Kushan coin from 100 BC, the earliest surviving Buddha images

In the earliest Buddhist art of India, the Buddha was not represented in human form. He was represented only by the lotus or the stupa. His presence was indicated instead by a sign, such as a pair of footprints, an empty seat, or an empty space beneath a parasol.

By the first century B.C. images of the Buddha in human form began to appear under the Kushan rulers in present-day Pakistan. An early masterpiece of the Greco Buddhist art of Ghandara, and one of the earliest representations of the Buddha, the Bimaran casket was discovered in a stupa near Jalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Although the casket bears an inscription saying it contained some of the relics of the Buddha; no relics were discovered when the box was opened. [Source: Wikipedia; Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In the first century B.C., India's artists, who had worked in the perishable media of brick, wood, thatch, and bamboo, adopted stone on a very wide scale. Stone railings and gateways, covered with relief sculptures, were added to stupas. Favorite themes were events from the historic life of the Buddha, as well as from his previous lives, which were believed to number 550. The latter tales are called jatakas and often include popular legends adapted to Buddhist teachings. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;

Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Early Buddhist Art

There is no Buddhist art that dates back to period when Buddha was alive nor is there any from and the centuries that followed. The oldest Buddhist art is in the form of symbols — such as the wheel of dharma, stupas and the tree of enlightenment —not human. Objects and images that indicated signs or “traces” of Buddha presence — such as footprints, parasols or empty seats —were the most common.

Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art and architecture are the great stupas of Sanchi Bharhut, and Amaravati. These stupas contained relics of the Buddha and were decorated spectacular stone reliefs. Serving not only as ornamentation, these sculptures aimed to visually convey the Buddha's teachings and people about the dharma. Important episodes from the Buddha's life are depicted such as his defeat of the evil Mara before enlightenment and the rice gruel offered by Sujata before he began his enlightenment meditation. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

The first images of Buddha appeared in the A.D. 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries in Gandara, a region in what is now northern Pakistan, and Mathura, near Agra and Delhi in northern India. Among the oldest know images of Buddha are sandstone seated Buddhas carved in India in the A.D. 1st or 2nd century with a friendly, inviting face. Gandara art includes Persian influences, Greek influences, introduced by Alexander the Great, and West Asian influences.

prayer wheel from Sanchi, 2nd to 1st century BC

A typical Gandara piece consists of a multi-image sculpture with a central image of Buddha surrounded by images from his life. The hair, clothing and posture all show Greco-Roman influences. Youthful Buddhas often had their hair arranged in wavy curls and wore toga-like garments like these found in Roman statues. Around the same time more Indian-like images were created in Mathura which featured bodies expanded by sacred breath and clad in robes that left one shoulder bare. In southern India and Sri Lanka Buddhas with serious faces and heavy build were being created

Buddhas created in the Gupta period in northern India, from the 4th to 6th century, had an “ideal image” and featured a downward glance, spiritual aura, hair arranged in tiny curls, and a sensuous body visible beneath a transparent robe. These became the models for future images created by artists in India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia.

Many of the early works from India have Hindu influences such as multiple arms and heads as well as hand, arm and leg positions that are reminiscent of those found on sculptures of Hindu gods and Indian dancers.

Early Buddha Images

According to the Asia Society Museum: “Until roughly the first century C.E., the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols and was not depicted in human form. It is not known exactly when or where the first image of the Buddha was produced, although it is thought to have been either in the area around Mathura, a city in north central India, or in Gandhara, a region in the Peshawar Valley in present-day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although both areas were ruled at the time by the powerful Kushan empire (ca. late 1st – 3rd century C.E.), they are 1,600 miles apart, and their distinct ethnic and cultural histories explain the contrasting appearance of images produced in each place. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org |~| ]

“Because no one knows what Shakyamuni Buddha looked like, his image was created to convey certain ideas about his life and to indicate his transcendent and supranormal powers. By the fourth century C.E., the hallmarks reflecting these ideals were codified in Indian texts, and they appear, to a certain extent, on all buddha images, regardless of where they were produced.” |~|

Early Buddhist Art from India

Emaciated Buddha from Gandhara

According to the Asia Society Museum: “The Mathuran style developed out of the indigenous Indic sculptural tradition. Mathuran sculptures usually have hefty, minimally articulated bodies clothed in transparent fabric and a direct, robust quality;this is in contrast to the more contemplative and naturalistic images created by Gandharan artists.” [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “A third influential Buddha type evolved in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, where images of substantial proportions, with serious, unsmiling faces, were clad in robes that created a heavy swag at the hem and revealed the left shoulder. These southern sites provided artistic inspiration for the Buddhist land of Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, and Sri Lankan monks regularly visited the area. A number of statues in this style have been found as well throughout Southeast Asia. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Early Buddhist Art from Gandhara

