Made from yellow-gold copper alloy and reddish copper, this sculpture (Fig. 3a) depicts the historical Buddha Shakyamuni on the threshold of enlightenment, his right hand in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra), as he calls the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment. The earth-touching Buddha captures the moment in which he triumphed over his final obstacle to liberation and is an iconographic type that was known in India as the “Diamond Seat,” or vajrasana Buddha. 14 It pays homage not only to the fact of the Buddha's enlightenment, but also to Bodh Gaya, the site in northeastern India where his enlightenment is said to have transpired. Indian legends are full of references to Bodh Gaya as the vajrasana, the diamond seat, the only place where all Buddhas, past, present, and future, did, do, and will attain enlightenment. The Asia Society's Life of Buddha plaque (Fig. 2) certainly also commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the metal statue illustrated in figure 3 has an even more particular association with the ancient pilgrimage site. It is one of several dozen surviving statues that appear to be copies of an especially sacred icon at Bodh Gaya, most likely the main image in the main temple at the site, the Mahabodhi Temple. The Asia Society Vajrasana Buddha statue and others in the group exhibit fidelity to a unique constellation of features, most notably a short neck, leading one to suppose that the original icon to which they all refer was a statue of the same iconography and stylistic features as is depicted in the group. It is likely to have been a massive image made with the same remarkable combination of metals—its body made from brassy copper alloy and the robe from red copper. The statue must have also had a short neck, as seen in the pilgrim models, and had the Buddha's right hand reaching for the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.
Some of the images in this group were made in India, and others were apparently made in Tibet, Burma, Nepal, and Central Asia. The Asia Society's statue (Fig. 3a) is virtually identical to one in the Nyingjei Lam Collection (Fig. 9a) not only in its style and iconography, but also in idiosyncratic details. The use of two contrasting metals for the Buddha—red copper for the robe and a copper alloy for his body—is a highly unusual feature in metal sculpture from the Himalayan region. The design of the throne cushion, which bears a “face of glory” (kirtimukha) on the front, is also unusual, as is the throne's iconography-with depictions of two lions looking over their shoulders, two forward-facing elephants, the earth goddess who bore witness to Shakyamuni's enlightenment, and a male figure whose attributes are difficult to discern but who, by context, can be identified as Mara, the god famed for his unsuccessful attempts to distract Shakyamuni just before his great awakening. Moreover, both sculptures exhibit essentially the same physiognomic features. The backs of both statues are also handled in a virtually identical manner, as are the backs of the semi-circular stepped bases.
The many parallels between the Buddhas in the Asia Society and the Nyingjei Lam collections are made even more interesting by the fact that dozens of other images may be described as falling into the same group. 15 All observe the essential stylistic and iconographic features exhibited in these two, with some works exhibiting minor variations. Previous writers have assigned works in this group to Burma and Tibet, and they are generally dated to the eleventh or twelfth century. A critical feature in this group is the subject's short neck, a rare occurrence in Himalayan sculpture, which to my knowledge appears only in this sub-group of earth-touching Buddhas.
An understanding of the group as a whole is crucial to the analysis of individual works in the group, and brief mention is therefore made to a related work in the National Museum, New Delhi, also depicting an earth-touching Buddha (Fig. 10). When it was first published in 1972, Pratapaditya Pal compared its style with that of a Life of the Buddha stele in the Cleveland Museum of Art, itself closely related to that in the Asia Society (Fig. 2). Pal ascribed the work a Burmese provenance largely because the Buddha figure exhibits a short neck, a feature traditionally supposed to be of Burmese origin, as noted above. 16 Woodward has argued that a short-necked Buddha, what he terms a “robust type” Vajrasana Buddha, may have been specifically associated with Bodh Gaya. Woodward cites other Indian examples of robust Vajrasana Buddhas, including that in a circa eleventh-century eastern Indian illuminated manuscript now in the Bharat Khala Bhavan in Varanasi (Fig. 11). And a Buddha at the center of an inscribed, circa twelfth-century eastern Indian lotus mandala is a quintessential example of the short-necked Buddha image (Fig. 12). 17 Thus, current scholarship, based on numerous such ninth- through twelfth-century examples, indicates that the roots of the short-necked earth-touching Buddha are to be found in eastern India. And some of these were Indian copies of the Mahabodhi Vajrasana icon.
The New Delhi image (Fig. 10) is important because its date and origin are clear: on stylistic grounds it can be attributed to eastern India during the medieval period (ca. 8th–12th century), an attribution further supported by the presence of a Sanskrit inscription which records the donation of the image by a Chinese pilgrim. 18 However, this image is unusual within the corpus of known material from eastern India, particularly in its use of two contrasting metals for body and robe, the cushion design, the semi-circular shape of the back of the throne, and the iconography depicted on the front of the throne. The Asia Society Buddha is made in similarly contrasting metals, the throne cushion is of the same design, and the throne itself is of the same general shape and iconography as the New Delhi example. It is the fidelity to this unique constellation of iconographic and stylistic features in the Asia Society example that leads one to suppose that it and others in the group are copies of an original image.
While rooted in the same eastern Indian traditions as the New Delhi Buddha (Fig. 10), the style of the Asia Society Buddha (Fig. 3a) departs from it in important ways. The facial features, for example, are not distinctively formed and show none of the classic character of the eastern Indian traditions. Moreover, many details on the statue are cursorily rendered: the figures on the throne base do not have fully delineated features and the Buddha's hair consists of mere bumps, rather than the prescribed snail curls. As has been discussed elsewhere, it would seem that the cursory appearance of many details of this image may be linked to attempts to replicate wear. 19 David Weldon and the author have already argued in some detail that the New Delhi Buddha is a medieval period eastern Indian pilgrim copy of an important icon associated with Bodh Gaya. 20 The Asia Society copper alloy Vajrasana Buddha is likely to be a Tibetan pilgrim's copy, with replicated wear to suggest the age of the original.
The Mahabodhi icon that inspired the New Delhi sculpture, the Asia Society Vajrasana Buddha, and others in the group is lost and thus does not allow one to provide the kind of ultimate confirmation that a surviving original would enable. However, pilgrim accounts of the medieval icon housed in the Mahabodhi Temple provide further confirmation that works such as the Asia Society Buddha were meant to serve as representations of the sacred icon at Bodh Gaya. Xuanzang, the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim wrote that he saw two ten-foot-high silver images of Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya in niches flanking the entrance to the Mahabodhi Temple. 21 Moreover, he noted that the central image of the shrine was difficult to see owing to the darkness of the sanctum deep within the temple and that it could only be seen early in the day with the help of a large mirror that caught the morning sun. He does not specify the material in which it was made. However, he notes that a large Buddha image in another shrine on the grounds was made of metal and that yet another important Buddha image cast in gold and silver, inlaid with gems and precious stones, was worshipped in the monks' residence. 22
Bodh Gaya, the Vajrasana Buddha, and the Practice of Making Copies of Sacred Icons
During the medieval period, pilgrims from Tibet, Burma, Nepal, China, and Southeast Asia journeyed to eastern India to study in its vast monastic universities and to visit its many sacred sites. Bodh Gaya, the site of the historical Buddha's enlightenment, was the premier pilgrimage destination for Buddhists throughout Asia. At this time, Bodh Gaya supported a large temple compound adjacent to the locale where Shakyamuni is said to have sat in meditation beneath the protective branches of an “enlightenment” or bodhi tree. A large temple still at the site, renovated by the British in the late nineteenth century, was certainly in existence during the late medieval period (11th–12th century), and it is the main image in this temple (Fig. 13) that the Asia Society statue may refer to. Clearly, part of the image's appeal had to do with its symbolic and geographic associations with the pivotal and legendary experience in the Buddha's life. Great significance would naturally be attributed to the statue of an earth-touching Buddha so near the very spot where Shakyamuni experienced his great awakening.
Figure 14 illustrates the main image in the Mahabodhi Temple today. It is an earth-touching Buddha, but the figure does not have a short neck. It is important to note, however, that historical records make quite clear that this pivotal image was changed many times. 23 The sculpture in figure 14 was moved to the shrine in the late nineteenth century by the British archaeologists J. D. Beglar and Alexander Cunningham, replacing a gilded stucco figure that had been enshrined there by Burmese worshipers a couple of decades earlier.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century when the British undertook a much-needed restoration of the Mahabodhi Temple, Beglar, Cunningham, and others involved in the restoration relied on a miniature model of the temple that was excavated at the site, and on models that had been recovered elsewhere. The Mahabodhi Temple was itself restored and renovated several times during the medieval period, and these architectural changes appear to have been reproduced in pilgrim models of the temple. A circa twelfth-century Burmese inscription mentions that before about 1093, the Burmese King Kyanzittha arranged for restorations at the site. These restorations included alterations to the spire of the Mahabodhi Temple, whereby a flamelike cusped arch was placed above the door at the foot of the spire, as seen in a model in the British Museum, London. 24 The model in figure 15a, now in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, does not exhibit the Burmese-style arch and may therefore be dated to before the end of the eleventh century.
The model of the Mahabodhi Temple illustrated in figure 15b is unique among the dozens of surviving replicas of the temple in that it includes (or still includes) a depiction of the temple's main image, seen in detail in figure 15b. It is a short-necked earth-touching Buddha. The sculptor of this Mahabodhi model has brought the temple's main icon forward so that it can be seen. In the actual temple, the main image is placed in the “womb chamber” (garbha grha), the temple's innermost chamber located under the spire, and would have been visible only by entering the shrine. This model suggests that at some point, the main image of the Mahabodhi Temple was a short-necked Vajrasana Buddha.
If there were an important short-necked vajrasana icon associated with Bodh Gaya at some point in its history, this would help to explain why one finds examples of short-necked earth-touching Buddhas in India, 25 Burma, Central Asia, Nepal, and Tibet—all cultures that had regular ties with this premier site of Buddhist pilgrimage. Among the twelfth- or early-thirteenth-century paintings uncovered among the ruins at the Tangut center of Kharakhoto in Central Asia are several that feature a short- necked Vajrasana Buddha. That in figure 16 presents the Buddha flanked by the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Maitreya. Behind the throne are branches of leaves, presumably intended to represent the bodhi tree. The painting exhibits a small vajra on the lotus seat, emphasizing that this is indeed the vajrasana (diamond seat) where Shakyamuni attained enlightenment. 26
A short-necked earth-touching Buddha certainly appears as the main image in the Vajrasana Chapel of the great stupa-temple complex in Central Tibet, the Kumbum at Gyantse (Fig. 17). The fifteenth-century Tibetan historian Jikme Drakpa (Tibetan: 'jigs med grags pa) states in his History of the Gyantse Rulers, written about forty years after the Kumbum was built, that this image was made “in the manner and likeness of the statue kept in the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya.” 27 The image in figure 18 makes clear that the stucco Vajrasana Buddha at Gyantse wears a red robe. Indeed, the Gyantse Buddha conforms to descriptions of the Vajrasana Buddha in the Sadhanamala, a circa eleventh- to twelfth-century Indian text. Three descriptions of the Vajrasana Buddha appear in the Sadhanamala, and one invocation explicitly states that the Vajrasana Buddha described is that of the Mahabodhi Temple. 28 This description states that the Buddha is seated with legs folded in the “diamond posture” (vajrasana), his right hand in earth-touching pose, his body is yellow-gold, and his robe is brown-red (bandhaka). He is also to be flanked by a gold Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, on his right, and by a white Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, on his left, just as one sees in the Gyantse sculpture.
Figure 19 is a detail of a short-necked earth-touching Buddha from a circa eleventh-century Nepalese painted bookcover in the Neotia Collection in Calcutta. The detail shows the Buddha flanked by Avalokitesvara and Maitreya, also with a tree—by context, the bodhi tree—behind his throne and thus emphasizing the setting at Bodh Gaya. Another preaching Buddha can also be seen in this detail, but it is not of the short-necked type, which reinforces the notion that the short-necked Buddha type was somehow particularly associated with the Vajrasana Buddha and with Bodh Gaya.
A twelfth-century eastern Indian manuscript cover (Fig. 20) depicts ten events from the life of the Buddha and explicitly equates a short-necked Buddha with Bodh Gaya. The scene depicting his enlightenment, seen in detail in figure 20, presents the Buddha within an easily recognizable Mahabodhi Temple. Featured is a short-necked earth-touching Buddha; Buddhas representing his teaching ministry, on either side, do not have short necks. Thus, it is clear that at least some images of earth-touching Buddhas with short necks are intended to refer to the main image in the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya.
As noted elsewhere in this essay, the group of images that includes the New Delhi eastern Indian medieval sculpture (Fig. 10) and the Tibetan example in the Asia Society (Fig. 3a) demonstrate fidelity to a unique constellation of iconographic and stylistic features, leading one to suppose that they all refer to a particular statue of a short-necked Vajrasana Buddha. This statue would have displayed the same iconography and stylistic features that are replicated in the group. It is likely to have been a massive image made with the same remarkable combination of metals—its body in brassy copper alloy and the robe in red copper. And it must have had a short neck, as seen in the pilgrim models, chin tucked in determination, right hand reaching for the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment. 29
Not all pilgrim models reproduced all of these elements. Presumably, those most faithful to the original reproduce many of the elements, like the Asia Society example in figure 3a. The Gyantse example in figures 17 and 18, clearly identified in historical sources as “in the manner and likeness of the statue kept in the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya,” belongs to this group even though it exhibits only the earth-touching iconography and the short neck. The Asia Society statue also exhibits the earth-touching iconography and a short neck, but it displays other features seen in the group, such as the fish-tail ending of the robe on his left shoulder. The back of figure 3 (Fig. 3b) shows a line denoting the hem of his robe, which is another hallmark of this group. 30
Familiarity with a related phenomenon in Himalayan art suggests that faithful copies of a revered icon reproduce an essential group of features, but that one finds noteworthy variations in some details. In 1990 Ian Alsop published pioneering research on a circa seventh-century image known as the Phakpa Lokesvara (Fig. 21), which is housed in a chapel by that name in the Potala in Lhasa. Alsop has shown that it inspired dozens of surviving replicas. 31 It is important to note that while the original statue that inspired these replicas is made of gilded wood, the pilgrim models were made in wood, ivory, stone, and copper alloy. They vary in size, and they vary quite considerably in some details. What makes it possible to identify these objects as representations of a sacred original is the presence of several otherwise unusual features: an extremely tall crown with hair falling in two lobes on either side, unique bell-shaped earrings, a low sash that falls across the thighs, the same stiff standing pose, and identical hand gestures. The copper alloy statue in figure 22 has a demonstrably late belt decoration, not delineated in the original, and even one of the primary iconographic details is absent-the earrings are not bell-shaped but a nondescript flower motif. Moreover, it has a seated Amitabha Buddha in the crown, while the original has a standing bodhisattva. Recently, Alsop has presented evidence for two more examples of replicas of sacred icons in Himalayan art, which also probably served as mementos for pilgrims. 32
As Janice Leoshko, a Bodh Gaya specialist, has noted with respect to architectural representations of the Mahabodhi Temple in Burma, Thailand, and Nepal: key elements are reproduced, such as the tall cubic spire with four corner towers, but beyond this, “time and local practice created representations, not duplicates, of the temple (Fig. 13).” 33 Thus, the thirteenth-century Mahabodhi Temple in Pagan and the fifteenth-century Wat Chet Yot in Chiengmai, Thailand also reproduce the shape of the main spire and the four corner towers but cannot otherwise be said to be faithful reproductions of the original (Figs. 23 and 24). 34 The same is true of the sixteenth-century Mahabauddha Temple in Patan, Nepal (fig. 25). 35 One sees a main spire reminiscent of the original and four corner towers, but the Nepalese have incorporated many architectural features not present in the original.
That particular statues were the destination of Himalayan pilgrimage is clear from a Prajnaparamita manuscript dated nepal samvat 135 (A.D. 1015), now in the Cambridge University Library. 36 It includes eighty-five illuminations of deities, thirty-two illustrating statues in their temples, each accompanied by a brief inscription that identifies the divinity and the location of the icon. As J. P. Losty of the British Library has noted, most places cited in the captions are in eastern India and Nepal, but some are in China, Java, Sri Lanka, and western and southern India. One of the illustrations, for example, depicts the Buddha statue in the temple at Pundavardhana in west-central Bengal (Fig. 26) while another depicts an enshrined Vajrapani statue in Uddiyana in northwestern India (Fig. 27). These enshrined statues, identified by captions, were clearly destinations for Buddhist pilgrims.