Week 5: Visual Analysis

By: Sujatha Meegama |

North Torana, Stupa 1 (Great Stupa), Sanci, Madhya Pradesh, India, ca. second-third centuryCBE

North Torana, Stupa 1 (Great Stupa), Sanci, Madhya Pradesh, India, ca. second-third centuryCBE

  1. What do you see?
  2. What is the composition?
  3. What are they doing?

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(Edit) Ayesha Fathima
There is a temple like structure with a dome in the top half of the image, and in the bottom half, there are a lot of people praying and looking up to the temple with their hands folded. There are also angels/ apsaras with wings surrounding the temple
(Edit) Verlynn Heng
This seems to depict a ritual of some sort as there people making offerings (food, decorative ornaments as seen from the winged creatures) and there are others who are playing music. The stupa is also prominent in terms of its composition, and the size of it.
(Edit) Shu-ying
This is a relief sculpture depicting an worshiping scene. At the bottom half of the relief, there are two rows of people some of which are carrying instruments and some with their hands clapsed together. The people are arranged in two linear lines, their body language (hands especially) directs the eye upwards and centralised towards the dome structure that dominates the upper portion of the relief. This dome structure is flaked by supernatural-looking human figures adorned with wings, further emphasising the centralised position of the dome. Furthermore, the dome structure dominates the picture plane, thus it resides highly in terms of visual hierachy. It is reasonable to infer that the dome is of significance importance and is revered by the people. The dome structure is likely to be a stupa as seen from the Torana in the middle. Since, this relief sculpture is found on a stupa, it is likely to be a dialectic image for Buddhist pilgrimages and devotees. The symmetry this composition, reinforces the centrality and importance of the stupa. As a religious place of worship, the stupa is esteemed while devotees serenade it, surrounding it in a circular fashion which echoes the practice of encircling the stupa when devotees offer their prayers there.
(Edit) leep0057
There is a congregation of human figures making up the entire image, with the bottom row playing instruments seemingly creating music. The second row of figures seem to be worshipping and dancing, with their hands held in praying positions. All these figures are surrounding a dome-like, structure, which can be inferred to be a dialectic image for Buddhist pilgrimages and devotees as this relief is found on a stupa.  The dome structure is the focal point of the image, and hence it can be inferred that it is of religious significance to the people, which explains their worship and their prayers towards it.  
(Edit) Benji
1.) I see a dome-shaped building erected as a shrine with devotees and worshipers surrounding it. They people at the bottom are seen to be holding musical instruments such as the flute and drums almost like they are playing some sort of rhythms for perhaps a ritual or even dancing in a form of praying. Offerings such as necklace made up of beautiful flowers are present as well in the second row from the bottom as they are seen to be kneeling position towards the shrine. From the top right and top left side are filled with angels facing towards the center which is where the shrine is. 2.) The stupa is big and in the center of the composition and with all everyone facing towards the stupa makes it the most important object in this relief. The composition also show that the shrine are closer to the heavens as they are surrounded by heavenly creatures which are half human and half bird as they are seen to have claws and wings. The gateway makes it look important as it makes it look like a beautiful and grand entrance which brings you to the sacred place inside the shrine which is depicted as an empty space so as to say that not everyone can go in. The entrance of the stupa also made a clear line between the heavenly creatures and the profane which are the worshipers and devotees at the bottom of the composition. The pointed hats and boots and also the curly hair seems to hint at the people that come from a far place to worship the stupa. 3. They are probably circumundulating as it is the method of praying to the stupa.
(Edit) Cally Ling
I see a temple with a huge Stupa, being surrounded by devotees and worshippers. There are some beneath the Stupa and some above. The ones above the Stupa has more intricate details, the carvings are much more grand compared to the ones below. They are wearing boots, probably to cover their feet as a form of respect, to be able to afford boots the clothing tells us that they are quite well to do from north west india, coming from a far away place to worship the Stupa. The people at the bottom row are holding onto musical instruments (flute and drum) holding a worship, the hand gestures are in Namaste. Which means welcome and praying. Some are holding offerings (food and jewellery), holding something above them above their heads which infers that they are praying to the Stupa by dancing and singing and presenting flower necklaces. The people above the Stupa are like angels and god as they have wings, which signifies holyness. There is a clean line breaking them apart. A ritual is being held. The composition is messy I think the most prominent object in the carvings is the big Stupa smack right in the centre slightly upwards, it also look equally divided up. Everyone is looking at the Stupa. The signs of the Stupa is beautifully decorated and ornated with carvings. It takes half of the relief . Closer to heaven because of heavenly creates surrounding the half top of the Stupa. They are heavenly because they have bird feet and claws, half human half bird creatures. The gateway makes it look important as it is a focal point and there is an empty space at the doorway even through its crowded around. Everything else is around the Stupa but no one is entering it. Maybe they could not. Music playing outside, it could be a procession before entering it. The compositions of the angels looks more grand compared to the people bottom of the Stupa. There are 8 Angels and they seem to be walking around it circumundulating because  That is how you pray to the Stupa.  
