Mysteries of the East, #2: The Enigma of Harwan

A year ago now, I wrote:

For the Indology nerds: there are a set of clay tablets at the Guimet, I think on the second floor, which have as their provenance a Buddhist monastery in Kashmir. The panels have raised images on them which are clearly not Buddhist. I suspect they’re Ajivika and I seem to remember an article, which of course I can’t track down now, describing how the Buddhists reused the materials from an Ajivika complex as the flooring in their monastery, as an insult. But I can’t pinpoint the source and it’s driving me nuts.

Since then, I figured out that they were from Harwan, a site outside of Srinigar, next to the Shalimar Gardens. But I still couldn’t find the article I was thinking of or, really, any good information on the deeply Harwan tileenigmatic tablets.

This past fall, the Asia Society in New York sponsored an exhibit entitled The Arts of Kashmir, which — despite my best intentions — I never got to visit. (Here’s a review by the great New York Times Asian art critic Holland Cotter.) Consoled with the catalog to the exhibit by Pratapaditya Pal, I found some helpful references.

The beautiful catalog itself is much more substantial than a typical exhibit catalog — it’s really a collection of art historical survey articles about Kashmir, including architecture, sculpture, painting, calligraphy, and crafts.

The Harwan tiles appear in John Siudmak’s piece on religious architecture, which seems to summarize what we know about the site:

The earliest surviving Buddhist site is at Harwan, near the Mughal Shalimar Gardens, probably dating from the fifth century and of Hephthalite patronage, and mostly known for its terra-cotta tiles impressed with figural and floral designs used to decorate a large circular terrace on the hillside, which was destroyed by an earthquake. […] Similar terraces have been found elsewhere in the valley; the most extensive at the site of Hutamura, in the Lidder valley. Their religious affiliation still remains a mystery. However, excavations of a rectangular courtyard in a lower terrace uncovered the triple basement of a stupa, a number of cells, and several terra-cotta figural fragments and three plaques impressed with stupa images (fig. 37.) […] The stupas on the Harwan plaques compare closely with three Gandhara bronze examples, one also with columns at the corners, and confirm a Gandhara influence. (pp. 55-56)

So there are more of these sites, besides Harwan, although “their religious affiliation remains a mystery.” And nothing about the Ājīvikas. The second half of this redacted excerpt is on firmer ground, unraveling the Buddhist elements of the site; the complex symbolism of the stupa is a favorite topic of study and Siudmak’s comments helpfully locate early Kashmiri, presumably wooden, examples in the timeline between Greco-Bactrian Gandhara and later versions, especially Tibetan. (Tibetan and Central Asian religion and art is deeply indebted to Kashmir.) Note, by the way, that the tiles or plaques with clearly Buddhist stupa images are different — made differently and different in appearance and style — than the rest of the Harwan tiles.

But most interestingly to me is a footnote at the end of this excerpt, to a 1989 article by Fisher. Unfortunately, the scholarly apparatus of the catalog is shoddy and there’s no further referenceHarwan tile to Fisher in the bibliography.

The curator of the exhibit, Pal, has a long useful essay (the metal sculpture section alone is fantastic) entitled “Faith and Form” in the catalog which also refers several times to the Harwan tiles:

The earliest sites that have yielded terra-cotta objects, which, according to tradition, go back to the Kushan period, are Semthan, Harwan, Hutmora, Ushkur, and recently Kutbal. These sites are particularly noteworthy because of the large, stamped tiles with figural and symbolic forms that represent an independent local artistic tradition. Although tiles for paving floors and walls of monasteries were used in Gandhara, they are not as richly and diversely decorated as those from Kashmir. The figures in the Harwan tiles further show both Indian and foreign ethnic types, strange crouching ascetics unique in the Indian plastic tradition and convincingly rendered flora and fauna. Both the Harwan and the Kutbal finds reflext a mature and confident state of artistic skill but, strangely, the tradition did not continue. There is no certainty about the exact dates of these sites, although the consensus is between the third and the fifth century. (p. 66)

So now we have a whole set of sites related to Harwan, including Siudmak’s afore-mentioned Hutamura — presumably the same as Pal’s “Hutmora” — plus Semthan, Ushkur, and Kutbal! Again, though, the scholarly apparatus of the catalog fails us, since the endnotes in this passage aren’t correctly referenced; #9 appears twice in the excerpt above and only once in the notes; the only usable reference (a pers. comm.) is to the recent Kutbal find. And still no Ājīvikas.

Even though I couldn’t get an exact citation, some heavy duty googling yielded reference to a 1982 article by a Robert E. Fisher in Art International, a now-defunct (I think) journal. For the record, it’s:

Fisher, Robert E. The enigma of Harwan, Art International, 1982, XXV(9)33-4

There may be a later, 1989, Harwan article by Fisher, too, as Siudmak suggests, but I haven’t been able to find it. (Fisher’s early 1980’s Ph.D. dissertation at USC was on the Buddhist architecture of Kashmir.)

