200 BC - 1800

Buddhism and Its Artistic Expression

Indian Museum, Kolkata

The Indian Museum, Kolkata organised an exquisite exhibition titled Indian Buddhist Art, showcasing masterpieces of Buddhist Art from different parts of Indian sub-continent.   The exhibition travelled to Shanghai Museum, China, Tokyo National Museum, Japan,   Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore and National Museum, New Delhi.  After its great success, the exhibition returned to Indian Museum, Kolkata. In the Indian Museum, Kolkata the exhibition was inaugurated on 2nd February 2016 and continued till 31st May, 2016. Buddhism originated in the Indian sub-continent and flourished to neighbouring regions of South and South-East Asia.  The exhibition comprises 91 objects from Indian sub-continent which displays a visual expression of stories associated with the life of the Buddha, spread of the religion, Buddhism and development of the art which is known as Buddhist Art.

Introduction
The life of Siddhartha was once emancipated to the stage of enlightenment, the Buddha. Likewise, the development of Buddhism once came to be manifested into its artistic expressions, may be designated as the Buddhist Art. Buddhist Art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama and thereafter evolved by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. It includes art media which depict Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other entities both historical and mythical; narrative scenes from the life and the pre-birth of the Sakyamuni Buddha; mandalas and other graphic aids to practice; as well as physical objects associated with Buddhist practice and Buddhist temple architecture. In this exhibition the specimens both of the mainstream Buddhist Art and its diversified forms are displayed, sometimes crossing over the boundary of India. 

Buddha Head

The head of the Buddha made in stucco is a beautiful specimen of Gandhara art. While the wavy hair with top knot is retained, the upward treatment of eyebrows, half open lotus bud shaped eyes and the feeling of inner peace on face make it relaxed from the typical Gandhara rigidity.

Bodhisattva head

The head of a Bodhisattva is a beautiful example of stucco figures from Gandhara. It shows a perfect combination of physical beauty and spiritual content. The almond shaped eyes, the gently carved eyebrows, straight nose, sensuous lips, the soft outline of the oval face and the hairdo are all suggestive of Gandhara features and reflect the serene, contemplative mood that imbues it with a lifelike quality.

Standing Maitreya

The figure of Maitreya is seen standing on a lotus pedestal. From the position of the broken right hand it appears that originally it was in abhaya mudra. The left hand, which hangs down carries a vessel. The figure is characterized by the usual features of Gandhara images such as the mark of urna on the forehead, the moustache, all the ornaments, the heavy folds of the drapery and the scalloped aureole. Noteworthy features are the absence of a pair of sandals on his feet and the absence of a stupa in his coiffure.

Hariti and Panchika

A fragment of intricate carvings the relief shows a nude boy (head broken off) standing with up-stretched arms between Hariti and Panchika. Panchika (head mutilated) is clad in short-drawers and with a cloth thrown loosely over his shoulder, falling in folds to his knees. Hariti, however, is draped, but with a loose garment that shows the outline of a well-formed figure, while her beautifully carved face has an expression of deep melancholy. The garment thrown over her shoulders falls in folds to her knees, but is held up gracefully in her left hand, while in her right she has apparently supported the folds of her husband’s upper garment falling over her left arm which rests on her shoulder. The hair of Hariti is divided in the middle in many folds and twisted in a great coronet round her head; her ears are decorated with many leaf-like ornaments.

Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra

The small but beautiful relief shows the Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra seated on a double-inverted lotus placed on a triratha pedestal. The stele bears two full-blown lotuses on the two corners. Foliage of the bodhi-tree is seen on the top of the aureole. The pedestal shows two lions on either side. In the centre a monk in his right profile is seated before a stool on which a manuscript is placed. This emphasizes the importance attached to manuscripts in the Buddhist practice of worship.

Votive stupa

The small but exquisitely carved stupa consists of three parts, the lower part serving as the square base with projecting niches containing twelve divinities. The drum is carved with lotus petals. The dome, somewhat elongated, bears four well-carved structural shaped niches containing a Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra and three Bodhisattva figures, one of them in a pensive mood. The harmika bears seated Buddha figures in different mudras. Above the harmika is placed the auspicious parasol.

Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra

Seated in vajraparyanka on the pericarb of a lotus placed on a rectangular high pedestal marked with two lions in two corners, the figure of the Buddha in the earth-touching attitude is characterized by a serene facial expression with half-closed eyes, the mark of urna, firm lips and elongated earlobes. The sanghati is shown in the conventional manner of passing through the left shoulder only. At the back, provision has been made of insertion of a halo, which is absent.

Standing Buddha

The Buddha stands on a circular lotus pedestal with his right hand in abhaya mudra and the left hand in varada mudra. He wears an antariya over which the sanghati is diagonally drawn from the chest to the ankles going over the left shoulder and with its end drawn forward, a feature common to the images from this site. The squarish face, the features, the snail-shell curls of hair and the flaming ushnisha reveal the dominant south-east Asian influence. The palms are marked with a square with a chakra (wheel) within, a feature common to all images from Nagapattinam. , Nagapattinam and Kurkihar in Bihar are the only two areas in India, where we come across a flaming ushnisha. We commonly encounter this feature in the Malaya peninsula.

Manjusri

In Buddhist belief the worship of Manjusri, confers wisdom, retentive memory, intelligence and eloquence and mastery over many scriptures. In this terracotta slab Manjusri is seated in maharajalila. By his two hands he holds the stem of an utpala (water lily) carrying a manuscript. A scarf is tied around his waist and the left knee. Paharpur in the present-day Bangladesh is remarkable for its Buddhist monastery of Somapura Mahavihara, which reached the height of its reputation during the rule of Dharmapala, the second ruler of the Pala dynasty. The establishment acquired a great sanctity specially among the Tibetan Buddhists many of whom undertook a pilgrimage to this spot during the period from the ninth century to the twelfth. Dipankara Srijnana Atisa, a famous monk of Bengal, who went there, is known to have stayed for years in this monastery in which is preceptor Ratnakara Santi was a resident.

Avalokitesvara

The beautifully executed figure of Avalokitesvara is characterized by sharp features and half-closed eyes suggestive of spiritualism. Seated on a double-petalled lotus and in lalitasana attitude, his right hand displays the varada mudra while the left holds the stem of possibly a lotus (now lost). An effigy of dhyani Buddha Amitabha is on his matted crest. An impression of a seal is on the left side of the back slab. Usually the seal is an estampage of the Buddhist creed of ‘ye dharma….’

Plaque showing seated Buddha inside temple


The Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra is seen seated in an architectural setting of the Bodhgaya temple. Both, the mudra and the suggestive location have a semiotic connotation, Bodhgaya being the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Inscribed below the stupas under his seat is the Buddhist creed of “ye dharma….” Such portable votive images were either donated at the pilgrimage site or carried by pilgrims as reminders of their visit, a practice in vogue even today at most pilgrimage centres.

Plaque showing seated Buddha inside temple and Lakshachaitya


Like the previous plaque this plaque too represents a votive donation. Here, too, the Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra is enshrined in the Bodhgaya temple. The merit gained by donating Laksha-chaitya, i.e. a lakh of stupas is symbolically represented by the multiple stupas surrounding the temple. This theme has been a popular subject in Nepali pata paintings. The Buddhist creed is inscribed at the bottom.

Plaque showing seated Buddha inside temple


The inscribed plaque represents the Buddha in earth-touching attitude on a lotus placed over a rectangular pedestal with two pillars supporting the temple tower. Several miniature stupas are seen around it. The appearance of some pipal leaves on both sides of the temple tower is suggestive of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodhgaya. As stated above, this plaque also served the purpose of attaining merit by donating laksha-chaitya.

