Short Chronologies at Arm's Length: Ajanta & Beyond

author: Sara Weisblat Schastok


THIS ESSAY, originally offered during the 1990 Association for Asian Studies meeting at the invitation of Robert Brown, posits that Walter Spink's short chronologies for Indian rock-cut architecture have led South Asian art history away from British scholarship on India in the important dimension of historical time and that they have shaped a generation's attempts to understand distant centuries. In developing the perspective that the short chronology is an intellectual phenomenon of our time, I purpose to push back from the heavily laden table of specific short chronologies and to look at them, at arm's length.

THE HISTORIAN of Indian art can scarcely avoid some immersion in chronological studies as there are relatively few dated objects from ancient times, but looking at this approach to art from a distance offers a broader sphere in which to evaluate these efforts.

The customary approach to Walter Spink's work is with questions along the lines of the following: "Is Spink's short chronology correct? Or is the old long chronology really still right?" But from an arm's length perspective, different questions come into focus: why are there so many long chronologies inherited from the British period and so many shortened chronologies being offered in their stead? What picture of India was received by postwar and post-Independence scholars as South Asia studies emerged from their British colonial preserve?



AJANTA, a site discovered by a British officer on a tiger hunt in 1819 and the primary focus of Walter Spink's research, has been said to have been excavated over the course of more than 100 years extending from the fifth century into the eighth century of the common era. The appearance of figures clad in Persian dress in Cave 1 has been linked to a specific historical occurrence and cited as proof to anchor an extended chronology for the site.

Such a way of approaching the site, with assumptions about date and duration determined prior to a consideration of the objects themselves, is what I shall call the "arbitrary chronology." The arbitrary chronology - typically extending the history of a site - is inseparable from British scholarship on India. Thomas Metcalf summarizes influential attitudes held by Ferguson and others in An Imperial Vision. The assumption that India went steadily downhill from the peak of her art, from periods when her art was "ennobled" by Western influence, to periods o indigenous Indian forms associated with Hinduism, has greatly influenced the history of India's art: An arbitrary chronology of Gandharan art placed those more "classical" images earlier - and better - than those with more Indic features. Early Indian art is still widely conceptualized and taught as the history of Buddhist art "giving way" to Hindu art, even though, for example, the history of Skanda-Karttikeya and Parvati Panch-Agni Tapas images extends back into the Iksvaku period in south India and Brahmanical images in the north are among the earliest representations of deities in human form in India.

The flavor of European cultural assumptions is most immediately evident in these instances of arbitrary chronologies, but Metcalf's evaluation of the Raj encourages art historians to see both the arbitrary chronology and its subcategory, the extended chronology, as part of a common cultural context:

[In the wake of the 1857 uprising] . . . the British were determined to know, and so to master, their Indian dependency; and hence they set on foot that search for knowledge of India and its peoples that informed so much of the later-nineteenth-century imperial enterprise and underlay such works as Ferguson's History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. . . . At no time, however, did the Victorians' apparently disinterested search for "scientific" knowledge, or their aesthetic eclecticism, exist in India apart from the power relationships of colonialism.

Metcalf advances the view that it was not a close study of ancient Indian monuments themselves that led to assessments of India's progressive mediocrity but rather a need to justify British presence in, and control over, India in the nineteenth century that so colored the past. In no samll part through the vehicle of its craft, India was consistently presented in England as an unchanging traditional society, as in this review of the Indian section of the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition from the Times in 1886:

At a single step, the visitor is carried from the wild, mad whirl of the individual competitive struggle for existence to which civilization has been reduced in the ever changing West, into the stately splendour of that unchanging antique life of the East, the tradition of which has been preserved in pristine purity only in India.

