This large head of a bodhisattva, a compassionate Buddhist being who has deferred enlightenment in order to help other humans attain the same goal, was once part of a monumental Gandharan sculpture. Located on the busy Silk Road trade route between China and the Mediterranean, Gandhara was an important centre for the development of new traditions of Buddhist iconography, employing anthropomorphic depictions instead of symbolic representations of the Buddha.
Bodhisattvas are often depicted as princes. This sculpture displays some of the traditional symbolism associated with Buddhist art. The jewelled turban, complete with a lion holding a string of pearls in its mouth, reminds worshippers of material and spiritual wealth, as well as the bodhisattva’s earthliness. The forehead indentation once held a precious stone that marked the urna, a mole between the brows, which is a recurring mark (lakshana) of a great being in Buddhist art.
Mediterranean styles first travelled to central and south Asia with Alexander the Great. During the Kushan period, Gandharan art reflected a number of these influences. In this sculpture, the legacy of Greek art can be seen in the naturalistic facial features and modelling of the figure, and in the bold griffin-like winged dragon ornaments on the headdress.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008