With the growing popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in the early centuries of the common era, large detached images of Buddha began to be sculpted alongside narrative friezes. This superbly executed sculpture of Shakyamuni, the Buddha who preached the first teachings of Buddhism, is characteristic of the high point of Gandharan art, among the very best in terms of refinement in carving and in an excellent state of preservation. His exquisitely carved face exudes the quietude of enlightenment and introspection, the halo indicating the light of his understanding and knowledge. The softly rounded cheeks nestling the rosebud lips, with the contours casting gentle shadows, model the flawless structure of the face, encapsulating the eternal youthfulness of the Buddha. Heavy eyelids frame his almond-shaped eyes, the upper and lower lids nearly spherical to emphasize the eyes, the pupils of which are incised. The undulating strands of hair and curls of the topknot are finely detailed, and the long and slightly tilted neck further enhances the elegance of the overall posture.
Based on Graeco-Roman prototypes, the sanghati delicately models his muscular shoulders and elegantly drapes across his torso and rounded thighs, revealing the softness of the flesh underneath. His right knee, bent in preparation to step forward, is revealed through the undulating folds of his robe. The skillful modeling of the body beneath the thin drapery distinguishes this figure among similar Gandharan works. Compare with a work from the Peshawar Museum, illustrated by H. Ingholt in Gandharan Art in Pakistan, New York, 1957, p. 111, fig. 207, in which the body is modeled with thicker contours as seen in the deep folds of the robe and stocky form beneath. In the present work, the drapery is softer, allowing the body’s slender shape and elegant posture to emerge, enhancing the meditative mood. The missing left hand would have been holding the folds of his sanghati and the right hand would have been raised in abhayamudra, which indicates freedom from fear.
The sculptor has also skillfully referenced Buddha’s earlier history as Prince Siddhartha by carving openings in the elongated earlobes where, as a prince, he would have worn heavy jewelry. This detail reminds the viewer that, while the Prince’s past was centered on excess, the absence of material goods – jewelry and fine clothing – emphasizes the Buddha’s renunciation of worldly attachments. Almost androgynous in appearance, the Buddha transcends gender, embodying the perfect balance of masculinity and femininity. While activated with energy, movement and life, the Buddha is simultaneously in a state of otherworldly tranquility, and is a superlative example of Gandharan craftsmanship.