Stairway from Heaven: Utpalavarṇā and the Buddha in the Art of Early India

Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism - Naomi Appleton

Sonya Rhie Mace [+-]
Cleveland Museum of Art
Sonya Rhie Mace (formerly Quintanilla) is George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Her research and curatorial work spans the full range of the collections, but her expertise originated in early Buddhist sculpture, and she is the author of The History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura ca. 150BCE-100CE (Brill 2007) and numerous articles on other sites including Sanchi and Kanaganahalli.


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scene appears to point instead to concerns of the clergy that are fleshed out in the vinaya version of the story, an unpublished new translation of which forms the basis of this analysis.

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Mace, Sonya Rhie. Stairway from Heaven: Utpalavarṇā and the Buddha in the Art of Early India. Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Jun 2021. ISBN 9780000000000. Date accessed: 31 May 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.39991. Jun 2021

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