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The Abode of a Naga King: Questions of Art, Audience, and Popular Deities at the Ajanta Caves presented by Robert DeCaroli

A CISA Seminar

Monday, June 01, 2009
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Over the years, every aspect of the 5th century Ajanta Caves from door hinges to garland hooks has undergone careful scrutiny by scholars eager to uncover the historical circumstances surrounding the creation and use of this spectacular monastic complex.  But despite the fascinating information and compelling questions this research has uncovered, there are still some very basic aspects of the caves’ history and use that continue to elude us. One of these questions centers on the role that popular or folk deities played at this Buddhist site. This presentation will explore the way in which the builders of the Ajanta caves situated images of these demigods and examine how their presence seems to have impacted some of the choices that were made in regard to decoration. Ultimately the analysis will suggest that the narrative and decorative program in the caves, may have also been intended for a rather unusual audience. Specifically, I am referring to the Nàga King (Nàgendra) which the Cave 16 inscription informs us was a resident of this mountainside even prior to the creation of the Buddhist monastery. The visual motifs employed at Ajaåæà reveal an intense interest in supernatural beings and provide some insight into the complex relationship between the monastery and the local gods. Others have already written on the economic benefits of this interaction, I, however, am more concerned with what this implied supernatural audience can reveal about issues of legitimacy and the manner in which artistic representations were understood to function in social and religious contexts.

About the Speaker

Robert DeCaroli received his Ph.D. in the field South and Southeast Asian art history from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a specialist in the early history of Buddhism and has conducted fieldwork in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. He is the author of _Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism_ (Oxford UP 2004) as well as of numerous articles and book chapters. The majority of this work deals with early (3rd c BCE – 5th C CE) aspects of South Asian Buddhism and its interaction with forms of popular religious practice. His more recent research interests include the origin of the Buddha image and the social, political, and religious factors that led to its codification and spread. He has received research grants from the Asian Cultural Council and the Getty Research Institute. He began teaching at George Mason University in 1999 and since 2005 he has served as Director of the Art History Program.

Sponsor(s): Asia Institute, Center for India and South Asia

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