Two Faces of the Early Buddha

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Updated: Feb 28, 2019
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Two Faces of the Early Buddha essay

Buddhism began roughly around the 5th century BCE in eastern India, and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha Shakyamuni (Dehejia, 1). As one of the largest religions in the world to date, there is a plethora of Buddhist and Buddha images. However, like most ancient religious icons, there are a few mysteries behind the first known depictions of the Buddha. Before the 1st century AD portrait images of the Buddha seem to have been forbidden and ancient artist used aniconic signs and symbols to portray the Buddha in depictions of his life. After the 1st century, hundreds of years after Buddha Shakyamuni’s death, we begin to find some of the first surviving portrait images of the Buddha himself. It’s not known for certain and highly debated among scholars where the first buddha images derived from, but we can be certain that it is either from the ancient province of Gandhara or from Mathura. Although the Buddha images from these areas are the first, we know of and both portray the Buddha in a portrait style, the striking differences in the images from these areas are undeniable. Both Gandhara and Mathura style Buddhas do have the common features we would expect to see in any ancient Indian Buddha image, however the cultural, political and religious influences of these areas have greatly impacted their depictions of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

The ancient province of Gandhara was a kingdom in the 1st century BCE and now lies in modern day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan (Falser, 3). This area of Pakistan and Afghanistan is home to an identifiable type of stone called Micha schist, which has a blue-grey hue, and is used in the Gandhara school of art. The Gandhara Buddha sculpture from 250, is one of the first Buddha sculptures that have been found in ancient Gandhara. This sculpture was carved using the Micha schist stone, blue-grey stone, and can be used as a guiding light for the styles and imagery of Gandhara’s first Buddha images. Along with their choice of stone, there are many other unique features we find in Gandhara’s buddha images, that we can use to differentiate them from other areas. Using the Gandhara Buddha sculpture as a guide we can see examples of these features in their buddha images. The hair on the Gandharan Buddhas has a deep wavy texture to it and the Ushnisha, cranial bump, isn’t greatly defined. We also see a common use of the mustache on their buddhas, this feature isn’t known to be common in any other areas of India. The facial features of their buddha’s are often depicted in a realistic manner; no feature is too large or bulging out of the image. Their buddhas are also portrayed in an idealistic manner to be thinner or toned; we can see this in the way the cheeks sink into his face and above his chin. The Gandharan sculptures of the time also constructed these images using anatomically accurate proportions, great depth, and a foreshortening technique (Development, 275).

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Although their Buddha images are one of a kind, we can see great influence from the Greek and Roman art of this time in their work. The Greco-Buddhist art style starts to grow when the Indo-Greek Kingdom begins its rule in (180 BC-10 BC) (Falser, 3). Through trade, invasion and the flourishing interactions between the people of ancient northern Pakistan and the Greeks, it’s understood that the artists in Gandhara took influence from the Greek and Roman culture. Examples of this can be seen in comparisons between the Gandhara Buddha sculpture and the Greek sculpture of the head of Apollo Belvedere from 120-140 AD. Both figures share common facial proportions, facial features and the wavy hair along with the top hair bun share very similar stylistic elements (Falser, 39). The robe in the Gandharan buddha’s depictions also are very close stylistically to the Greek light weight toga (Developmnt, 280). Other images of the Buddha throughout the 2nd century also show Greek influence. There is also evidence of gold coins from Gandhara that depicts the Buddha under the protection of the Greek god Herakles. A very similar image of Herakles was depicted on the Greek coins of the time when they would have interacted with the people from Gandhara (Development, 281-282).

