A "Buddhapada" stone, 1st / 2nd c. CE, Gandhara

Source: http://asianart.com/eskenazi/
(downloaded May 2002)

"A Buddhapada stone featuring two yakshis. India; Gandhara region; circa 1st-2nd century C.E. grey schist; 89 x 127 cm."

Commentary by John Eskenazi Ltd., the gallery showing this piece:

"When Gandharan art was first observed and studied by western art historians, there was a tendency to ascribe a primarily western inspiration to it. In many ways during the colonial period this not only justified the political activities of the day. Westerners admired Gandharan art more than other indigenous Indian artforms and wanted to collect it, as those who could afford to collected Greek and Roman art. Consequently they preferred to think of it as part of that tradition. This thinking, however, is no longer justified. Closer, impartial investigation of this fascinating and beautiful art style more logically shows that as well as being motivated by Buddhism, an Indian philosophy, it drew the substance of its aesthetic from India also. This Buddhapada stone is a case in point, a subject which is conspicuously Indian and which shows figures emanating entirely from that tradition rather than the Hellenised world.

As an object of devotion, the Buddhapada stone developed in India, certainly by the 1st century B.C.E., when it was normal to represent the Buddha aniconically, a practice observed at the great stupa railings of Bharhut and Sanchi, which feature numerous lesser figures. Before images of the Buddha appeared, various aniconic symbols were used in India, such as the Turban, the Bo-Tree, the Dharmachakra and the Buddhapada. This distinct vocabulary was universally understood by Buddhists. At the Amaravati stupa, further south, where the sculptures span a period of four hundred years, there are two distinct Buddhapada forms. In one, where the footprints appear in a narrative context, they are a small element in scenes featuring figures posed around them, just as figures of minor deities flank the Buddha in iconic representions at the same stupa. The figures are distinctive at Amaravati, princely men, beautiful women, lions, etc., and it appears they had a recognised significance, At the very least showing the appeal of Buddhist theology to the great and powerful, but more likely these figures represent the deities of other religions acknowledging the Buddha’s message of truth. Their steady gaze and outward looking pose testifies to the fact that they are bearing witness to the Buddha’s enlightenment and ministry and this is a theme which the Buddhapada form itself appears to represent.

The second Buddhapada form found at Amaravati is a large stone with a raised pair of feet. These are footmarks, not the impression of where he once trod. It is the aniconic representation of the Buddha’s spiritual example. (He cannot be present, because he has passed into nirvana.) This is a focus of devotion rather than part of a narrative. Amongst the Amaravati Buddhapada are a complete example is in the British Museum London (Knox, 1992:121) showing the footmarks surrounded by foliage. In the bottom right hand corner is a seated yaksha holding a lotus. There is also a Buddhapada fragment in the Madras Museum (illus. Bachhofer, 1939/1973). Both date from what Knox classifies as the “Early” Amaravati period, i.e. 1st century B.C.E. - 1st century C.E.

What we see in this Buddhapada stone from Gandhara is a development of that theme. To speak of Gandharan art conjours up images of elegantly draped figures, either in a narrative context or as powerful, but graceful, icons. This example is an impression of the soles of the Buddha’s feet, unlike the raised symbol from Amaravati. In addition, one of the most interesting elements is the inclusion of two female figures.

Amaravati was the port and principal city of the Satavahana dynasty, at the mouth of the Godavari River. The Satavahanas originally occupied lands close to the source of the Godavari, near the modern city of Nasik (north-east of Mumbai, west of Aurangabad). When the Mauryan Empire crumbled at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.E., the Shunga dynasty assumed power in northern India, reigning from 185 - 72 B.C.E but their territories were gradually occupied by displaced Central Asian tribes moving into north-west India, amongst whom were the eventual founders of the Kushan Empire. One of the first indigenous groups to be displaced by this migration were the Shakyas of Gujarat and Western Malwa, and they in turn moved east, forcing the Satavahanas to shift their powerbase down the Godavari River, where, retaining their control of the Deccan trade, they rebuilt their sphere of influence. The incursions from Central Asia actually opened up the trading possibilities with China, Persia and the West and, despite their political differences, the Indian rulers cooperated with each other in the pursuit of wealth. Vidisha maintained its influence as a hub of trade and Mathura grew, capitalising on its position on the Jumna River. The routes north from there, through the north-western hills up to Taxila, in Gandhara, became an important collection point for goods taken along the Silk Road. A network of trade was established stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean and the China Seas.

