Indian Buddhist sculptures – The sculptural art of enlightenment
Buddhist sculptures originated in the north of the Indian subcontinent with the earliest survivals dating from a few centuries after the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama from the 6th to 5th century BCE.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The origin of Buddhist sculptures in India
- 2 - The Greco-Buddhist artistic influences
- 3 - The influence of the Tang dynasty
- 4 - The spread of the Buddhist sculptures
- 5 - Well-known sculptures & places of discovery
- 5.1 - Ajanta Caves
- 5.2 - Bharhut
- 5.3 - Udayagiri – Odisha
- 5.4 - Ratnagiri – Odisha
- 5.5 - Lalitgiri
- 5.6 - Vajrasana – Bodh Gaya
- 5.7 - Bhattiprolu
- 5.8 - Lion Capital of Ashoka
- 5.9 - Amaravati Stupa
- 5.10 - Eluru Buddha Park
- 5.11 - Greco-Buddhist art
- 5.12 - Sanchi Stupa No. 2
- 5.13 - Pitalkhora
- 5.14 - Pillars of Ashoka
- 5.15 - The Eight Great Events in the Life of Buddha
- 5.16 - Sultanganj Buddha
- 5.17 - Standing Buddha from Gandhara – Tokyo
- 5.18 - Seated Buddha from Gandhara
- 5.19 - Saptarishi Tila statue
- 5.20 - Art of Mathura
- 5.21 - Pompeii Lakshmi
- 5.22 - Bala Bodhisattva
- 5.23 - Bhutesvara Yakshis
- 5.24 - Kurkihar hoard
- 5.25 - Kimbell seated Bodhisattva
- 5.26 - Amaravati Marbles
- 5.27 - Kanishka casket
- 5.28 - Jamal Garhi
- 5.29 - Jaggayyapeta
- 5.30 - Ivory carved tusk depicting Buddha life stories
- 5.31 - Hellenistic influence on Indian art
- 5.32 - Buner reliefs
- 5.33 - Brussels Buddha
- 5.34 - Karumadikkuttan
The origin of Buddhist sculptures in India
In India, Buddhist sculptures flourished and co-developed with Hindu and Jain sculptures, with cave temple complexes built together, each likely influencing the other.
Although India had a long sculptural tradition and a mastery of rich iconography, the Buddha was never represented in human form, but only through Buddhist symbolism during the pre-iconic phase (5th–1st century BCE).
The earliest works of Buddhist sculptures in India date back to the 1st century BCE. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya became a model for similar structures in Burma and Indonesia.
The Greco-Buddhist artistic influences
Greco-Buddhist sculptures of the Gandhara district of what is now Pakistan, combining Indian, Greek and Roman influences.
Silk Road Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found as far as Japan to this day, in architectural motifs, Buddhist imagery, and a select few representations of Japanese gods.
The influence of the Tang dynasty
Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly lifelike expression.
Because of the dynasty’s openness to foreign influences, and renewed exchanges with Indian culture due to the numerous travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a rather classical form, inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period.
The spread of the Buddhist sculptures
Korean Buddhist art exhibited the cultural influences of China and India but began to show distinctive indigenous characteristics.
The cultural exchange between India and Japan was not direct, as Japan received Buddhism through Korea, China, Central Asia and eventually India.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Indonesia seems to have been most strongly influenced by India from the 1st century CE.
Well-known sculptures & places of discovery
The Ajanta Caves are 30 (approximately) rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India. The caves include paintings and rock-cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form.
Bharhut is a village located in the Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, central India. It is known for its famous relics from a Buddhist stupa.
Udayagiri – Odisha
Udayagiri (ଉଦୟଗିରି) is the largest Buddhist complex in the Indian state of Odisha. It is composed of major stupas and monasteries (viharas). Together with the nearby complexes of Lalitgiri and Ratnagiri, it is part of Puspagiri University. The heritage sites are also known collectively as the “Diamond Triangle” of the “Ratnagiri-Udayagiri-Lalitgiri” complex. Per epigraphical artifacts found at the site, its historical name was “Madhavapura Mahavihara.” This Buddhist complex, preceded by the Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri sites, with their monasteries, is believed to have been active between the 7th and the 12th centuries.
