Buddhist art originated in the Indian subcontinent in the centuries following the life of the historical Gautama Buddha in the 6th to 5th century BCE, before evolving through its contact with other cultures and its diffusion through the rest of Asia and the world.
A first, essentially Indian, aniconic phase (avoiding direct representations of the Buddha), was followed from around the 1st century AD by an iconic phase (with direct representations of the Buddha).
From that time, Buddhist art diversified and evolved as it adapted to the new countries where the faith was expanding. It developed to the north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art, and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art. In India, Buddhist art flourished and even influenced the development of Hindu art, until Buddhism almost disappeared around the 10th century with the expansion of Hinduism and Islam.
Aniconic Phase of Buddhist Art (5th century - 1st century BCE)
Capital of a pillar erected by king Ashoka at Sarnath c.250 BCE
The first clear manifestations of Buddhist art date back to the time of the emperor Ashoka during the Mauryan era (322-180 BCE), through the building of numerous stupas, such as the one at Sanchi, and the erection of pillars. The pillars were surmounted by animal capitals and decorated with Buddhist symbols (such as the wheel), which invoked respect for all creatures and the acceptance of the Dharma.
During the 2nd to 1st century BCE, sculptures became more explicit, representing episodes of the Buddha’s life and teachings. These took the form of votive tablets or friezes, usually in relation to the decoration of stupas.
Although India had a long sculptural tradition and a mastery of rich iconography, the Buddha was never represented in human form, but only through some of his symbols. Among them are:
- The Wheel of law (dharmacakra), symbol of the Four Noble Truths expressed by the Buddha.
- The Bodhi tree, the tree where the Buddha reached enlightenment. It has some antecedent in fertility cults and representations of the tree of life.
- The Buddha footprint (skt. Buddhapada “Buddha feet”) to represent the impact of the teachings of the Buddha on the world.
- The Empty throne.
- The Lions, symbol of his royalty. The Buddha was known as the “Shakya Lion” during Ashoka’s time, so this symbol was used on the Buddhist pillars he planted throughout India.
- The Columns surmounted by a wheel, symbol of his teaching.
- The Lotus, symbol of pure, unspoiled Buddha Nature, for its beautiful blooming and the impossibility for water to adhere to it, leaving it spotless.
This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scene where other human figures would appear), seems to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Dighanikaya, that disfavored representations of himself after the extinction of his body. This tendency remained as late as the 2nd century CE in the Southern parts of India, in the art of the Amaravati school (see: Mara's assault on the Buddha). It has been argued that earlier anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha may have been made of wood and may have perished since then. However no related archeological evidence has been found.
Iconic phase (1st century CE – present)
Greco-Buddhist head of Buddha, stucco, Hadda Afghanistan, 1st-2nd century CE.
Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha started to emerge from the 1st century CE in northern India. The two main centers of creation have been identified as Gandhara in today’s Punjab, in Pakistan, and the region of Mathura, in central northern India.
The art of Gandhara benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and the subsequent establishment of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Kingdoms, leading to the development of Greco-Buddhist art. Gandharan Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it also has been suggested that the concept of the “man-god” was essentially inspired by Greek mythological culture. Artistically, the Gandharan school of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes and sandals, acanthus leaf decorations, etc.
Standing Buddha, 5th century CE Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, Gupta period (4th-6th century CE)
The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition, such the anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas, although in a style rather archaic compared to the later representations of the Buddha. The Mathuran school contributed clothes covering the left shoulder, thin muslin, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat, etc.
Mathura and Gandhara also strongly influenced each other. During their artistic florescence, the two regions were even united politically under the Kushans, both being capitals of the empire. It is still a matter of debate whether the anthropomorphic representations of Buddha was essentially a result of a local evolution of Buddhist art at Mathura, or a consequence of Greek cultural influence in Gandhara through the Greco-Buddhist syncretism.
