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Iconography of the Buddha

 Standing figure of the Buddha, about 1500, Copper rich alloy, with traces of gilding, polychromy and mother of pearl. Museum no. IS.11-1996

Standing figure of the Buddha, about 1500, Copper rich alloy, with traces of gilding, polychromy and  mother of pearl. Museum no. IS.11-1996

The image of the Buddha is distinguished in various different ways. The Buddha is usually shown in a stylised pose or asana. Also important are the 32 lakshanas or special bodily features.


Some of these symbolise aspects of the Buddha's spiritual character whilst others draw attention to the concept that his beautiful and perfectly proportioned body is an outer reflection of inner spiritual power. These are drawn from the ancient Indian concept of the Mahapurusha or 'Cosmic Being'.

  1. Well-placed flat-footed feet
  2. Mark of the Wheel of Law on soles of feet or palms of hands
  3. Soles and palms more tender and soft than in most people
  4. Long toes and fingers
  5. Webbed fingers and toes
  6. Feet well set on the ground
  7. Ankle bones that are hardly noticeable
  8. Lower legs like those of an antelope
  9. Body frame tall and straight
  10. Arms that reach to the knees when standing
  11. Genitalia withdrawn
  12. Hairs on the head and arranged in soft curls that point to the right
  13. Hairs of the body point upwards.
  14. Skin smooth and delicate
  15. Skin golden.  (According to legend the Buddha was born with limbs that shone like the sun)
  16. Seven special features:
    2 broad heels
    2 broad hands
    2 broad shoulderblades
    Broad neck
  17. Torso like a lion
  18. Shoulders gently curved
  19. Chest wide
  20. Body circumference has proportions of a fig tree
  21. Cheeks like a lion
  22. 40 teeth rather than the normal 32
  23. Teeth have no gaps
  24. Teeth are equal in size
  25. Very white teeth
  26. An excellent sense of taste
  27. A long tongue that can reach his ears
  28. A strong and attractive voice like that of the Hindu god Brahma
  29. Eyes the colour of sapphire
  30. Long eyelashes
  31. Tuft of hair or third eye between his eyebrows (urna).  This symbolises spiritual insight
  32. A bump on the top of the head known as ushnisha which symbolises wisdom and spirituality and his attainment of enlightenment.

Other symbols regularly found in images of the Buddha include:

Elongated ears

One feature that is regularly used but is not considered a Lakshana is showing the Buddha with elongated earlobes: these are to remind us that the Buddha was once a prince who wore a great deal of jewellery including heavy earrings which stretched out his earlobes. Although he gave up the wearing of any jewellery when he gave up his life of luxury, his earlobes remained elongated.

Lotus flowers

Lotus flowers often appear in images of the Buddha. It is a symbol of things which are pure and good.A lotus is a flower that begins its life in the mud at the bottom of a pond and then rises to the surface to flower.  It therefore reminds people that in the same way, people can rise above their problems and achieve enlightenment.

The Wheel of Law

The Wheel of Law can sometimes be found marked on the soles of the Buddha's feet and the palms of his hand.  It has eight spokes to remind followers that the Buddha taught of the Noble Eightfold Path which outlined eight ways of living. The Wheel itself is a reminder of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

In addition, the hand gestures or mudras of the Buddha all have particular meanings. Most symbolise a major event in the Buddha's life, such as his attainment of enlightenment or his first sermon, while others represent a characteristic act such as giving of charity or of reassurance to his followers.


The images below show details of the mudras (symbolic gestures) of five of the sculptures from the Museum's collections:

Bhumisparsa, Sakyamuni at point of enlightenment, (Earth Witness). Museum no. IM.227-1920

Sakyamuni at point of enlightenment (Earth Witness)

The Buddha made this gesture, known as Bhumiparsa just before his enlightenment to call the earth Goddess witness to his worthiness to become a Buddha. In response the earth shook and the evil demons of Mara who had been tormenting him fled in terror.

Dharmachakra, Preaching Buddha, Nepal 10th/11th century, (Preaching). Museum no. IS.37-1988

Preaching Buddha, Nepal 10th/11th century (Preaching)

This mudra is called Dharmachakra or 'the turning of the Wheel of Law'. It refers to one of the most important moments in the life of the Buddha when he gave his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath.

Abhaya, Standing Buddha, Bihar, 7th century (Reassurance). Museum no. IS.3-2004

Standing Buddha, Bihar, 7th century (Reassurance)

Abhaya means 'no fear' and this mudra shows the Buddha giving reassurance and protection to his followers.

Varada, Bodhisattva Padmapani, Tibet, 13th century, (Giving). Museum no. IM 156-1929

Bodhisattva Padmapani, Tibet, 13th century (Giving)

Varada symbolises giving and generosity, both important Buddhist virtues.

Dhyana, Meditating Buddha, Eastern India, 10th/11th century (Meditation). Museum no. IS 239-1950

Meditating Buddha, Eastern India, 10th/11th century (Meditation)

Dhyana is the traditional pose of meditation.


A Buddha's pose is known as an asana. Buddhas are usually represented either standing, sitting or reclining. When shown standing, he often has one hand raised in blessing and reassurance. When seated he is meditating in the lotus position dhyana. Pictures and images of the Buddha Sayyamuni reclining refer to the end of his life just before he entered Parinirvana.

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