The merchants involved in the Indian trade were predominantly Buddhists and Jains who were able, through their accumulation of wealth, to patronise monasteries and commission artworks and architectural projects. The 1st century B.C.E. witnessed the carving of the railings and toranas at Bharhut, around the Mauryan stupa at Sanchi, as well as the foundation, by the Satavahanas, of the great stupa at Amaravati. Gandhara, it appears, was a cosmopolitan region where merchants from diverse places settled in order to conduct their trade and, unsurprisingly, established their own cultural ideas there. This was the environment for which the Buddhapada stone, now being considered, was made.

If both forms of Buddhapada which are found at Amaravati subsequently transferred to Gandhara, it has to be said that the narrative form did not find popularity there. By the 2nd century, when Gandharan art flourished, the iconic image was firmly established in the region and friezes show not the footprints but the actual figure of the Buddha surrounded by bodhisattvas and devotees. As far as the Buddhapada slab is concerned, there are a few examples, but, either through the application of logic, or simply through misinterpretation, what we see here is not the raised footmarks but the impression of the soles of the feet, i.e., where the Buddha has trodden. Whilst the purpose still appears to be a form which provides a focus of contemplation, it also appears to express the view that the Buddha had been at that place. Alternatively a group of migrant Indian settlers may have been proclaiming the fact that they came from the region where the Buddha had conducted his ministry, as if justifying their particular interpretation of his philosophy. As far as we know, the historical Buddha never ventured as far to the north or west as Gandhara.

Nevertheless, if the group of believers who used this stone had emanated from further south, there is no doubt that the sculptor was from Gandhara, and he has created a piece which expresses his own ideas as well as those of his patrons. This Buddhapada slab is surrounded by a crossed border, an ornament frequently seen in Gandharan art, in narrative friezes, on the throne of the Buddha. This border effectively sanctifies the area within. Otherwise, the slab is smooth and unornamented, underlining the essential simplicity which characterises the Gandharan style and provides such a contrast with the crowded, energetic forms which featured in artworks from India.

On the footprints themselves, the Dharmachakras in the centre are a longstanding Indian tradition but there they have a wheel-like centre. In that form they are found on Ashokan pillar capitals (Mitra, 1971: 65), repeated at Amaravati in the early period. Czuma (1986: cat. no. 1) suggests the Dharmachakra form developed from a solar disc image and that it was a recognised holy symbol prior to the Mauryan period, when it became associated with Buddhist art. Here, the lotus at the centre is a development on the solar disc form, the lotus symbolising the Buddha’s purity of spirit. This appears to be a Gandharan innovation. Another Buddhist symbol, the Triratna, symbol of the Threefold Way, appears close to the heel and this incorporates the same lotus. A single lotus appears between the feet. On the toes, as well as the repeated Triratna, Svastika forms appear below, another long established and auspicioussymbol which became incorporated into Buddhist and Jain art in this period.

On either side the two female figures are shown. The fact that they stand is effectiveproof that the stone was originally placed vertically, on a wall or on the face of a stupa, not flat on a floor or platform. The two figures turn towards the footprints, just as they might turn towards an image of the Buddha. The palm leaves they hold over their heads identify them as yakshis, of Indian origin, although in the Hellenic tradition the palm leaf is the symbol of victory. This dual symbolism would doubtless have been understood in Gandhara.

Although early Indian cults centered on goddesses such as Lakshmi, there is no evidence that they spread as far north as Gandhara. There the female usually occupies a secondary role. Getty (1914, 1928:118) suggests that the Buddhist development of the female principle, in around the 5th century C.E., was inspired by the increasing popularity of Krishna amongst Hindus. In the 1st-4th centuries, Mahayana worship centres on the male principle. (A much later bronze Buddha image from the Swat Valley (Pal, 1975) does show the Buddha flanked by two remarkably similar-looking yakshis.)

