Performing the Sacred in Newar Buddhist Art


A review of Dīpaṅkara Buddha and the Patan Samyak Mahādāna in Nepal: Performing the Sacred in Newar Buddhist Art, by Kerry Lucinda Brown.

This dissertation provides the first in-depth survey on Buddha Dīpaṅkara in Nepal ever to be published. Every four years in the ancient city of Patan the Newar Buddhist community celebrates a Festival known as Samyak Mahādāna. The focus of this Festival are 126 over life-size images of Dīpaṅkara, which are carried in a procession along the narrow roads of the historical center of Patan and then displayed in a huge monastic courtyard for a grand ceremony of gift-giving. The iconographic representation of Dīpaṅkara in Nepal has unique features and Brown aims to interpret it within the liturgical context of Samyak. Brown’s study largely builds upon field research in the Nepal Valley, where she gathered original photographic documentation on the images of Dīpaṅkara and the Samyak ceremonies and conducted interviews with the local community responsible for organizing the event.

The dissertation comprises five Chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader into the topic by presenting the major events of Patan Samyak Mahādāna and the actors who take part in it, i.e. Dīpaṅkara images and monks. Brown poses her research questions, defines the goals of the research and overviews previous scholarships on Samyak and the representation of Buddha Dīpaṅkara in Nepalese artistic tradition. She also clarifies the methods by which she approaches the topican iconographic and formal analysis of Dīpaṅkara images combines with a thorough examination of the literary sources and historical and ethnographical studies on the cult dedicated to this deity. This innovative approach allows understanding the multiple facets of this cult and draws on Jacob N. Kinnard’s study of Buddhist images reception in Medieval India and their function as “metapractical objects.” (Jacob N. Kinnard, Imaging Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 43-44).

Chapter 2 is organized in three parts, each exploring the Patan Samyak Mahādāna from a different angle. The first part investigates the historical background in which this tradition formed and developed during the Malla period (ca. 1200-1768 CE). The author looks more specifically at the local oral histories and at the chronicles narrated in the Vaṃśāvalī Manuscripts and extrapolates important information regarding the foundational origins of this tradition in the monastery of Kwā Bahā. Furthermore, her thorough examination of the local narratives reveals that the ultimate goal of Samyak is to cultivate generosity through the act of gift-giving. As a second step, the author addresses the issue of the connection between Dīpaṅkara Buddha, the Patan Samyak Mahādāna and the tradition of gift-giving. She asks in which historical and cultural environment did this association originated. In order to provide an answer to this difficult question, three categories of evidences are taken into consideration: textual, visual and ritual.

Part II is largely based upon original fieldwork research and includes interviews with the members of Kwā Bahā who organize the grand event. It provides a detailed account of the celebrations for the Patan Samyak Mahādāna: the ceremonies to invite the coming of Dīpaṅkara processional images, the rituals that prepare the sacral space for hosting the deities and, finally, the events occurring during the two-day Festival. The Samyak culminates with the display of Dīpaṅkara processional images in the Nāg Bahā courtyard and the meritorious acts of gift-giving by the Newar Buddhists community.

In Part III, Brown considers “the central unifying principle driving the celebration of the event over the centuries” (p.112). The solution offered by the author is original and thought- provoking: a demographic survey of the participants. She lists the monasteries of the Kathmandu Valley that participate in the event by displaying one or more images in the courtyard, the types of deities on display, which include numerous other deities beyond the large processional Dīpaṅkara images, and the groups and sub-groups of Newar Buddhist attendants. Thus, the survey on of the demographic profile reveals a new socio-religious hierarchy in the Newar Buddhist context that has risen during the Malla period. A plus of Brown’s dissertation is, indeed, the comprehensive approach to the Patan Samyak Mahādāna. She recognizes as active protagonists, as agents of Samyak, not only the pantheon of deities on display and the elaborate rituals but also the human beings involved, i.e. the pilgrims.

Chapter 3 contains the core of Brown’s argumentation. The author provides an exhaustive visual analysis of the two primary actors that participate in the Festival: the processional images of Dīpaṅkara Buddha and the Sthavira Ājus. The latter are the senior-members of the monastic communities who attend the Festival.

At first, Brown provides an overview of the sculptural evidences for representation of Dīpaṅkara Buddha in early Buddhist art, namely in the Bactro-Gandharan region, in Northwestern India, and in Nepal. This allows her to individuate the specific iconographic markers of this deity, which are connected to ancient Buddhist narratives, and to reflect upon the meaning conveyed by the monastic attire and the combined mudrā that characterize early Dīpaṅkara imagery. She argues that monasticism is, at an early stage in the history of Buddhism, the pivotal path to attain enlightenment and the visual codes for depicting Buddha Dīpaṅkara reinforce this concept.

