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Early Buddhist Artisans and Their Architectural Vocabulary

Early Buddhist Artisans and Their Architectural Vocabulary
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Item Code: NAZ621
Author: S Settar
Publisher: Manipal Universal Press
Language: English
Edition: 2020
ISBN: 9789388337113
Pages: 188 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Other Details: 11.00 X 7.50 inch
weight of the book: 0.99 kg
About The Book

The early Buddhist architectural vocabulary, being the first of its kind, maintained its monopoly for about half a millennium, beginning from the third century BCE. To begin with, it was oral, not written. The Jain, Hindu, and other Indian sectarian builders later developed their vocabulary on this foundation, though not identically. An attempt is made here to understand this vocabulary and the artisans who first made use of it.

In the epigraphic ledger, the first reference to the mythical creator of the universe, the Viśvakarma (Viśakama), is made on the thūpas at Sanchi and Kanaganahalli; the earliest excavators of cave temples, comprising five specialists - selavḍhaki, nāyikamisa, kaḍhicaka, mahākaṭaka and mīthaka - as well as a team of master-architects and supervisors, called the navakamis, appear at Kanheri. Besides these, there were also others called āvesanis, atevāsiṇas, ācāryas, and upājjhāyas all over the Buddhist world. The list does not end with these, because there were yet others called vaḍhakis (carpenters), seli-vaḍhakis (stonecutters), sela-rūpakas (stone sculptors), mīṭhakas (polishers), and so on. All these artisans who have recorded their life stories on the stone surface are identified, and their professional contributions evaluated here for the first time.

About the Author

S Settar, Ph D.,(Karn.), Ph D.,(Cam U.K.), is a visiting Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore. He has earlier held the chairs of Prof. S. Radhakrishnan (NIAS, Bangalore); Indian Council of Historical Research (Ministry of Human Resources, New Delhi), and Department of History and Archaeology (Karnatak University, Dharwad); and the Directorships of Indian Institute of Art History, the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts (Southern Regional Centre, Bangalore).

A bilingual writer (English and Kannada), he has so far published 30 books on history, art history, archaeology, epigraphy, religion and philosophy, Kannada Classical language and linguistics, both in Europe and India. His internationally acclaimed works are: The Hoysala Sculptures in the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark (1975); Memorial Stones: a study of their origin, significance and variety (1982); The Hoysala Temples (2 vols., 1992); Somanathapura (2012); Hampi: A Medieval Metropolis (1990); Inviting Death: Historical Experiments on Sepulchral Hill (1986, 1989, 2016), and Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life (1990, 2017). A dozen books in Kannada have earned for him the State and Central Sahitya Akademy Awards, Kavichakravarti Ranna, and Adikavi Pampa Awards, and the President of India’s citation.


The Buddhists were the first to establish religious campuses and centres for public worship in the country. These were popularly called viharas and caityas, but there were other terms with which similar establishments were identified. This vocabulary increased as their building experiments multiplied with time and space. Though much of it was understood across the Buddhist world, there were some terms which were used and understood only by the local experimentalists. Attempts at codifying all these terms, explaining their significance, meaning and purpose, must have been made by the bhikkhu-intellectuals at different periods of history, but, unfortunately, most of it is inaccessible now. Unlike these, the terms used by the working artisans and their overseers are not difficult to access as they are preserved in their epigraphic engravings. Some have been already salvaged, but many more are still awaiting attention. As early as 1930, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy published an incisive paper on the "Early Indian Architecture: Cities and City Gates etc.," (Eastern Art 2, Pp. 209-35). Though heavily tilted towards texts, its methodology was flawless. But unfortunately, not much progress has been made in this direction in the last century, though appreciable advancement has been registered in the Buddhist studies.

In this book, I have not extended the textual inquiry initiated by Coomaraswamy, but have tried to explore the contemporary epigraphs in the Prakrits which are nearly untouched so far, while not distancing from his methodology. The texts lay down the norms to be followed, while the epigraphs reveal the norms followed. The first provide the theories; the second, the proofs. Being more interested in the latter, I have followed here the footprints of the working artisans, not so much of their school-masters.

The early Buddhist architectural vocabulary has created a niche for itself in the history of Indian Art. Being the first of its kind, it maintained its monopoly for over half a millennium years, beginning from the third century BCE. However, cutting across the boundaries of space and time, it acquired nation-wide acceptance long after the decline of Buddhism. The Jains, the Hindus, and other Indian sects built on this foundation, though not identically. All this happened much before codifying the applied vocabulary of the working artisans.

The early Buddhist architectural lexicon was oral, not written; it was not authored, but evolved. In fact, it was built up by several generations of artisans, probably with some inputs from their supervisors, patrons, and pontiffs. In the initial stages, the artisans borrowed terms from the contemporary oral repertoire, and then supplemented them with their own coinages. The material used and the methodology followed, the demands made by the priests and the patrons, played an important role in shaping this lexicon.