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In the first century A.D., the human image of one Buddha came to dominate the artistic scene, and one of the first sites at which this occurred was along India's northwestern frontier. In the area known as Gandhara, artistic elements from the Hellenistic world combined with the symbolism needed to express Indian Buddhism to create a unique style. Youthful Buddhas with hair arranged in wavy curls resemble Roman statues of Apollo; the monastic robe covering both shoulders if arranged in heavy classical folds, reminiscent of a Roman toga. There are also many representations of Siddhartha as a princely bejeweled figure prior to his renunciation of palace life. Buddhism evolved the concept of a Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, depicted in art both as a Buddha clad in a monastic robe and as a princely bodhisattva before enlightenment. Gandharan artists made use of both stone and stucco to produce such images, which were placed in nichelike shrines around the stupa of a monastery. Contemporaneously, the Kushan-period artists in Mathura, India, produced a different image of the Buddha. His body was expanded by sacred breath (prana), and his clinging monastic robe was draped to leave the right shoulder bare. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Gandharan artists created contemplative and naturalistic images with Greco-Roman influences. According to the Asia Society Museum: “ The standing Buddha in the Gandharan style has half-closed eyes and a muscular body discernible under the folds of drapery. The Gandharan tradition melded a variety of artistic sources but was dominated by Greco-Roman artistic elements, as demonstrated by the toga-like robe, bent-leg stance, and wavy hair of this figure. As can be seen in a head of the Buddha from Gandhara, identifying marks include a bump on the top of the head, signifying his advanced spiritual knowledge; elongated earlobes and shortly cropped hair, the result of Siddhartha removing his earrings and cutting off his long hair when he renounced palace life; and a dot representing a tuft of hair between the eyebrows. Many buddhas also have wheels symbolizing the Buddhist doctrine (dharma) on the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. Buddhas are attired as monks and usually do not wear any jewelry, although by the eighth century some are depicted crowned and jeweled. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org ]

Gupta Period of Buddhist Art in India

5th century Gupta Buddha

The Gupta period, from the fourth to the sixth century A.D., in northern India, is sometimes referred to as a Golden Age, witnessed the creation of an "ideal image" of the Buddha. This was achieved by combining selected traits from the Gandharan region with the sensuous form created by Mathura artists. Gupta Buddhas have their hair arranged in tiny individual curls, and the robes have a network of strings to suggest drapery folds (as at Mathura) or are transparent sheaths (as at Sarnath). With their downward glance and spiritual aura, Gupta Buddhas became the model for future generations of artists, whether in post-Gupta and Pala India or in Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia. Gupta metal images of the Buddha were also take by pilgrims along the Silk Road to China. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Over the following centuries there emerged a new form of Buddhism, which involved an expanding pantheon and more elaborate rituals. This later Buddhism introduced the concept of heavenly bodhisattvas as well as goddesses, of whom the most popular was Tara. In Nepal and Tibet, where exquisite metal images and paintings were produced, an entire set of new divinities were created and portrayed in both sculpture and painted scrolls. Ferocious deities were introduced in the role of protectors of Buddhism and its believers. Images of a more esoteric nature, depicting god and goddess in embrace, were produced to demonstrate the metaphysical concept that salvation resulted from the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male). Buddhism had traveled a long way from its simple beginnings.

Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves (100 kilometers northeast of Ellora, 104 kilometers from Aurangabad and 52 kilometers from Jalgaon Railway Station) is a monastic site housing the richest collection of early Indian painting in a set of 30 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world. The first phase of construction was in thr first century B.C. to the A.D. 2nd century; the second phase was produced in the A.D. the fifth and sixth centuries.

Ajanta Caves

According to UNESCO: “The first Buddhist cave monuments at Ajanta date from the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. During the Gupta period (5th and 6th centuries A.D.), many more richly decorated caves were added to the original group. The paintings and sculptures of Ajanta, considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, have had a considerable artistic influence. The style of Ajanta has exerted a considerable influence in India and elsewhere, extending, in particular, to Java. With its two groups of monuments corresponding to two important moments in Indian history, the Ajanta cave ensemble bears exceptional testimony to the evolution of Indian art, as well as to the determining role of the Buddhist community, intellectual and religious foyers, schools and reception centres in the India of the Gupta and their immediate successors.” [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The caves were formed through the erosive action of nearby rivers and enlarged with chisels and hammers by Buddhist monks into residences, temples and schools. Each cave is adorned with statuary. Many contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha’s life and major Buddhist events. The paintings are mostly frescoes made on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The caves are also home to India’s largest Buddha statue. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the caves every year. Some of the caves are open to visitors. Most are closed to help in their preservation.

The caves were rediscovered in 1819 by British soldiers hunting tigers in the area. Most people reach it from Aurangabad, a provincial city east of Mumbai. Its lies in an area of cotton fields, soil black and cattle with tinkling bells and horns painted in bright blues and reds, The caves are located in a gorge above the Waghora River.

Mogao Caves

Mogao Caves (28 kilometers south of Dunhuang in northwest China) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff in the eastern foothills of the Mingsha Mountains (Singing Sand Mountains) and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2,000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha and Bodhisattva statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels), religious scenes and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (618-906) (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Mogao was designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 1987. According to UNESCO: “Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.”

Mural of Avolokitesvara
at Mogao Caves
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West.

The Chinese call them Mogaoku, or "peerless caves." But no name can fully capture their beauty or immensity. Of the almost 800 caves chiseled into the cliff face, 492 are decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly half a million square feet of wall space, some 40 times the expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The cave interiors are also adorned with more than 2,000 sculptures, some of them among the finest of their era. Until just over a century ago, when a succession of treasure hunters arrived across the desert, one long-hidden chamber contained tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.

"The caves are a time capsule of the Silk Road," says Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees research, conservation, and tourism at the site. A sprightly 71-year-old archaeologist, Fan has worked at the grottoes for 47 years, ever since she arrived in 1963 as a fresh graduate of Peking University. Most other Silk Road sites, Fan says, were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West. "The historical significance of Mogao cannot be exaggerated," Fan says. "Because of its geographical location at a transit point on the Silk Road, you can see the mingling of Chinese and foreign elements on nearly every grotto wall." UNESCO World Heritage Site site: : ( UNESCO

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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