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This essay proposes a chronology of sculptural embellishment at the recently excavated Buddhist stūpa at Kanaganahalli in the state of Karnataka in southwestern India. Included is the interpretation of caption inscriptions as later additions, applied during the second century ce in order to alter and update the meaning of older, preexisting imagery from the first century bce. Transforming the meaning of visual images by the addition of new descriptive inscriptions indicates a shift in interests and priorities in the Buddhist community at Kanaganahalli over the span of about 150 years.
The narrative episode from the life of the Buddha Śākyamuni in which his mother presents him as a newborn to the deity of a tree-shrine is featured as a key example of this phenomenon. While the sculpted image depicts the spirit of a tree venerating the infant, the caption inscription identifies the scene as the presentation of Śākyamuni to the deity of his father’s ancestral clan, described in textual sources as performed by men at a structural temple. The shift in meaning of this and other images at Kanaganahalli indicate that Buddhist narrative sources and emphases from predominantly patriarchal northern regions rose to greater prominence in the south during the second century ce. The new identities of older imagery diminish the role of vernacular women’s rites, which were important in the southern regions of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where the social structure of local populations was matriarchal.