The British Museum features a big high-resolution image of a slab of limestone that was carved 2,000 years ago from an important Buddhist shrine in India. The inscription on the slab is barely visible; however, with just a tap on a smartphone screen, the real size figure of a woman projected on to the wall of the gallery will change from monochromatic to color and will come forward to explain how she commissioned the particular carving to honor Buddha.
The name of the woman did not survive, but she was a disciple of Vathisara at the Great Shrine of Amaravati. The inscription was recently translated and explains that she paid for it in 250 AD. The gift from this woman is the only surviving image of the Great Shrine itself, despite of the fact that the shrine was one of the most important and largest monasteries in the world.
Experts say that the carving used a stone that was already carved and old. The other side of the stone was carved about 300 years before the new inscription, which depicts pilgrims who are gathered around a representation of Gautama Buddha. The symbolic representation of Buddha is depicted as an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, and a pair of footprints. It was under the Bodhi tree that Buddha attained enlightenment.
Imma Ramos, who is the curator of the South Asia collections segment of the British Museum, said that the gift of the woman raised many questions: if she was a Buddhist nun, she was a woman of means, who retained her family ties. “The two sides of the stone also show us a fascinating development over the centuries in the portrayal of the Buddha, from a being whose power and authority can only be shown through a symbolic absence, to a real human figure depicted at the heart of the shrine.”
The later carving is of the domed stupa that is guarded by lions at the heart of a huge shrine. It was founded in the second century BC and includes a mountain of stone that has a façade of 120 meters. History says that the Great Shrine of Amaravati flourished for about 1,000 years but later fell into ruins. By the 18th century, the place was a stone quarry for buildings in the Andhra Pradesh region of India. By the 19th century, the place was excavated to remove the surviving carvings.
The British Museum has 120 plus stone carvings from the site, which is the biggest collection outside India, and is yet another reason to tour British Museum.