| Exhibitions | Galleries


Previous Image | Asia Week New York | Next Image

John Eskenazi Ltd.

Buddha with two attendants
Pala, Eastern India
11th c.
Polished black stone

Buddha with two attendants

The final flourishing of Buddhist art in India took place in the subsequent mediaeval period in the Pala Empire, as by then the advance of Islam which finally overran Bihar and Bengal in the 13th century, had commenced. By the time this elegant black stone Buddha stele was sculpted, the Buddha image had spread north into Tibet, China and Japan and south to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The combination of a powerful aesthetic and the academic schools of Buddhism brought about a subsequent reconsideration of the image in some of those Buddhist regions, for instance in Burma and in Lan Na, northern Thailand. The Pala image is the final essentially simple Indian form. This example is also one of the last of the Indian styles to evolve from the Sarnath image, as another form, the regal crowned Buddha, by now also existed thanks to the teaching of the monasteries at Nalanda and Kurkihar. The first thing which strikes the viewer about this Buddha stele is, highly polished black stone from which it was sculpted. This is sometimes called "Phyllite" or"Rajmahal Schist" and is found in Bihar. Its fine texture made it ideal for polishing and, unlike the sandstones of Sarnath and further west, it did not need to be painted, the gloss of its polished surface allowing a play of light which vitalised the image.

When the Gupta empire crumbled in the 6th century, this eastern region of Bihar and Bengal, historically known as Maghada, appears to have remained unified whilst numerous small Rajput principalities sprung up to the west. In the 8th century, the Palas came to power in the region. The second Pala ruler, Dharmapala, became immensely powerful and established an empire by his defeat of the powerful Rajput Pratiharas. Dharmapala consolidated an empire whose wealth lay in a combination of agriculture along the fertile Ganges plain and international trade. Cultured men, with a particular interest in poetry, the Palas seem not to have been great patrons of the visual arts, but nevertheless, they provided an environment where artists could be appreciated. In the 11th century, the Palas were to encounter the ambitious Cholas of south India, who, having defeated them in battle, forced them to offer allegiance in the form of offerings of Ganges water to the Chola royal temples. They appear to have been content to encourage both Hindu and Buddhist practices in the empire, in the knowledge that they both controlled the lands through which the sacred River Ganges flowed and where Buddhism had first been established.

Eastern India was considered the "heartland" of Buddhism since it was here that the historic Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni, spent his life. Born at Lumbini, in the Terai of southern Nepal, he achieved his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and then preached his first sermon at Sarnath. The rest of his long life was spent travelling and preaching in the region, and he finally died at Kushambi. Thereafter the region drew pilgrims from Buddhism's widest boundaries, all intent on travelling in his footsteps in the hope of achieving similar enlightenment. Buddhism has always attracted academic debate as the ancient texts were taught, discussed and reassessed. Around the 6th century the great monasteries of Nalanda and Kurkihar were established and their esoteric teachings attracted visitors who in turn disseminated their ideas in their own homelands. Naturally, as art schools were a well established, and now essential facet of Buddhism elsewhere, the great monasteries in the "heartland" of Buddhism had to be seen to be patrons of the finest, purest Buddhist art, producing images which would inspire and impress. The monasteries attracted artists to fulfill this need; travelling teachers and visiting pilgrims provided plenty of opportunity for their to work to be bought by enthusiastic patrons.

This stele depicts the Buddha attended by two diminutive figures. To his left the crowned figure seen raising his arm is Vajrapani. To his right stands another bodhisattva, possibly Padmapani. The Buddha's now missing right hand was originally held in Varadamudra, the granting of boons and his left hand, partially surviving, holds the hem of his Sanghati, or monk's robe. He stands on a double lotus throne which projects in front of the horizontal line of the base. This suggests that this stele was inspired by freestanding bronze figures placed on separately constructed platforms. The projecting central image would be easy to light with lamps surrounding the lotus base. Behind the Buddha, the semi-circular prabha (back plate) has a raised and ribboned border with an outer edge of flames.

Iconic images of the Buddha from Mathura, 1st century A.D. onwards often depict him seated, flanked by two small standing attendant figures. In early examples these are sometimes identified as the Vedic gods, Indra and Brahma but these become Vajrapani (who corresponds with Indra) and Padmapani. The theme continues at Sarnath, where there are many examples where the two figures flank a standing Buddha. In this stele, Vajrapani is actually turning the thunderbolt in his hand, providing a forceful contrast both to the Buddha and to the other attendant Bodhisattva, whose hands are held in an attitude of prayer.

