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  • Guoying Stacy Zhang

From kinnara to kalavinka: on the autonomy of image in Buddhist transmission from India to China

What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
--- Shakespeare


In the study of Buddhist art, it is common practice to ‘read’ an image in relation to text. However, such a method is based on assumptions that, throughout the development of Buddhism, image was either synchronised with, or subordinate to, text. While compilation and translation of texts played an irreplaceable role in the transmission of Buddhism, beliefs and concepts were also circulated orally and through the mobility of objects along the bustling Silk Road. Moreover, artisans had their own creative process. In this light, this paper elucidates the parallel and occasionally overlapping trajectories of text and image with the example of kalavinka (Ch.迦陵頻迦, Skt, kalaviṅka) iconography in Chinese Buddhist art. Kalavinka refers to a hybrid creature with human head, torso, arms and bird wings, legs, with a billowing tail. Its origin has been understood through Chinese Buddhist commentaries as a melodious mythical bird from the Himalayas. However, this approach does not resolve the questions why there is no textual descriptions of its form and why there is no kalavinka iconography in the literature of Indian art. Therefore, this paper first reveals how the name kalavinka resulted from confusions in the translation of sūtras. Then, we focus on the image itself and trace it back to the Indian kinnara with consideration of pictorial programmes of devotional art. We discover that, regardless of changing beliefs and textual traditions, kalavinka image not only preserved the form of kinnara prototype, but also retained much of its meanings after a millennium. This paper further illuminates how kalavinka iconography was formed in China through such pictorial and textual elaborations. As a result, kalavinka images were used to highlight the musicality and other-worldliness of Pure Land depictions, to evince worship of the central deity, and they were also associated with visualisation and recitation rituals. Our approach not only emphasises the autonomy of image, but also argues for a more nuanced relationship between image and text in the dynamic and unsystematic transmission of Buddhism.

The article was first presented at "Images and Codes: The Problem of Reading Art" Graduate Student Symposium in East Asian Art at University of Princeton on 27 February 2016.

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