Although Buddhism began in approximately the fifth century b.c., the earliest extant Buddhist sculpture can be found in conjunction with the first appearance of stone monastic architecture, dating only to the second century b.c. These earliest monastic complexes are both free-standing (as at Bhārhut) and rock-cut (as at Bhājā), but in all instances the earliest sculptural decoration is composed mainly of deities and spirits associated with popular religious practices. Along with these images of local deities, who seem to have functioned as guardians, we also occasionally find bas-relief narrative scenes depicting moments from the Buddha's life, as well as scenes detailing the events of his many past lives, known collectively as Jataka (birth) tales. However, in none of these sculptures is the Buddha himself ever depicted. In fact, no images of the Buddha were made prior to the late first century a.d. Even when artists sculpted narrative scenes, they would depict all of the major figures with the exception of the Buddha. Often his presence would be implied by the nature of the action in the scene, or would be indicated by the appearance of a symbol, such as a footprint, an empty seat, or an umbrella. Some scholars refer to this period prior to the first appearance of the Buddha's sculptural image as the "aniconic phase."
There has been some debate as to whether the earliest Buddha images were made in the northwestern region of Gandhara (in parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) or in central India near the city of Mathura. The use of Buddha images seems to have become popular in both regions at roughly the same time, the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century a.d. During these centuries, both areas were under the political control of the Kushana dynasty, and the customs of this court may have had a significant influence over this change in religious and artistic practice. Although the Buddha images from these two regions are stylistically quite different, the iconography of the Buddha's image is remarkably uniform and appears to have become standardized very quickly. This iconography includes the presence of the cranial bump or ushnīsha, the mark between the eyes called the ūrnā, simple monk's robes, and elongated earlobes. The earlobes make reference to the fact that the Buddha gave up his life as a prince, who wore heavy earrings, in order to pursue the life of an ascetic.
Freestanding images of the Buddha became common by the second century, and the practice of depicting narratives continued to remain an important part of the Buddhist sculptural tradition. In particular, scenes of the birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death were notably popular. It is often possible to identify the event that is being portrayed by examining the iconography of the sculpture and by recognizing links to textual descriptions of the event. For instance, the presence of deer and a wheel are important indicators of the first sermon because this event took place in the Deer Park at Sarnath, and the sermon itself is referred to as the "Turning of the Wheel of the Law." Additionally, the artists often used specific hand gestures, or mudrās, as visual indications of the event or individual being portrayed. These gestures were taken directly from Indian dance traditions and can be reliably associated with important events in the Buddha's life. For example, the "earth-touching gesture," in which the Buddha's right hand, with the palm turned inward, touches the ground, signifies the moment of the Buddha's enlightenment. These artistic practices form part of an iconographic vocabulary that became a standard part of the Buddhist sculptural tradition, making it possible to easily identify most of the figural imagery associated with Buddhist sites.
Within the Buddhist artistic tradition, the names of individual sculptors are not recorded. Instead, it is the names of the patrons who commissioned these works that have typically been preserved. The vast majority of the sculptures that decorate Buddhist sites were sponsored by individual donors, who paid for these works as acts of personal devotion and then donated the images to the monastery in order to accrue positive merit for themselves and their loved ones. These acts of personal generosity are understood to have a positive karmic result for the person in whose name the work of art is donated. For this reason, standard donative inscriptions will typically give the name of the person who paid for the work, the reasons for the donation, and the names of any other individuals (often deceased loved ones) whom the donation is to benefit. This positive karmic reward, or merit, is believed to help lead to a favorable rebirth and even eventual enlightenment.
As Buddhism spread across the subcontinent and beyond, into Central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia, so did the Buddhist sculptural tradition. Also, as new forms of Buddhism developed within India, the artistic traditions changed to reflect these new sectarian differences. Shortly after the appearance of the first Buddha images, we find sculptural examples of bodhisattvas (those who have the essence of enlightenment) associated with the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition. Within the Mahāyāna tradition, bodhisattvas are understood to be compassionate spiritual beings who postpone their own entry into Nirvāna in order to help others reach enlightenment. These beings are described as residing within special heavens, and they are recognizable in the artwork because they are typically adorned with elaborate garments and jewels, rather than the simple monk's robe worn by the Buddha. Likewise, along with the emergence of the Buddhist Tantric (Vajrayāna) tradition (starting as early as the late 4th century a.d.), there develops a tradition of complex sculptural forms and prominent depictions of female divinities.
By the eighth century, Buddhism was beginning to lose ground in India, and new Buddhist projects became scarce in many parts of South Asia. The notable exceptions to this trend can be found in parts of Bihar, Bengal, Kashmir, and Karnataka, where Buddhism continued to enjoy some patronage and support. Eventually, however, even these holdouts began to give way to the mounting influence of first Hinduism and, later, Islam. By the twelfth century, Buddhism was all but absent from the subcontinent. Interestingly, the latest images of the Buddha were created as part of the Hindu tradition, where he is identified as one of the incarnations of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Despite Buddhism's eventual disappearance from South Asia, the Indian Buddhist sculptural tradition established and promoted many of the artistic forms and religious practices that are still known throughout the Buddhist world.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Elements of Buddhist Iconography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935.
——. Origin of the Buddha Image. 1927. Reprint, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1979.
Huntington, Susan. The Art and Architecture of Ancient India. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.