Gandharan Bodhisattva with ornate halo, 3rd c. CE.

(downloaded Feb. 2001)

"Bodhisattva with ornate halo. Gandhara region, North-eastern Pakistan. 3rd. century. Schist. Height: 61cm."

Commentary provided by John Eskenazi, Ltd., the gallery that displayed the sculpture:

"A grey schist image of a bodhisattva, probably the Buddha-to-be, seated in sukasana on a double lotus throne with an adoring figure on either side, his hands resting in dhyanamudra in his lap. The bodhisattva wears a draped lower garment, a shawl, elegant jewellery and a turban. Behind his head an aureole is decorated with sun rays resembling javelins.

This beautiful image of a seated Bodhisattva probably depicts the Buddha-to-be. The Buddha-to-be is not Maitreya, the Buddha whose advent we look forward to in the current era, but the historic Buddha. In his last birth prior to his coming to earth as Gautama Sakyamuni, the Buddha was born as a god in the Tushita Heaven where he meditated on where, when, and who he would be in his final incarnation. When this was finally known to him he took the form of a six-tusked white elephant and descended to earth and entered the body of Maya.

Along with the usual draped garment and scarf of a Bodhisattva, both of which are carved with crispness, suggesting the thin silk fabrics worn by the nobility of more southern regions than Gandhara, the Buddha-to-be wears a turban held in place by a twisted cord, secured by a lotus ornament on his forehead and tied on either side of his head. Originally a cockade of fabric would have been arranged at his crown, of much the same proportions as the usnisha of the historic Buddha. Zwalf (1996:plate 82) illustrates a head of similar appearance both from the point of view of physical features and headdress (the projections at the sides appear to be the remains of the loops on the turban of this example). Zwalf concludes that this style indicates origins in the Swat Valley, stylistically similar to sculptures of the 1st century A. D. found in that area. Ingholt (1975:8) illustrates a frieze depicting the same subject where the Buddha-to-be sits on the same inverted lotus throne with worshippers surrounding him.

The general appearance of the head suggests that a particular ethnic group, whose menfolk sported moustaches and wore turbans, was being deliberately depicted. Gautama Sakyamuni was a prince of the Sakya Clan, a group whose origins lay in Central Asia, where turbans and moustaches are worn. The sculptor, apparently, modelled this image on Sakyas who he came into contact with in Gandhara, concluding that the Buddha-to-be had already taken on the physical appearance of the man he would become in his final incarnation.

The story goes that at the time of his renunciation of the earthly life, Gautama Sakyamuni made a dramatic gesture of cutting of his long hair and his turban with one slice of his sword. This scene is not depicted in Gandharan art, but is familiar elsewhere, notably in Southeast Asia. In Gandhara, images of the turban resting on an altar are not unusual; the turban was taken by the gods to the Trayastrinsa Heaven where it was honoured and worshipped.

Getty (1928:16) comments that this subject is unknown in Indian sculpture but explains this by the fact that in early Buddhist reliefs the Buddha is represented aniconically, for instance by a pair of footprints. This is an extremely rare image in Gandhara also, although one other is illustrated in Ingholt 1957:8. It should be recalled that the first century B. C. marked the beginning of divisions within the Buddhist Sangha when there was disagreement between monks from different regions as to the correct interpretation of the scriptures. Various regional cults grew up as a result; there was a cult which centred its devotion on the child Buddha, for instance, whilst another seems to have worshipped the turban removed from his head at the time of his renunciation. It follows that this image was intended as a focus of a particular form of worship or meditation, reflecting not only on the life of the historic Buddha, but also on the lives he experienced before; it is not possible to be precise when viewing the sculpture in isolation and out of context.

The facial features of the image are uncharacteristic of Gandhara; the round head and rounded eye sockets are reminiscent of the Mathura style. By the first century A. D. Mathura was a well-established centre of religion and associated arts whilst in the Gandhara region there has been no single centre identified as the most important cultural centre. Debate continues as to where the image of the Buddha himself developed, Mathura or Gandhara; at this time Mathura images show a figure very different from the Gandhara one. It was the Gandhara image which would become the prototype of subsequent Buddha images and the arguments rest on whether the Gandhara one is contemporary with those Mathura sculptures or slightly later. If the sculpture presently being considered was as early as Zwalf's comments might suggest, it would confirm that around the 1st century there were fine sculptors in Gandhara and they were producing images wearing finely draped garments; it follows on that Buddha images as well as Bodhisattvas received the same treatment. However, the lack of inscriptions associated with surviving Gandhara images, which might reveal dates, means that no firm conclusions can be made as to which Buddha image, Mathura or Gandhara, is the earlier.

The most unusual element of this sculpture is the prabha, or aureole, behind the head, which is decorated with radiating javelins. It is difficult to explain the relationship of weapons to such a gentle figure but they may simply be intended as spokes of a wheel, serving as a reminder of the principal teaching of the historic Buddha. The Buddha-to-be might actually be developing this concept as he meditates. Otherwise, they might be the rays of the sun, signifying the figure as a source of intellectual energy. In Gandharan art the aureole is usually plain, or with a simple border design which would probably have had a design painted on it (such as certain examples at Ajanta retain). From a purely aesthetic point of view, this aureole gives emphasis to the head and the expression of the figure, at the same time introducing a liveliness into an otherwise quiet and peaceful image."


Getty, Alice: The Gods of Northern Buddhism, New York, 1928/1988
Ingholt, Harald: Gandharan Art in Pakistan, New York, 1957
Zwalf, Wladimir: A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum, London, 1996.