Ratnagiri – Odisha
Ratnagiri was once the site of a mahavihara, or major Buddhist monastery, in the Brahmani and Birupa river valley in Jajpur district of Odisha, India. It is close to other Buddhist sites in the area, including Pushpagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri.
Lalitagiri is a major Buddhist complex in the Indian state of Odisha comprising major stupas, ‘esoteric’ Buddha images, and monasteries (viharas), one of the oldest sites in the region. Together with the Ratnagiri and Udayagiri sites, Lalitagiri is part of Puspagiri University located on top of hills of the same names. The three complexes are known as the “Diamond Triangle”. Significant finds at this complex include Buddha’s relics. Tantric Buddhism was practiced at this site.
Vajrasana – Bodh Gaya
The Vajrasana, or Enlightenment Throne of the Buddha, is an ancient stone slab located under the Bodhi tree, directly beside the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. The slab is thought to have been placed at Bodhgayā by emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire between 250-233 BCE, at the spot where the Buddha meditated.
Bhattiprolu is a village in Guntur district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It is the headquarters of Bhattiprolu mandal in Tenali revenue division. The Buddhist stupa in the village is one of the centrally protected monuments of national importance. One of the earliest evidence of Brahmi script in South India comes from Bhattiprolu. The script was written on an urn containing Buddha’s relics. The script has been named Bhattiprolu script
Lion Capital of Ashoka
The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950. It was originally placed on the top of the Ashoka pillar by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE during his rule over the Maurya Empire. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India several of which feature single animals at the top; one other damaged group of four lions survives, at Sanchi.
The Amarāvati Stupa, popularly known as the great stūpa at Amarāvathi, is a ruined Buddhist monument, probably built in phases between the third century BCE and about 250 CE, at Amaravathi village, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, India. The site is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. The campus includes the stūpa itself and the Archaeological Museum.
Eluru Buddha Park
Gaja Vallivari Cheruvu is one of the ancient ponds in the history of Helapuri town. During the Chalukyan period elephants used to drink water in this pond. Eluru is the former capital of the Vengi Dynasty. Between 11A.D.
The Greco-Buddhist art or Gandhara art of the north Indian subcontinent is the artistic manifestation of Greco-Buddhism, a cultural syncretism between Ancient Greek art and Buddhism.
Sanchi Stupa No. 2
The Stupa No. 2 at Sanchi, also called Sanchi II, is one of the oldest existing Buddhist stupas in India, and part of the Buddhist complex of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. It is of particular interest since it has the earliest known important displays of decorative reliefs in India, probably anterior to the reliefs at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, or the reliefs of Bharhut. It displays what has been called “the oldest extensive stupa decoration in existence”. Stupa II at Sanchi is therefore considered as the birthplace of Jataka illustrations.
The Pitalkhora Caves, in the Satmala range of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India, are an ancient Buddhist site consisting of 14 rock-cut cave monuments which date back to the third century BCE, making them one of the earliest examples of rock-cut architecture in India. Located about 40 kilometers from Ellora, the site is reached by a steep climb down a flight of concrete stairs, past a waterfall next to the caves.
Pillars of Ashoka
The pillars of Ashoka are a series of monolithic columns dispersed throughout the Indian subcontinent, erected or at least inscribed with edicts by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka during his reign from c. 268 to 232 BCE. Ashoka used the expression Dhaṃma thaṃbhā, i.e. “pillars of the Dharma” to describe his own pillars. These pillars constitute important monuments of the architecture of India, most of them exhibiting the characteristic Mauryan polish. Of the pillars erected by Ashoka, twenty still survive including those with inscriptions of his edicts. Only a few with animal capitals survive of which seven complete specimens are known. Two pillars were relocated by Firuz Shah Tughlaq to Delhi. Several pillars were relocated later by Mughal Empire rulers, the animal capitals being removed. Averaging between 12 and 15 m in height, and weighing up to 50 tons each, the pillars were dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected.