The construction of a dynastic history of India - with the British Raj at the cultural and architectural pinnacle - was a fundamental rationalization for the imperial presence in India, and the neat pigeonholing of objects attached to those periods a natural consequence of it. The alleged ineffectiveness of the Indians at accomplishing their own ends (the stagnant society image) was extended to the past in order to justify the present order. According to this analysis, long, extended chronologies should be seen not as a byproduct but as an integral part of British thinking on the subject of ancient India. in this intellectual/political apparatus created for the presentation to a British public of an India fit to be a subject territory, it would not be assumed that projects of ancient Indian rulers were completed with purpose or on a schedule.

Indian scholars, too, have been among the avid proponents of some long chronologies. U. P. Shah's dating of the Samalaji sculptures and the preoccupation of this noted scholar of Jain iconography with dates for these images is the example with which I am most familiar. Seen in the context of his time, Shah's work was, I suggest, affected by British approaches to Indian art on the one hand and by Indian political realities of the early post-Independence period on the other hand.

British scholarship maintained its strong position in the 1950s, and good art was old art in the British scheme of golden ages and subsequent declines; the best art was that linked somehow to that of Europe; and originality - a place at the beginning of a tradition - the highest honor. thus in looking at the Samalaji sculptures, Shah sought to anchor them firmly in the fourth century, contemporary with at least some phase of Gandharan sculpture. He linked such features as the Samalaji sculptures' heavy scarves to the drapery detailing characteristic of Gandharan art, without consideration of the long tradition of luxurious folded sashes similarly represented in indigenous Indian sculpture, extending from the Bharhut railing figures to the Kushan period at Mathura.

This assumption of Gandharan "influence" happens to be an interpretation with which I have preciously stated my disagreement, but more to the point here, Shah's way of thinking about Samalaji style exemplifies, in part, a strong tradition of British and British-conditioned scholarship. Another prominent feature of Shah's scholarship on Samalaji, and one characteristic of early post-Independence scholarship in Gujarat, is the certainty that the stupa of Devni Mori located adjacent to the village of Samalaji - and now beneath the waters of a reservoir - was constructed in the late fourth century. Those Western scholars who have analyzed the same information have, in contrast, all dated the stupa somewhat later. At issue is not so much the date itself but the implications of such an early date for any site in Gujarat, The title of one Shah paper, "Western Indian Sculpture and the So-Called Gupta Influence," summarized the position of scholars at M. S. University in Baroda: Devni Mori, in Gujarat, was identifiable as the source of the more famous Mathura-Sarnath style.

Shah's conclusions about the antiquity both of Devni Mori and of the Samalaji sculptures themselves dovetailed neatly with historical events in India in the 1950s: the establishment of the states of independent India. The Government of India's White Paper on Indian States, published in 1950s, reports the concern with the governance of states near India's border with Pakistan. A stable and efficient administration was defined as the essential priority. It was ultimately decided to merge all the Gujarat states, even Baroda, which was acknowledged as having the resources to run and maintain an efficient administration, into Bombay presidency in 1948. Decisions to overrule the paradigm of provinces established along linguistic lines, as recommended by the Congress Party form the 1920s until 1945, led to struggles over states' reorganization that dominated Indian politics from 1953 to 1956. Gujarati nationalists cited the greatness of the Solankis, of ancient Aparanta and medieval Gurjaradesa; the decried the dismemberment of Gujarat by Marathas and British alike. Gujarat was the second political power of India after that of Delhi during the medieval period. In 1956, many new states were created along linguistic lines, but the Bonbay presidency was not divided between Gujarat and Marathi speakers until four more years of agitation had passed. In 1960, the year Shah's monograph on Samalaji was published, Gujarat and Maharashtra became separate states. The pervasive sense of Gujarat nationalism in Shah's work on Samalaji makes his work fully congruent with political considerations arising in the reconfiguration of post-Independence India.

Shah's long chronology owes much to two political agendas, that of outgoing British India and the statehood movement of the 1940s and 1950s. There was little room within this scheme governed by a preoccupation with dates for iconological studies of the Samalaji sculptures. It is certainly worthy of note that U. P. Shah, a scholar otherwise known for his erudite studies of Jain iconography, never approached the Samalaji sculptures from a similar perspective.


