The Gandhara region has always been a crossroads of cultural influences. Geographically, it includes much of north-western India between the Khyber Pass and the Indus River, and the Kabul Valley region in Afghanistan. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C., the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity. Four centuries later, the area became heavily Romanised through diplomatic contacts between rulers of the Kushan empire (such as Kanishka: AD 129-160), who employed foreign artists from the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire to create many sculptural works. This work is one of these.
Bodhisattvas, which play a part in Buddhist art second only to that of Buddha himself, are future Buddhas who – despite having earned their right to enter Nirvana – have chosen to remain on earth in order to help their fellow creatures attain enlightenment. They were profoundly revered by Buddhists, who incorporated them into both religious and secular architecture as well as in the form of freestanding sculptures. Our high relief stele probably adorned the exterior of a small stupa or other religious buildings in a Buddhist monastery.
The iconography of the Bodhisattva evolved out of the long-standing tradition of the Indic Yaksa godling figure, and as such its early elaborations almost always included imposing moustaches and a very masculine body, implicit in the fertility association of the Yaksa image and his apothropaic function. As was the custom in Gandhara, the bodhisattva is depicted dressed and bejewelled like a wealthy person of the region, and the pose and iconography seem to follow the Indian tradition. Yet there are various stylistic markers indicating that our bodhisattva is the result of cultural fusion between endemic artistic styling and Graeco-Roman influence, especially the manner in which the draped tunic has been carved.
The figure stands 8.5” high and was – as stated above – originally an architectural feature. The large majority of Bodhisattvas are made of wood, making this early specimen rather unusual in being carved from schist. The figure is standing, with the drapery carefully carved into pantaloon trousers associated with long, flowing scarves and other drapery running from around the shoulders down to the waist and hips. It also wears a large necklace, earrings and an ornate headdress with a feather-like diadem design over the brows. The hair has been gathered up inside this turban-like headwear. The face is carved with high brows and solemn, hooded eyes. The mouth is pursed slightly, but is full and perfectly sculpted. The Bodhisattva stands upon a sconce of floral design, triangular in shape, and it has been mounted upon a plain pedestal base for ease of display. There is some damage to the right arm, which is missing beneath the shoulder. However the impact and the serenity of the carving are unaffected. A lovely example of top-level religious carving, with the additional historical interest of originating from the crossroads of two might empires at a dynamic stage of their early contact.
Reference: Doshi, S. ed. India and Greece, Connections and Parallels, Marg Publications, Mumbay, 1985: p.8 fig 4. - (X.0726)
Ancient Near East