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Indian sculpture: from the 3rd century BC

The lively traditions of Indian sculpture date back to the first Indian empire, that of the Maurya dynasty. Sculptors begin to carve characters and scenes from the stories of India's three interconnected religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and to a lesser extent Jainism.

The presentation tends to be frontal, as though the figures are posing for the camera. From the start, among other themes, there are examples of Hindu art's most abiding image - magnificent young women, nude, full-breasted, and often in some strikingly athletic pose (as in the famous temples of Khajuraho, of about the 11th century AD). Occasionally these are just female attendants, but more often they are characters of legend.

In the early centuries, Hindu and Buddhist art falls within the same tradition (the magnificent Buddhist carvings on the Great Stupa at Sanchi seem entirely Hindu). But Buddhist sculpture acquires a character of its own when the religion moves outwards from India to the northwest.

From the 1st century AD there is a strong school of Buddhist sculpture in what is now northwest Pakistan. Known by the ancient name of Gandhara, this region is open to foreign influences arriving along the newly opened Silk Road. One such influence from the west is the Roman and Greek realism in art. In Gandhara sculpture this realism is subtly combined with the local traditions of India to produce Buddhist images of an elegantly classical kind.

Buddhist sculpture: 5th - 6th century AD

Buddhism moves out of India and into Afghanistan (where the two great rock-carved Buddhas of Bamiyan, from the 6th century, reveal the influence of Gandhara until destroyed by the Taliban in 2001). It then continues east along the Silk Road towards China.

Mahayana Buddhism, the variety progressing along this route, offers a range of legendary figures which provide ample opportunity for the imagination of the sculptors. Some of the settlements which develop along the road, at places such as Yün-kang (lying safely just south of the Great Wall of China), have caves which can be adorned with sculpture carved in the rock. Encouraged by the stream of pilgrims and merchants (visiting, marvelling, contributing funds), Chinese sculptors rise magnificently to the occasion.

In sheer quantity, if in nothing else, Buddhist carving in China would be a phemonenon in the history of sculpture. One site near the ancient capital of Loyang, at the eastern end of the Silk Road, makes the point very effectively. Any visitor to Long-men will be struck by the profusion of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Arhats and their guardians. But exactly how many statues are there?

In 1916 a local magistrate attempts to count them. He arrives at a total of 97,306 separate figures. A more recent study suggests that 142,289 may be nearer the mark.

Ife and Benin: from the 12th century

An unusual tradition within African sculpture is the cast-metal work done from about the 12th century in what is now southern Nigeria.

It reaches a peak of perfection among the Yoruba people of Ife. Between the 12th and the 15th century life-size heads and masks, and smaller full-length figures - all of astonishing realism - are cast in brass and sometimes in pure copper (technically much more difficult). These figures have an extraordinary quiet intensity.

This craft, perfected by the Yoruba people, is continued from the 15th century in Benin - still today a great centre of metal casting. The Benin heads, delightful but less powerful in their impact than those of Ife, are commonly known as Benin bronzes.

In fact they are made of brass, melted down from vessels and ornaments arriving on the trade routes (in 1505-7 alone, the Portuguese agent delivers 12,750 brass bracelets to Benin). The arrival of the Portuguese prompts the Benin sculptors to undertake a new style of work - brass plaques with scenes in relief, in which the Portuguese themselves sometimes feature. These plaques are nailed as decoration to the wooden pillars of the royal palace.

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