Stairway from Heaven: Utpalavarṇā and the Buddha in the Art of Early India
Sonya Rhie Mace [+]
Cleveland Museum of Art
This chapter explores similar questions through a study of a key narrative in visual and textual forms. The Buddha's descent from the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven at Sāṃkāśya is one among many scenes from the life of Śākyamuni at the copiously embellished stupa sites of Bharhut, Kanaganahalli and Sanchi. At these grand establishments, the scene is readily recognizable by the graphic image of the vertical staircase, surrounded by celestial jubilants and assemblies of idyllic lay people. One example from this early period of art in peninsular India, includes the nun Utpalavarṇā venerating Śākyamuni upon his arrival. The relief is carved on an upright of a small section of a monolithic railing found at Ghoṣitārāma Monastery at Kauśāmbī. This chapter argues that the Descent episode on the large-scale public monuments was intended to impress visitors with the miracle of the staircase and Buddha's ability to move magically between earth and heaven. In reliefs carved on a small scale in a monastic context, on the other hand, the same scene appears to point instead to concerns of the clergy that are fleshed out in the vinaya version of the story, an unpublished new translation of which forms the basis of this analysis.