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An Indian ivory carving from Begram Leese, Marilyn Kathleen

Abstract

In 1939, a rich archaeological find was made in Afghanistan when a hoard of luxury objects was excavated in a "palatial residence" at Begram, site of ancient Kāpisa. Among the precious articles brought to light were hundreds of Indian ivory carvings which at one time decorated royal furnishings belonging to Kushan kings. Kāpisa was once the summer capitol of opulent and powerful rulers who controlled a land extending from the Ganges River into Central Asia. Created by former nomads whose ruling princes gave themselves the dynastic name of Kushan, the Indo-Scythian Empire straddled the routes to Rome, Iran and China and was virtually the centre of the world in the first centuries of our era. Yet no integral record of the Kushans has been found in any traditional source, and their history has been pieced together from fragments of information gleaned over the last century from the study of coins, cryptic textual references, and worn inscriptions. Similarly, the history of India's art from the same period suffers from a paucity of documentation; its chronology, although now receiving the attention of modern scholarship, is still in a state of flux. The discovery of the ivories at Kāpisa enriches not only our knowledge of the Kushans, but it adds another dimension to our information about early Indian art as it was during Kushan rule, prior to the fourth century when a classical civilization began to emerge under the Gupta dynasty. One of the ivories, analyzed in this study, is unique in its wealth of symbolic detail. Representing a torana and two standing female figures, the ivory plaque once adorned a royal couch that possibly served as a Kushan throne. The ivory's iconography relates to the Kushan dynasty's concern with legitimacy of rule; there is an assertion of the sacred and worthy character of Kushan sovereigns. Moreover, the ivory makes various references to Srl-Lakshmi, Indian Goddess of Royal Fortune, a deity analagous with Roma or the Hellenistic Tyche. In the iconography of the two standing female figures, the concept of Srl-Lakshmi is apparent, but these figures are further shown with overtones of Indian godllngs, divine consorts and Near Eastern goddesses whose functions parallel those of Srl-Lakshmi in assuring the regime political and natural prosperity. The syncretic character of the Ivory's iconography corresponds with that of coins and seals from the period of Huvishka, a name taken by one or more Kushan emperors ruling in the second century A.D. The style of the ivory plaque has often been associated with that of Sanchi, an Indian monument of the first century A.D. where a torana gateway bears a carved panel upon which is inscribed "Gift of the Ivory Carvers of Vidisa". With respect to surface treatment, spatial devices, tonal arrangement, naturalism of poses and figural proportions, however, the Sanchi panel does not compare with the Begram plaque. In tracing the evolution of style during the interval between these two works, an Indian ivory found at Pompeii, a relief from Amaravati, the donor figures at Karli, and the Bhutesvar railing figures from the Mathura region are examined. The Bhutesvar figures are believed to coincide with the early part of the reign of Kanishka, most powerful of Kushan monarchs, whose accession initiated an era beginning perhaps about A.D. 110-15. Although the Begram ivory alludes to the Bhutesvar model, the plaque is closer in style to later Mathura works. Relief carvings and sculptures accompanied by dated inscriptions disclose a period of cultural transition during the second quarter century of Kanishka's era, when new Influences permeate the Indian tradition. This stylistic assimilation is reflected by the Begram ivory; hence in style, as in Iconography, the ivory is representative of the period of Huvishka, whose name appears on inscriptions from the year 28 to the year 64 or 67 of Kanishka*s era.

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