India, Bihar or Bangladesh, Pala, 10th century
height 29.5 cm
This tenth-century bronze is a truly exquisite example of the early representation of Vajrasattva in Pala art. With his well-established iconography, Vajrasattva is an easy figure to recognize. He is always seated, either in the lotus position or padmasana, or, as in this case, with the right foot on top of the left thigh in the position called paryankasana (or virasana). Held before his chest in his right hand is a thunderbolt or vajra. In his left hand, which rests on his left thigh, is a hand bell or ghanta. Between his eyes is a tuft of hair, the urna. He wears a four-leaved crown (the fourth leaf surmounts the central leaf) with miniature representations of four of the five celestial Dhyani Buddhas on each leaf, Vajrasattva himself being the fifth. The crown’s central leaf is always occupied by Buddha Akshobhya, who presides over the East.
The symbolic and philosophical meaning of Vajrasattva is less firmly established, however, which is probably due to the developments in Tantric Buddhism that occurred between the tenth and twelfth centuries. ‘Vajrasattva’ means ‘whose essence (sattva) is the thunderbolt (vajra)’. The vajra stands for ‘the Absolute’, and the ghanta for Samsara, the transient perishable world. The vajra also represents emptiness (shunyata) and the bell knowledge (prajna).
The adornments and physical traits of this figure can give us pointers in identifying the date and place of its creation. Between the eighth and twelfth centuries the Pala dynasty ruled what is now Bangladesh and the Indian states of Bengal, Bihar and northern Orissa. Within this area, various regional sub-schools developed in places such as Kasipur, Mainamati, Kurkihar, Bogra, Sisapur, Somapur, Nalanda, and Bodh Gaya, each with a typical style linked to a monastery, religious centre or workshop. Nearly all of them have clear post-Gupta characteristics. The necklace and upper armlets with their single-ﬂower motifs, the beaded belt buckle and the simple bracelets and anklets give this sculpture much in common with two ninth- or tenth-century bronzes found in the Bhoja Vihara, a monastic site in Mainamati, Bangladesh. Most of these elements, as well as the ringlets of hair on the shoulders, also appear in a ninth-century Avalokiteshvara from Nalanda in modern-day Bihar. Stylistically the lions supporting the throne of that Avalokiteshvara have a similar charm to our Vajrasattva’s elephants, while the petals of the double lotus and the draped cloth over the throne are quite close. The leaved crown, the diadem with ﬂowery terminals, and especially the remarkably large spiralling earrings have much in common with some earlier eighth- or ninth-century sculptures from Bihar that still exhibit references to the Gupta style.
The physical attractiveness of this beautiful bronze, with its subtle natural bend at the waist and its welcoming and pleasing facial expression, suggests origins in the Bihar region. Moreover, the colour and patina indicate the presence of a reasonable percentage of zinc in the alloy, which would generally fit with Pala-period bronzes from that area.
The artistic eminence and technically superior casting of this Vajrasattva have resulted in an exceptionally fine example of excellence in Pala sculpture.
1 V. Lefèvre and M. Fr. Boussac, Art of the Ganges delta, Masterpieces from Bangladeshi museums, Paris, 2007, figs. 53 and 54.
2 S. L. Huntington, The “Pala-Sena” schools of Sculpture, Leiden, 1984, fig. 165.
3 P. Pal, Asian Art at the Norton Simon Museum, Vol. 1, Art from the Indian Subcontinent, 2003, fig, 135; E. C. Bunker and D. Latchford, Khmer Bronzes, New Interpretations of the Past, Chicago 2011, p. 494, Appendix 3, fig. 2.
Spink & Son, London, before 1982.
Collection Mr. J. Nies, Eersel, 1982-2017.
Oxford Authentication, Ref. N118f57, 11.07.2018.
Condition Report, by Neil F. Perry, London, 27.08.2018.
N. K. Bhattasali, Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmanical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum, New Delhi, 1972, Pl. III.
S. L. Huntington, The “Pala-Sena” Schools of Sculpture, Leiden, 1984, fig. 165.
J. C. Harle, The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, Yale University Press, 1986, fig. 156.
V. Lefèvre and M. Fr. Boussac, Art of the Ganges delta, Masterpieces from Bangladeshi museums, Paris, 2007, figs. 53 & 54.
Detail: alternate view