This well-known image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya provides a beautiful and illustrative example of the style and iconography of sculptures from the site of Prakhon Chai in northeast Thailand. The elegant four-armed bodhisattva stands with his feet apart in a slightly relaxed pose. He wears a short hip wrap that ties to the left and is further supported with a simple knotted cord. His long hair with its loose curls is piled into a coiffure known as a jatamukuta that is typical of sculptures from Prakhon Chai as are his lithe, slightly muscled figure, youthful face, and serene, introspective gaze. The quality of stillness inherent in Maitreya's posture and downcast eyes gives this sculpture a sense of spirituality that is characteristic of works in the Prakhon Chai style.
The Asia Society’s piece is one of the largest of a group of bronze sculptures discovered in 1964 in the underground burial chamber of a temple precinct at Prakhon Chai in present-day Buriram Province. Ranging in height from a few inches to nearly five feet, the sculptures from Prakhon Chai include representations of Buddhas and other figures, with a majority depicting the bodhisattvas Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara. Fragments of a colossal bodhisattva excavated at Ban Thanot in Nakhon Ratchisimi Province further to the north, and a group of three images that were found at Ban Fai and presented to The National Museum in Bangkok in 1971, also illustrate the style associated with Prakhon Chai. In addition, many works in public and private collections have been attributed to this region due to their similarities with the material unearthed there.
Sculptures, generally representations of Buddhist deities or Hindu gods, predominate in the visual arts of South Asia. Due to the paucity of historical documents, such icons also play an important role in understanding the history of the region, particularly in the second half of the first millennium C.E. International trade, which flourished during this period, spurred both the development of independent polities and the adoption of Indian religious practices and imagery. Prior to the discovery of the Prakhon Chai material, study of the art of mainland Southeast Asia had focused on two interrelated traditions, one associated with the Dvaravati cultures of the Mons in Thailand, and the other with early Khmer sites in Cambodia. Sculptures found at Prakhon Chai show an awareness of these contemporaneous styles. This understanding indicates that early Southeast Asian sculpture, long studied in terms of the adoption of Indian aesthetics, also illustrates the sharing of regional traditions. Parallels to sites such as Kompong Preah (706-800) in Cambodia provide a chronological framework for the material from Prakhon Chai. The relaxed posture, harmonious proportions, and refined modeling of the Maitreya in the Asia Society help date the work to the middle of the 8th century. Pieces with thinner, less modeled physiques, and denser and more detailed curls of the hair are thought to date towards the end of the period.
Identified by the tower-like stupa in his headdress, Maitreya is one of the more distinctive figures in the Buddhist pantheon. He is worshipped both as the Buddha of the next age, and as a transcendent bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has chosen to remain on earth to help and guide adherents in their spiritual quests. In early Indian Buddhist art, bodhisattvas are commonly depicted as regal figures wearing jewels and other adornments. After the 5th century, they are also shown as ascetic or quasi-ascetic figures wearing short, simple wraps, no jewelry, and long matted hair. This change may reflect the development of the esoteric or tantric form of Buddhism, which was becoming important during this period. Female divinities, multiheaded and multi-armed bodhisattvas, and the placement of deities in mandala-like arrangements also reflect the evolution of this branch of Buddhism, which is best known today in the form practiced in Tibet and other Himalayan regions.
The use of a stupa as Maitreya's emblem, which dates from the same period, may also derive from the growth of Buddhist esotericism. Stupas, the earliest Buddhist monuments preserved in India, began as solid hemispherical domes that were used to mark the remains of a great leader or teacher. They were incorporated into early Buddhist art as symbols of the continuing presence of Shakyamuni Buddha (the name given to Siddhartha Gautama, who died ca. 400 B.C.E.; traditional dates, ca. 560-483 B.C.E.), the founder of the religion after his parinirvana or final transcendence. They also serve as reminders of the path he defined for his followers. In later Buddhist traditions, bodhisattvas and other deities are often grouped into Buddha-families, each of which is headed by one particular Buddha. It is possible that the stupa in Maitreya's headdress is intended to refer to the Buddha Amoghasiddhi, who is the spiritual head of Maitreya's family.
Both regal and ascetic images of bodhisattavas are found in Southeast Asia from the 7th through the 9th century. The Prakhon Chai material, however, is distinctive for its emphasis on bodhisattvas as ascetics. Both images of Maitreya, such as the work in the collection of the Asia Society, and those of Avalokiteshvara, identified by an image of the Buddha Amitabha seated in his headdress, wear the skimpy wraps, cloth belts, and long matted hair that are characteristic of ascetics. In addition, at least two small sculptures of seated ascetics -- a type unknown elsewhere in Southeast Asia -- have been attributed to Prakhon Chai. These pieces and the stress on asceticism in the imagery of the bodhisattvas suggest that austerities of some type may have played a role in Buddhist practices in northeast Thailand during the period when the magnificent bronze sculptures in the Prakhon Chai style were produced.