One of the first representation of the Buddha, on a 120 CE Kanishka coin, with the mention “BODDO” in Greek script
This iconic art was characterized from the start by a realistic idealism, combining realistic human features, proportions, attitudes and attributes, together with a sense of perfection and serenity reaching to the divine. This expression of the Buddha as a both a man and a god became the iconographic canon for subsequent Buddhist art.
Buddhist art continued to develop in India for a few more centuries. The pink sandstone sculptures of Mathura evolved during the Gupta period (4th to 6th century) to reach a very high fineness of execution and delicacy in the modeling. The art of the Gupta school was extremely influential almost everywhere in the rest of Asia. By the 10th century, Buddhist art creation was dying out in India, as Hinduism and Islam ultimately prevailed.
As Buddhism expanded outside of India from the 1st century AD, its original artistic package blended with other artistic influences, leading to a progressive differentiation among the countries adopting the faith.
- A Northern route was established from the 1st century AD through Central Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, in which Mahayana Buddhism prevailed.
- A Southern route, where Theravada Buddhism dominated, went through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Northern Buddhist art
The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia, China and ultimately Korea and Japan started in the 1st century CE with a semi-legendary account of an embassy sent to the West by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58-75 CE). However, extensive contacts started in the 2nd century CE, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin, with the missionary efforts of a great number of Central Asian Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. The first missionaries and translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese, such as Lokaksema, were either Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.
Central Asian missionary efforts along the Silk Road were accompanied by a flux of artistic influences, visible in the development of Serindian art from the 2nd through the 11th century CE in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. Serindian art often derives from the Greco-Buddhist art of the Gandhara district of what is now Pakistan, combining Indian, Greek and Roman influences. Silk Road Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found as far as Japan to this day, in architectural motifs, Buddhist imagery, and a select few representations of Japanese gods.
The art of the northern route was also highly influenced by the development of Mahayana Buddhism, an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new texts, in addition to the traditional Pali canon, and a shift in the understanding of Buddhism. Mahayana goes beyond the traditional Theravada ideal of the release from suffering (dukkha) and personal enlightenment of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status, and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas devoting themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge and the salvation of humanity. Northern Buddhist art thus tends to be characterized by a very rich and syncretic Buddhist pantheon, with a multitude of images of the various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and lesser deities.
Buddhist Art in Afghanistan
Statue from a Buddhist monastery, 700 CE, Afghanistan
Buddhist art in Afghanistan (old Bactria) persisted for several centuries until the spread of Islam in the 7th century. It is exemplified by the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Other sculptures, in stucco, schist or clay, display very strong blending of Indian post-Gupta mannerism and Classical influence, Hellenistic or possibly even Greco-Roman.
Although Islamic rule was rather tolerant of other religions “of the Book”, it showed little tolerance for Buddhism, which was perceived as a religion depending on idolatry. Human figurative art forms also being prohibited under Islam, Buddhist art suffered numerous attacks, which culminated with the systematic destructions by the Taliban regime. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, the sculptures of Hadda, and many of the remaining artifacts at the Afghanistan museum have been destroyed.
The multiple conflicts since the 1980s also have led to a systematic pillage of archeological sites apparently in the hope of reselling in the international market what artifacts could be found.
Buddhist Art in Central Asia
Central Asia long played the role of a meeting place between China, India and Persia. During the 2nd century BCE, the expansion of the Former Han to the West led to increased contact with the Hellenistic civilizations of Asia, especially the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
Thereafter, the expansion of Buddhism to the North led to the formation of Buddhist communities and even Buddhist kingdoms in the oasis of Central Asia. Some Silk Road cities almost only consisted in Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and it seems that one of their main objectives was to welcome and service travelers between East and West.
The eastern part of central Asia (Chinese Turkestan (Tarim Basin, Xinjiang) in particular have revealed an extremely rich Serindian art (wall paintings and reliefs in numerous caves, portable paintings on canvas, sculpture, ritual objects), displaying multiple influences from Indian and Hellenistic cultures. Works of art reminiscent of the Gandharan style, as well as scriptures in the Gandhari script Kharoshti have been found. These influences were rapidly absorbed however by the vigorous Chinese culture, and a strongly Chinese particularism develops from that point.
