The Beginnings of Buddhist Art
by A. Foucher
To begin, we have the best reasons for thinking that the habit of adoring human images, and even the art of fabricating them, were still less general in the India of the Brahmans before Alexander than in the Gaul of the Druids before the time of Caesar. Certainly this absence of idolatry properly so-called did not in any way exclude the existence of more rudimentary forms of fetichism: We allude to the golden
The Awakening (Barhut)
That in Buddhism, as in all religions, art is at first only a simple manifestation of worship, everyone will willingly admit. The only question is to know what branch of Buddhist worship has supplied this special excrescence with an opportunity for its production. It is evidently not in the periodical reunions of the monks that we shall find the smallest decorative pretext. The veneration shown to the mortal remains of the Blessed One explains the leading role of the funeral tumulus in Buddhist architecture. It will not escape us that it is still the same veneration which, thus advantaged, has offered in the obligatory surroundings of those reliquary monuments the natural support to the sculptures, the sole destination of which for a longtime was to decorate the balustrades of the
We can scarcely believe that the reader will refuse to grant us this small postulate. Can he be so ignorant of the outer world that he does not know the universal empire of the mania, innocent in itself, for souvenirs of travels? The innumerable manufacturers and shopkeepers who everywhere live by it would quickly demonstrate it to him. Has he never in the course of his migrations, whatever may have been the object or the cause of them, bought curios, collected photographs, or sent away picture post-cards? These are only the latest modes and a profane extension of an immemorial and sacred custom. If he doubts this, let him lean, for example, over one of the cases at the Cluny Museum Unless it is more convenient for him to try the same experiment at the British Museum, where a case in the Medieval Room also contains a collection of these signacula. which contain the emblematic metal insignia of all the great pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, as they have been fished out of the Seine in Paris.
Mediaeval India has also left by hundreds evidences of this custom. Most frequently they are simple clay balls, moulded or stamped with a seal, and without doubt within the reach of all pockets, which served at the same time as memento and as ex-voto. They are to be picked up nowadays on all Buddhist sites, even  in the peninsula of Malacca and in Annam. For specimens from India, see Cunningham, Mahābodhi pl, XXIV; J. R. A. S., 1900, p. 432, etc.; from Burmah, Archeol. Survey of India, Annual Report, 1905-1906, pl. LIII; from Malacca, Bull. de la commission Archeologique de I'Indo-Chine, 1909,p.232; from Annam, B.E.F.E.O., 1901, p.25, etc. Do we compromise ourselves very much by conjecturing that these sacred emblems are in Buddhism the remains of a tradition which goes back to the four great primitive pilgrimages? The worst that could result from it would be that Buddhist art must have owed its origin to the satisfaction of a need everywhere and always experienced, and, we may almost say, of one of the religious instincts of humanity. It would be difficult to imagine a theory more humble and more prosaic: it is in our opinion only the more probable for that, nor do we see what other we can substitute, if, at least, we are unwilling to attribute to that art any but a rational origin.
In fact, this point once gained, all the rest follows. Nothing is more easy than to guess what must have been the souvenirs brought back by the pilgrims from the four great holy places. To take the modern example most familiar to the French reader, what is represented by the images or medals offered for sale and bought at Lourdes? First and foremost, the miraculous grotto. What must have been represented on stuffs, on clay, wood, ivory, or metal by the first objects of piety manufactured at Kapilavastu, at Bodh-Gayā, at Benares, or at Kuśinagara? Evidently the characteristic point towards which, at the approach of each of these four towns, popular devotion was directed. Now we know these points already from the picturesque expressions of the texts. What was first visited at Kuśinagara was the site, very soon and quite appropriately marked by  a
In the same way, the essential miracle of Benares having taken place at the “Mga-dava”, the Gazelle-park, it was inevitable that its consecrated description as “putting the wheel of the law in motion” should be translated in concrete terms by a wheel, usually accompanied by two gazelles. What was contemplated at Bodh-Gayā, on the other hand, was the evergreen fig-tree, at the foot of which the Blessed One had sat to attain omniscience. Finally, what would be worshipped at Kapilavastu? Here the answer is less certain: undoubtedly the great local attraction consisted in the recollection of the nativity of Buddha; but, without mentioning his paternal home, the most ardent zeal might hesitate between the place of his material birth and that of his spiritual renaissance, between the park of Lumbinī, where he issued from the right side of his mother, and the no less famous gate, through which he escaped from the miserable pleasures of the world. Whatever might in this case be the difficulty of choice, with regard to the three other sites at least no hesitation was possible. A tree, a wheel,
last updated: November 2010