This superb figure of a bodhisattva is a paragon of Gandharan schist sculpture, its abundance of intricately carved details matched in quality by the extraordinary naturalism of the youthful figure and the large scale of the sculpture. Depicting an unidentified bodhisattva in the regal dress of an Indian prince, the figure captures the spiritual enlightenment of a semi-divine being who has postponed nirvana in order to act as a compassionate guide to those seeking enlightenment on earth.
With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in the first few centuries of the Common Era, bodhisattvas took on a new and profound importance in Buddhist worship. While earlier practice had focused on the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, and for the populist masses, worship of the Buddha’s relics as enshrined in the stupa, the sutras of Mahayana Buddhism expanded on the role of bodhisattvas as cult deities worthy of worship in their own right. Perhaps the two most important of the bodhisattvas within the new forms of worship were Maitreya, considered to be the buddha of the future, and Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. These two figures can be found flanking the central figure of Buddha Shakyamuni in the important triad from the present collection (lot 609); Avalokiteshvara is in this case identified by the small image of Buddha in his turban, while Maitreya is missing his identifying attribute but would have likely held a water pot in his proper left hand.
The present figure is missing the attributes that would have allowed for instant recognition by worshippers, but it is likely the figure was intended to represent Avalokiteshvara. In the tropes of the mature Gandharan style, Maitreya is often depicted with long, curly locks of hair, either held in a topknot on top of the head or secured in beaded strands of pearls that crisscross the bun on top of his head, and usually holds a water pot. In contrast, Avalokiteshvara is sometimes shown holding a flower in his pendent left hand (giving rise to his epithet, Padmapani, literally, ‘holder of the lotus’), and wearing an elaborate jeweled turban. See, for example, a large schist figure of Avalokiteshvara in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, illustrated by P. Pal in Indian Sculpture, vol. 1, Los Angeles, 1986, p. 167, no. S45, in which the turbaned bodhisattva holds a lotus blossom in his pendent left hand.
In the Gandharan context, the turban found on images of bodhisattvas (and in particular, Avalokiteshvara) is perhaps the most important symbol of royal regalia and divine status. While the basic form of the turban is found in images of yakshas as early as the Mauryan period (4th-2nd century BCE), and became a common motif in chauri bearer figures in Mathuran Buddhist art, the representation of the turban reached its apogee in ornamentation in the mature Gandharan style. The ebullience of decoration and complexity is executed in the present lot with particular aplomb. The folds of the turban are wrapped around the head, and secured above the forehead with a circular medallion carved in the form of a bezel-cut gem, which is flanked on either side by the addorsed faces of makaras, their mouths agape. Stemming from the makara faces at center is a band with the torsos of lions emerging frontally, their paws supporting strands of pearls; this motif is found in earlier images of Kushan kings, including a red sandstone figure of Huvishka, from circa 40 CE, now in the Government Museum, Mathura. Apart from their royal connotations, the lions may reference the form of Avalokiteshvara known as Simhanada, meaning the “lion’s roar,” signifying Avalokiteshvara’s role as a reciter of the Buddha’s teachings (the lion in this case being the lion of the Shakya clan, Gautama Buddha).
The centerpiece of the turban, and the area most often elaborately decorated, was the tufted cockade at the front of the head, where loose folds of fabric were pulled through a knot and elaborately arranged to support an ornamental sarpeche or diadem. In many instances of Gandharan sculpture, and indeed as is the case in the present example, the tufted cockade was separately carved and inserted into a keystone-shaped mortice (although in many cases, the separately-carved cockade was lost or damaged). Extant examples of bodhisattva figures with remaining cockades do exist, however, and there are even examples of the cockades themselves, separated from their intended figures. From among these remaining examples, there are several distinct types or tropes that can be identified. One type, depicting a seated figure of Buddha (and as previously mentioned, found on the figure of Avalokiteshvara from lot 609), is commonly associated with Avalokiteshvara, and in subsequent centuries and amidst disparate cultures, becomes the key identifying attribute of that particular bodhisattva. Another type depicts a figure of Garuda abducting a female nagini which borrows aesthetically from the Hellenistic myth of Ganymede being abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle. A third type shows a lion emerging frontally from the center of the cockade with pearls hanging from his paws, in a manner not dissimilar from the lions at the sides of the turban in the present lot. Both the Garuda and lion motifs can be found in later images of Vishnu, demonstrating the syncretism and confluence of religions in the Gandharan region (for further discussion of this topic, see C. Bautze-Picron, “A Neglected Aspect of Vishnu Iconography and other Gods and Goddesses,” Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, New Series, vols. XXVIII & XXIX, 2011-2013, pp. 81-92).
The lavish decoration of the figure extends to the luxurious jewelry in which the bodhisattva is bedecked. The proper right ear is pierced with addorsed torsos of lions supporting strands of pearls, repeating the motif found on the turban. Further down, his chest is adorned with a series of necklaces and sacred threads, each based on actual jewelry types that are known from found extant examples. Closest to his neck is a wide torc decorated with medallions carved in the form of faceted gems and interspersed by strands of pearls. Over the torc hangs a heavy five-chained necklace joined at the chest with dragon-head-form clasps, which are in turn connected by another faceted gem. Such necklaces were likely made by joining thousands of small gold loops into larger chains, as evidenced by an example found at Dalverzine-tepe in Uzbekistan, illustrated by C. Woodford Schmidt in “The Sacred and Secular: Jewellery in Buddhist Sculpture in the Northern Kushan Realm,” The Jewels of India, Bombay, 1995, p. 31, fig. 14. Another multi-strand chain necklace hangs diagonally across his chest, and at one point would have looped over his proper right shoulder; the thin section of stone that spans the gap from his chest to shoulder was at one point completely carved in openwork, demonstrating a virtuosity on the part of the sculptor. The final strand of jewelry runs from his proper left shoulder to the right side of his ribcage, and supports small beads and amulet boxes which would have held rolled up sutras; extant examples of this form can be found in the collection of the British Museum (acc. no. 1880.29).
The bodhisattva’s upper robes are draped languidly over the proper left shoulder, and have been carved to suggest the form of a foliate armlet at the proper left bicep, which at one time would have been mirrored by an exposed armlet at the other arm. One part of the upper garment hangs dynamically in a wide swoop across the upper thighs from hip to hip, while the folds of the lower garment, the dhoti, fall rhythmically to the ankles. The dhoti is secured at the waist with a rope-form belt, synched with an elaborate knot, and the belt itself is incised with a repeating pattern and the ends terminate in reliquary-form beads. The feet of the bodhisattva are clad in sandals with lion-head beads spouting strands of pearls that form the thongs of the sandals, again repeating the motif found in the turban and earrings.
The front of the base upon which the bodhisattva stands depicts figures in adoration of a meditating bodhisattva, possibly Maitreya, based on the style of hair and decoration of the figure.
Compare the present figure with a monumental gray schist figure of a bodhisattva sold at Christie’s New York, 13 September 2016, lot 229; both figures are similarly garbed and adorned, although the latter example is considerably more worn than the present figure, which is in a particularly fine state of preservation.