The Life of Buddha in Indian Art

By Indian Museum, Kolkata

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
back to Indian Museum, Kolkata. In the Indian Museum, Kolkata , the exhibition opened
to the public on 2nd February 2016 and continued till 31st May, 2016.

Buddhism originated in the Indian sub-continent and
flourished to neighbouring regions- South and South-East Asia.

 The objects showcased
in the exhibition illustrates the inspiring life story of the Buddha.

Buddha in meditation (ca. 2nd Century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata


The Buddha, known as Gautama Sakyamuni was regarded as an ideal human being who taught that salvation could be achieved through an individual’s work and actions and by following the eightfold path. After the death of the Master, Buddhism acquired greater popularity. It drew adherents from all sections of society and led to the development of monastic Buddhism. The stages of Buddha’s life has been delineated briefly in the sculptures which are being displayed at this exhibition.

Life scenes of the Buddha (400-500 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

and Early Stage of Buddha's Life

Siddhartha, better known as Gautama, the Buddha, was also called
Sakyasimha, the Lion of the Sakyas’ and Sakyamuni, ‘the Sage of the Sakyas’ as
he was born in the Kshatriya clan of the Sakyas, of which his father Suddhodana
was the chief.  The latter’s capital was
Kapilavastu (variously identified with Piprawah, District Basti and Talaurakot,
District Taulihawa , Nepalese Terai). 
Before his birth, his mother Mahamaya or Maya had a dream in which she
dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb. 
The Brahmins interpreted the dream as the conception of a son destined
to become either a universal monarch or a great enlightened person.  On the eve of her confinement, Mayadevi
proceeded to her native place, Devahrada, but on her way she delivered a son in
the grove of Lumbini (Rummindei, District Bhairhwa, Nepalese Terai). 

Tradition has it that the child was delivered by the deity Indra with Brahma.  There is no agreement
about the date of his birth, the generally accepted date being   566 to 563 B.C.E.

Mayadevi died seven days after Buddha’s birth and he was reared by
the affectionate Mahaprajapati Gautami, who was both his maternal aunt and
step-mother.  The sage Asita predicted
the future glory of the child.

From his childhood Gautama exhibited a contemplative nature.  At the age of sixteen he married his
beautiful cousin, Yasodhara or Gopa, daughter of Suprabuddha (variously known
as Dandapani) and sister of Devadatta after proving his superiority over others
in learning archery and other princely accomplishments.

This stage of his life has been delineated briefly in the sculptures
which are being displayed at this exhibition, namely Maya’s Dream, the birth of
Siddhartha and the prediction of sage Asita.

Life scenes of the Buddha

The Buddha’s life as a theme has been presented through five main events in his life beginning with the birth and ending with his death. The other three are his renunciation of the world, his defeat of Mara and his enlightenment and his dharmachakra pravartana or preaching the First Sermon. The vertical relief presents these events beginning from the bottom.

1. The bottom panel depicts four events starting from the right:
a) The birth: Mayadevi is seen holding the branch of a tree as the nimbate child is being received by Sakra; on her right is her sister Mahaprajapati;
b) In the centre the two Nagas, Nanda and Upananda, are anointing the child as he is about to take the first seven steps;
c) At the bottom extreme left is seen the great departure – Prince Siddhartha riding his horse Kanthaka out of the palace;
d) The scene above shows the Prince cutting his hair with a sword as a token of renunciation.

2. The second panel depicts Mara with his three daughters and other members of his retinue attempting to distract Siddhartha from his penance while the latter invites the Earth to witness his attainment of bodhijnana; the female figure below his seat is mother Earth and the snake next to her is Kala, who came to wish the sage as he meditated.

3. The third panel depicts the nimbate Buddha seated in pralambapada on a lotus in dharmachakra mudra delivering his sermon in the deer park at Sarnath. He is flanked by Vajrapani and Maitreya.

