UNKNOWN; Bust of the Buddha
By Tarun Nagesh
The image of the Buddha varies greatly between the many cultures where it has been depicted and worshipped. However, its manifestations are universally recognisable and are invested with an intangible power that transmits the virtue of the religion, conveying transcendental and divine sentiments even to those outside its faith. Restrained and modest in comparison to representations of other Buddhist figures, such as Bodhisattvas(1), the Buddha eschews high ornamentation and decorative attire. He is an enlightened being no longer concerned with earthly appearance and is envisioned as a humble, serene figure, as this new acquisition demonstrates. Bust of the Buddha reflects a specific point in the long history of this well-travelled faith, with its amalgamation of local and imported styles.
The establishment of the northern kingdom of Lanna and the central kingdom of Sukhothai towards the end of the thirteenth century marked the beginning of the first Thai state.(2) As these kingdoms grew, many Buddhist temples were built and the production of bronze objects reached a high level of sophistication. Lanna sculpture was heavily influenced by the northern Indian style of the Pala period (c.700–1200 CE), and, to some degree, Khmer sculpture. The artistic styles of the Lanna kingdom also had significant interaction with those of the Sukhothai kingdom to its south, which had links to Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka and was influenced by Khmer and Mon cultures.(3) Sculpture created in Lanna after the fourteenth century is often referred to as ‘Late Chiengsaen’ or ‘Chiang Mai type’, of which Bust of the Buddha is an example, and commonly exhibits a distinct Sukhothai influence.
The Sukhothai facial features are particularly stylised, with an emphasised brow and lines under the eyelids, a slightly pursed mouth and elongated ears (originally based on those of Indian nobles, which were stretched from wearing heavy jewels). The hair tapers into a dramatic flaming usnisha (a skull protuberance developed from the chignon of hair that appeared on early images of the Buddha), an aspect of representation that was increasingly emphasised in the Sukhothai period during the fourteenth century, and is now a noticeable characteristic in much Thai Buddhist art. Defined spirals of hair also appeared in some of their largest forms at this time, and several legends exist to explain their presence. These include a development of the wavy hair featured in Gandharan Buddhist art, an influence of classical Greco-Roman sculpture; and the story that snails once crawled onto Buddha’s head to protect him from the sun. Although a number of this sculpture’s facial features resemble a Sukhothai appearance, they are also imbued with local ethnic character. The shawl hanging diagonally from the left shoulder and falling down the centre of the chest is a particularly Sukhothai characteristic, adopted in the north after the arrival of sculptors from Phitsanulok at the end of the fourteenth century.(4) The bust is likely to have once been part of a near-life-sized standing sculpture, and had been in private collections in Europe since the 1960s.
After the long influence of Khmer and Mon styles on Thai Buddhist art, in the last two centuries it has developed its own pronounced character. Today, Buddhist imagery abounds in Thai society. In its art, design, festivals and ceremony, the faith manifests in highly decorative styles with an extravagant use of gold, colour and ornamentation, while the image of the Buddha continues to command the unwavering power and reverence it has known for centuries.
Tarun Nagesh, Artlines 3-2013, p.39
1 Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who refrain from entering Nirvana due to their compassion for those yet to achieve enlightenment.
2 Piriya Krairiksh, The Roots of Thai Art (trans. Narisa Chakrabongse), River Books, Bangkok, 2012, p.11.
3 Steve Van Beek and Luca Invernezzi Tettoni, The Arts of Thailand, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991, p.133. The Khmer people are the majority ethnicity of Cambodia, while Mon is an ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar) and parts of western Thailand.
4 Taken from John Eskenazi Ltd, London, provenance notes on Bust of the Buddha (E0888).