Collective and Personal Patronage in Early India

In the early period, patronage was expressed in the institution of Vedic sacrifice (yajna) and Buddhist and Jain charitable donation (dana). The Vedic ritual sacrifice ensured the well- being of the patron (yajamana), his family and his whole community. Ancient literature abounds in ritual hymns that accompanied the sacrifices made to the gods for ensuring the well-being of the patron and his family. The Mahabharata documents patronage in the ritual of Yudhishthir’s royal consecration (rajasuya) and the horse sacrifice (ashvamedha). These ritualistic sacrifices were accompanied by the institution of ‘gifting’, taking the form of a fee (dakshina) or a donation (dana), given by the patron to the ritual specialists, the priestly class, who performed the rituals for the yajamana. The gifts were material objects like cattle, horses, gold or clothes, thus establishing an unequal patron-client relationship. It is from this system of yajamana, that the later notion of jajman emerged.

With the establishment of the Mauryan state (4th century B.C – 2nd century B.C), the first political configuration to rule over most India begins the history of court patronage. The power of the Mauryas can be seen in their patronage of monumental stone sculpture and beginnings of rock cut and stupa architecture. The Mauryas built royal palaces and fortresses, the wooden wall remains of some have been found in the Patna area. Late Mauryan period shows evidences of the transition from wood to stone in architecture. Emperor Ashoka patronized construction of monolithic stone pillars with ornate capitals, rock edicts, caves and stupas. His patronage of Buddhism led to founding of stupas at Sanchi, Sarnath and Amravati, as brick and stone mounds dating to his period have been found at these sites. The original railing of the stupa at Sanchi probably belongs to his patronage. Chaitya halls at Barabar and Nagarjuni hills of Gaya were a result of Mauryan court patronage as well. His concerns for legitimacy can be read in these inscriptions on his pillars and rock edicts. Popular patronage during Mauryan rule can be seen in stone sculpture, terracotta figures, ring and disc stones that have been found at some sites.

During the period, 200 B.C – 300 A.D, community and individual patronage in the form of dana, gift-giving, by groups of people and individuals to earn religious merit becomes evident as part of dev-dharma (religious duty). This took the form of donation and preservation of images, sacred texts, construction of buildings and monastic establishments. Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain patronage is evidenced from literary and epigraphic sources that record the donations (dana) made to respective religious establishments. The gifting consisted of donations of images, financing of shrines, halls, tanks (for Hindu temples); money to construct stupas, chaityas, monasteries for Buddhist structures and later gifts of Buddha or bodhisattva images. Jain devotees financed excavating of caves for Jain ascetics, donation of pillars or railings etc. Recent studies have drawn attention to donative inscriptions on clay water pots, unearthed from ancient Gandhara (1st century – 2nd century A.D). Interestingly these water pots have been donated to the community by women donors. At times land was also donated in this early history of patronage, only to become most preferred, subsequently in post-Gupta centuries.

The donative inscriptions and texts very often give the social status of the patrons of various religious traditions, at the same time they document the quest for political legitimacy of various groups and people. The Jain inscriptions on sculpture from Mathura from 1st century A.D onwards normally begin with a date, followed by the name of the donor’s teacher and his sect. Then the donor and his relatives are mentioned, followed by the name of the monk or the nun on whose advice the gift was made. It is interesting to note that the gift is not made for the spiritual welfare of the donor or the community, as it happened in later periods, but for the good of all creatures, implying that the benefit of the gift could be transferred from one person to another. A metal worker and a merchant appear here as donors, and more significantly are mentioned wives of various tradesmen and craftsmen. This significant participation of women is indicated in the donation of tirthankara images.

The Buddhist patronage as well points to collective and popular bases for donations, and again very frequently by women. In these Buddhist community and popular donations for construction and embellishment of monuments, as acts of piety, one can see a marked cultural innovation in the emergence new social groups who identify themselves as patrons of new aesthetic forms. In the early Buddhist period, the donation of a paving slab or a single railing pillar brought religious merit to the donor, who was often a humble merchant or his wife. Lay individuals, monks, nuns, guilds, pilgrims made donations to erect sacred monuments. It is noteworthy that not a single Buddha image from Mathura in the early Buddhist history is donated by a royal patron.

The Bharhut inscriptions (222 in number, dating c. 125 – 75 B.C) record a number of monks, nuns and laymen/women as donors, vis-à-vis only four royal patrons. These patrons seem to have come from as far as Pataliputra in the east to Nasik in the west. In Sanchi, an important Buddhist monastery, though established in Ashoka’s time, royal patronage did not play a significant role in its initial growth. Community patronage is seen here as well in the variety of donors that are drawn from various occupational groups like, merchants, scribes, householders, masons, weavers, traders and artisans besides monks and nuns. Most of them came from nearby areas, as also from far off places like north India, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. They made collective donations as kinship groups or entire villages made gifts, indicating varying accesses to resources of different social groups.

The rationale behind patronage to pious foundations to earn spiritual merit was linked with issues of legitimization of political and social status of the donors, ruling dynasties and political elites. The patronage to religious shrines by ruling dynasties shows a pattern, that no matter what the religious affiliations or social background of the rulers, patronage practices followed a similar trajectory, that of religious eclecticism, the quest for legitimacy linked with religious merit. In early India, the Kushanas, one of the earliest dynasties to link themselves with divinity, seem to have patronized a Brahmanical religious shrine (devakula) at the site of Mat, near Mathura. They were Buddhists but the site may have been a Shiva temple, evidenced by fragments of Shiva and Durga statues that have been found here. Inscriptions from the site refer to provisions being made for Brahmins, who seem to be visiting this place. Royal association of the site is evidenced by the presence of Kushana rulers’ statues on the site, including the famous headless statue of Kanishka. Clearly the Kushanas endowed this Brahmanical shrine where both the deities and their statues appear together. They patronized different religious cults is also evidenced by the images on their coins. While patronizing Brahmans thy promoted the use of Sanskrit language as well.