Stylistically an early 11th century date can be considered appropriate. From the Sarnath period (5th century) onwards, standing Buddhas were depicted with their weight more on the right leg and the left slightly forward; this developed more strongly in the ensuing centuries and may have been influenced by Srivijaya and Dvaravati, two kingdoms of Southeast Asia where the bronze figures of the Buddha have a distinct S-shape. This reached its most extreme form in the 13th-14th century with the so-claled "Walking Buddha" of Sukothai. Sarnath Buddhas hold their left hand low but, from the 8th century Pala images begin to show the elbow bent with the hand close to the shoulder, which introduces a natural tension, animating the figure and suggesting the gentle energy of someone caught in discourse. The Buddha of the 11th century seems far more approachable than his 5th century inspiration.

The Sarnath Buddhas have a somewhat flat torso, maintaining the Mathura tradition from which they developed. However, in Bihar from the 10th century onwards the so-called Gomukha torso, which may have originated in this region, was introduced. Both Hindu and Buddhist images display a torso form which resembles the head of a bull, the nipples representing the eyes and the protruding stomach the nose. This is clearly apparent here. Unlike later Mathura and Gandhara images, where the drapery was carved in heavy folds, at Sarnath the robe became plain, muslin like and clinging to the form of the body. In Bihar, the drapery reappears in the 7th century, although in the form of a light garment suitable for a warm climate and which allows the fine body proportions to show. This is what we see here. Hindu gods were understood to be physically beautiful and in a climate where Hindu and Buddhist beliefs existed side by side it was inconceivable that the Buddha should be less handsome than his Brahmanical counterparts. The oval face and snailshell curled hair with slight widow's peak, is in keeping with Sarnath prototypes. The eyes, instead of the rigidly downcast oval, have become a more complicated form with a serpentine upper lid. The implacable expression of earlier images has become more gentle and sensitive. It will be noted that the head is placed at an angle to compliment the curve of the body. Rather than looking outwards, the Buddha is listening to and absorbing the prayers he is offered.

The flame border of the prabha is a device which developed in the Pala period and replaces the crenellated form which survived from the 2nd century. Flames are synonymous with knowledge and they form the outer border, effectively guarding the figure within but at the same time announcing to the viewer that here is a figure who deserves attention. Within the flames the raised arched ridge balances the drapery of the Buddha's robe, the two effectively forming an oval frame around his head. Horizontally the entire stele is divided into three, the Buddha's shoulders marking the top third, the heads of the Bodhisattvas and his swaying hips the lower third. Buddhist belief is summed up as "Buddha, Dharma, Sangha", i.e. the Buddha, the Law and the Community, and the three divisions of the image may be a conscious reminder of this. Vertically, as well, the stele divides into almost equal thirds marked by the three figures. The resultant diagram, nine equal sized rectangles, could be seen as a form of mandala. Whilst the whole effect is harmonious and appealing, it is also significant and ensures the spiritual efficacy of the stele.

The Insription:

Transliteration: ye dharma hetu prabhava he- (*tum tesam tathagato hy avadat tesam ca) yo nirodho evam (vadi mahasramanah)

Translation: Those things which have a cause as their origin, their cause has been stated by the Tathagata; their cessation too the great sramana (aesthetic practitioner) has stated.

*Italicised text would have been inscribed on the missing upper stele


Asher, Frederick M.: The Art of Eastern India 300 - 800, Minneapolis, 1980

Czuma, Stanislaw: Kushan Sculpture, Images of Early India, Cleveland, 1985

Deva, Krishna: Gupta Art at Sarnath and Varanasi, in Khandalavala, Karl (ed.) The Art of the Guptas, Bombay, 1991

Getty, Alice: The Gods of Northern Buddhism, Oxford, 1914, 1928, New York, 1988

Huntington, Susan M: The Pala-Sena Schools of Sculpture, Leiden, 1984

Thapar, Romila: A History of India, Volume I

all text and images © John Eskenazi Ltd.

Previous Image | Asia Week New York | Next Image | Exhibitions | Galleries