Even in a giant high-resolution image at the British Museum, the inscription on a slab of limestone carved almost 2,000 years for a major Buddhist shrine in India is barely visible. But with a tap on a smartphone screen, the life-size figure of a woman projected on to the gallery wall changes from black and white to colour, and steps forward to explain how she commissioned the beautiful carving to honour the Buddha and gain grace for herself and her family.
Her name has not survived, but she was a female disciple of the monk Vathisara at the Great Shrine of Amaravati. As the recently translated inscription explains, she paid for the carving in 250AD. Her gift is the only surviving image of the shrine itself, despite the fact that at its height the Buddhist shrine was one of the largest and most important in the world.
The carving re-used a stone that was already ancient: the other side, carved around 300 years earlier, shows pilgrims gathered around a symbolic representation of the Buddha, depicted as an empty throne, a pair of footprints, and the Bodhi tree under which he attained enlightenment.
Imma Ramos, curator of the museum’s South Asia collections, said her gift raised many questions: if the woman was a Buddhist nun, she was clearly still a woman of considerable means, who had retained her family connections. “The two sides of the stone also show us a fascinating development over the centuries in the portrayal of the Buddha, from a being whose power and authority can only be shown through a symbolic absence, to a real human figure depicted at the heart of the shrine.”
The later carving shows the domed stupa guarded by stone lions, at the heart of what was a huge shrine. Founded in the second century BC, it included a mountain of stone with a facade 120 metres long. The Great Shrine of Amaravati flourished for almost 1,000 years, but fell into ruins and by the 18th century was a stone quarry for buildings in the Andhra Pradesh region. In the 19th century it was extensively excavated, and surviving carvings removed. The British Museum has more than 120 carvings from the site, which is the largest collection outside India.
Daniel Pett, an expert at the museum on digital interpretation of archaeology, said the exhibition is the first in any museum to include an interactive display controlled through a dedicated wifi link within the gallery, rather than a downloaded app. Most phones can instantlyaccess extra information about the carving and animate the figures on the walls.
The technology, Pett said, avoided the anxiety many visitors have expressed about the cost of using apps when overseas. Several tethered handsets are provided for visitors without phones or with unsuitable models.
The donor of the carving has three companions in the display, brought to life by actors but portraying real people also identified through inscriptions associated with the shrine: a first century BC perfume maker who gave a carved pillar; a Buddhist monk and his sister who gave a lion-shaped support for a pillar a century later and a woman who gave part of the elaborately carved railing which encircled the shrine.
- Virtual pilgrimage, reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati, is free at the British Museum until 8 October. The carved slab will be on permanent display in the new Asahi Shimbun Indian gallery from November 2017.
Source: The Guardian