An Overview of Buddhist Images in Gandhara, Sri Lanka, Tibetan Religious Art

As Buddhism was introduced to different regions, Buddhist images vary after being imbued with local culture and history. Let’s us take a look at several sculptures made in Gandhara, Tibet and Sri Lanka to see how their images and craftsmanship differ under the influence of different Buddhism practices.

A Schist Head of Buddha, Ancient Region of Gandhara, circa 3rd century|US$80,000-120,000

A Schist figure of Preaching Buddha, Ancient Region of Gandara, 3rd/ 4th century|US$60,000-80,000

Looking at Gandhara sculptures may remind you of the ancient Greek sculptures. To understand the relationship between Gandhara and Greece, we need to trace back to the time when Alexander the Great (356-323BC) marched eastward and conquered Gandhara, an ancient kingdom situated in the northwestern region of Pakistan, in 327BC. He introduced the culture of Greek sculptures to Gandhara, which became the hub of various cultures, arts and religions.

A Schist figure of Buddha, Ancient Region of Gandhara, circa 3rd century

The figures were carved with heavy eyelids, sharp nose, thin mouth, curly hair and Greek himation, resembling Hellenistic art. Like the present sculpture, the classic Gandharan style can also be seen in the treatment of his heavy monastic robe wrapping around his neck in thick layers and forming U-shaped folds on his legs with a convincing sense of gravity.

The Gandhāran style flourished and achieved its peak during the Kushan period, from the 1st to the 5th centuries. It declined and was destroyed after the invasion of the White Huns in the 5th century.

A Copper Alloy Figure of Buddha. Sri Lanka, Kandyan Period, 18th Century|US$50,000-70,000

The Kandyan style is represented by the sculpture

Buddhism practice in Sri Lanka and countries in mainland Southeast Asia is commonly known as ‘Southern Buddhism’. Theravāda, the most ancient branch of extant Buddhism, arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (307-267BC) and subsequently spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. It is the dominant form of religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

The example here is of Kandyan period's highly abstracted figurative style, sensitively modelled with his right hand offering reassurance (abhaya mudra). The Kingdom of Kandy emerged as the pre-eminent Sinhalese political authority and patron of Buddhism by the 17th century. Two predominant forces inform the style of Kandyan Buddhist art: one is the continuance of Sinhalese tradition in depicting Buddha with a broad body type wrapped in a pleated robe, set by colossal statues of the Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa periods, such as the Avukana Buddha and the sculptures of Gal Vihara. The other is a South Indian tradition of expressing dynastic identity through artistic patronage of religious objects, expressed with enthusiasm by the Nayak princes, who were invited to assume Kandy's throne after its last Sinhalese king died without an heir in 1747.

Buddha Shakyamuni, Kandy period 18th century, gilt copper alloy with partial black coating|Los Angeles County Museum of Art

It’s possible that the sculpture was surmounted with a siraspata, which is now lost

Something is missing in the present sculpture when you compare it with other Buddhist examples of Kandy period. The gilt copper alloy figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Kandy period 18th century, which was displayed in an exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shares resemblances in the treatment in the countenance, body and robe with the one above. The most striking difference is the five-fold flame placed on the top of the Buddha’s curled hair.

It is called Siraspata, signifying supreme enlightenment. It is an iconic feature of Buddhist figures from Sri Lanka starting from the 8th century. The size of Siraspata got even bigger during the Kandy period. The bumpy surface on the head of this sculpture suggests a possibility that Siraspata was also part of the sculpture, though it is now lost.

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Panjaranata Mahakala. Tibet, Circa 17th Century|US$800,000-1.2m

‘Northern Buddhism’ refers to Buddhism practised in East Asia and the Tibetan region – particularly China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, and Vietnam. It’s also sometimes used to refer specifically to Tibetan Buddhism.

Mahakala is a category of Tantric Buddhist deity who commonly functions as a protector of the religion and its followers (Dharmapala). It comes in different manifestations with the most notable variation in the numbers of arms. Six-armed Mahakala, four-armed Mahakala and two-armed Mahakala are some common manifestations. Mahakala is usually depicted with dark-blue or even black colours.

Known as "Lord of the Pavilion", this two-armed form of Mahakala is the guardian of the Hevajra Tantra. The Hevajra Tantra is mainly practised by the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism, and thus Panjaranata is considered the Sakya's principal protector deity as well.

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Kapaladhara Hevajra. Central Tibet, Circa 1430-1450|US$250,000-350,000

Hevajra is one of the main yidams in Tantric. The yidam Hevajra coupled with his consort Nairatmya dissolve in yabyum is a prized subject in Tibetan sculpture.

Hevajra is the principal meditational deity of the high Anuttarayoga Tantras and Nairatmya is a tantric form of Prajnaparamita, the Mother of all Buddhas. Here, Hevajra's sixteen radiating arms carry skull cups containing eight animals on one side, representing the Eight Diseases, and eight deities on the other side, representing the accomplished relief from each disease.

Highlights from Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art at Bonhams New York

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Panjaranata Mahakala
Tibet, Circa 17th Century

Lot no.: 928
Height: 27.5cm
Sotheby's, New York, 17 June 1993, lot 24
Estimate: US$800,000 - 1,200,000

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Kapaladhara Hevajra
Central Tibet, Circa 1430-1450

Lot no.: 924
Height: 19.5cm

  • Private Swiss Collection, purchased in Nepal in 1960s
  • Koller, Zurich, 2 and 3 June 2015, lot 120

Estimate: US$250,000 - 350,000

A Schist Head of Buddha
Ancient Region of Gandhara, Circa 3rd Century

Lot no.: 886
Height: 36.2cm

  • French Private Collection, acquired in the 1960s
  • ArtCurial, Paris, 11 June 2018, no.162

Estimate: US$80,000 - 120,000

A Schist Figure of Preaching Buddha
Ancient Region of Gandhara, 3rd/4th Century

Lot no.: 884
Height: 89cm

  • Private Dutch Collection by 1958
  • Thence by descent

Estimate: US$60,000 - 80,000

A Schist Figure of Buddha
Ancient Region of Gandhara, Circa 3rd Century

Lot no.: 881
Height: 67.3cm

  • Sotheby's London, 3rd December 1956, lot 42
  • Vérité Collection, France, 1956-2009
  • Drouot, Paris, 18 October 2009, lot 4

Estimate: US$60,000 - 80,000

A Copper Alloy Figure of Buddha
Sri Lanka, Kandyan Period, 18th Century

Lot no.: 870
Height: 39cm

  • Private Collection, US, by 1957
  • Thence by descent

Estimate: US$50,000 - 70,000

Auction details

Auction house: Bonhams New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art
Lots offered: 164
14-18 March 2019|10am - 5pm
19 March 2019|10am - 3pm
Auction date: 19 March|5pm