to Theravada Buddhism
Theravada is the older school of Buddhism which, apart from India’s Northeast, is still practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. After Buddha’s death, several doctrines developed within Buddhism among which Theravada and Mahayana are the two major doctrines. The prime difference between the two is over the worship of Buddha. The Mahayanists emphasise the metaphysical and superhuman qualities of the Buddha, while, the doctrine of the elders, Theravada Buddhism, concentrates on the ethics and moral discipline taught by him.
Buddha was regarded as a great teacher by his disciples. He maintained that he was a margdata (one who shows the path) and not the mokshdata (one who gives salvation). According to Mahaparinibbana-Sutta, one of the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, Buddha asked his disciples to ‘be a refuge to themselves’, and never to seek refuge in anybody else. Adhering to the original teachings of the Buddha, Theravadins avoid intricate ritualistic performances. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is at the centre of Theravada Buddhists’ activities. Hence, the art and culture of Theravada Buddhism revolves around the historical Buddha and his life events. Although regional deities have been assimilated in Theravada Buddhism, they take a subsidiary position to the Buddha.
Theravada Buddhist Monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh
The Burmese Buddhist groups with whom Theravada Buddhism entered Arunachal Pradesh are now mostly settled in the Changlang and Namsai districts of the state. The Tai-Khamptis, Singphos and Tikhak Tangsas are the prime followers of Theravada Buddhism in the state who trace their lineage to Burma. In addition, there are few settlements of Tai-Khyamyang, Tai-Aiton, Tai-Phake, Barua, and Chakma in the state who follow Theravada Buddhism. These Buddhist groups display a strong Theravada Buddhist culture. Every village maintains a vihar or monastery which is the centre of the village community’s religious, cultural and social activities. As a result, there are several Theravada monasteries in Changlang and Namsai districts.
While approaching a Theravada Buddhist village in Arunachal Pradesh, the monastery complex is the first sight one encounters as they are built mostly at the entrance of the villages. These monasteries primarily consist of a prayer hall and a hostel for the residing monks. In addition, stupas, Ashokan pillar, Bodhi tree, seema ghar (place for ordination ceremony), small shrines and standalone statues of the Buddha and subsidiary deities, and storehouse for religious manuscript and materials are there in most of these monasteries. Although the monasteries are maintained by community funds of the respective villages, some of them have also received funds and materials from Government of India as well as various Buddhist organisations of India and Southeast Asia.
The act of dana (donation) is fundamental in Buddhism; it is the most important among the 10 Theravada Buddhist paramis (essential qualities for the path of enlightenment). It is believed that donations made by devotees accumulate as merits towards ending their sufferings. As Buddhism is a monastic religious culture, donating to the monastery and the residing monks is vital for the practitioners. One of the most significant monastic donations is the donation of artwork to the monastery; this is an ancient Buddhist practice as evident from famous Buddhist sites like Sanchi that has some 627 donators’ inscriptions. Most of the structures and artefacts seen in the Theravada Buddhist monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh are either commissioned works of community members or individual donations by devotees. A donation can be a simple painting, an extravagant sculpture, small shrines and stupas commissioned in the monastery premise, flowerpots, utensils, and kathin sibor (garments) for Buddha’s idol and residing monks. In addition, people also built small temple complexes near the monasteries as donation. A donated structure is often inscribed with the name of the donor; the deep belief of the Theravada Buddhist community of Arunachal Pradesh in the virtue of donation has shaped the rich artistic culture of their monasteries.
There is not any study to indicate the total number of Theravada monasteries present in Arunachal Pradesh; however, in A Survey of Theravadi Buddhist Monasteries of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Bangalore-based academician C.V. Nageswara has surveyed 41 Theravada monasteries present in the state. These monasteries are built in a way that their architecture is distinguishable from the village dwellings and other surrounding structures. Most attention is paid to the prayer hall and the entrance gate. Burmese style of architecture is preferred for the gate (Fig.1) and it is decorated with Buddhist symbols like the dharmachakra (wheel), miniature shrines, mythical animals, and floral and decorative patterns. The monastery’s boundary is often marked with bamboo fencing or concrete walls, and sometimes an Ashokan pillar is constructed inside the monastery premises. These concrete pillars resemble the monolithic Ashokan lion capital pillars erected by Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who was a major patron of Buddhism in the third century BCE, to disseminate Buddhist principles. Sanken kyong or chong phra (shrine for ritualistic bath of the Buddha’s idols) is another interesting structure present in these monasteries’ premises. A sanken kyong is built of two main elements, a long boat-shaped dragon or a boat and a small empty decorated shrine. This structure is used during the festival of Poi-Sanken (the water festival) which takes place in the month of April. During this festival, the sculptures of the Buddha are taken out from the prayer hall and placed inside the shrine of the sanken kyong; devotees pour water into the boat that flows to the shrine to wash the sculptures.
Art and Architecture of the Prayer Halls and Images of the Buddha
The prayer hall is the most important building of the Theravada monasteries and it is reflected in its grand architecture. Traditionally, these prayer halls were built in the structure of a chang (an elevated house made with wooden planks or bamboo canes, placed on wooden or concrete pillars). (Fig.2) In recent years, however, the RCC (Reinforced Cement Construction) technique has been gaining popularity all across the state; this is primarily because an RCC structure is considered a symbol of prosperity in the region. The RCC structures serve two purposes: they show that devotees want to provide the best to the monastery and, due to their longevity, these cement buildings also require little maintenance compared to those made of bamboo and wood.
