Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh.

Author:Davis, Richard
Position:Book review
 
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Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh. By CATHERINE BECKER. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xxiv + 321, 108 illustr. $35 (paper).

For historians of South Asian and Buddhist art, Amaravati is one of the most renowned places in India. In the period from around 200 BCE to 250 CE, architects and artisans constructed an extraordinary Buddhist edifice generously adorned with remarkable figural sculpture, as the center of a large monastic institution. Some 500 pieces of Amaravati sculpture remain, together with 300 inscriptions, making Amaravati the richest source for early Buddhist art and epigraphy in southern India. Along with Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura, and Sarnath, Amaravati stands as one of the preeminent sources of early Buddhist sculptural art.

Yet the physical site of Amaravati may now evoke great melancholy. In Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past, Catherine Becker recounts her first visit to Amaravati in 2001. "For an art history student familiar with the site's spectacular remains," she recalls, "the state of the stupa was bleak indeed" (p. 2). A modest sloping grass mound was surrounded by a ring of modern bricks, intended to simulate the drum of the ancient monument. For the most part, the actual stupa was elsewhere. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, and escalating during the early nineteenth century under British colonial rule, the great stupa of Amaravati was systematically looted. Local rulers, treasure hunters, and colonial officials all contributed their share to its destruction and dispersal. The abundant sculptural remains were carted off to Masulipatan, Calcutta, and Madras. A large number of the detached limestone panels made their way to London, known as the "Elliot Marbles" (intended no doubt to compete with the famous Elgin Marbles), where after languishing for a year in the open on a wharf in Southwark and then in a forgotten Whitehall storehouse, they eventually became part of the permanent collection of the British Museum. They currently hold court in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery, as the stars of the museum's South Asian collection. Other Amaravati sculptures remaining in Madras, in the Government Museum, were embedded in a concrete wall, which damaged the pieces irreparably. They have since been pried out of the concrete frames and form one of the most valuable of the museum exhibitions. (Akira Shimada narrates much of this tragic story of archeological...

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