(Edit) David
Looks like a form of Ritual, or a Festival. The temple rests above the group of seemingly people offering objects and musicians playing music. Various musical instruments on them (Drums, Flutes, etc.). Figures above have wings on them, possibly depicting Angels. Having angels show divine and devout meaning of what the temple symbolizes. Angel figures look like they are holding necklaces or other "offerings".
I can see  there is a temple with a dome. From the bottom half, there are a lot of people praying and looking up to the temple with their hands folded. Also some of them are playing some instrument. From the top part, there are also angelswith wings surrounding the temple. They look like they are holding some offering.
(Edit) Adithi
1. a stupa surrounded by a lot of people. there're people playing musical instruments in the bottom row, which makes it look like a celebration/ritual is going on. 2. the attention is centralised and the focus is on the stupa. there are also angels present, likely pointing to the fact that the stupa is either in heaven or is connected to the heavens. 3. there seems to be offerings being made to the stupa by the row directly under it.
(Edit) Amanda Yeo
There seem to be 3 parasols on top of the stupa. Is there a reason why there's 3 specifically? What is the significance of the number 3?
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Thank you to Ayesha, Verlynn, Shu-ying, Pei-Yi, Benji, Cally, David, Zihong, Amanda, Adithi for your thought-provoking comments on this image! I can't figure out how to reply to you all individually. But, here is some quick feedback before I go on my Pada Yatra tonight! For Amanda: 3 should ring a bell for all of you; what are the three treasures in Buddhism?    
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Perhaps the three parasols refer to the triple gem?
(Edit) Audrelia Lim
On the top ground of this work, I can see two half human like creatures that look like flying creatures on bothe the top right and top left. They are human because of how they still have the basic human facial features such as the eyes, nose and mouth  and a human head. However, the lower half seem to sppear that they are flying creatures because of their legs that are claws and the lower half of the body have what it seems to appear as wings that make them look like flying creatures. They are also holding on what it seems like a garland that is a floral decoration that can be meant for some architecture including temples in their culture. Moving down from both the right and left side, we can see many people standing beside a large dome shaped structure and their hand is positioned in such a way that it is clasped together and making them seem to look as if they are praying. Also, these group of people are carrying the same thing as the flying creatures at the top right and left hand corner of this work. They are carrying at what it seems to apppear like a garland that it used to decorate architectures related to their religion or culture. At the bottom half of this work, there seem to be many musicians playing their musical instruments that includes their drums, and their flutes. These people are dressed in such a way that makes them look like foreigners from cold countries as they are wearing boots unlike the people at the top half of this work, they are not wearing any footwear. By looking at the whole composition, the dome structure is placed in such a way that it is situated in the middle of this work and also centralising the whole work. This is shown by the number of people on the right and left are equal and bottom half also seem to be centralised by a figure who has his back facing to the viewers. Due to his different position as compared to the rest of the people standing beside him, he seem to act as a guide that separates the number of people frome each side so that there would be equal number of people on ech side of this work. As for the dome structure, due to its large and centralised placement , the maker of this work has made this dome structure to appear like an important structure. Furthermore, with everyone looking at this structure and having their hands clasped together tat makes them look like they are praying at this structure, this has made the structure to become of what it seems to be a stupa. Additionally, people would usually have to go around the stupa while they pray to the stupa. To add on to my previous point, the gateway of the stupa is empty and this captures the viewers attention because on the outside of the dome, there are many people surrounding it while on the inside, it is empty. Thus, this has made the stupa to be an eve more important structure of ths whole work because of its large and central structutre, its empty gateway that is able to capture the attention from the viewers .
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Nice visual analysis of the kinnaras or half-bird half-human creatures. Where else do you see the garlands in this relief? And, where else did you see it in tutorials? Also, nice visual analysis of the bottom half of the relief as well as the stupa. So, what else do you see around the stupa that makes it stand out?
(Edit) Jafri Jaafar

