A FINE SEDIMENTARY STONE STELE DEPICTING SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF BUDDHAEastern India, Pala period, 11th/12th Century
These shrines were originally thought to be Burmese but recent research has confirmed their origin as eastern India, see Hiram W. Woodward, “The Indian Roots of the ‘Burmese’ Life-of-the-Buddha Plaques”, Silk Road Art and Archaeology 5, 1997-98, pp. 395-407; and Steven Kossak’s seminal article “A Group of Miniature Pala Stelae from Bengal”, Orientations, July/August 1998, pp. 19-27 which firmly established the Indian provenance of the group.
The central figure of Buddha portrays the moment at which he triumphs over Mara just prior to his enlightenment: this momentous episode took place while seated beneath the bodhi tree at the vajrasana site in Bodh Gaya. In common with the majority of similar miniature stone stelae, the Buddha is depicted with a noticeably short neck, a stylistic trait associated with the principal image of Buddha in the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, now lost. The Mahabodhi sculpture is likely to have been a massive bronze made in contrasting metals, copper for the red monk’s robe and brass for the golden body of Buddha, and would have incorporated the idiosyncratic short neck: the statue was probably removed and destroyed for its metal content during the Muslim invasions of the twelfth century, see David Weldon and Jane Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, London, 1999, pp. 61-7. The present stele commemorates the Mahabodhi vajrasana Buddha in form and style, and portable plaques such as this served to spread the eastern Indian aesthetic and stylistic idiosyncrasies to Burma, Tibet and beyond.
The stele depicts the Eight Great Events in the life of Buddha. The nativity at Lumbini is depicted at the top left, with the first sermon at Sarnath below, and the taming of the Nalagiri elephant beneath. The miracle at Sravasti is depicted top right, with the descent from Trayatrimsha heaven below and the presentation of honey by the monkey at Vashali beneath. Above the central image of Buddha seated beneath the bodhi tree at the vajrasana site is a scene representing his death and final enlightenment, or mahaparinirvana.
Compare a similar miniature sedimentary stone shrine in The Asia Society, see Sherman E. Lee, Asian Art: Part II: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, The Asia Society Inc, 1975, pls. 13-4, pp. 24-5; and nine similar shrines in Ulrich von Schroeder’s survey of Tibetan monastery collections, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, Vol. I, pp. 400-05, pls. 129A-31C.