The epigraphs reveal when, how, and what architectural terms were used by the artisans and recorded by the scribes. Besides offering their contextual meanings, they provide insights into their spatial and chronological positions also. We learn from them that the term thupa was known to the entire Buddhist world, but hardly used by those at Amaravati, Kanganahalli and Nagarjunakonda; that cetiya, rarely known in the upper Deccan, was so common in the lower Deccan as to take over the place of the thupa; that lena, which was very common in the upper Deccan was almost unknown in the lower Deccan; that khuba was better known to Asoka than to others, while kongu which was unknown to him was better known to the Kondavalis; while the term payaka, known only in Kanaganahalli was unknown in Amaravati, and the ayaka, so well-known in Nagarjunakonda was almost unknown in Kanaganahalli; that puphagahani, so popular at Kanaganahalli, was nearly unknown to the rest of the Buddhist world; that much celebrated torana at Sanchi were never repeated in that form and scale elsewhere; and the ayaka pavilions with the consecrated pillars in parts of the lower Deccan were hardly known in North India. Such insights can be obtained only from the epigraphs, not from the texts.

The studies in the art history made during the last two centuries are concentrated more on the monuments than on their makers. We have some understanding about their patrons, but very little about their creators. The reasons for this are hard to make out, but it is certainly not due to the dearth of documentation. Admittedly, this information is scanty and scattered, but carefully collected and collated, it could throw open several epochal aspects of the lives of the artisans. The earliest engraver, the earliest sculptor, and the earliest architect, in the history of our country are named here; the first cave-excavator, the stone-cutter, and the image-polisher are also mentioned similarly. It is not difficult to determine from this source, the first patron, planner, designer, and supervisor. Similarly, neither the mythical architect, nor the legendary sculptor, is missed out on them.

In the epigraphic ledger, the first reference to the mythical creator of the universe, the Visvakarma (Visakama) is made on the thupas at Sanchi and Kanaganahalli; the earliest team of excavators of religious caves, comprising five specialists - selavadhaki, nayikamisa, kadhicaka, mahakataka and mithaka - appears at Kanheri; a team of master-architects and supervisors called the navakamis also make their appearance in this centre. Besides the navakamis, some other supervisors called avesani, atevasina, acarya, and upajhaya are also mentioned here. The list does not exhaust with these, because there were also other professionals called vadhaki (carpenter), seli-vadhaki (stonecutter), sela-rupaka (stone sculptor), mithaka (polisher), and so on.

My attempt to understand the vocabulary of the artisans covers three major genres of the early Buddhist monuments - the thupas, the caityas and the viharas. None of these three was established in a single architectural style, but some common norms were observed in the monuments built within a broad geographical and a chronological spread. The dynastic terms such as the Mauryan, Satavahana, Kushana, and Ikshvaku are not popular here, since the monuments are studied individually in their respective locations, respecting their local names. This explains the popular locational nomenclatures such as the thupas at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Kanaganahalli, and so on.

The Buddhist monuments are both established and excavated. There are some which were partly excavated and partly built, but these are exceptions, and inconsequential. The artisans involved in all these three genres could have been one and the same, but they could also be different, since their working methods and skills were not alike. The five excavators mentioned at Kanheri reveal their specialization in the cave cutting. Though the meanings of all the terms are not discernible, the skilled polisher among them, called the mithaka is. It is possible that some sculptors gave the finishing touches to their works personally, but the amazing degree of perfection achieved by the Mauryan polisher shows that there was a class of artisans which stood apart from the others. It is not surprising that this class protected its professional secrecy, like those who embalmed the body of the dead in another part of Asia, and did not let it be known to others. No wonder they carried it to their grave till the end. The sudden disappearance of this technique with the Mauryas endorses this inference.


