300 AD to 600 AD
8″ (20.3cm) high
This imposing stone head of Buddha dates from what many refer to as the Golden Age of India. At this date, what is now northern India, Bangladesh and parts of Pakistan were ruled by the emperors of the Gupta Empire, whose peaceful and prosperous rule saw a flowering of arts and sciences that ranks alongside the civilisations of the Han and Tang Dynasties and the Roman Empire. The achievements of the Gupta Empire are numerous and impressive. Their stable currency of gold dinars, combined with an effective administrative system, helped to fund major developments in architecture, medicine, art, drama, design, mathematics and literature. The western world learnt much of its expertise in pharmacopoeia, cesarean section, bone setting, and skin grafting from Indian medics of this period. The Indian numeral system – which we use today – was taken by the Arabs to Europe where it replaced the Roman system; seemingly western inventions such as the decimal system, algebra, geometry and astronomy – especially the description of heavenly bodies and their orbits, and the assertion that the earth is round rather than flat – were all either invented or refined in the Gupta period.
The empire’s shadowy beginnings are generally agreed to have started with the reign of Sri- Gupta in around 250 AD, whose people may have come from the Bengal area. By the 4th century there were various small Gupta kingdoms scattered around the Magadha area. The early rulers of the Gupta Empire – and their followers – were firm believers in Hinduism, but were tolerant of other religions and permitted the construction of temples and shrines to the Buddhist faith. Interestingly, the Hindu cults of Saivism and Vaisnavism shared many characteristics of Buddhism, to the extent that Buddha was eventually accepted as an alter-ego of Vishnu.
Gupta Buddhism was based primarily around the Hinayana and Mahayana sects, with increasing emphasis on the latter towards the end of the Gupta dynasty. The iconography of the movement captured the attention of a large retinue of followers, who were particularly taken with the Mahayana Bodhisattvas, namely Manjusri, Avalokitesvara and the goddess Prajnaparamita. Worship of these images and that of the Adi and Amitanbha Buddhas became increasingly popular, and it this is the source of the current piece.
The sculpture represents the head of the Buddha, and was originally attached to the torso as well as to a temple wall or similar. The expression is one of serene contemplation, and is elegant and streamlined compared to the rather obese and disproportionate Chinese Buddhas of later periods. It also contrasts with Buddhas made in the Gandhara tradition, as they tend to be more lifelike, while this is expressionistic in its poise and execution. The face has high, arched brows overhanging half-closed, hooded eyes, running down to a slender and tapered nose and a small, pursed mouth. The flow of the facial features is perfectly captured, including the rise and fall of the facial contours of the cheeks and forehead. The ears are long-lobed, pierced and pendulous, while the head – surmounted by the ushnisha (additional brain of elevated consciousness) – is decorated with tight snail-shell curls. This is a serene and beautifully-executed piece of ancient Gupta art, and a worthy addition to any serious collection of the genre.Login to view price