Statues or icons are sometimes held in such reverence by devotees that they inspire faithful replicas. Such seems to have been the case with the intriguing work in the Asia Society's Vajrasana Buddha (Fig. 3a). While Ian Alsop has been able to identify the specific icon housed in the Potala in Lhasa that inspired dozens of surviving replicas, the eastern Indian image that inspired the Asia Society Vajrasana Buddha and others in the group is lost and thus does not permit the kind of ultimate confirmation that a surviving original would enable. And yet evidence that Tibetans and other Himalayan and Southeast Asian cultures were making replicas of this famous icon is quite substantial, as has been briefly argued in this essay. Chinese histories indicate that in the early eleventh century, an Indian monk at the Chinese court brought with him Buddhist relics, Sanskrit texts, and a “true likeness” of the Mahabodhi Vajrasana Buddha. 37 The earliest Tibetan reference the author has found to confirm that Tibetans were making replicas of the Mahabodhi Temple icon is that of a late-twelfth-century Tibetan pilgrim, Chagdracom (Tibetan: chag dgra bcom, 1152– ?). He is said to have bought garlands of flowers in the local market, which he would throw over the neck of the Bodh Gaya image every day he was at the site. 38 When he returned to Tibet, he is said to have made a golden image “as a substitute” for the Mahabodhi image.
By the time his nephew Chak Lotsawa (Tibetan: chag lo tsa ba chos rje dpal) arrived at Bodh Gaya in 1234, the Muslim invasions of North India had taken their toll—only four monks remained at this holiest of Buddhist sites. As described both by Chak Lotsawa and the earlier visitor, Xuanzang, besides the dominant temple, Bodh Gaya consisted of dozens of smaller temples, chapels, and monasteries. The main chamber of the Mahabodhi Temple had been bricked up and plastered, another image placed as camouflage in front of it. Chak Lotsawa left the site and stayed away for seventeen days until he heard that it was safe to return. By then, the inner sanctum was opened again and he was able to fulfill the prime ambition of his visit: to pay homage to the Vajrasana Buddha in the Mahabodhi Temple. He says the face alone was two cubits, about three feet high. 39 He did not otherwise describe the appearance of the image except to say that the eyes were said to have once been emeralds, recently removed by Turkish soldiers. He did, however, record his reactions to the statue: he was filled with an insatiable desire to continue gazing at it; no other image could hold a candle to its beauty, and when “even people with little faith [saw the statue, they] felt it impossible not to shed tears.” 40
Clearly, part of the image's appeal had to do with its symbolic and geographic associations with the faith's historical founder. Great significance would naturally be attributed to the icon of an earth-touching Buddha so near the very spot where Buddhists believe Shakyamuni experienced his great awakening. In the account of his travels to Bodh Gaya and surrounding sacred sites, Chak Lotsawa recounts a legend about the Vajrasana Buddha in the Mahabodhi Temple. The image was said to have been made by the son of a Brahman about eighty years after the Buddha's death. Once completed, it was appraised by a nun who had been a disciple of the Buddha. In general, she found the image to closely resemble the Buddha, but the statue is said to have differed from Shakyamuni in three important respects: Shakyamuni's cranial protuberance (ushnisha) was not visible; Shakyamuni was preaching (and the Mahabodhi image wasn't); the image was less lustrous than Shakyamuni's own body. Such legends, which link the statue so closely to Shakyamuni, could only have increased its importance for pilgrims. Thus, however his knowledge was obtained, the Tibetan artist who created the Asia Society Buddha in figure 3 has evidently paid homage to an eastern Indian medieval artistic tradition and, as has been argued, to an important and specific Buddhist icon.