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8. Emaciated Buddha Sakyamuni
Thailand, Rattanakosin kingdom, King Rama V (1868—1910)
Bronze
height 99 cm
Emaciated Buddha Sakyamuni

The concept behind this nineteenth-century Thai figure of the emaciated Buddha appears to be founded on the few surviving Gandharan examples, more particularly the famous second- or third-century Kushandynasty ‘Fasting Buddha’ now in the Lahore Museum in Pakistan.

In order to be fully prepared for enlightenment, Siddharta Gautama – the young prince destined to become the Buddha – determined to test the limits of the human body by experiencing extremes of fasting and meditation. He ate only a single sesame seed a day, eventually becoming so emaciated that he could feel his backbone through his belly and was little more than a living skeleton. This severe ascetism finally led him to understand that a moderate ‘middle way’ would prove a better path to his high goal. King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, also known as Rama V (1868-1910), was especially fascinated by this austere representation of the Buddha and commissioned several such images. After 1600 years the emaciated Buddha was once more familiar in Thailand.

Our extraordinary fasting Buddha sits in vajrasana, the meditation posture, with his hands resting in his lap. The parallel folds in the drapery of his garment not only echo the emaciated state of his body but also call to mind those ancient Gandharan images. There are other interesting analogies with the Lahore Museum piece too. A recent anatomical analysis of that ancient sculpture revealed that the Gandharan craftsmen who made it ‘possessed knowledge of the approximate size and position of the bones, joints and muscles, including their approximate origin and insertion points.’[1] But they were at sea as regards certain details such as the number of ribs, giving Siddharta seventeen (ten true ribs articulating with the sternum and seven false ribs) rather than the twelve (seven true ribs and five false and floating) he would actually have had. (Leonardo da Vinci would make the same mistake 1200 years later!)

Our Buddha seems to follow the old model in all but a few respects: he does not have a beard; he sits on a throne of flowers instead of a seat of kusha grass; and his hair is arranged in small curls rather than the classical Gandharan hairdo. Other anatomical details are stunning. Veins and tendons stand out all over the torso; there are also a couple of veins on the forehead, ending at the urna. There are raised veins on the Gandharan figure too: strictly speaking, they would not be nearly so conspicuous in reality since in that near-death state blood pressure is very low. Beneath the shrunken abdominal wall the vertebral column is visible, as described in the Buddhist texts – more so here than on the sculpture in Lahore. Our appreciation of the quality of the Thai sculptor is reinforced by the realistic rendering of the gaunt face and the expression of deep concentration in the half-closed eyes of an individual on the point of starvation.

Our Buddha seems to follow the old model in all but a few respects: he does not have a beard; he sits on a throne of flowers instead of a seat of kusha grass; and his hair is arranged in small curls rather than the classical Gandharan hairdo. Other anatomical details are stunning. Veins and tendons stand out all over the torso; there are also a couple of veins on the forehead, ending at the urna. There are raised veins on the Gandharan figure too: strictly speaking, they would not be nearly so conspicuous in reality since in that near-death state blood pressure is very low. Beneath the shrunken abdominal wall the vertebral column is visible, as described in the Buddhist texts – more so here than on the sculpture in Lahore. Our appreciation of the quality of the Thai sculptor is reinforced by the realistic rendering of the gaunt face and the expression of deep concentration in the half-closed eyes of an individual on the point of starvation.

Provenance:
Private collection, Rhineland, Germany, 1960s-2018.

Literature:
The Crucible of Compassion and Wisdom, Buddhist Bronzes from the Nitta Group Collection at the National Palace Museum, Taipei (Taiwan), 1987, Pl. 53.
Online collection of The Brooklyn Museum, USA.
E. Bruijn, Collection Wereldmuseum, Vol. II, Tibet-China & Japan, Rotterdam, Rotterdam-Brussel, 2011, pp. 90-97

1 “Human Anatomy in ancient Indian sculptures of Gandhara art illustrating the fasting Buddha”. Sreenivasulu Reddy Mogali (Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Namyang Technical University, Singapore) and Peter Abrahams (Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, UK)

Price On Request

Detail: close up view
all text, images © Marcel Nies
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