This carving looks like it is on the exterior of the Stupa as it looks naturally lit. What I see is many people congregating around a dome shaped structure. The dome structure looks like it is a Stupa and the people surrounding it seem to be the worshipers. From the many instruments the worshipers are holding, it looks like they are having some kind of celebration around the Stupa. The row of people just below the Stupa look like they are bringing offerings into the Stupa. The top corners of the carvings seem to be occupies by angels instead of people. And just above the Stupa, there seems to be 3 relics. I believe this is representative of the three main gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

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(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Good Visual Analysis Jaffri! But it needs more details. Also, let's try not to get our Buddhism and Hinduism mixed up! The tree parasols refer to the triple gem and not the trimurti.
(Edit) Nevin
What I see here is the architecture of the stupa, and around it is most probably worshippers and devotees of the Buddha. I also see that at the bottom of the carving there are some of them holding instruments, which shows that they were worshipping Buddha through music. In terms of composition, that the top half shows the Stupa and surrounded by 4 humans with wings, which could be some kind of flying creatures, protecting the stupa. Below them we see devotees, holding up with different objects to the stupa, which could be offerings they are holding and devoting to Buddha. The most bottom row, are basically musicians, or people supporting this worship here, in terms of chants and music. They are playing instruments, and blowing some kind of trumpet for the worship.
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Nice visual analysis! I appreciate how you try to figure out the roles of each of the figures from protectors to devotees to musicians/supporters/ritual specialists.
(Edit) Ang Zhiting
This is an image of a relief carving depicting of what appears to be a scene of relative importance. The composition is divided into an upper and lower half, such that elements from the top half do not "intersect“ with the lower half. What is seen in the lower half appears to be 2 rows of people. The bottom row of individuals appear to be musicians, they are appear to be carrying instruments and some are carved to be playing them. I would interpret the top row of individuals to be a group of devotees. Some are carrying offerings of food, garlands and what appears to be a flag. In the middle is someone with his back facing us, looking towards the Stupa in the top half of the carving. The composition in the upper half is quite clear, in the middle is a Stupa with winged individuals at the top half of the relief and individuals near the gate of the Stupa carrying garlands as well. I would interpret these individuals as devotees going around the Stupa (circumambulating) carrying offerings of garlands. The winged creatures depicted near the top of the Stupa also bring forth garland offerings. I think the focal point of this carving would be the process of circumambulating the Stupa by devotees. In the carving, most of the Stupa is unobstructed with details of the structure carved clearly, including row of garlands at the dome of the Stupa. The gate of the Stupa is clearly shown without obstruction from other elements in the composition and a person with the back shown to the viewer below the center of the gates, which hints at its importance of the figure. In this case, I would think that figure is meant to signify the viewer at Sanchi, about to visit the Stupa, being welcomed to visit (musicians). To add on to this point, the winged creatures are known as Kinnara, a symbol in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, believed to "watch over" the well-being of humanity during tumultuous times. The Kinnara is a symbol in Hindu mythology, believed to represent love, devotion, and longevity, something held to be important by many people. I believe they were included in this carving as a form of auspicious motif to draw people to convert to Buddhism. However, in Tibetan Buddism , the Kinnara is a symbol of enlightened activity, hence their inclusion in this carving would make it suitable.
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Nice visual analysis! So, where is the information about the Kinnaras from?
(Edit) Kou Ying

I see a grand stupa in the middle top of the picture. There are eight angels surrounding it at the top can be seen by their wings. All of them are holding something and facing the stupa symbolising that some ritual event is going on. There are two roles of worshippers below the stupa. Some are praying and playing musical instruments while looking up at the stupa. In the middle of the second linear role, a carved human figure is praying and facing directly towards the stupa. His centralised position symbolises his importance. This shows the significance of the stupa and the religious practices.