4. The topmost panel depicts the mahaparinirvana, the great demise of the Buddha. His body is laid on the couch which is surrounded by mourning devotees.

While individual scenes from the Buddha’s life were depicted separately, it was during this period that such a sequential presentation was introduced by the Sarnath (Benaras) School.

Maya's Dream (2nd Century C.E)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Maya’s Dream

According to Buddhist texts, before the birth of the Buddha, his mother, Maya Devi had a dream in which she saw a white elephant entering her womb. In sculptures, this theme is presented by a lady asleep on a couch with an elephant hovering over her. This panel, depicts the bed chamber of Queen Maya Devi flanked by vaulted corridors, and supported on Persepolitan pillars without shafts. The queen is asleep on a furnished couch, her head raised on a high pillow. From a circular slab the Bodhisattva descending in the form of an elephant is seen.

Birth of Siddhartha (Pala, ca. 10th century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Birth of Siddhartha

Queen Maya standing with slight flexion of the body is shown as holding the branch of a sala tree. The child Buddha appears to be issuing from her waist section. The bejewelled lady is accompanied by three headed Brahma, the creator of the universe and four-armed Vishnu, the preserver. A small figure of the Buddha is shown standing on five lotuses to the right side of the lady symbolizing the seven steps after his birth. As legends say, the Buddha, taking seven steps declared, “I am born for enlightenment of the good of the world; this is my last birth in the world of phenomena”. Indra, the lord of the heaven, who received the child after birth, is seen on the right side with a cloth in his hands. A female attendant is seen on the left.Two devotees are seated on the pedestal.

Prediction of Asita (100-200 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Prediction of Asita

The fragment from the base of a stupa represents the scene of the prediction of the sage Asita about the future of Siddhartha made to his parents. The child is seen on the lap of a bearded and matted haired sage. A royal figure seated on a high throne with legs rested on a lower stool is evidently Suddhodana, father of Gautama. The head with part of the upper portion of the body has been broken away. Busts of a female and a male figure are behind the head of the sage. An Indo-Corinthian pilaster appears behind the figure of the sage. A standing male, probably Naradatta, the nephew of Asita, carrying a bowl in his left hand is seen by the side of the pilaster.

The Great Departure (100-200 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Second Stage of Buddha’s Life

A crucial moment arrived when he was barely twenty-nine years of age.  The sights of an old decrepit man, a sick man and a corpse on three successive occasions in the course of his drive through pleasure gardens made him realize the miseries of existence and the fleeting character of worldly pleasures.  On seeing the serene face of a hermit on the fourth occasion, he decided to renounce the world.  In the stillness of night he bade a silent farewell to his sleeping family and left the palace quietly on his horse Kanthaka, accompanied by his charioteer Chhandaka in order to find a solution to the problem of human suffering.  The incident is known as the Great Departure (Mahabhinishkramana). He cut off his hair, discarded his royal attire, took the robe of a recluse (sramana) and became a homeless wanderer engaged in a quest for truth and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. He made a seat under the pipal tree (ficus religiosa) which afterwards came to be known as the Bodhi tree and sat on it, determined not to rise till the attainment of enlightenment (bodhi).  He discovered the Truth he was seeking and became Buddha, the Enlightened. The representation of the enlightenment and the incidents connected with it form favourite themes for the Buddhist artists of all schools.  In Buddhist iconography,   the peculiar posture of touching the earth became one of the special hand gestures of the Buddha.  It is termed as the bhumisparsa mudra (earth-touching gesture).

The Great Departure

Prince Gautama decides to renounce all worldly pleasures including his wife Yasodhara and son Rahula in quest of Supreme Knowledge, and this event is known as mahabhinishkramana (the great Departure or Renunciation). The prince mounts his favourite horse Kanthaka, whose hooves are supported by the yakshas on their palms to avoid noise. The royal groom Chhandaka holds a parasol over his head and Vajrapani (yaksha in attendance) holds his thunderbolt. The prince’s way is obstructed by Mara or Kama, who is seen holding a sword, and behind him stands a hallowed god with folded hands. The three figures of the upper-half corner may be the retinue of Mara of whom one holds a sword and other, a lady, probably Rati, who may also be identified as the presiding deity of the capital city of Kapilavastu.

