Buddha sheltered by Muchalinda, the serpent king is the latest addition to the National Gallery of Australia’s extensive collection of Southeast Asian Buddhist art. The exquisite bronze is the Gallery’s first acquisition of sculpture from Laos, where it was made some time during the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. Renowned as the golden age, this period saw the production of images that manifest a distinct local identity. Buddha sheltered by Muchalinda, the serpent king exemplifies the pinnacle of Lao Buddhist art and prevailing concepts of ideal beauty with its serene expression, well-proportioned facial features, symbolic elements and high-quality craftsmanship.
During the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, the regions of present-day Laos and north-eastern Thailand formed the territories of Lan Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants. The first ruler of Lan Xang, King Fah Ngum the Great (1316–1393, reigned 1353–72), a Lao prince who had been exiled and raised in Cambodia’s Angkor court, is credited with unification of Lan Xang and the introduction of Theravada Buddhism. Immediately after his ascension, Fah Ngum invited Khmer Buddhist monks and artists to attend his court. From that time, Cambodian Pra Bang sculptures showing the standing Buddha in the favour-bestowing posture (vara mudra) became a source of inspiration for Lao sculptors. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, Lao Buddhist art had blossomed into a distinctive style, with diverse iconography influenced by neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand.
Seated in a posture of meditation (dhyana mudra), the historical Budhha Shakyamuni is shown with eyes cast downward and the suggestion of a smile that alludes to his understanding of the truth about life. His compassionate expression also invites worshippers to have faith in his teachings. This serene countenance is further emphasised by the slender nose and high arch of his brows, both of which reveal the strong influence of Sukhothai images made in Thailand during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.
Other symbols of the Buddha’s great wisdom and spiritual advancement are the ushnisha, a slight protuberance at the crown of the head, and his elongated earlobes. The ushnisha is one of the Buddha’s 32 lakshanas, the marks of a great man that appeared as a result of meritorious acts in the Buddha’s previous lives. In this sculpture, it is covered in tight curls of hair and culminates in a flame-shaped radiance encompassed by four open lotus petals. The elongated ears also allude to the Buddha’s former life as an Indian prince, his lobes having been stretched by elaborate and heavy jewellery.
Narratives from the life of the Buddha pervade the art of Southeast Asia, where they serve to reinforce the eternal truths of Buddhism and assist believers in understanding the faith’s more complex concepts. Images of Shakyamuni taking shelter beneath the multiple heads of Muchalinda, the serpent or naga king, are especially prominent. In the Gallery’s sculpture, Shakyamuni is shown seated in the half-lotus position upon the coils of Muchalinda. A canopy of seven fierce serpents with fanned out hoods rises up behind the Buddha from an eighth head at the rear of the sculpture. A slight variation from the iconography of Thai and Cambodian sculptures depicting the same subject, the eighth head suggests a distinctly Lao treatment of the theme.
While Muchalinda is present in a number of accounts of the Buddha’s life this sculpture appears to correspond with an episode following Shakyamuni’s attainment of nirvana. Residing in the bliss of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha was threatened by a violent storm. Stirring from his abode at the base of the tree, Muchalinda coiled himself around Shakyamuni for seven days to shield him from the raging elements. Thereafter, Muchalinda was considered the Buddha’s protector and was designated by the Enlightened One as the guardian of mantras and sacred texts.
Buddha sheltered by Muchalinda, the serpent king is now on display in the Southeast Asian gallery. It joins other important Buddhist images from Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.
Niki van den Heuvel
Assistant Curator, Asian Art