Pingala, one of Surya's attendants, 5th-7th c., southern Pakistan.

(downloaded June 2001)

"Pingala, Attendant of Surya. Salt Hills, Southern Punjab. 5th-7th century. Beige Sandstone. Height: 43cm."

Commentary provided by John Eskenazi, Ltd., the gallery showing this piece:

"A standing sandstone figure of Pingala, dressed in the costume of a Sassanian dignitary. He wears a draped kilt, knee breeches, riding boots, and a distinctive hat with a forward-curling crown. An aureole frames the back of his head. Pingala is shown holding a pen and paper.

His appearance in north-west India is part of a process which saw the spread of Sassanian "courtly symbols" (Azarpay: 2000), notably the images of royalty, ceremonial and hunting and animal motifs, along the Silk Road. Sassanian art is essentially the depiction of material images, and the personages portrayed were represented because of their strength and nobility. The emperors were descended from Zoroastrian priests and assumed the guardianship of the sacred fires. Religious and secular issues were under their control and the two became fused. Royal achievements, such as the successful hunting of lions, assumed a semi-divine significance.

As these Sassanian artforms moved eastwards they became absorbed in and part of the imagery of the great religions of India. As Kroeger (1979) points out, artforms do not simply transfer. If they are accepted in a foreign environment it is because they fit in with local ideas and, consequently, acquire new meanings. As there is little silver mined east of Iran, silver vessels and ornaments were traded along the Silk Road. By coincidence, this trade happened at a time when intense proselytising firstly of Buddhist and then Hindu beliefs were taking place and art played an important part in this process. However, the progress was not simply in one direction. There is also some indication that Buddhism existed in Eastern Iran, but suffered persecution under Shapur I at the end of the 3rd century. In the same period, the depiction of elephants at Bisapur suggests social and maybe political ties with India. Slightly later, a frieze showing the coronation of Ardeshir II (379-383) shows him standing on a lotus. In Indian art, the lotus is associated with the sun god, Surya, as well as with the Buddha.

The cult of Surya was popular in Kushan times (2nd-3rd century AD) and images from Mathura depict him with two diminutive attendants. He is seen in the Parthian horseman's dress favoured by the Kushan kings for their own images, with trousers, boots and a long surcoat, whilst the dress of his attendants is less well defined. The icon which would become more familiar, showing Surya on his chariot pulled by four, or sometimes seven horses, is later in date, but was established by the time of the 7th century Surya from Khair Khaneh, formerly in the Kabul Museum. Lee (1967) points out that this image combines elements of Sassanian, Central Asian and Indian styles. At the same time the Surya cult was growing in strength in India. It had become very powerful by the time the Surya Temple at Martand was built, around 750 AD. Magnificent temples were also built at Modhera and Multan. Although it was thought that Zoroastrian beliefs had not travelled to Gandhara, the discovery of a fire altar at Tapa Skandar by a Japanese archaeological team in 1978 (Taddei, 1981) presents evidence to the contrary, although its ceremonies appear to have been conducted in secret. It does, however, confirm the continued influence of Iranian ideas in the region. Lee (ibid:51, footnote 40) associates the sun cult with the Iranian fire cult, saying that representations of Surya in northwest India, Afghanistan and Kashmir '. . . might well have seemed to require the use of Iranian costume on the primary solar deity.'

In essence, Surya is a nature deity, responsible for the awakening of life and its going to sleep. He also offers protection from disease, notably leprosy. In Vedic hymns the sun god rescues the world from the fear of darkness, as well as nightmares. His attendants, Danda and Pingala represent the physical and intellectual means of achieving one's goals. Danda is young and carries a spear whilst Pingala, bearded and wise-looking, carries a pen and paper. They might also be said to represent war and diplomacy.

Pingala seems to have been identified at one time with Agni, the god of fire and his appearance, as a Sassanian grandee, would seem to confirm this association. Looking back at earlier Persian art, the friezes at Persepolis depict a variety of Steppe warriors bringing horses as offerings to the Persian emperor and the sculptors clearly differentiated between the groups by carefully representing their costume and headgear. This series of friezes effectively identifies the various groups living in the  Persian Empire in the 3rd century BC. The famous Oxus Hoard, found in the region bordering Western Gandhara comprises gold objects depicting Sarmatian warriors wearing hood like headgear, the form suggesting they were made of a heavy cloth rather than armour. A few centuries later, figures in Parthian dress appear fairly frequently in Gandharan art (see Eskenazi, 1998:Page 15) and they wear the tunic and breeches of the Steppe horsemen.

The headgear depicted here, a tall helmet-like hat with forward curling crown is associated with the later Arsacidans (early 3rd century A.D.) and their successors, the Sassanians, who ruled the vast Persian Empire from 226 - 630 A.D. Each Sassanian emperor seems to have adopted his own distinctive headgear, usually an orb within a form of crown. This headgear is associated with dignitaries, and may be seen as a symbol of authority. It is worn by an attendant nobleman on a relief carving at Naqsh-i-Bahram (late 3rd century) and also on two Sassanian hardstone seals which are now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Inscriptions on these two seals identify the individuals portrayed and describe one as 'financial controller' and the other as the governor of a city in the province of Shahrab. Two Gandhara heads, a terracotta in the Museum fur Indische Kunst in Berlin and a stucco, formerly in the Kabul Museum, show similar headdresses. Pingala's image as a Sassanian nobleman had become accepted, the result of associations centuries old.

Like other men dressed in the style of the Sassanians, the stone statue has shoulder length curling hair and, in typical Sassanian style, the drapes at the side of his kilt suggest a light material, silk or fine linen, falling into multiple folds. Pal (1975) points out that similar tightly folded garment edges also occur in 8th-10th century Kashmir bronzes. He also wears breeches tucked into knee boots, which is the Sassanian fashion. It will be noted that the same boots, with similar spur straps, appear on the Kashmir brass statue of Surya in the Cleveland Museum. His facial features, with piercing eyes and a long, rather pointed nose, are very distinctive. They are quite unlike other stone images from northwest India but they are similar to Kashmir bronzes of the 6th century onwards.

It is an accepted device to show gods with diminutive attendants but, with the exception of Ganesha's ganas, they usually have normal body proportions. In Kashmir, however, even kings might be depicted as dwarves, as the statue of the Buddha with the donor king Nandi Vikramaditya (Pal, ibid), shows. This indicates a local style and it is possible that this statue hails from Kashmir or an adjoining part of Punjab. The figure is sculpted on its own base but, from the angle in which he stands, he appears to be looking up towards the larger image of Surya."

(Different writers vary the spelling of "Sasanian" and "Sassanian". In giving bibliographical information, the spelling used by each author has been maintained. In the text, the spelling "Sassanian" has been used throughout.


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