| Exhibitions | Galleries


Previous Image | Asia Week New York | Next Image

John Eskenazi Ltd.

Figure in Sassanian dress
North-western India, probably Punjab Hills
Late 6th/early 7th century
47 cm

Figure in Sassanian dress

The enigmatic statue probably dates from the late 6th or early 7th century and comes from the Salt Hills of Punjab. The visible strength of personality, authority and a forbidding character suggests possibly a regional governor of the Sassanian empire, but it is more likely the character portrayed is an Indian god. Possibly a deity from north western India, identified as a king amongst gods, was depicted in Sassanian dress because in that region, this style retained its prestige and represented authority.

The Sassanians came to power in Iran in 226 A.D. The second emperor, Shapur (240-270 A.D.), extended his authority eastwards into India and the previously autonomous Kushans were obliged to accept his suzerainty. Successive Sassanian emperors were either tolerant of other religions or pursued policies of persecution, particularly against Christians, but in India the Kushans were generally tolerant of indigenous beliefs. Thanks to traded goods such as silverware and textiles depicting the Sassanian emperors engaged in hunting or administering justice, their imperial example became well known in Kushan India and, owing to the political relationship, it was wise for Kushan art to be seen to be drawing inspiration from Iran, imitation being one of the best forms of flattery. This adoption of Iranian forms, rather than Indian, also helped the Kushans to maintain their aloofness from their subjects. Although the Kushan empire declined at the end of the 3rd century, leading to the rise to power of an indigenous Indian dynasty, the Guptas, in the 4th century, it is clear that Sassanian influence remained relevant in the north-west.

Images of Zoroastrian gods are rare, the fire altar being the chief symbol of spiritual presence. However, images of the emperors and their officials abound. To the Sassanians, ruling a vast empire, the visual image of the emperor was an important weapon in maintaining authority, the steadfast, heroic image, seen dispensing justice, tending the sacred flame or fearlessly hunting lions, put him on a different level from his subjects. Thus, the epitome of power within Iran became the prototype for smaller neighbouring kingdoms. In India, by the 5th century, Hindu gods were regularly sculpted as the image had become an essential element in worship, replacing sacrifice as the central part of the ritual. In addition, the Hindu gods are believed to be close to their devotees, capable of manifesting at any time. It might be assumed that, at their most powerful, they would do so in the guise of an emperor.

Punjab was effectively sandwiched between two vastly different cultural traditions. If we consider the prevailing theological influence was the Indian religions, artworks such as this indicate that this region looked to Iran, rather than to the Gupta power based in the Ganges Valley, for other cultural inspiration. The visual image of Sassanian authority appears to have been imposed on the iconic requirements of different religious beliefs. This figure is of a mature man. Indian gods are generally youthful in appearance but here we see a character whose authority is based on seniority. He is seated, not on the lion throne of a Kushan emperor but a simple seat, rather like a boulder. His pose is typically Sassanian, frontal with knees and feet turned out. Behind his head is a plain aureole, the style of which is in keeping with this period and region, which reinforces the indications of divine identity. Looking at Sassanian imperial images shown on coins, each emperor wears a distinctive crown, and these become successively more elaborate. The constant element is the korymbos, the bulbous central element which was made of silk and designed to contain the hair. Additionally a diadem was worn, with pointed, sometimes wing-like elements and pleated ribbons falling on either side. In this case the korymbos and diadem closely resemble that worn by Khosrow II (590 - 628 A.D.), whose reign marked a period of great elegance and splendour. His crown can include the crescent moon, but in India this had a different significance, being worn in the hair of Shiva. Shiva is distinguished by his long hair, thickly curled, piled into a chignon with locks falling on to his shoulders, and he is sometimes bearded. Again, these elements associated with the Sassanian emperors could be adopted for an image of Shiva.

all text and images © John Eskenazi Ltd.

Previous Image | Asia Week New York | Next Image | Exhibitions | Galleries