Maitreya altarpiece (Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), dated 524 Hebei province, China)
Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century CE (although there are some tradition about a monk visiting China during Asoka’s reign), and through to the 8th century it became very active and creative in the development of Buddhist art, particularly in the area of statuary. Receiving this distant religion, China soon incorporated strong Chinese traits in its artistic expression.
In the 5th to 6th centuries the Northern Dynasties, rather removed from the original sources of inspiration, tended to develop rather symbolic and abstract modes of representation, with schematic lines. Their style is also said to be solemn and majestic. The lack of corporeality of this art, and its distance from the original Buddhist objective of expressing the pure ideal of enlightenment in an accessible, realistic manner, progressively led to a research towards more naturalism and realism, leading to the expression of Tang Buddhist art.
Seated Buddha (Tang dynasty ca. 650 China)
Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly life-like expression. As a consequence of the Dynasty’s openness to foreign influences, and renewed exchanges with Indian culture due to the numerous travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India from the 4th to the 11th century, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a rather classical form, inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period.
However foreign influences came to be negatively perceived towards the end of the Tang dynasty. In the year 845, the Tang emperor Wuzong outlawed all “foreign” religions (including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism) in order to support the indigenous Taoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions, and forced the faith to go underground, therefore affecting the ulterior development of the religion and its arts in China.
Chan Buddhism however, at the origin of Japanese Zen, continued to prosper for some centuries, especially under the Sung dynasty (1127-1279), when Chan monasteries were great centers of culture and learning.
Korean Buddhist art reflects an interaction between Chinese Buddhist influence and a strongly original Korean culture, where influences from China and the art of the steppes (possibly Scythian influences according to some old artifact such as Silla royal crowns in the style of the steppes) intermixed. The style of this indigenous art was geometric, abstract and richly adorned with a characteristic “barbarian” luxury.
Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century, quite later than its introduction in China. Although Chinese influence was strong, Korean Buddhist art "bespeaks a sobriety, taste for the right tone, a sense of abstraction but also of colours that curiously enough are in line with contemporary taste" (Pierre Cambon, Arts asiatiques- Guimet).
Japanese Buddhist Art
The Big Buddha in Kamakura (1252CE)
Before the introduction of Buddhism, Japan had already been the seat of various cultural (and artistic) influences, from the abstract linear decorative art of the indigenous Neolithic Jomon from around 10500 BCE to 300 BCE, to the influence of Korean art during the Yayoi and Kofun periods, with developments such as Haniwa art.
Japan, the largest Buddhist country today, discovered Buddhism in the 6th century when monks traveled to the islands together with numerous scriptures and works of art. The Buddhist religion was adopted by the state in the following century. Being geographically at the end of the Silk Road, Japan was able to preserve many aspects of Buddhism at the very time it was disappearing in India, and being suppressed in Central Asia and China.
Scroll calligraphy of Bodhidharma “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”, by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 to 1769)
From 710 numerous temples and monasteries were built in the capital city of Nara, such as the five-storey pagoda, the Golden Hall of the Horyuji, or the Kofukuji temple. Countless paints and sculpture were made, often under governmental sponsorship. Indian, Hellenistic, Chinese and Korean artistic influence blended into an original style characterized by realism and gracefulness. The creation of Japanese Buddhist art was especially rich between the 8th and 13th century during the periods of Nara, Heian and Kamakura. Japan developed an extremely rich figurative art for the pantheon of Buddhist deities, sometimes combined with Hindu and Shinto influences. This art can be very varied, creative and bold.
From the 12th and 13th, a further development was Zen art, following the introduction of the faith by Dogen and Eisai upon their return from China. Zen art is mainly characterized by original paintings (such as sumi-e and poetry (especially haikus), striving to express the true essence of the world through impressionistic and unadorned “non-dualistic” representations. The search for enlightenment “in the moment” also led to the development of other important derivative arts such as the Chanoyu tea ceremony or the Ikebana art of flower arrangement. This evolution went as far as considering almost any human activity as an art with a strong spiritual and esthetic content, first and foremost in those activities related to combat techniques (martial arts).
