Source: The Guardian
By Maev Kennedy
Even in a giant high-resolution image at the British Museum, the inscription on a slab of limestone carved almost 2,000 years for a major Buddhist shrine in India is barely visible. But with a tap on a smartphone screen, the life-size figure of a woman projected on to the gallery wall changes from black and white to colour, and steps forward to explain how she commissioned the beautiful carving to honour the Buddha and gain grace for herself and her family.
Her name has not survived, but she was a female disciple of the monk Vathisara at the Great Shrine of Amaravati. As the recently translated inscription explains, she paid for the carving in 250AD. Her gift is the only surviving image of the shrine itself, despite the fact that at its height the Buddhist shrine was one of the largest and most important in the world.
The carving re-used a stone that was already ancient: the other side, carved around 300 years earlier, shows pilgrims gathered around a symbolic representation of the Buddha, depicted as an empty throne, a pair of footprints, and the Bodhi tree under which he attained enlightenment.
Imma Ramos, curator of the museum’s South Asia collections, said her gift raised many questions: if the woman was a Buddhist nun, she was clearly still a woman of considerable means, who had retained her family connections. “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.”