Buddha in meditation (ca. 2nd Century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Buddha in meditation

The Buddha is seated in the attitude of meditation. There is a prominent urna on his forehead and a large nimbus behind. The raised hair line is prominent and the wavy hair is swept back over the ushnisha. The loose garment covers both his shoulders. The pedestal contains the scene of the worship of the bowl. The image in every respect is a typical example of the Gandharan idiom.

Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra (Pala period, ca. 9th/10th century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

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.

Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra (900-1000 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra (inscribed)

The Buddha is seated in vajraparyankasana on a double-petal lotus placed over a high triratha pedestal supported by two lions on the two corners. Seated in bhumisparsa mudra, the figure is characterized by half-open eyes, mark of urna, long earlobes, deeply cut lips and hair arranged in snail-shaped curls. The drapery, marked with deep lines of folds clinging to the body, covers only the left shoulder. The back slab with its edge decorated with flame tips, shows a miniature stupa on either side of his head. The halo is inscribed with the Buddhist creed and has foliage above. The stele edged with flame tips is typical of the Pala art of that period.

First Sermon (100-200 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Buddha’s Message

After reaching his goal of attaining
enlightenment, the Buddha, the Enlightened one decided to preach his Dharma
for the salvation of mankind and proceeded to Rishipatana, where his five former
companions were residing.  He went to
them and delivered his First Sermon, known in the Buddhist terminology as dharma
chakra pravartana (setting the Wheel of Law in motion).  He gave an exposition of the Four Noble
Truths, namely, duhkha (suffering), samudaya (the cause of
suffering), nirodha (the removal of the cause) and marga (the way
leading to the removal of the cause). The Buddha had a number of powerful rivals.  He was challenged by the leaders of six
prominent sects of the period.  But
legends tell us how easily he established his superiority over these powerful
enemies by his miraculous powers.

First Sermon

The long frieze displays one of the five greatest events in the life of the Buddha – the First Sermon (dharmachakra pravartana) delivered by the Buddha at the Deer Park of Sarnath after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya. The Buddha sits cross-legged on a pedestal that bears a wheel on a pillar and below it two deer seated back to back indicating the site of the great event. Wearing a garment covering both shoulders (ubhayansika sanghati) the Buddha raises his right hand in the abhaya (granting protection) pose and the left supports the hem of the drapery.

Out of his five disciples three are seated to his right and the two to his left. Like their Master they wear monk’s robe and have thick kusa grass seat. The scene is witnessed by some noble men and divine beings who hold their hands clasped in adoration or carry lotus and other flowers for worship. The bearded Vajrapani is seen, thunderbolt in hand (damaged) in the background.

Preaching Buddha (Gandhara, ca. 2nd century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Preaching Buddha

The Buddha seated in padmasana holds his two hands in the vyakhyana mudra (preaching attitude). The halo is devoid of any carving and the drapery with heavy folds covers only the left shoulder. The wavy hair is arranged in a big top-knot and the urna (mark of knowledge) is projected in the centre of the forehead. The half-closed drooping eyes impart an absorbed and inward vision. The blissful expression on the face is to be compared with the Gupta period classical idiom. The sculpture has a tenon at the base for fixing.

Buddha in dharmachakra mudra (Pala period, ca. 9th/10th century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Buddha in dharmachakra mudra

Seated in vajraparyanka on the pericarb of a lotus placed on a rectangular high pedestal marked with two lions on two corners, the figure of the Buddha displays the dharmachakra mudra with his two hands. The pedestal bears the chakra flanked by the two deer motif symbolizing the scene of the delivery of the First Sermon at Sarnath. The elaborate oval stele designed with stylized flames of fire at the outer edge and chakra symbols on the inner edge is crowned by a chakra over the parasol shading the head of the Buddha.