Sutras
Buddhist teachings were originally passed down orally, but gradually they began being recorded through written characters. In India at a time when there was no paper, sutras were written down on materials such as tree bark and palm leaves, then bound and stored. Even when paper started being used, this format continued. Three sutras were introduced and identified to establish the early stages of Mahayana Buddhism and were used in recitations for a long time after which finally led to the advent of Esoteric Buddhism. The sutras include vividly colored illustrations. The oldest extant example of miniature painting in a Buddhist manuscript dates back to the 10th century, and its exquisite detail eloquently shows how painting techniques in ancient India were of an extremely high standard. 

Seven illustrations from a manuscript of Pancharaksha

Five protector deities of Vajrayana Buddhism, Mahapratisara, Mahasahasraparmardini, Mahamantranusarani, Mahasitavati and Mahamayuri are collectively referred to as Pancharaksha goddesses. They are worshipped either singly or collectively as a mandala to grant longevity and prosperity. Hence, every house, especially in Nepal, has a recitation of this charm. When as a mandala, the central deity is Mahapratisara.

Amitabha

Amitabha, identified by his red colour and his vehicle the peacock, is seated in padmasana on his vehicle who is depicted with wings spread and tail-plume providing a backdrop behind the yellow prabhavali.

Akshobhya

Akshobhya, identifiable by his blue body colour, the pot supported in his left palm and his vehicle elephant, is seated in padmasana.

Mahapratisara

The yellow coloured, eight-armed and three faced female deity depicts Mahapratisara. She is seated in vajraparyankasana. Her three right hands display a vajra, an arrow and a sword while three left hands show an umbrella, an ankusa and a bow.

Amoghasiddhi

Amoghasiddhi, identified by his green colour and his vehicle Garuda (eagle), is seated on padmasana on his vehicle, who is depicted with wings spread and his tail-plume providing a backdrop behind the yellow prabhavali.
He displays abhaya mudra with his right hand and supports a pot on his left palm resting in the lap.

Mahamayuri

The green coloured, six-armed and three faced deity is seated in padmasana on his vehicle, who is depicted with wings spread and his tail-plume providing a backdrop behind the yellow prabhavali. He holds a vajra, a bell, a sword and lotus in her hands while the both the principal hands exhibit the abhaya mudra and left hand placed on lap.

Mahasitavati

The red coloured, twelve-armed and three faced deity depicts Mahasitavati seated in vajraparyankasana on peacock. Her right arms show a vajra, an arrow and a sword while the left hands exhibit the tarjani mudra, an ankusa, a bell, a vajra a bow and an arrow.

Mahamantranusarani

The white complexioned, eight-armed and eight faced deity is seated in vajraparyankasana on lion. She is one of the Buddha-saktis. She holds a vajra, a bow and a sword in her right hands while the left hands display an arrow, a noose and the tarjani mudra placed against her chest.

Six illustrations to a manuscript of Karandavyuha

Karandavyuha is a Mahayana Sutra that was compiled at the end of the 4th century A.D. or beginning of the 5th century A.D. It is notable for its presentation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as the supreme Buddhist Divinity or great cosmic purusha. Here Avalokitesvara is in his creative power as he is said to be the origin of various heavenly bodies and major divinities to rescue the people who are suffering.

Arrrival of Avalokitesvara

The illustration is in sequence to the previous one. It shows the arrival of Avalokitesvara who now stands on the same boiling pot to save the sinners. The two attendants now withdraw and pray to Avalokitesvara. The red-bodied Avalokitesvara stands on a lotus pedestal placed on the pot. His right hand gestures deliverance (varada) while the left holds the stem of the lotus. The blue sky is dotted with Chinese clouds.

Scene on mahanaraka (great hell).

The scene represents a mahanaraka (hell) where sinners were subjected to various tortures and would be saved only after a prayer to Avalokitesvara. This is graphically indicated by the boiling pot in which five figures are seen being pushed into by two demonic figures holding tridents. The scene is laid in a rocky landscape in green and blue skies with white clouds.

Mara’s daughters alluring Siddhartha

The Siddhartha is seated in padmasana on full bloomed lotus pedestal. Mara with his daughters is attempting to distract Siddhartha. He is accompanied by devotees. The Siddhartha wears a princely dress.

