About the NM Buddhist Collection

The Museum houses an exquisite collection of Buddhist art beginning from the early historical periods of Maurya, Shunga, and Satvahana Dynasties from the 3rd century BCE onwards to Chola sculptures dating to 15th century CE. These masterpieces in the exhibition narrates the development of Buddhist art traditions as well as historical and cultural turn of events that led to the making of a Buddhist visual culture. The exhibition looks eight conceptual stopovers through the interactive interface of 3-D photography. These are, Jatakas – a Prelude to Indian Art; Aniconism – the Unmanifest in Early Indian Art; Imaging the Glory of Historical Buddha, Future Buddha, and the Crowned Buddha; Narrating the Life and Teachings of Buddha; The Eternal Vow of Bodhisattvahood; Female Deities in Buddhist Art – an Evolving Pantheon; Tantric Deities and Ritualism; and Spread of Buddhism Across Asia. The early period of ancient Buddhist art is identified through the worship of aniconic symbols depicting Buddha. With an increase in large-scale stupa building, the representation of jatakas as narrative reliefs on stone slabs and roundels for ornamentation on the stupas was a prominent juncture in ancient Indian art. In addition, the use of symbols to convey significant events from Buddha’s life marked the beginning of diverse narrative modes in early Buddhist art. The Kushana period (1st – 3rd century CE) ushered in a visually captivating phase of the iconic form of worship of the Buddha. A physical form was ascribed to the Buddha, culminating into a corpus of Buddhist iconography and narrative art inspired by the sutra tradition and religious codices. The cosmopolitan culture of the Kushan Dynasty led to the development of two prominent schools of art in Gandhara and Mathura. The Gupta period (4th – 6th century CE) brought a nuanced aesthetic style to the sculptures of Buddha through the sanghati, treatment of halo, and body musculature. The classical idiom of the meditative and the otherworldly glance created a detached persona of the Buddha which became an aesthetic component of classical Buddhist art also seen in Central Asian and Far East Asian art.

During the medieval period, Buddhist art patronized by the Pala-Sena rulers (8th – 12th century CE) in eastern India paved the way for the development of tantric or esoteric Buddhism. The sculptures of Shakyamuni Buddha, Panchatathagatas, Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Prajnaparamita, Chunda, Marichi, Jambhala, among others, depict the convergence of the Mahayana and the Vajrayana Schools. The Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript with richly illuminated folios and wooden covers showcasing events from Buddha’s life and Vessantara Jataka, also brings our attention to the monastic establishments of Nalanda, Kurkihar, Vikramshila, etc. as prominent centres of Buddhist scholasticism which were known all across East Asia and Southeast Asia.