Miracle at Sravasti (2nd Century C.E)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Miracle at Sravasti

The unique circular slab represents the miracle performed by the Buddha at Sravasti. The miracle, described in the aggikhandpama sutta was a double miracle of walking in the air while emitting alternately flames of fire and waves of water from the upper and lower part of his body. Here the Buddha is shown seated in meditation with flames coming out from his body.

The celestial figures hold umbrellas over his head. The sculpture is edged with flames. Two lotuses issue forth from the two sides of the Buddha. The one to his left shows the Dipankara Jataka with the Buddha standing and a kneeling figure spreading his hair near his feet. The one to his right represents the episode of the offering of a handful of dust by a little child to the Buddha.

Taming of Nalagiri (Pala period, ca. 10th century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Taming of Nalagiri

The sculpture depicts the scene of the subjugation of the mad elephant Nalagiri. The elephant was pacified just by a look from the Master, who places his hand over its head. The Buddha is here shown as standing in his usual posture with his right hand bestowing boon on the kneeling elephant. The onlooker to his left with a staff is supposed to be Devadatta. A stupa is the only decoration on the stele.

Indra's visit to Indrasala cave (100-200 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Indra’s visit to Indrasala cave

According to Buddhist legends in the course of his journeys in the Magadha country, the Buddha lived sometime in the Indrasala Cave on Vediyaka hill near Rajagriha, where Sakra, the king of the heaven came to see him. He was accompanied by the Gandharva Panchasikha. At that time the hill-top shone and looked as if it was all ablaze.

Finding the Buddha deeply absorbed in meditation he asked Panchasikha to approach him and propitiate him with music. The divine musician picked up his lyre and began to play on it. He sang a hymn in praise of the Buddha and finally announced the arrival of Sakra. After they had met and exchanged greetings, Sakra placed a few problems of philosophical import before the Buddha, solutions of which were readily furnished. He then returned in grateful satisfaction after having duly adored the Buddha.

In this panel the Buddha is shown as seated inside the cave and haloed Sakra is shown approaching him with hands joined in adoration. His attendant, Panchasikha is seen announcing his presence. Two other defaced figures appear behind Sakra.

Mahaparinirvana (Kushana period, ca. 2nd century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Last Stage of Buddha's Life

At the age of seventy-nine the Buddha in the
company of his faithful disciple, Ananda, visited a large number of places in
and around the present day Bihar and eastern
Uttar Pradesh.  At long last he reached
the suburbs of Kusinagara (Kasia, District Deoria, U.P.), the capital of the
Mallas.  Ananda, at his bidding, spread a
couch between two sala trees on which the Buddha is said to have laid and passed away.  His last words were ‘Decay is inherent in all
living beings.  Work out your own
salvation with diligence’. The Mallas cremated his body with ceremonies
befitting a universal king (chakravarti). 
On hearing the news, seven claimants, Ajatasatru of Magadha, the
Lichchhavis of Vaisali, the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Bulis of Allakappa, the
Koliyas of Ramagrama, a Brahmin of Vethadipa and the Mallas of Pava sent
messengers for portions of bone relics in order to erect stupas over


Of the five episodes in the Buddha’s life, which are graphically represented in sculptures, the mahaparinirvana (the great decease) is the last one. The present relief shows the Teacher’s body lying on a couch and surrounded by grief-stricken disciples like Ananda (standing at his feet), Mahakasyapa and Subhadra along with Vajrapani. Others are seen mourning the lord’s demise.

According to the Chinese traditions, Vajrapani as Guhyapadi Malla holding the adamantine vajra (club) was a devout attendant of the Buddha. In the Ambattha Sutta of the Dighanikaya, he, as the chief of the yakshas, was present at the time of the Buddha’s death.

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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