Saint discussing discourses

The folio depicts saint seating inside a temple and in the midst of beautiful landscape. He is discussing with a devotee. The temple is in Pagoda style. The blue sky is dotted with Chinese clouds.

First Sermon

The Lord Buddha is seated in padmasana displaying vakhyana mudra. He is accompanied by five monks. It shows the arrival of saints they now stand to save the sinners. The Buddha wears a red pamshukula chivara or the patch-work sanghati prescribed in the Vinaya.

Arrival of a saint in the mahanaraka

The illustration is in sequence to the previous folio no. 25 reverse. This illustration symbolizes the mahanaraka or hell and the arrival of saints to save the sinners. The blue sky is dotted with Chinese clouds.

Ten illustrations from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript


Among the Buddhist texts of transcendental wisdom, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita is perhaps the most important. Legend has it that the scriptures were deposited in the Nagaloka in the southern country by the Buddha himself, from where they were retrieved by Nagarjuna in the 2nd century C.E.. The text lays stress on five wisdom viz. faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

Goddess

The sixteen-armed, yellow coloured goddess is standing in alidha posture. The principal pair of hands is placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the upper pair of hands holds a pasa. The emblems in other hands are parasu, khadga and the tarjani mudra. The figure is very finely defined.

Nairatma

The blue coloured, two-armed deity is in the act of dancing and is terrible in appearance with canine teeth, a garland of heads and three eyes rolling in anger. She is bedecked with her auspicious girdle. She holds a kartri in her right hand and a skull cup on her left palm placed against the chest. The khatvanga as usual hangs from her left shoulder. The background colour adds an unusual appeal.

God

The twenty-four armed black complexioned Buddhist deity is standing in pratyalidha posture. The principal pair of hands is placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other hands show tarjani mudra and holding a sword. His two pair of hands are in white and yellow colour while the right leg is red and the left is white in colour.

God

The ten-armed and yellow coloured Buddhist deity is standing in a dancing posture and is of terrible appearance with canine teeth, a garland of heads and three eyes rolling in anger. The principal pair of hands is placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other hands are shown in tarjani mudra. His hair is tied upward and a skull crown is placed on it.

God

The twelve-armed, white coloured Buddhist deity is standing in pratyalidha posture. He is terrible in appearance with canine teeth, a garland of heads and three eyes rolling in anger. His both hands are placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other hands display bow, vajra, arrow, karttrika and tarjani mudra. The hair is curled and arranged in upward style tied with hair band on the head. He is bedecked with bone girdle.

Goddess

The red coloured, eight-armed goddess is seated in padmasana and the principal pair of hands is placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other hands show bow, arrow, sword and the tarjani mudra. The background colour adds a curious appeal to the illustration.

Goddess

The six-armed, blue-bodied goddess is standing in pratyalidha posture. Her main pair of hands is placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other hands display bow, vajra, arrow and the tarjani mudra. The hair is curled and arranged in upward style tied with a hair band on the head. She has terrible appearance with canine teeth, a garland of heads and three eyes are rolling in anger.

God

The four-armed, Buddhist deity is standing in a dancing posture. He is having a dreadful appearance with canine teeth, a garland of heads and three eyes rolling in anger. His right hands display an arrow and the tarjani mudra while the left hands show the bow and the khattvanga. The hair is curled and arranged in upward style tied with a hair band on the head. He is bedecked with bone girdle.

God

The eight-armed, white coloured Buddhist deity is seated in padmasana. His right hands display arrow and parasu, while the left shows the bow and tarjani mudra. The hair is curled and arranged in upward style tied with three pointed crown on the head. The figure is very finely defined.

God

The six-armed, white coloured Buddhist deity is seated in padmasana. His principal hands are placed against the chest in vajrahumkara mudra while the other right hands display a chakra and a red lotus and the left hands show a sword and a red lotus. The hair is arranged in upward style tied with a hair band on the head. He is bedecked with five pointed crown. The background colour adds an unusual appeal to the illustration brining the deity into distinction.

Maitreya Buddha

The richly bejeweled figure of maitreya Buddha seated in vajraparyankasana on a flat pedestal is holding the vase of nectar (amrita kumbha) with his two hands placed on his lap.

