This rare bronze figure of a buddha sits in a meditative posture, his hands overlapping so that the fingertips on each of his hands reach just beyond his opposite wrist. The roundness of his downcast eyes is emphasized by the light-catching silver inlay contrasting with the copper inlay of the full lips. He is modeled with pronounced facial features, a notably short neck, round shoulders, tubular limbs, and robust proportions. The rice-grain hem of his robe, draped over the left shoulder, comes to a narrow, folded end at the shoulder in the shape of a swallow’s tail. Despite the lions adorning his square lotus throne, which typically support the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, this buddha remains iconographically unidentifiable and may represent Shakyamuni or Amitabha.
While few published examples share these stylistic details, a similar figure of a buddha, with an almost identically unusual representation of dhyanamudra, can be found in the collection of the British Museum (acc. no. 1966,0216.1). The British Museum describes the sculpture as an 8th-century Kashmiri work, whereas Ulrich von Schroeder attributes it to the sixth-century in Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 112 fig. 13A. Both attributions are certainly based on the Gupta-style, full facial features and the medieval Indian-style inlay used to render the figure’s eyes and lips. The present figure certainly shares these features but is not as worn from handling, possibly suggesting a later date.
Other noticeable differences between the British Museum example and the present figure indicate a different place of origin. The distinctly Tibetan features of the present example include the details of the throne, which the Kashmiri example lacks entirely. The more-structured lotus petals and lions resemble those in early Tibetan paintings from central Tibet. As Rhie and Thurman point out in their entry for this sculpture within their 1991 publication Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, p. 344, this image is representative of the equal influence of Kashmiri and central-Tibetan styles at play in Western Tibet. The Kingdom of Ladakh, for instance, had close commercial ties with Kashmir during the period of the second dissemination known as the Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950-1200). Moreover, lions were often used indiscriminately within this early Tibetan tradition to adorn the thrones of deities, a tradition to which fourteenth-century murals at Shalu Monastery in Shigatse attest. Taking those considerations into account, the figure’s mudra makes it impossible to say whether this is the historical Buddha Shakyamuni or the tathagata Amitabha, who is typically represented with his hands in dhyanamudra. What is certain, however, is that this image was made during a critical period of artistic evolution in Tibet.