Then, Brown turns the attention towards the great output of sculptures and paintings of Dīpaṅkara Buddha that emerged in Nepal in the 17th century. After a hiatus of many centuries, the iconographic representation of Dīpaṅkara has undergone dramatic changes. Her analysis focuses on the meaning conveyed by the new visual features, especially the crown, the royal vestments and the combined mudrā. She compellingly arguments how, through their visual appearance, the Malla processional images reflect the peculiar cult dedicated to this deity in Newar Buddhism and reinforce the ritual act of gift-giving at the center of this cult. Noteworthy are her reflections upon the role held by of the devotees who gather in Patan to worship the large processional images. She considers them to be active participants who hold agency powerthrough darśan and dāna they contribute to the role of Dīpaṅkara as bestower of gifts and make a fundamental step in the path toward achieving enlightenment. In this articulate section of Chapter 3, Brown includes also a description of the assembling, repairing and consecration of large processional images and interprets them as ritual gestures that speak to the living presence of the divine in the artifacts.

In the last section of this Chapter the second-most important actors of Patan Samyak, the Sthavira Ājus, are taken into consideration. By comparing the visual display of Dīpaṅkara images and monks in the sacral space of the Nāg Bahā courtyard, Brown establishes visual parallels between the processional Dīpaṅkara images and the monks. She reflects upon the iconographic meaning of the Sthavira Ājus and contends that, through their physical presence and royal attire, they embody the living presence of the dharma. The excellent photographic documentation included at the end of her thesis corroborates this fascinating interpretation.

Chapter 4 aims at investigating the dynamics behind the ritual and performative practices of the Patan Samyak Mahādāna and demonstrates how these practices serve to reaffirm the socio-religious structure of Newar Buddhists under the Malla sovereignty. The Festival “has woven itself into the cultural fabric of the Kathmandu Valley” (p.200) and became increasingly popular in the turmoil of the 17th century, as Newar Buddhists had to face social and political changes. The chapter is structured in two parts. At first, Brown looks at the regulations behind the production and procession of large Dīpaṅkara imagesthe steps for assembling and embellishing it and the modes of transportation parallel ancient regulations that can be extrapolated from Buddhist law codes, the Vinaya. Afterwards, she investigates upon the metamorphosis of Patan from a mundane urban space into a celestial abode for the duration of Samyak. Victor Turner’s notion of pilgrimage as a “threshold” that creates a secret space (Victor Turner, The Center Out There: Pilgrim’s Goal, History of Religions 12 (n.3), 1973, pp. 191-230) (p.210) and Jonathan Z. Smith’s (Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) (p.213) study on the mode through which ritual actions define sacred environment provide a stimulating theoretical framework for Brown’s argumentation.

In the second part of the Chapter, Brown suggests that the rituals and performative acts of Samyak parallel early textual accounts, in an analogous way to the iconographic representation of Buddha Dīpaṅkara that connects to ancient Buddhist narratives. She draws upon the Mahāvastu Avadāna and other localized Buddhist narratives and determines that the way the procession is organized, the formal qualities of Dīpaṅkara images and the act of dāna performed by the pilgrims reenact elements described in these authoritative texts. Hence, the importance of gift-giving to Dīpaṅkara Buddha has deep roots in Buddhist tradition and Newar Buddhists have chosen a unique path to assimilate and transform this act of generosity. Brown observes that in the Newar Buddhism environment ritual practices rather than doctrines and philosophic speculation hold a pivotal role.

Chapter 5 closes Brown’s dissertation with a brief summary of the major findings and stresses the importance of these findings for reaffirming Newar Buddhist ideology, authority and identity.

As a conclusion, the author mentions the larger implications of her study and challenges the common assumption that Buddhism in Nepal is a flawed, corrupted Hinduism. On the contrary, she demonstrates that through the veneration of Dīpaṅkara at Samyak the Newar saṃghā strives to resist to Hindu authority and remarks continuity with ancient and authoritative Buddhist practices.

Brown’s dissertation offers new insights on the large processional images of Dīpaṅkara Buddha and addresses the issue of its peculiar iconographic form from a multidisciplinary perspective. The major contribution lies in integrating visual, textual and ethnographic evidences in order to go beyond a unilinear art historical approach. Dīpaṅkara images are sacred, ritual objects in the first place and through their holy presence they participate to a complex cultural phenomenon. Brown shows that these images have soteriological power and that monks and practitioners actively concur to build this power. This dissertation can be of interest to art historians of all fields since it is a provocative case-study on the interaction between art and ritual practices.

Aurora Graldi
Department of Art History
Vienna University

Primary Sources

Mahāvastu Avadāna and localized narratives on the legend of Dīpaṅkara Buddha
Original art historical documentation on processional Dīpaṅkara images and on the ceremonies of the Patan Samyak Mahādāna
Ethnographic fieldwork (interviews with the Samyak organizers, observing and documenting the rituals and ceremonies of Samyak)

Dissertation Information

Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. 2014. 291pp. Primary Advisor: Dina Bangdel.

Image: Image © Kerry Lucinda Brown. Used with permission from the author.

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