INDIA AND SRI LANKA
Anuradhapura period, 7th– 8th century
Bronze with traces of gilding
H. 20.6 W. 7.5 D. 5.5
Collection Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp, inv.no.AE.2004.2.1
Detail: close up
Buddhism reached Sri Lanka in the course of the third century BCE with the coming of Mahinda, son of the renowned Indian Emperor Ashoka. Mahinda introduced Theravada Buddhism, the ‘Way of the Elders’, which stemmed from the original Buddhist tradition in India. As in India, Mahayana Buddhism, the ‘Great Vehicle’ also evolved in Sri Lanka, bringing about a transition from a strict doctrine of salvation to a popular religious movement. And though the aniconic character of the earliest Buddhism (symbolic representations of the Buddha, such as the wheel, the empty throne, the tree of enlightenment, and so on) continued to survive in Sri Lanka, figures from the Mahayana pantheon became increasingly popular. This is true in the first place of the bodhisattvas, beings who postponed their Buddhahood until a future life in order to lead other beings to salvation. In ancient Sri Lanka, two bodhisattvas in particular enjoyed special worship, namely Avalokiteshvara, ‘he who looks on humanity with compassion’, and Maitreya, the ‘Buddha of the future’. At present Maitreya resides in Tushita Heaven, preparing his coming to earth.
Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is always depicted in ascetic garb,
a bodhisattva is usually adorned with princely garments. However,
in this standing representation (samapada)
Over his long, pleated loincloth he wears a tiger’s skin, the head, paws and tail still clearly recognizable.
A similar bronze figure of Maitreya was discovered in 1983 in the Girikandaka Vihara in Tiriyaya, in north-eastern Sri Lanka. The figure described above, however, is one of several Buddhist sculptures found in the Sarinda River district of eastern Kalimantan (Borneo).1 Probably they were imported from Sri Lanka in the seventh or eighth century. In southern Thailand in the province of Surat Thani, a fragment of a similar bronze bodhisattva was found. All of this points to the early dissemination of Buddhism from Sri Lanka into South-East Asia. The stable but graceful pose, the refined rendering of the hands, the contemplative but kindly facial features and the mastery of the casting technique attest to the high level Buddhist art attained elsewhere too in this period: late Gupta, Amaravati, Mon-Dvaravati, pre-Angkor.
1 See von Schroeder, 1990, pls. 60A-61H
all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp