Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Relief depicting the birth of the Buddha


    • Ground floor | Room 12 | India to 600

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  • Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

    Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

    Since the Buddha was a historical figure, incidents in his life, as in that of Christ, have always been a favourite with painters and sculptors. Of these, his birth numbers amongst the most important, along with his conception, his achievement of illumination under the Bodhi-tree at Bodhgaya, the first sermon preached in the deer park at Sarnath, the great miracle at Śrāvastī, and the parinrivāna or death, of which the Museum holds the companion piece to the birth.

    Traditionally, the Buddha is shown being born from the right side of his mother, to be received by the god Indra. He wears a halo, as do the heads of several other male figures, all presumably Hindu gods. Their presence attests to their role in Buddhism: they are simply enlisted as particularly eminent worshippers of the Buddha.

    Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, is seen holding a frond of the highly stylised foliage canopy above her. This refers to the immemorial fertility association in India between a young girl and a tree, recorded in countless carvings (sālabhañjikās) where a young woman bends or clings to the foliage of a tree. On her proper left stands a young woman carrying a pot of consecrated water, essential at such an event, and probably a stick of sugar cane. The upward billowing curve of her scarf is a Western Asian and classical motif.

    The attempt at illusionist carving and the treatment of the draperies all strongly suggest Roman reliefs of the first and second centuries A.D. The influence of the classical west is to a greater or lesser degree all-pervasive in Gandhara. At the same time the costumes and turbans are Indian, with the exception of Māyā’s tunic-like upper garment, which is ethically Kuṣāṇa.

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