Buddhism remains very active in Japan to this day. Still around 80,000 Buddhist temples are preserved. Many of them are in wood and are regularly restored.
Devout travellers with nowhere to worship could carry their shrines with them. The shrines were two-piece, and could be shut together to preserve the artwork. Miniature Buddhas and Goddesses could be carried in small lacquer cases, much resembling the portable phone cases of today, carried on the wrist. In Tibet, the shrines were sometimes made of metal, and carried with over-the-shoulder straps.
Tibetan Buddhist Art
Tantric Buddhism started as a movement in eastern India around the 5th or the 6th century. Many of the practices of Tantric Buddhism are derived from Brahmanism (the usage of mantras, yoga, or the burning of sacrificial offerings). Tantrism became the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet from the 8th century. Due to its geographical centrality in Asia, Tibetan Buddhist art received influence from Indian, Nepali, Greco-Buddhist and Chinese art.
One of the most characteristic creations of Tibetan Buddhist art are the mandalas, diagrams of a “divine temple” made of a circle enclosing a square, the purpose of which is to help Buddhist worshipers focus their attention through meditation and follow the path to the central image of the Buddha. Artistically, Buddhist Gupta art and Hindu art tend to be the two strongest inspirations of Tibetan art.
Buddhist Art in Vietnam
Chinese influence was predominant in the north of Vietnam (Tonking) between the 1st and 9th centuries CE, and Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism were prevalent. Overall, the art of Vietnam has been strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhist art.
In the south, the kingdom of Champa has a strongly Indianized art, just as neighboring Cambodia. Many of its statues were characterized by rich body adorments. The capital of the kingdom of Champa was annexed by Vietnam in 1471, and it totally collapsed in the 1720s.
Southern Buddhist Art
During the 1st century CE, the trade on the overland Silk Road tended to be restricted by the rise of the Parthian empire in the Middle East, an unvanquished enemy of Rome, just as Romans were becoming extremely wealthy and their demand for Asian luxury was rising. This demand revived the sea connections between the Mediterranean Sea and China, with India as the intermediary of choice. From that time, through trade connection, commercial settlements, and even political interventions, India started to strongly influence Southeast Asian countries. Trade routes linked India with southern Burma, central and southern Siam, lower Cambodia and southern Vietnam, and numerous urbanized coastal settlements were established there.
For more than a thousand years, Indian influence was therefore the major factor that brought a certain level of cultural unity to the various countries of the region. The Pali and Sanskrit languages and the Indian script, together with Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, Brahmanism and Hinduism, were transmitted from direct contact and through sacred texts and Indian literature such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This expansion provided the artistic context for the development of Buddhist art in these countries, which then developed characteristics of their own.
Between the 1st and 8th centuries, several kingdoms competed for influence in the region (particularly the Cambodian Funan then the Burmese Mon kingdoms) contributing various artistic characteristics, mainly derived from the Indian Gupta style. Combined with a pervading Hindu influence, Buddhist images, votive tablets and Sanskrit inscriptions are found throughout the area.
From the 9th to the 13th centuries, Southeast Asia had very powerful empires and became extremely active in Buddhist architectural and artistic creation. The Sri Vijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north competed for influence, but both were adepts of Mahayana Buddhist, and their art expressed the rich Mahayana pantheon of the Bodhisattvas. Theravada Buddhism of the Pali canon was introduced to the region around the 13th century AD from Sri Lanka, and was adopted by the newly founded ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai. Since in Theravada Buddhism only monks can reach Nirvana, the construction of temple complexes plays a particular important role in the artistic expression of Southeast Asia from that time.
From the 14th century, the main factor was the spread of Islam to the maritime areas of Southeast Asia, overrunning Malaysia, Indonesia, and most of the islands as far as the Philippines. In the continental areas, Theravada Buddhism continued to expand into Burma, Laos and Cambodia.