The Satavahanas patronized Brahmanas, Hindu temples and Buddhist monks at the same time. They performed the asvamedha sacrifice, and granted the first documented land grants with fiscal immunities to religious establishments. The Satavahana and Ikshvaku royal women patronized Buddhist establishments. The Nagarjunakonda inscriptions records gifts made by Ikshvaku royals to Hindu temples and Buddhist monks. They were performers of ritualistic sacrifices as well. The architectural remains at Nagarjunakonda show the presence of Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries and commemorative pillars (chhaya stambhas) associated with royals, commanders, an artisan and religious people. Collective patronage continued during this phase as well.

Inscriptions also indicate participation of yavanas in the patronage networks at different sites. They are referred as donors in Sanchi, Nagarjunakonda and in the caves in Western India like Karle.

In contrast, under the Guptas, dominant in north India during the 4th – 5th centuries A.D, the pattern of patronage is dominated by royalty and their nobles. The Brahmanical court patronage is seen in the Vishnu temple constructions, Sanskrit language and literature that increasingly became the official language of communication on inscriptions, coins and monuments. Sanskrit acquired ascendency under Gupta patronage. The rulers were great patrons of all arts and literature of various genres were written during their time. The poet, Kalidasa composed greatest of narrative poems and dramas under Chandra Gupta II’s patronage. Works on astronomy, medicine and mathematics were patronized by the Guptas. Court and noblity granted lands to religious establishments, mathas, Brahmanas, Buddhist and Jain monasteries. This legitimized their political powers, while earned them religious merit.

The Vakatakas emulated the Guptas in granting lands and patronizing art and culture, the most well-known example being their patronage to the Buddhist Ajanta caves, embellishing it with sculpture and paintings.

The early medieval India (7th century – 12th century A.D) in Indian history is marked by complex patronage networks of large scale land grants to temples, construction of religious establishments and pilgrimage centres (tirthas). Local dynasties, in their quest for political and social status, patronized religious establishments of various sects, like the Chandella patronage of 10th century CE temples at Khajuraho of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain extraction. Regional styles emerged as rulers and elites from various regions sought to consolidate their power through patronage to these structures. The need to link ones royal origins to divine forces led to patronage to large scale temple construction in this period. Temples like the Lingaraja in Bhubaneswar and the Jagannatha in Puri were lavishly endowed by the court. Patronage to Jagannath cult was practiced by Gangas in their quest for legitimacy to their newly emerging power. Anangabhima III, in 1230 A.D dedicated his empire to Lord Jagannatha by extending political patronage to the shrine at Puri, and called himself as the lord’s most humble servant. Merchant communities too donated to build temples in this period. Jain merchants were active in Mount Abu area.

Coming to patronage patterns in early South India, drawing examples from broad range of Tamil poetry and literary legends, recent studies have analyzed patron-poet relationships in Sangam literature (300 B.C – 400 A.D). It is conjectured that an ideal of harmony seems to be existing between the royal patron and poet in this early period. In another form of patronage, early inscriptions (c. 200 B.C- 300 A.D from Tamil Nadu and Kerala in Tamil-Brahmi script, show donations made by men and women of different social backgrounds for excavations of caves for Jain monks and nuns. The donors comprise of Chera and Pandya royals; craftsmen and specialized workers like toddy merchants, gold merchants, iron workers and salt merchants. In Sri Lanka, early Brahmi inscriptions show donations made by Tamil merchants to Buddhist establishments.

As mentioned earlier in the case of north India, donations to religious establishments by the royalty went up in early medieval South India as well. Patronage to temples was a means to legitimize one’s rule. The Cholas (850-1250 A.D) were great patrons of Shiva temples and their imperial temples like the Brihadesvara at Tanjavur were lavishly endowed by them. Temple inscriptions record donations of land (devdana) in perpetuity with privileges, gold, silver livestock and paddy. Tanjavur received donations from far off areas like Sri Lanka. Court patronage led to enlargement of temple officials and organization. Temples in turn patronized these officials by granting them land in return for their services.

Patronage to temples was not restricted to royalty alone during Chola times. Chieftains, merchants, merchant guilds, villages, vellala landowners, nagarams (town assemblies) donated lands, money, livestock, gold and silver. Many a times gifts were made to maintain a perpetual lamp in the temples. Merchant guild like Manigramam and some others too patronized temples to earn religious merit, as well as to show their exalted social and political status.

Women too participated in patronage networks in Tamil Nadu. They appear as donors to Jain, Buddhist and Hindu temples. They were drawn from royals to merchants, landowners and Brahmana chieftain families. They seem to patronize construction of temples, making of images and donated for the worship services of the temples.

Since the temple emerges as the focus of patronage in Chola times, a shift is seen in the patterns of patronage in patron-poet relations. This shift is discernable from the ideal of harmony between the two in the poetry of the Sangam age to a ‘competing claims to superiority’ between the poet and the patron. The poet now expresses hostility to the human-patron in favour of temple gods. Parallels and distinctions are drawn between the king and god, even demoting the king as the most humble servant of the temple deity, while at the same time he was divinized by his association with the temple deity. The poet brings out the rivalry between the king and the deity, highlighting the issue who was patronizing whom, a trope that becomes a feature from now onwards, showing itself in the shifting contours of poet-king-god relationship in the devotional poetry of 18th century A.D composers like Tyagaraja.

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