Pakistan-Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara Kushan dynasty, late 2nd—early 3rd century
Ancient Gandhara was a cosmopolitan crossroads with ties to India, western Asia, and the Hellenistic world. During the Kushan dynasty (mid-first to third century CE), Gandharan artists synthesized elements from these cultural regions to create an image of the Buddha that combined Greco-Roman ideals of beauty with Indian Buddhist concepts and iconography.
These panels, which adorned a monumental stupa (reliquary), depict the four great life events of the Buddha. Artists presented the climactic moment in each event, focusing every composition on a large image of the Buddha or his mother. Devotees viewed the scenes as they walked clockwise around the mound with their right shoulders toward the enshrined relics.
Panels From Right to Left
1 The Birth of the Buddha
The Hindu god Indra, here proffering a swaddling cloth, attends the Buddha's miraculous birth from his mother's side. Queen Maya, who has the garments and hair style of a Roman matron, stands in an Indian posture associated with female nature spirits who grasp tree branches to make them bloom.
2 The Enlightenment
After meditating for forty days beneath a pipal tree, the Buddha approached the moment of omniscience. Evil demons, including two toppled soldiers beneath the Buddha's seat, have failed to distract him. Calmly lowering his right hand, the Buddha touches the earth goddess to witness his attainment of enlightenment. (In Buddhist sculpture, the earth-touching gesture [bhumisparsha mudra] always signals the moment of enlightenment.) He is also depicted with the characteristic forehead mole (urna) and cranial bump (ushnisha) that symbolize his immense spiritual capacity.
3 The First Sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath
Surrounded by ascetics and deities, the Buddha raises one hand in the gesture of reassurance as he offers his first teaching. The wheel and animals on his throne represent, respectively, his teachings and the sermon's location in a deer park. His fine, symmetrical features, wavy topknot, and naturalistically draped monk's robe were adopted from the vocabulary of Greco-Roman art.
According to Buddhist traditions, the Buddha, at the age of eighty, lay down between two shala trees and abandoned his physical body to enter the blissful state of nirvana. Only the first shala tree is visible here; the second was depicted on the now-missing right section. By depicting the Buddha lying on his side, artists clearly distinguished his liberation from the cycle of rebirth from an image of ordinary death.