Part II...    Buddhist Iconography

by Terri Cotta

The earliest representations of the Buddha were symbolic. For example, his Birth was represented by a flowering lotus, his Enlightenment bv a bodhi tree, the First Sermon by a wheel, sometimes with a deer beneath it. and his Mahaparinirvana by a stupa (Thai, chedi), the funerary or reliquary monument derived from the early Indian burial mound, which is now an essential element in every Thai temple complex. These symbols have remained a prominent feature of Buddhist iconography ever since. Later, depictions of the Buddha himself and of scenes from his Life were rendered with varying degrees of realism in free-standing and relief sculptures and in mural and manuscript paintings, and a complex iconography developed. 

Lan Na seated Buddha 13th - 14th century

Among the most frequently illustrated episodes are the Great Renunciation, when Prince Siddhartha decides to become a wandering ascetic and bids farewell to his sleeping wife and son in the palace, the Great Departure, when he rides away, accompanied by Indra, depicted in green, and Brahma, who carries a monk's robes and alms bowl, his horse's hooves held up by celestial creatures to prevent them making a sound that might wake the palace guards; and the Cutting of the Hair, when he cuts off all his hair with a sword to symbolize his severance of worldly ties and his adoption of the life of an ascetic, after which his hair ceases to grow.
Another popular scene shows him, after five years of extreme mortification, during which he reduces his food to a single grain of rice a day, being approached by Indra with a three-stringed lute. One string is so loose that it makes no sound when plucked, and the third string is so taut that it snaps, but the middle string is stretched to just the right degree and produces a beautiful sound when Indra strikes it. Gautama understands that the middle string represents the Middle way, the way of moderation, and that this alone will lead to understanding and enlightenment, and so he ends his fast and accepts a meal prepared for him in a golden bowl by a rich noble lady called Sujata, who, seeing him surrounded by rays of light, thinks he is a god.    Among the most popular of all subjects in Thai Buddhist art are the Buddha in meditation being sheltered from the rain by the hood of the naga king Mucalinda and raised up from the flood by his coils, and the Buddha's victory over Mara, when, seated under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in deep meditation, 

The Buddha of Grahi, dated 1291, from wat Wieng, Chaiya, Surat Thani, now in the national Museum, Bangkok.

Early U Thong seated Buddha, 13th century

 he is assailed by the evil tempter Mara, his daughters and his army of demons, and when Dharani, the earth goddess, bears  witness to his good deeds  by wringing out of her hair the lustral water that contains all his merits. The gesture (mudra) most frequently used in Thai Buddha images is that of calling the earth to witness (bhumisparsa mudra), which symbolizes this victory over Mara and is therefore often called the Maravijaya mudra. Other popular subjects include the Buddha's First Sermon; his Ascent into the Tavatimsa Heaven to convert his mother and his Return from there accompanied by Indra and Brahma; the Taming of the Nalagiri Elephant sent by his cousin and rival Devadatta to crush him; his last Meal; his Death and  Obsequies: and the Distribution of the Relics.

The iconography of images of the Buddha, like that of Brahmanic deities, has to follow certain precise specifications regarding their physical features, dress, adornments and attributes, postures and gestures. Furthermore, since every image is sacred and imbued with supernatural powers, being not only a portrait of the historical Buddha, but also a representation of Buddhist doctrine, the sculptor, who is always anonymous, does not attempt to produce a lifelike human figure, but tries to reproduce as exactly as possible an idealized model of the Buddha as a great man or mahapurusa, who, having attained Buddhahood as a result of merit gained in previous existences, has become a universal ruler or cakravartin. The mahapurusa is distinguished by 32 primary and 80 secondary auspicious marks or signs (laksana), which are described in the early Sanskrit and Pali texts.  Some of these, such as the acute sense of taste and the soft hands and feet, cannot, of course, be portrayed except symbolically, but others have been represented with varying degrees of literalism in different periods, such as the projecting  heels, the arms like an elephant's

Seated Buddha images in the bhumisparsa mudra, Wat Pho, Bangkok.

trunk and reaching down to the knees, the fingers of equal length, the nose like the beak of a parrot, the chin like a mango, the mole between the eyebrows (urna), the elongated ear-lobes, the protuberance on the head (usnisa) like a royal turban. with a flame or a jewel issuing from it, and the golden glow of the skin like bronze, which shines through the robe and makes it appear transparent (this is usually rendered by gilding or by the indication of the edge of  the robe by incised lines and by the absence of any draperies, and occasionally by a nimbus or halo surrounding the whole body). Some of the iconographic features commonly found in Thai Buddha images are not mentioned in the ancient texts, for example:

 the clockwise direction of the curls of the hair and the elongated ear lobes denoting the Buddha's abandonment of princely adornments after the Great Departure. All three of the garments worn by Buddhist monks the undercloth (antarasaka), the robe (uttarasanga) and the shawl (sanghati), known collectively as the tricivara-play an important part in Buddhist iconography, as do certain princely adornments associated with the royal Birth of the Buddha or with the idea of him as a cakravartin, such as crowns and diadems, earrings, necklaces, jeweled belts, armlets and anklets.  In Thailand the Buddha is always portrayed in one of four positions-seated, standing, walking or reclining. The reclining position is only used to represent the Buddha at the moment of passing into Mahaparinirvatia, while freestanding images of the walking Buddha do not occur before the Sukhothai period in the 13 century. 

The majority of Buddha images of all  periods in Thailand are in a seated yogic posture (asana), usually the virasana or paryankasana (hero position), or the vajrasana (adamantine position),also known as the padmasana (lotus position), or occasionally the so-called European position (bhadrasana or pralamba- padasana), with both feet on the ground and legs apart, as if seated on a throne.The gestures of the hand (mudras) are also of special significance in Buddhist iconography. The six most important of these are the abhaya mudra (bestowing protection, dispelling fear), the dhyana mudra (meditation), the vara or varada mudra (bestowing charity), the vitarka mudra (teaching, 

Reclining Buddha image, Sukhothai 14th 15th Century, wat Bowon Niwet, Bangkok

 reciting doctrine), which in some images, notably those of the Dvaravati school, is performed with both hands. in which case it refers to the Descent from the Tavatimsa Heaven, the dharmacakra mudra (setting the Wheel of the Law in motion), and, as we have already seen, by far the most frequent. the bhumisparsa mudra (calling the earth to witness). Changes and variations in the treatment of these iconographic features laksanas, dress and adornments, asanas and mudras-provide one of the principal means by which Buddhist sculpture can be dated and classified.


              Copyright 1998 USMTA Inc.  All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004.