Patronage, Devotion and Politics: A Buddhological Study of the Patola Sahi Dynasty's Visual Record
Abstract: During the 6th - 8th centuries, the Patola Sahi dynasty ruled the country of Bolor, which is Baltistan and Gilgit, in what is today, Northern Pakistan. Not only does the archaeological and literary evidence indicate that their kingdom was a Buddhist stronghold, but there are also a number of Buddhist artworks that can be attributed through inscriptions to a donation by members of the royal Patola Sahi family. This study focuses on these inscribed works and other extant visual culture of the Patola Sahi dynasty. It analyzes the major iconographic features and interprets them within a Buddhological context. As such, the findings suggest that the Patola Sahis were devout Buddhist practitioners, some of them adherents of early Vajrayana Buddhism. A contextualization of the iconography of the visual record reveals an underlying pattern of the primary benchmarks needed to portray a meditational construct of a sambhogakaya Buddha, in particular, Vairocana Buddha. The epigraphical and compositional components, particularly the frequent representation of the donors, are also examined for their significance to specific Buddhist teachings and practices. As such, it is evident that many of these donors were initiates into and practitioners of the esoteric teachings of the Vairocana Buddha. Specifically, the core elements of the practice of generosity and the three main components of the teaching transmissions in the Mahayana/ Vajrayana traditions - the receiver, the gift, and the giver - are repeated in various ways throughout the imagery. In addition, a contextualization of the patronage of Buddhism, specifically by the Patola Sahi kings, reveals that political aspirations and legitimizing forces were also part of their Buddhist practices. Both the visual and textual record underscore the support of Buddhism as a means for protection of the kingship and state, as well as a claim to both spiritual and secular power through their portrayal as divine dharmarajas, perhaps even incarnations of bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Thus, when considered within a larger framework of Buddhist theoretical principles and practice, as well as intricately linked social, religious, and political practices at the time, the motives and impetus for the royal Patola Sahi patronage and select, multivalent iconographies are gleaned.
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