The traditional architecture though still lives on, especially in the form of the roof of the prayer hall which is shaped like an inverted ‘V’. A decorative miniature multi-tier spire, locally known as a thee or thi, is placed on the main roof of the prayer hall; it does not serve any utilitarian purpose but marks the structure as a sacred space; this ornamental crown is also widely seen on the temples of Burma and is known as hti that translates to an umbrella.
Seen from inside, the prayer halls are longitudinally wide spaces which are at times faced like a ‘T’. The walls and ceilings of the prayer halls and shrines are mainly decorated with floral and geometric patterns; events from the Buddha’s life and Jataka Tales reproduced in framed paintings or prints are put against these motifs on the walls. Sometimes, these illustrations are also directly painted on the walls by the local artists; for instance, a shrine of the Buddha in Chongkham Buddha Vihar, houses a beautiful locally made painting of Siddhartha Gautama cutting his hair before renunciation (Fig. 3).
On the extreme end of the prayer hall, multiple images of Buddha are kept on an altar (Fig. 4), majority of which are donations from devotees. At times, one among these is positioned distinguishably as the central image of worship, but there are places where there is no distinct central image. Paintings of Bodhi tree, celestial beings, natural scenery and ornamental patterns are used to decorate the backgrounds of the Buddha sculptures, alongside which subordinate deities such as Upagupta and Vasundhara also find place; fresh as well as artificial flowers are kept on the altar as offerings to the divine beings.
Most of the images of Buddha are seated either in bhumisparsa (earth-touching) mudra or dhyana (meditating) mudra. Though less common, there are also standing images of Buddha found in some of the Theravada monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh. The monasteries are also populated with large-scale Thai Buddha sculptures donated by Buddhist organisations of Thailand; these sculptures are made of brass in the Sukhothai style of the erstwhile Thai kingdom of the same name. They are identified by the flame on top of the Buddha’s head, his fine curled hair, curved eyebrows, broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Burmese marble sculptures, smaller in size to the Thai ones, are also frequently found in the monasteries. The Burmese Buddha images are mainly in Mandalay style and are identified by the broad band across the Buddha’s forehead; these sculptures are seated in bhumisparsa mudra wearing a monastic robe that leaves the right shoulder bare. In addition, we see wood and bamboo images; made by native artists with locally available materials—sometimes in collaboration with artists invited from Myanmar—these images are examples of excellent craftsmanship.
The Tradition of Stupas/Pagodas
Stupas, or chetis (pagodas) as they are locally known, of various designs and sizes are observed in most of the Theravada monastery premises in Arunachal Pradesh. (Fig.5) An important monastic structure in Buddhism, stupas are amongst the oldest Buddhist artefacts found till date. After the Buddha’s death, Buddhist stupas were first constructed to enshrine his relics; later, relics of the Buddha’s disciples and venerated monks were also enshrined in the stupas and they became sacred sites for Buddhists.
With the growth and spread of Buddhism, construction of stupas became an art form with various styles, designs and techniques. However, stupas are not always made for holding relics; a stupa, as a structure, symbolises the Buddha and his teachings, like in the case of the Theravada monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh where Buddha images are sometimes found enshrined inside or around it. Stupas are also constructed over buried old broken statues of the Buddha and other monastic materials in the premises of the Theravada monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh; sometimes, a decorative miniature multi-tier spire is placed on top of the stupas.
In the premises of these monasteries, stupas and shrines of various designs and style stand parallel to one another. As most constructions in the monastery premises are commissioned work of individual donors, the designs and styles are based on their personal preferences. The religious pilgrimage of the devotees of the region to the holy Buddhist sites of India and abroad has influenced their monastic art and architecture. While on one hand they are replicating designs of famous sacred Buddhist sites, on the other hand they are incorporating several Buddhist design elements from across the world with their traditional designs; for example, the stupas in Pariyati Sasana Buddha Vihar, Namsai, and Chongkham Buddha Vihar, Chongkham, are modelled on the famous Shwedagon Zedi Daw (pagoda) of Yangon, Myanmar, which holds hair relics of the Buddha. Eight sculptures of the Buddha with distinct vehicles are placed on the corners of these stupas; seven of these images stand for seven days of the week, while the eighth image is named Yahu (Wednesday afternoon). Similarly, the main temple of Kongmu Kham (golden pagoda monastery) in Tengapani, which is popular for its architecture, is made along the lines of Uppatasanti Pagoda, Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Contrary to traditional solid stupas, such as Uppatasanti Pagoda, the inside of the main shrine of Kongmu Kham is hollow and houses the image of a seated Buddha, which makes this structure a stupa-shaped shrine; on the other hand, the donated shrines present in Chongkham Buddha Vihar incorporate numerous design elements where concrete replicas of pang (a vessel used for religious offerings) is found on top of a hexagonal shrine.
The Theravada Buddhist community of Arunachal Pradesh is continuing their old art traditions, and are also simultaneously adopting new techniques, taking influences from the larger Buddhist world, which has shaped the unique Theravada Buddhist visual culture of Arunachal Pradesh.
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