The Eight Great Events in the Life of Buddha
The Eight Great Events (ashtammaha-pratharya) are a set of episodes in the life of Gautama Buddha that by the time of the Pala Empire of North India around the 9th century had become established as the standard group to encapsulate the Buddha’s life and teachings. As such they were frequently represented in Buddhist art, either individually or as a group, and recounted and interpreted in Buddhist discourses.
The Sultanganj Buddha is a Gupta–Pala transitional period sculpture, the largest substantially complete copper Buddha figure known from the time. The statue is dated to between 500 and 700 AD. It is 2.3 m high and 1 m wide and weighs over 500 kg. It was found in the East Indian town of Sultanganj, Bhagalpur district, Bihar in 1861 during the construction of the East Indian Railway. It is now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.
Standing Buddha from Gandhara – Tokyo
The Standing Buddha of the Tokyo National Museum is an example of Greco-Buddhist statuary. Comparable ones can be found in the Guimet Museum in France, and in the National Museum, New Delhi besides various other museums of South Asia. The statue was excavated at Gandhara, Pakistan, and dates to the 1st or 2nd century AD.
Seated Buddha from Gandhara
The Seated Buddha from Gandhara is an early surviving statue of the Buddha discovered at the site of Jamal Garhi in ancient Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, that dates to the 2nd or 3rd century AD during the Kushan Empire. Statues of the “enlightened one” were not made until the 1st century CE. Before that, Buddha were generally represented by aniconic symbols. Like other Gandharan, Greco-Buddhist art, and Kushan art, the statue shows influence from Ancient Greek art depicting Buddhist themes. The artwork is now in room 22 of the British Museum.
Saptarishi Tila statue
The Saptarishi Tila statue, also called the Kambojika statue, is a statue of a woman found in the Saptarishi mound in Mathura. The statue is life-size and is now in the Mathura Museum. The statue was discovered by Bhagawanlal Indraji, at the same time and place as another important artifact, the Mathura lion capital, dated to the beginning of the 1st century CE.
Art of Mathura
The Art of Mathura refers to a particular school of Indian art, almost entirely surviving in the form of sculpture, starting in the 2nd century BCE, which centered on the city of Mathura, in central northern India, during a period in which Buddhism, Jainism together with Hinduism flourished in India. Mathura “was the first artistic center to produce devotional icons for all the three faiths”, and the pre-eminent center of religious artistic expression in India at least until the Gupta period, and was influential throughout the sub-continent.
The Pompeii Lakshmi is an ivory statuette that was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, a Roman city destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 79 CE. It was found by Amedeo Maiuri, an Italian scholar in 1938. The statuette has been dated to the first-century CE. The statuette is thought of as representing an Indian goddess of feminine beauty and fertility. It is possible that the sculpture originally formed the handle of a mirror. The yakshi is evidence of commercial trade between India and Rome in the first century CE.
The Bala Bodhisattva is an ancient Indian statue of a Bodhisattva, found in 1904-1905 by German archaeologist F.O. Oertel (1862-1942) in Sarnath, India. The statue has been decisive in matching the reign of Kanishka with contemporary sculptural style, especially the type of similar sculptures from Mathura, as its bears a dated inscription.
The Bhutesvara Yakshis, also spelled Bhutesar Yakshis, are a series of yakshi reliefs on a railing, dating to the 2nd century CE during the time of the Kushan Empire. The reliefs were found in the Bhutesar mound, around the remains of a Buddhist stupa, outside Mathura, and are now located in the Indian Museum in Kolkata, with three pillars, and three more pillars and one fragment in the Mathura Museum. They are an important example of Mathura art, of which these and other yakshi figures are “perhaps the best known examples”.
The Kurkihar hoard is a set of 226 bronzes, mostly Buddhist, dating to between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, which were found in Kurkihar near Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar. The village of Kurkihar is situated about 5 km. north-east of Wazirganj, and 27 km east from Gaya. The inscriptions found suggest that Kurkihar was once a well known international pilgrimage center.