IT IS NO ACCIDENT that extended and "arbitrary" chronologies are a salient feature of the British tradition that has yet to be fully reviewed in every instance (thereby continuing to affect the state of the field today), it is also no accident that American scholars have been instrumental in challenging these chronologies. As outside parties at some distance form British scholarship and political agendas, American scholars - together with European counterparts - have sought to establish a new knowledge of Indian culture and civilization founded upon closer readings of Indic traditions.

Spink's seminal 1958 article, for example, takes a fresh look at the chronology of early Buddhist architecture in India, a sequence originating in a nineteenth-century assumption that the donor, Bhutapala, of the inscription at the site of Karli should be identified with the last Sunga king, Devabhuti, who ruled ca. 80-70 B.C. What was once seen as a compelling similarity of names is no longer seen as such, but the Karli caitya (prayer) hall - while outside the region under Sunga control - was dated to the Sunga period, thus pushing more tentative forms back still earlier. It had been agreed, however, that the sculptures on the facade could not be of such early date; they were interpreted as later additions. With detailed photographs, an essential tool of American scholarship, Spink was able to show that the architectural details above the figures were carved so as to make room for them, thus showing that these images were part of the monument's original plans.

In Spink's reassessment, the date of the Karli cave became later, the resulting chronology more compressed; Spink's first short chronology combined a close study of the caves' features with an assessment of historical evidence. The group of caitya halls under consideration in this early work represented individual sites widely separated. Ajanta would offer a larger number of more complex structures but all at a single site, allowing - and demanding - a more detailed and complicated analysis.

Spink's development of this approach to chronological problems, begun in his years as a student of Benjamin Rowland's at Harvard, was strengthened by John Rosenfield's examination of dated Buddha images from Sarnath. This study, published in 1963, contradicted even more conclusively the British tendency to associate the height o political power with the apogee of artistic efforts. the dates corresponding to A.D. 474 and 476 on three of the finest of Sarnath images, when Gupta power was already dissipated, was eloquent argument against assumptions that linked dynastic power to a visual counterpart. A tendency to project a correlation between political and aesthetic power back into India's past is yet another salient feature of British thinking that contemporary scholarship has rightfully questioned, recognizing that the characteristics art historians define as "styles" are typically features that characterize the production of groups of artists within regions where they were engaged to work. The so-called Amarabati style, for example, should not be seen as coterminus with the reign of the Satavahanas and the Iksvakus and disappearing with the evaporation of their political power, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Walter Spink's early work on the Buddhist caves (and Rosenfield's reassessment of Sarnath sculpture) made it evident that India has a complex history worthy of further study, that India was definitely not the unchanging timeless world easily classified and mastered, as represented in so many British writings. I am suggesting that Walter Spink's studies of the rock-cut architecture in Maharashtra have brought a new shape to our study of the past and, in the arena of fifth/sixth-century Indian art, represent a particular delineation of where past ends and present begins. In Spink's eyes, his early work was to rescue the state of knowledge from "disarray." Now forty years later, we should recognize that Spink's study of Ajanta marks a separation from the knowledge received from colonial scholarship. New arguments have been advances. India is now assumed to have has a history, evolving forms within its own religious and social orders quite independent fo European vocabularies (Gupta temples have been separated from the notion of Greek influence) and separated from nineteenth-century colonial prejudices (India was in a state of decline since the first-second century A.D., as "proven" by the growth of Hindu art and by the presumed movement of Gandharan style away from Mediterranean appearances). This is not to argue that we are now in a state of truth but rather to recognize that the historical structures in which we operate today distanced from the intellectual apparatus of the Raj. Spink's short chronologies have been critical to making this conceptual break and continue to characterize one important facet of pre-colonial scholarship on India.