Seated Buddha


Seated on a lotus pedestal in bhumisparsha mudra, the figure of the Buddha shows all the characteristic features of the Buddhist art of Myanmar belonging to Ava period. The lotus pedestal, the crown and the dress are lacquered with golden colour.

Model of a Pagoda

The Pagoda is lacquered with golden colour. The upper part is conical in shape with a few grooves on it. Small image of Lord Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra are placed in three tiers- seven on the upper most tier and ten images each in other two tiers. The lower part is circular and plain with ridges on it.

Large bowl showing the Vessantara Jataka

The bowl is decorated with repousse work depicting three scenes from Vessantara Jataka, which is one of the most popular stories of Theravada Buddhism. As legends tell us, the Bodhisattva, born as prince Vessantara was very much given to charity. Taking advantage of his philanthropic nature, the king of Kalinga, which was suffering from drought, sent some Brahmanas to beg for his favourite elephant, as the elephant was supposed to have the power of bringing rain. The prayer was duly granted and Vessantara made a gift of his elephant. In the first compartment King Sanjoy and his queen are seen seated with new born prince Vessantara and a white magical elephant placed at the back. In the second compartment the prince and princess are seated on horse drawn chariot and in the last they are again found seated on the throne.

Round bowl showing the Vessantara Jataka

Bowl decorated with repousse work depicts the journey of Prince Vessantara with his queen on a chariot, donations of his two sons and that of his favourite elephant who had the power of inducing rain.

Round tray showing the Vessantara Jataka (inscribed)

The round inscribed plate depicts the story of the Vessantara jataka. According to legend, the Bodhisattva, as a prince Vessantara was very much given to charity and the king of Kalinga, who sent some Brahmanas to beg for his favourite elephant who was supposed to have the power to bring rain. The prayer was duly granted and prince Vessantara made a gift of his elephant. The painting has been done in black colour on red lacquered surface.

Inscribed plate showing the Vessantara Jataka

The round inscribed plate briefly tells the same story of the Vessantara jataka. The painting has been done in black colour on red lacquered surface.

Round tray showing the story of pancha Kalyani

The round inscribed plate painted in black colour on gold lacquered surface depicts the story of the Pancha Kalyani. According to legends Lord Buddha visited the king of Kalynia named Maniakkhika. The plate depicts the king as seated on the throne in association with Lord Buddha and his disciple. It is believed that Sri Lanka had been blessed by the Buddha that motivated the Sinhala people to make Sri Lanka a Sinhala- Buddhist country.

Round box depicting the stories from the Buddha’s life

Round box decorated with life scenes of Lord Buddha, floral designs is inscribed. The box is separable in three parts. The stories depicting mainly the birth of the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha riding his horse Kanthaka out of the palace, Mara with his three daughters attempting to distract Siddhartha from his reparation while the latter invites the Earth to witness his attainment of bodhijnana, Buddha seated on a lotus in dharmachakra mudra delivering his sermon in the deer park at Sarnath and the mahaparinirvana. The painting is done in black colour on red lacquered surface.

Buddha

Seated on a lotus placed on a circular plain pedestal the Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra is having a smiling countenance. The most notable feature of the image is seen in his outfit which includes a helmet, earguards, and armour with cross-belt, wrist and arm bands. This figure most probably represents the Buddha as a Nat deity. The cult of the Nats was very popular with the people of Myanmar before the advent of Buddhism in that country. At a later stage the Buddha was admitted as the thirty-seventh Nat in the list of Nat deities.

Indian Museum, Kolkata
Credits: Story

Sponsoring Institution: Indian Museum, Kolkata

Cheif Co-Ordinator: Dr. Jayanta Sengupta

Resource Person: Shri Sadashiva Gorakshar

Exhibition prepared by:
Dr. Anasua Das
Dr. Mita Chakrabarty
Dr. Nita Sengupta
Shri Satyakam Sen
Smt. Shrabanti Sardar


Photographs by: Photography Unit

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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