The lotus position

Natasha Shahid mingles in quiet awe with kings, ascetics and miracle workers at the Lahore Museum

The lotus position
After two very special experiences of going “behind the scenes” at the Lahore Museum, I decided to go look at the artefacts like a regular observer – sans the exclusive treatment, for which I am very grateful to the museum’s authorities.

Strolling inside the museum is an experience in itself: it isn’t just a case of walking through history – it is walking through history once you have been thoroughly scanned. One of the queerest, albeit understandable, prerequisites for entering the Lahore Museum is that you must hand your mobile phone over to Security. “You can collect it when you’re about to leave,” they will tell you. You mean if it’s still there, is the thought bound to strike you if you are even remotely paranoid about your belongings (haven’t we all had our slippers stolen from the entrance of a mosque?).

Luckily, my friend and I managed to take our cameras inside after persuading the senior security officer that we were there to take pictures for publication and had the director’s permission. Thankfully, he wasn’t as hard to convince as his peers usually are.

The Miracle of Sravasti
The Miracle of Sravasti

Most people will glance at each painting and exclaim expertly - "O ai te Changaiz Khan hega" - before moving on

An awe-struck walk through the galleries

Most of us are aware – and willing to accept – our status as commoners. We might never be anything close to royalty, but a walk through the high-ceilinged corridors of the Lahore Museum can mislead one into thinking otherwise. It is like walking through an ancient court. The interior of this home of antiquities is so exquisite it feels regal.

The main gallery, which falls first after the entrance, showcases some of the most iconic miniature paintings produced by artists of the Indo-Pak Subcontinent. If you really want to examine each of them with the respect and detail they warrant, be prepared to spend the entire day at the museum. That said, most people are content to glance at each painting and summarily express an expert opinion – “O ai te Changaiz Khan hega” (“Oh, this is Genghis Khan”) – before moving on. So did we.

Towards the end of the main corridor are another two corridors that run perpendicular to it. One of them houses the museum’s Gandhara Gallery. Loitering in the galleries – the last of which has a stairwell that leads upstairs – and looking for a way out for the third time, I chanced upon this, standing erect in the Gandhara Gallery:

Accompanied by this:

Most readers will know that the ancient Gandhara civilization flourished in what is modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They will also know that the civilization was the intellectual home of Buddhism for much of its life. Gandharan sites have, therefore, yielded numerous statues of Lord Buddha. I looked at this one, marvelling.

Gandhara Gallery
Gandhara Gallery

As the accompanying plaque says, the structure is chiselled out of schist stone. But the plaque also tells a story: a group of ascetics who lived in the forest of Sravasti were sceptical of the Buddha’s teachings and powers and would scoff at him. One day, the king of Sravasti, Paranjit or Parshajita, invited both the ascetics and the Buddha to his court in an attempt to settle the controversy.

On the day of the meeting, the king and the ascetics sat waiting in a massive hall for the Buddha’s arrival. Soon, a dense grey cloud descended upon the group, below which stood the Buddha. The account goes on to say that the Buddha subsequently caused the hall’s dome to fly off and carved a path to the heavens with his sight. Raising his body into the air, he drifted along this path with flames shooting out of his shoulders and a stream of water flowing from his body. Finally, out of a pond materialized a large lotus with golden petals, atop which he sat. The sculpture is a representation of this miracle, which earned Buddhism many converts.

The dharamachakra mudra and the single-lotus position

In Buddhist iconography, detail matters greatly. From his gestures to his hair to his sitting position, each element of the Buddha depicted in a sculpture makes a difference. In this case, the central figure is encircled by snakes and other animals as well as by 67 human figures. He makes the dharamachakra mudra (hand gesture), which is usually believed to represent the wheel of teaching, and sits in the single-lotus asana (position), one foot placed above the other. The dharamachakra mudra is also believed to indicate the time the Buddha delivered his first sermon in Deer Park, Sarnath, after gaining Enlightenment. This is why deer, too, are deemed holy by Buddhists.

The lotus flower, similarly, holds enormous symbolic and religious significance in Buddhism, hence its repeated use in Buddhist art. This particular sculpture reflects the importance that Buddhists accord the lotus flower, given that it shows the Buddha sitting on top of a lotus in the single-lotus position. One of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, the lotus flower signifies the progress of human life, following the path laid down by the Buddha’s teachings: from its murky origins, symbolised by the lotus’s muddy roots, to its attainment of purity, signified by the white flower that rests on top of the water. It is also deemed to represent a person of pure nature who, despite being born in unholy circumstances, does not adopt the evil that enshrouds him – much like the Buddha represented in the sculpture I saw that day.

Looks like a lot of people in our country could do with a bit of Buddhist inspiration.