A SCIENTIFIC APPROACH to plumbing the ancient history of India, the concentration on images and monuments themselves through photographs, plans, and measurements to capture every nuance and detail, is a strong current in American scholarship from the 1960s through the 1980s. In particular, the 35mm SLR camera and the abundance in the West of good, inexpensive film have been central to American methodologies and essential to their hegemony. In our churning of the milky ocean, with a strong dollar wrapped around the scholar's boarding pass functioning as axis mundi, the camera and the short chronology have emerged together.

Measuring the carvers and designers logical courses of action, recreating the path of their physical movement through the site of Ajanta, and proposing the sequences of technological developments there - harvesting many journeys to the site - describe Spink's career of grappling with the tremendous complexity of Ajanta. On-site photography has yielded the images Spink has studied so carefully to create his reconstruction of the site. While many scholars have embraced the general outline of Spink's argument that the excavation of Ajanta spans a generation rather than several, there has been reluctance to accept the very tight dates advanced more recently.

Joanna Williams' relegation of Ajanta to an appendix of her comprehensive study of Gupta style acknowledges Spink's shifting of the discourse on Ajanta:

The discussion of the caves of Ajanta in an appendix deserves some explanation, for these are often cited as masterpieces of Gupta art. . . . One primary explanation lies in the caves than in the scholarship about them. As Wayne Begley has put it, the study of Ajanta has become a field within a field. To do justice to the topic would require another book. . . . In the controversy about the dates of the Ajanta caves, the suggestions of Walter Spink are focal.


IN COMING TO GRIPS with Walter Spink's place in the chronicles of South Asian studies, I see his work more than an embrace of complexity. Essential to Spink's work is the subdivision of the site from individual rock-cut caitya hall or vihara into the specific constituent parts of each. This approach was already evident in his early Marg article highlighting Buddha images, door frames, cave plans, and so on. In more recent years he added placement of caves with respect to the solar cycle, methods of hanging doors, and the preparation of wall surfaces, to name analytical frameworks that transcend art history's traditional preserve. He has considered the technology of excavation and the presence of artisans, but, more importantly, he has sought to define the length of the intervals between the physical marks.

What comes to mind in evaluating Spink's contributions over the course of his career is George Kubler's The Shape of Time, essays in which he develops an intellectual structure to take the history of things beyond the model of biology. The language of Michael Faraday and the field of electrodynamics is better suited to the situation of art, Kubler proposes, "especially if we are dealing with the transmission of some kind of energy; with impulses, generating centers, and relay points; with increments and losses in transit; with resistances and transformers in the circuit." Kubler defines the historian as one who portrays time itself, composing meaning that had been invisible to both his subjects and his own contemporaries. Kubler proposes that in such an endeavor, biological time, with its statistically predictable lengths, fails to account for the "intermittent and variable" nature of historical time, in which the intervals between actions as well as the events themselves are of interest, and these may be thicker or thinner.

Walter Spink has constructed an approach to Ajanta that embraces just such a vision of history. Whereas Philippe Stern selected the column as his unit of stylistic measure, determining that Cave 7 was among the first excavations at the site's second phase, along with others clustered to the left and right of the ancient nucleus of Caves 9, 10, and 12, Spink's evaluation of many motifs and factors led him to propose that, while parts of Cave 7 are among the earliest work at this site, other features in this same vihara are among the latest work. The truncated plan of Cave 7 didn't concern Stern, for example, while Spink recognized its unorthodox shape as indicative of patronage problems and has pointed out the similarity of the Cave 7 Buddha - specifically the pillars in its throneback - to later painted thronebacks in Cave 16 and to the main shrine group in Cave Upper 6.

Most scholars can certainly sympathize with Stern's explanation of his focus on columns in isolation: because the complete ensemble of forms would lead much too far and wouldn't have the clarity of the evolution of a single element! We mislead ourselves if we characterize Spink's method as a sophisticated form of stylistic analysis. In its richly layered consideration of many features simultaneously, his is work of a very different order.