Harwan tileI think that Fisher’s article, the one that I was looking for and finally tracked down, thanks to my wife and the wonders of inter-library loan, more or less definitively addresses the enigma of Harwan. Fisher proves — at least to my satisfaction — that the tiles are part of an Ājīvika religious site, later reused in a nearby Buddhist monastery. (Thus Siudmak’s reference to [monastic] cells adjoining the stupa.)

Fisher, although not cited in the 2007 Kashmir catalog, acknowledges Pal in his endnotes: “It was his belief that there is more to Harwan than has been published as well as his careful screening of my evidence that inspired this essay.”  And, although I haven’t yet had a chance to read it, Pal discusses (pp. 223-224) a tile in the LACMA collection, described as “Tile with Ajivaka (?) Ascetics” in vol. 1 of his Indian Sculpture (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, University of California Press, 1986) book.

Alright, if you’re still with me, some quick background on our suspects:

We really don’t know much about the Ājīvikas, except from what we read about them from their successful rivals, including Buddhists and Jains. It’s a similar situation to, say, gnosticism in late antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean: most of what we knew, up until the Nag Hammadi finds, about gnosticism was hearsay, and the hearsay treated the tradition as heretical.

The founder of the Ājīvika tradition, Gosala, supposedly was a contemporary of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism and thus a near-contemporary of the Buddha and possibly from the same north-central region of Harwan tileIndia. (Fisher points to a 1951 book by A.L. Basham, History and Doctrine of the Ājīvikas, which I haven’t read yet. There’s also a workmanlike Wikipedia article.) They were famously ascetic, and one story that really left an impression in my mind was that they supposedly meditated (or committed slow suicide) inside of clay pots. This is such a disturbingly powerful idea that just thinking about it makes me start to physically panic. Whether or not this has any basis in reality, of course, is another matter, but Ājīvikas are closely associated with pots, pottery, and the like. Thus, as you might have guessed, all the clay tiles. And look again at the ascetic figures in the tiles; don’t they seem like they could be crouching in pots?

Fisher, citing Basham, notes that caves in Bihar, with Ājīvika inscriptions from the 3rd century BC, had three foot deep deposits of clay fragments in them when excavated by Alexander Cunningham in the 19th century. These caves, it’s important to note, had what Fisher calls “an unusual shape”:

apsidal in plan with a circular construction at the far end. If Buddhist, this arrangement would indicate the presence of a circular stupa. According to Basham, these caves may originally have been stone replicas of the earliest Ājīvika meeting-place, a circular thatched hut at the end of a courtyard. (p. 43)

If, like me, your vocabulary doesn’t include “apsidal,” Wikipedia comes to the rescue. It’s a form of “apse“:

In architecture, the apse (Latin absis “arch, vault”; sometimes written apsis; plural apses) is a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault. In Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic Christian abbey, cathedral and church architecture, the term is applied to the semi-circular or polygonal section of the sanctuary at the liturgical east end beyond the altar. Geometrically speaking, an apse is either a half-cone or half-dome.

And, you may have guessed correctly already, that is the same plan as the Harwan site.

Furthermore, other images — especially flowers, elephants, and swans –common in the tiles have Ājīvika associations, based on our very limited knowledge of their beliefs.

In his article, Fisher goes to great lengths to disprove other associations: that Harwan is not exclusively Buddhist, that the images have connections to but are different than other traditions, and so on. So he surveys Hindu and Buddhist images for ascetics, and crouching figures, and floor tiles, and looks at Parthian evidence for the horse rider images and the potential architectural connections between Parthain fire temples and the Harwan site. But he concludes this section with the following comment (p. 39):

Amidst all these images, be they foreign or Indian, one stands apart with compelling force. The repeated portrayal of a crouching ascetic forms a dramatic border to the variety of lively forms of the floor and provides the most enigmatic problem for the entire site.

And this, to me, is the central issue; a really enigmatic problem. These figures look like nothing else: in Pal’s words, the “strange crouching ascetics [are] unique in the Indian plastic tradition.” I can still remember the surprise I felt seeing the tiles at the Guimet, how odd and otherworldly they seemed.

I think that Fisher’s solution, the Ājīvika attribution, is a brilliant contribution, one that’s unfortunately not been widely accepted. (This, I suspect, is due to issues of distribution not disagreement.) If we add in the comments from the Kashmir catalog that Harwan is one in a set of similar finds, including Hutamura/Hutmora, Semthan, Ushkur, and the supposedly spectacular Kutbal site, we have suggestive evidence for a large Kashmiri Ājīvika movement in the early centuries of our era, ca. 300 – 500 C.E..

3 thoughts on “Mysteries of the East, #2: The Enigma of Harwan

  1. Dear Mr.Murphy,
    I just found your blog googling Harwan, TC tiles I recently saw in the Chicago Art Inst. Same as the ones at M. Guimet. There is a site in Chhattisgarh I visited in’95, that has a pillar w similar ascetics. Can’t remember if eyes were sunked and dark as are those on the Harwan tiles. I like to think they’re AJIVIKAs, also. I’ll send photo if you’re interested.

  2. Pingback: » Ājīvikas in Malhār (south Kōśala) CQ2

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