(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
You have made an interesting point about a grand stupa--what makes it grand? Are there really 8 angels or Kinnaras flying around the stupa? You have made another excellent point about the figure with his back towards us--so, with his centralised position, who might he be?
In the image about we can see that clearly there is a Stupa prominent in the relief, also to note, the entrance to the stupa is also blank (could be an indication of Buddha whom cannot be depicted) there is rows of people on the bottom with some have drums and flutes/recording which might show us that it was a ceremony that was ongoing. Depicted on the top is creatures with wings and bird legs, which are definitely deemed as celestial beings and these beings are also offering flowers to hang on the Stupa, this may show that the "relic" in the stupa is seemingly worthy for praise by celestial beings.
(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
What an interesting point about the empty entrance representing the Buddha! Perhaps it can be both? Emphasising the entrance to the stupa and hence emphasising the stupa as well as reminding us of the empty seat? And, what an interesting point you make about the relic in this stupa! if it is indeed praiseworthy then whose might it be?
(Edit) Chang Nikki

The most prominent figure in this piece is the dome-like structure in the top middle. The fence below it connects to a gateway in its center, similar to that of a stupa’s entrance. There are three parasols placed on top of it, which may be associated with the three treasures of Buddhism.


The bottom half of the relief also depicts figures facing the dome, in gestures of prayer and presenting offerings. Hence, it is highly likely that the structure is a stupa, since it is a place of worship. Some of the figures are also playing musical instruments such as drums and flutes, which may mean that they are performing a ritual or a celebration. I also noticed that all of them are topless, which reveal their gender to be all males. Furthermore, all of them are also wearing the same design of boots, which hints that they are all from the same tribe or community. It is proposed that these figures originated from a cold country and are hence dressed in winter boots, However, I think this assessment contradicts the fact that they are half naked. Instead, I believe that the boots are part of their attire for the ritual, something like a costume we would wear for a performance.


Beside the stupa, there are the same male figures seemingly approaching it. This may be depicting devotees circumambulating the stupa in worship, since they are holding strung beads or garlands as offerings.


Above them, surrounding the stupa, there are winged figures with bird feet holding the same garlands. They seemed to be in mid-flight and tilting forwards, as if to drape the garland onto the stupa. They might have gotten the garlands from the devotees, and are thus the messengers between humans and the Buddha. This may depict the spiritual world or heaven, since they are unnatural and placed on the top half of the relief.

(Edit) Sujatha Meegama
Nice visual analysis! And, perhaps the boots are part of their costume.
(Edit) Seng Yi Ling
  • This artwork, ‘North Torana, Stupa I (The Great Stupa)’ made by Saci, Central India, 2-3 Century C.E. is made of sandstone. It is a relief showing devotion at a stupa.

  • The most prominent observation in this picture is the Stupa which centralises the entire composition. The Stupa has a dome like structure. Attempts to make the stupa more 3 dimensional as the fence is curved outwards to create an illusion of roundness. Such attempts can be justified as devotees would have to encircle the stupa in a clockwise direction to make their prayers. The fences surrounding the stupa increase in size from the top to the bottom row. This layering creates the illusion of depth and the large size of the stupa juxtaposed to the subject figures. On the top of the stupa lies 3 parasols, which may be referred to as the triple gems: the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha.

  • The stupa is the representation of the presence of Buddha, as the relics of Buddha lies within the stupa and Buddha was not depicted in a human form.

  • On the upper half of the artwork, there are winged subject figures which are half bird and half human on either sides of the stupa. Their body are positioned in a way that they are facing towards the stupa, thus creating slight linear perspective. The winged creatures are known as Kinnara, a symbol in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, believed to "watch over" the well-being of humanity during tumultuous times. The Kinara is a symbol in Hindu mythology, believed to represent love, devotion, enlightenment and longevity, something held to be important by many people. It was believed that it was included in this relief as a form of auspicious motif to draw people to convert to Buddhism. They are also holding onto what it seems to be like a garland or strung beads as decorations or as offerings.

  • Moving down, there are several more subject figures standing directly below the stupa. It may be suggested that the subject figures are devotees as their hands are clasped together in a praying Namaste position . / anjali mudra (worship), and their body posture is positioned in a  way that they are facing the stupa. In addition, there is a figure directly at the centre, in front of the entrance of the stupa has his back facing the viewers. The artist seem to have placed that back facing figure in the centre to act as a central vertical axis, that ensures equal number of people on each side of the stupa to create balance.

  • At the base, the subject figures are holding musical instruments (drums, and their flutes). Their garment is significantly different from the Kinnaras and the subject figures below the stupa. It may be suggested that these subject figures are foreigners from cold countries as they are wearing boots, or that boots are part of the celebratory event costume.

  • Positioning of the half bird half human figures with wings on the top half of the artwork, and the worshippers on the bottom half, beneath the stupa establishes a form of heavenly divide.
  • However, all of the subject figures regardless of angels or mere mortals come together to worship the stupa, which holds the enlightened Buddha’s relics.

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