Spink's work on Ajanta has affected the history of Indian art at a broader level as well. Just as his article of Karli shifted a series of dates for other early sites, Ajanta to Ellora sketched out a series of relationships among the major sites of Ajanta, Elephanta, Ellora, and Basami that has yet to be fully developed in terms of iconological aspects. Here, too, concepts advanced by Kubler are useful in evaluating Spink's history of this series of sites. Style and the static group of entities comprising it have been replaced with a more fluid set of shifting relations. Which are the "prime works" and which are the "replications"? It is interesting that Kubler - looking back through time - mentions Ajanta in passing, characterizing it as a "replication," as "probably a pale reflection of a lost art from the urban halls of princes." Spink's work, however, looks forward from the accomplishments and inventions of Ajanta and represents this site as the prime object within a new series of objects (the caves of Ajanta, Aurangabas, Elephanta, and Ellora). Kubler's term, a "linked series of solutions composing a sequence," characterizes both Spink's micro-level studies of Ajanta as well as the macrocosm of rock-cut architecture of the fifth through eighth centuries. In Spink's description of his attempts to line up the links correctly, to locate each event in relation to every other, he is developing a grid of events in time and space with all of a cave's features somewhere on it. Spink has focused on Ajanta as a unit with literally thousands of component parts to be understood in formal sequences that arise from attempts to find solutions to problems and that can be linked together over time:

Every important work of art can be regarded both as a historical event and as a hard-won solution to some problem. . . . The important clue is that any solution points to the existence of some problem to which there have been other solutions, and the other solutions to this same problem will most likely be invented to follow the one now in view. As the solutions accumulate, the problem alters. The chain of solutions nevertheless discloses the problem.

the final dimension of Spink's short chronologies to be discussed here, of his linked problems ans solutions, returns to the concept of intervals of time between defining events. He has thrown off another axiom of British colonial scholarship, suggesting that "traditional" ancient Indian technology was not necessarily slow, that the speed of labor could be enhanced by increasing numbers of laborers, and the Ajanta gives evidence of this very phenomenon. This conclusion, another building block of the short chronology, has emerged from his immersion in Ajanta's details and a passion for their internal logic.

We can make out, at least in part, how the work was organized. Many different workmen were busy at once, and each one was assigned a particular portion of rock which he furrowed out. Almost certainly each man was paid according to how much he actually did. For this reason ridges of stone were left between the furrows, so that the cubic-footage of rock removed could be measured by the master architect or the paymaster. . . . A very similar system is used on road work in India today, where each workman digs out a prescribed and easily measurable section of earth separated by reserved earth ridges from the next workman's precinct.

The unfinished Cave 24 interior sums up Walter Spink's contributions to art history - an ability to tease from unpromising raw material conclusions that compel, and to enjoy the startling effect of such an image that challenges conventional thinking about what is significant in art. Relieved from the burden of an anti-Indian agenda, even the time value of labor reverses British thinking about ancient India.

Walter Spink's challenges to the writing of history were the intellectual starting point for many students from the 1970s, my own included. In challenging orthodoxies unorthodoxly no one else could have been a better mentor to those of us among his students who belong to "the lost generation of humanities Ph.D.s" with careers that have meandered away from the slide library and the stacks. Walter's own broad and varied interests always suggested that no single path need be followed through life. As dedicated as he has been to the cave art of Western India, Ajanta in particular, his lectures were far more likely to include Yeats than Yazdani, the history of prints rather than princely states. While as students we might marvel and then despair that every syllabus seemed to veer sharply toward Ajanta or Ellora, and wonder when he would get down to the business of teaching us Indian art, in truth Walter has been simultaneously a painstaking scholar and a teacher without equal in the syllabus of life. This article is offered in affectionate appreciation of Walter Spink, the scholar, the teacher, the person.