Kimbell seated Bodhisattva
The Kimbell seated Bodhisattva is a statue of a “bodhisattva” from the art of Mathura, now in the Kimbell Art Museum. The statue is dated to 131 CE, by an inscription recording its dedication in “Year 4 of the Great King Kanishka”, since the date of the beginning of Kanishka’s reign is thought to be 127 CE. The Kimbell seated Bodhisattva belongs to the category of the “Seated Buddha triads”, which can be seen contemporaneously in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara and in the art of Mathura in the early Kushan period.
The Amaravati Collection, sometimes called the Amaravati Marbles, is a series of 120 sculptures and inscriptions in the British Museum from the Amaravathi Mahachaitya in Amaravathi, Guntur in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The Amaravati artefacts entered the Museum’s collection in the 1880s. The Amaravati sculptures have also been called the Elliot Marbles on account of their association in with Sir Walter Elliot in the 1840s.
The Kanishka casket or Kanishka reliquary, is a Buddhist reliquary made in gilded copper, and dated to the first year of the reign of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, in 127 CE. It is now in the Peshawar Museum in the historic city of Peshawar, Pakistan.
Jamal Garhi is a small town located 13 kilometers from Mardan at Katlang-Mardan road in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northern Pakistan. Jamal Garhi was a Buddhist monastery from the first until the fifth century AD at a time when Buddhism flourished in this part of the Indian subcontinent. There is a beautiful monastery and main stupa, surrounded by chapels closely packed together. The site is called ‘The Jamal Garhi Kandarat or Kafiro Kote’ by the locals.
Jaggayyapeta, also spelled “Jaggiahpet”, is a census town in NTR district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, located just southwest of the border with Telangana. It is also the mandal headquarters of Jaggayyapeta mandal of Nandigama revenue division. The town is located on the banks of the Paleru River which is a tributary of the Krishna River.
Ivory carved tusk depicting Buddha life stories
Carved elephant tusk depicting Buddha life stories is an intricately carved complete single tusk now exhibited at the Decorative Arts gallery, National Museum, New Delhi, India. This tusk was donated to the Museum. This tusk, which is nearly five foot long, illustrates forty three events in the life of the Buddha and is thought to have been made by early 20th century craftsmen from the Delhi region.
Hellenistic influence on Indian art
Hellenistic influence on Indian art and architecture reflects the artistic and architectural influence of the Greeks on Indian art following the conquests of Alexander the Great, from the end of the 4th century BCE to the first centuries of the common era. The Greeks in effect maintained a political presence at the doorstep, and sometimes within India, down to the 1st century CE with the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Indo-Greek Kingdoms, with many noticeable influences on the arts of the Maurya Empire especially. Hellenistic influence on Indian art was also felt for several more centuries during the period of Greco-Buddhist art.
Buner reliefs is a term for a number of stone reliefs in or taken from Buner District, in the Peshawar valley in Pakistan, once in ancient Gandhara. They are also near the Swat Valley.
The Brussels Buddha is a famous Buddha statue from the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. It is named after the first collection to which it belonged, the Claude de Marteau collection in Brussels, Belgium, although it is now in a private collection in Japan, belonging to the Agonshū sect of Buddhism. The Brussels Buddha belongs to the category of the “Seated Buddha triads”, which can be seen contemporaneously in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara and in the art of Mathura in the early Kushan period. The precise location where the statue was discovered is unknown, but it was acquired in Peshawar, and it is thought to have been excavated in Sahri Bahlol due to its similarity with a statue from the same location, now in the Peshawar Museum.
Karumadikkuttan is the nickname of a Buddha statue found in Karumady near Alappuzha, Kerala, India. The name literally means boy from Karumady. This 3 feet tall, black granite statue, believed to be old as 9th to 14th century, was abandoned for centuries in a nearby stream named “Karumady thodu”. Later in 1930s, Sir Robert Bristow, a colonial British engineer found the statue, and did appropriate actions to protect it. Currently the statue is under the protection of Kerala state government. Left side of the statue is missing. The statue is a subject of historical debate as the reason for its partial destruction is still elusive.