A neighbor of India, Burma was naturally strongly influenced by the eastern part of Indian territory. The Mon of southern Burma are is said to have been converted to Buddhism around 200 BCE under the proselytizing of the Indian king Ashoka, before the scission between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism.
Early Buddhist temples are found, such as Peikthano in central Burma, with dates between the 1st and the 5th century CE. The Buddhist art of the Mons was especially influenced by the Indian art of the Gupta and post-Gupta periods, and their mannerist style spread widely in Southeast Asia following the expansion of the Mon Empire between the 5th and 8th centuries.
Later, thousands of Buddhist temples were built at Pagan, the capital, between the 11th and 13th centuries, and around 2,000 of them are still standing. Beautiful jeweled statues of the Buddha are remaining from that period. Creation managed to continue despite the seizure of the city by the Mongols in 1287.
Buddhist Art in Cambodia
Avalokiteshvara, Angkor period (802–1431), fourth quarter of the 10th – first quarter of the 11th century
Cambodia was the center of the Funan kingdom, which expanded into Burma and as far south as Malaysia between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE. Its influence seems to have been essentially political, most of the cultural influence coming directly from India.
Later, from the 9th to 13th centuries, the Mahayana Buddhist and Hindu Khmer Empire dominated vast parts of the Southeast Asian peninsula, and its influence was foremost in the development of Buddhist art in the region. Under the Khmer, more than 900 temples were built in Cambodia and in neighboring Thailand.
Angkor was at the center of this development, with a Buddhist temple complex and urban organization able to support around 1 million urban dwellers. A great deal of Cambodian Buddhist sculpture is preserved at Angkor, however organized looting has had a heavy impact on many sites around the country.
Often, Khmer art manages to express intense spirituality through divinely beaming expressions, in spite of spare features and slender lines.
Buddhist Art in Thailand
Four-armed Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (8th century, Sri Vijayan period, Thailand)
From the 1st to 7th centuries, Buddhist art in Thailand was first influenced by direct contact with Indian traders and the expansion of the Mon kingdom, leading to the creation of Hindu and Buddhist art inspired from the Gupta tradition, with numerous monumental statues of great virtuosity.
From the 9th century, the various schools of Thai art then became strongly influenced by Cambodian Khmer art in the north and Sri Vijaya art in the south, both of Mahayana faith. Up to the end of that period, Buddhist art is characterized by a clear fluidness in the expression, and the subject matter is characteristic of the Mahayana pantheon with multiple creations of Bodhisattvas.
From the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism was introduced from Sri Lanka around the same time as the ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai was established. The new faith inspired highly stylized images in Thai Buddhism, with sometimes very geometrical and almost abstract figures.
During the Ayutthaya period (14th-18th centuries), the Buddha came to be represented in a more stylistic manner with sumptuous garments and jeweled ornamentations. Many Thai sculptures or temples tended to be gilded, and on occasion enriched with inlays.
Buddhist Art in Indonesia
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Indonesia seems to have been most strongly influenced by India from the 1st century CE. The islands of Sumatra and Java in western Indonesia were the seat of the empire of Sri Vijaya (8th-13th century CE), which came to dominate most of the area around the Southeast Asian peninsula through maritime power. The Sri Vijayan Empire had adopted Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, under a line of rulers named the Sailendras. Sri Vijaya spread Mahayana Buddhist art during it expansion in the Southeast Asian peninsula.
Numerous statues of Mahayana Bodhisattvas from this period are characterized by a very strong refinement and technical sophistication, and are found throughout the region. Extremely rich architectural remains are visible at the temple of Borobudur (the largest Buddhist structure in the world, built from around 780), which counts 505 images of the seated Buddha. The Indonesian Buddhist Empire of Sri Vijaya declined due to conflicts with the Chola rulers of India, before being destabilized by the Islamic expansion from the 13th century.
- "Buddhist Art." Wikipedia, 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_art>
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- Past Worlds. The Times Atlas of Archeology, Editor: Dr. Chris Scarre, Times Books Limited, London, 1991, ISBN 0723003068