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  • Writer's pictureART HISTORY

Ubiquitous Trees and Serpents: Early Buddhist Imagery of Southern India

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

2022 S.T. Lee Lecture

John Guy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

With a response by Dr Natali Pearson, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, University of Sydney
Stupa drum panel with a serpent honouring the Buddhapada (footprint), Dhulikatta stupa, Karimnagar District, Telangana. Andradesa, 1st century BCE – 1st century CE. Limestone. Courtesy of the Department of Heritage Telangana, Government of Telangana.

Wednesday 15 June, 5.30pm AEST Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney (and on Zoom)

Curator John Guy provides a preview of the major exhibition Tree & Serpent. Buddhist Art in Early India, 200 BCE - 300 CE, to be held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 17 July to 3 December, 2023. This exhibition and publication will celebrate the lesser known Buddhist art of the Deccan - Andhradesa - as witnessed through the decorative programmes that adorned the earliest stupas. From at least the 2nd century BCE, stupas were employed as vehicles for spiritual guidance and popular education through their sculptural programmes. Both the stupa drum and the enclosure railing along with the monumental gateways served as strategic settings for this visual instruction.

These depictions celebrate the Buddha’s teachings through stories of the Buddha's lives, past and present, the Buddha-presence being evoked through both symbolic and figurative imagery. Yet there is another presence, that of trees and snakes - the personifications of nature-spirit deities - that is so pervasive as to become a defining feature of the Buddhist art of the South. Using examples from the recently revealed relief panels at Kanaganahalli, along with numerous other stupa sites located along the Krishna river system - including Phanigiri - John Guy will show how tree and snake imagery was systematically appropriated into the artistic repertoire in the service of the early Buddhism. The textual foundations of these practices, signaled in contemporary inscriptions, show how these images were both reverential and protective.


John Guy is the Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of the Arts of South and Southeast Asia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, an elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London (since 2003), and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 2016). He joined The Met in 2008, having formerly served as Senior Curator of South Asian art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for twenty-four years. He has worked on a number of archaeological excavations including maritime sites, and served as an advisor to UNESCO on historical sites in Southeast Asia.

John has curated and co-curated numerous international art exhibitions, including Chola, Sacred Bronzes of Southern India (Royal Academy, 2006), Temple Sculpture of India: The Art of Devotion (Barcelona, 2007), Shipwrecked. Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (Freer-Sackler D.C., 2010), Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India (Met, 2011), and served as an advisor and contributing author to many more, including Gods of Angkor. Khmer Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia, (Freer-Sackler D.C. 2010), The World of Kubilai Khan. The Art of Mongol China (Met, 2010) and Agents of Faith: Votive Giving in Time and Place (Bard Graduate Center, NY, 2018),

He has published widely, with numerous articles and book chapters to his credit. His major publications include Indian Art and Connoisseurship. Essays in honour of Douglas Barrett (ed., 1995), Woven Cargoes. Indian Textiles in the East (1997), Vietnamese Ceramics. A Separate Tradition, (co-author 1997), Indian Temple Sculpture (2007), Interwoven Globe: Textile Trade 1500-1800 (2013), Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia (2014) and Art & Independence: Y.G. Srimati and the Indian Style (2019). He is presently preparing an international loan exhibition devoted to the early Buddhist art of southern India, to show at The Met from July to December 2023.

Dr Natali Pearson is Curriculum Coordinator at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the University of Sydney, where she is affiliated with the Department of Archaeology. Her research focuses on the protection, management and interpretation of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. She holds a PhD in Museum and Heritage Studies (2019, USYD), a Masters of Museum Studies (2013, USYD), a Masters of Arts in Strategy and Policy (2006, UNSW Canberra) and a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) with First Class Honours in Indonesian and History (2002, UNSW Sydney).

Natali’s first book, Belitung: The Afterlives of a Shipwreck, will be published by University of Hawai‘i Press in 2022. She is President of the Indonesia Council and an Expert Member of the ICOMOS International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management. Natali co-edits Perspectives on the Past at New Mandala and is a regular contributor to the media, including Channel News Asia, The Jakarta Post and The Conversation. Natali has worked at the Asia Society’s galleries in New York and Hong Kong, and as a consultant to the Asia Society Arts & Museum Summit. She is an alumni of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (2000) and the Asialink Leaders Program (2009). Prior to this, she worked in Asia-focused defence and anti-money laundering / counter-terrorism financing roles in the Australian federal government. You can follow her on Twitter: @sea_greeny

For further information, please contact Professor Adrian Vickers,

Please register here to attend
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