Unlike the early Buddha images from Gandhara, Mathura Buddha images have their own set of unique features and don’t show signs of outside influence. Mathura lies in northern India and is home to a rose of red hued spotted sand stone. The statues and images of the Buddha from Mathura were carved in this red sand stone and covered with a cream color, it is also believed that they often used clay and wood to help construct these images (Myer, 111). In many ways the Mathura style Buddha’s have opposite main features to that of the Gandharan style Buddhas. The Mathura style Buddhas have bumpy flat hair, that resembles miniature swirls and the Ushnisha on top of their head is greatly defined. Also, unlike the Gandhara style Buddhas, their Buddhas aren’t created with a heavenly/idealistic image in mind and aren’t completely anatomically correct. The bodies are normally described as plump or healthy and their facial features are a little animated. For example, if we look at the Standing Buddha image from 434, Mathura, we can see the plump features of the Mathura Buddha in his chin, hips and shoulders. We can also see that his eyes protrude out of the face a little and how his eyebrows and nose are quite defined. The robes in Mathura styles Buddha’s are also unique and differ from the Gandhara style as they lay flat on his skin and have a linear clothe pattern.

The influences on Mathura style Buddhas are completely indigenous and derive from some of the earliest religious cults in northern India. These regional cults, that were spread evenly throughout northern India, worshipped and created images of their local spiritual deities, called Yakshis, Yakshas and Nagas. Their presence in images can be traced as far back as the 2nd century (Yakshas, 162). Although Buddhist images were created in their likeness, they developed their own distinctions and the presence of this these regional gods and goddess were woven into the Buddhist religion. Some Yakshis and Nagas are depicted as protectors of the Buddha and some were used as ornamental decorations in many of the railing pillars in Mathura (Yakshas, 167). The Yakashas, or female Yakshis, are normally heavily decorated and appear as often as their male counterparts in Buddhist and local art during the Kushana period (Yakshas, 166). The local deities share the same healthy plump figures, similar facial structures, and their robes have the same skin clinging linear pattern to the first Mathura style Buddha. We can compare the likeness from Standing Buddha, 434, Mathura, to the Yaksha Sculpture from Parkham, Mathura 3rd-2nd century and we can see that the artists of this period used the same stylistic methods to develop the later images of the Buddha. Although they share many qualities the depictions of the deities do have some iconic differences. For example, the Yakshis were normally armed with different weapons to distinguish them and the yakshas were commonly decorated with bowls or jewel, they both also shared a greater sense of emotion in the faces (Yakshas, 166). Also, unlike the later Buddha images, the images of the local deities never had a donor or description engraved with them (Yakshas, 165).

The previous paragraphs have covered the overview of the cultural influences on the remarkable first Buddha images from both Gandhara and Mathura during the 1st century. The first portrait images of the Buddha from these areas, although beautiful and unique in nature, do possess specific and identifiable traits that we can use to understand how and why the artist’s chose to create them in this way. Again, it is understood that the artists of these Buddhist images from Gandhara, incorporated many of the Greek concepts and artistic styles that they began to see around them. And that in Mathura’s case, the artist used the previous images and styles of their regional deities as a stepping stone in developing their Buddha images. We can verify these statements when comparing the Buddha sculpture from Gandhare ,250 and the Head of Apollo, 120-140 AD for the Greek influence in Gandhara, and when comparing the Standing Buddha, 434, to the Yaksha sculpture from Parkham Mathura, 3rd-2nd Century. Although since the ancient providence of Gandhara and Mathura weren’t a huge distance apart from one another, we can assume they did have some sort of cultural interaction. From the images and examples previously mentioned, it is particularly interesting that they still developed such personal images for their first Buddhas. However, it’s also natural that their images would differ in such lengths. The traditions and culture in both areas are vastly different and the appearance of an outside influences can dramatically affect the art, tradition and overall culture of an area. As mentioned in the first paragraph, it is still debated among scholars on who created the first Buddha images in the 1st century AD. However, everyone can agree that these Buddha images from Gandhara and Mathura are a glorious representation of their cultural values, developing art styles and their devotion to their loved religion of choice.

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Two faces of the early Buddha. (2019, Feb 28). Retrieved from