Though it is now agreed, after the new historicism and cultural materialism, that all histories are narratives and generously employ the techniques of fiction, it is difficult to imagine serious, scholarly books on ancient and medieval history finding a wide readership and making an impact usually associated with creative writing. Prof S Settar's books in Kannada from 2007 have had a phenomenal success in reaching out to the Kannada public sphere. His book on Sangam Tamilagam (2007) has seen 10 editions to date and the Prakrta Jagadvalaya (2018) went into a second edition within ten days of its publication. Nor are these books like the best sellers in the semi-historical mode or like some of the ideologically driven works of pseudo history which have instant appeal for a sectarian readership. They are lucidly written, avoiding jargon but follow the protocols of the discipline of history. Interestingly these books construct an innovative historiography based on the interpretation of inscriptions in Karnataka. At a time when the number of proficient readers of ancient Kannada and inscriptions has become alarmingly small, here are books which read and re-read inscriptions to quietly nudge away deep-rooted but false notions of Karnataka's history and society in the past. The arguments and the conclusions (so delicately and tentatively placed by Prof. S. Settar) demand a radical deconstruction of the existing historiography. His work Halagannada, Lipi, Lipikara, Lipivyavasaya (Ancient Kannada, Script, Scribe, Cultivation of Letters) (2014) begins with a disarmingly simple statement that 'we have studied sculpture ignoring the sculptor and studied the script ignoring the scribe'. The argument takes us back to his Footprints of Artisans in History, (2003) his address at the Indian History Congress. Almost in line with the subaltern studies perspective (though without subscribing to all its tenets) Prof Settar attempts to explore the work, the social position and the contribution to the culture of the artisans, especially the scribes who etched the inscriptions. The received popular opinion which is also the opinion of some experts is that they were mere scribes, with little education, constituting the `subalternized' groups who merely etched in stone or on metal what was composed and written by others. As a result very little attention has been paid to even the small details available about these artisans. In three recent books, Prof Settar patiently and systematically digs out the bits and pieces of information available and uses them to make reasonable conjectures about them. The enormous labour which has gone into such 'archaeology of knowledge' goes unnoticed owing to the urbane manner in which Prof Settar piles up his readings of the inscriptions. The unhurried, cumulative style gradually leads us to insights which overturn stereotypical notions. In this work, like a tireless biographer of the anonymous individuals of the past, he digs out facts which had always been there on the un-erasable inscriptions but eminent historians had missed. What emerges is that the artisans (sculptors, scribes, smiths) wishing to be known as Visvakarmas were not only literate but well-read and even skilled at composing verses. Many of them held important positions in administration and some grew wealthy from the land and other grants they received for the work they did. This goes directly against the entrenched notion that in the Varna system, artisans who were not brahmins did not have access to literacy and knowledge. The search for factors leading to this makes Prof Settar foray into politics, history, sociology and the history of religions. The narrative which emerges from this is fascinating. It was the great Mauryan king Asoka who introduced the Brahmi script to the South through his edicts which were in the Prakrit language. Over a period of nearly four to six centuries, out of Brahmi evolved the Kannada script which also became the vehicle for Sanskrit language until it was partially replaced by Nagari much later! The reason being - the Vedic Brahmins did not trust writing and believed in retaining their knowledge in memory and passing it down to the next generation in the oral mode. In addition to this, the two great religions of the ancient times Buddhism and Jainism evolved language policies supporting Prakrits and the local languages. As Prof Settar records, the Buddha's response to a proposal to write down his teachings in Sanskrit was 'Can there be anything more foolish than that?'. While Buddhism used Pali, Jainism gradually opted for the local language Kannada here, thus leading to the first literary renaissance in Kannada. This was also supported by the patronage of several ruling dynasties. Gradually the brahmins took to writing, renounced Prakrit and made Sanskrit their medium. For over half a millennium, Prakrit was the dominant language. (Hence the title Prakrta Jagadvalaya that is the Prakrit Cosmopolis as counter to Sheldon Pollock's Sanskrit Cosmopolis.

Where does all this leave the artisans? For Prof Settar, their known history begins with the arrival of Chapada (from today's Afghanistan), whose language was Kharoshti, who was hired by Emperor Asoka to inscribe his edicts in Karnataka. With all the ups and downs of history, the artisans remained part of a highly skilled, literate, educated community respected and patronised by the rulers. In his latest book Ruvari (2019) Prof Settar focuses on architects and the sculptors. In the earlier book Halagannada he had tried to argue how the dominant theory of Sanskritization fails to explain the dynamics of history which allowed artisans to receive land grants almost exactly in the manner in which deyas were given to the Brahmins. It was the Brahmins who took to writing centuries later than the artisans. In the Prakrta Jagadvalaya, an entire section deals with the Buddhist contribution to architecture in providing the original names, words and concepts used in architecture as a discipline. The distinctive architectural style also indicates changes in the structuring of the Sangha as originally conceived by Buddha. There was growing institutionalisation of the religion drawing support from the patronage of the wealthy merchant class. An interesting sidelight is that according to Prof Settar some of the bhikkus themselves were involved in the work either as designers or as supervisors. Prof Settar's study of Prakrit terms relating to Buddhist archaeology lays the foundation for both a new sociology and historiography of ancient India. I see this as part of the process of decolonising our social sciences. The colonial production of knowledge was founded on colonial notions of the caste system as static, the Varna system as an actually existing rigid social system, and of the dominant priest class which retained absolute control over literacy and knowledge. Prof Settar's work unsettles all such colonial frameworks without resorting to rhetoric or polemics. He practises a historian's history.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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