Yakshis are, of course, a prominent element of the Bharhut and Sanchi railings but their spiritual role is subordinate to the main theme since they represent ancient Indian traditions which have become converted, as it were, to the Buddha’s superior teachings. Curiously, the extraordinary bronze Dharmachakra found in the Chausa hoard, which appears to date from the 2nd century shows the freestanding Dharmachakra supported by two yakshis supported by makaras (Deshpande, 1988). This makes one wonder whether the imagery of yakshis associated with aniconic symbols of the Buddha actually reached Gandhara from India through the transportation of bronze devotional objects. The Chausa Dharmachakra, found in Bihar, is of the Mathura School, so may itself have been carried to its eventual place of concealment by an itinerant Buddhist monk or teacher, or by a devout merchant.

In Gandharan art, female figures normally wear either Hellenic chitons, covering their breasts or, as here, dhotis, with the torso visible. This dress recalls pre-Kushan Indian art. Whilst contemporary Mathura sculptures display nearly naked female figures, that would be unheard of in Gandhara. Nevertheless, here is a conscious intention to identify the two figures as Indian deities, i.e. coming from the region where the Buddha walked. Their purpose is to act as witnesses to his passing-by. Possibly they are dressed in an archaic style to qualify their presence during the Buddha’s lifetime.

In Gandharan art, yakshis sometimes appear on the panels dividing sections of a narrative, just as mythical figures, such as Atlantids do. The yakshis frequently display hand gestures which reflect the nature of their setting, for example placed on the hip, or with a finger raised to the mouth. Here, both figures hold their hands in anjalimudra, the commonest form of greeting in India, signifying respectfulness. This reiterates the intention to present the stone as a record of the Buddha’s presence.

This all raises questions as to the exact nature of the worship this Buddhapada was intended for. In Gandharan narrative settings, the Buddha is usually flanked by two males, or occasionally a male and female figure. One would not expect to see him flanked by two yakshis. Here, the two yakshis are placed within the crossed border of the stone, i.e. within the sacred presence, so they serve a distinct spiritual purpose. It suggests that we are looking at a Buddhapada worshipped by a particular cult, whose members probably came originally from India, but whose beliefs flourished, possibly for only a short time, in Gandhara. In Gandhara there is evidence of several obscure ocalised cults. In a period of religious debate, development of ideas and patronage by the wealthy classes, there was every opportunity for individual holy men to teach their own personal message. Some ideas flourished and spread, outliving the original teacher, whilst others did not.

It is always difficult to date an aniconic artform. If the first Buddhapada stones were commissioned by merchants from the Satavahana territories, it is possible that they could have been made in Gandhara in the 1st century B.C.E. Equally, it is possible that the Buddhapada stone might have been made in Gandhara as late as the 3rd century C.E. The Dharmachakras contain not the wheel but a lotus, which suggests a development from the 1st century B.C.E. Amaravati prototypes and, consequently, a slightly later date. The appearance of the yakshis may provide clearer evidence. Whilst wearing the dress of archaic Indian goddesses, they have the round breasts and wide hips of the Kushan period, indicating that the sculptor was familiar with the Mathura style. Thus, a 2nd century dating is reasonable.

Looking at the composition as a whole, it is aesthetically balanced and the individual elements are harmonious. This would appear to reiterate the feeling that it dates from the 2nd century, when Gandharan art was confidently established, promoting the more widespread branches of Mahayana Buddhism in the region, but providing opportunities for a possibly foreign sect to assert itself there, in the knowledge that the message it projected would be universally recognised.


Bachhofer, Ludwig: Early Indian Sculpture, London, 1939/ Delhi, 1973
Czuma, Stanislaw: Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India, Cleveland, 1985
Ingholt, Harald: Gandharan Art in Pakistan, New York, 1957
Knox, Robert: Amaravati, Buddhist Suclpture from the Great Stupa, London, 1992
Mitra, Debala: Buddhism Monuments, Calcutta, 1971
Nehru, Lolita: Origins of the Gandharan Style, Delhi, 1989
Thapar, Romila: A History of India, volume 1, London, 1966
Zwalf, Wladimir: A Catalogue of the Gandharan Sculpture in the British Museum, London, 1996