The Radiant Buddha

Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni. Museum no. IS.3-2004

Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni, Eastern India, probably Bihar, late 6th-early 7th century. Copper alloy. Museum no. Museum no. IS.3-2004

The V&A holds one of the two most important Asian collections in the UK containing Central, South, South East and East Asian Buddhist sculptures and paintings.

This standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni is one of only a tiny number of Indian metal Buddha images surviving from a formative period in the development of the image of Buddha. Its style was to have a far-reaching influence throughout Asia. The sculpture shows the Buddha standing with his hand raised in a gesture of benevolent reassurance known as abhaya-mudra.

The sculpture displays the ushnisha or cranial bump, a lakshana (a symbolic characteristic) representing transcendental wisdom, probably originally developed from the jewelled turbans of royal figures. Other lakshanas include the presence of hair curls, each turning to the right, and webbed hands and feet. The Buddha's distended earlobes represent his royal origins, as the heavy earrings once worn by him as a prince have pulled down each ear.

More subtle lakshanas are the broad shoulder blades and back and a golden body, enhanced by the warm tones of the bronze. In accordance with other post-Gupta images the figure does not display the urna or point between the eyes, a sign symbolic of supernatural powers and insights.

The sculpture was made in eastern India, probably Bihar, in the late 6th - early 7th century by an anonymous artist.

The history of the Radiant Buddha

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Although originally made in India, traces of coloured pigments in the Radiant Buddha's hair curls (a form of decoration only used in Tibet) indicate it was probably preserved for many centuries in a Tibetan monastery. It is likely that this highly portable sculpture was taken to Tibet by an Indian Buddhist monk, or by a Tibetan translator returning from receiving teachings in north-east India. In the past Tibetan monasteries housed many Indian devotional images and manuscripts and even today Indian bronzes may be seen in an upper chapel of the Potala, formerly the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

During the six hundred years following the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet in the 7th century, a succession of Buddhist monks travelled to the Himalayas - where Buddhism had firmly taken root - often carrying with them religious manuscripts and devotional images. Some came to teach, and others were seeking refuge from an increasingly hostile environment in eastern India. During these centuries many Tibetans also travelled to India to seek instruction from eminent Buddhist teachers, and returned with religious images and books.

In the 1960s a number of images of Buddha appeared in Europe, displaced from their adopted home in Tibet by the upheavals following the Chinese occupation of the country in 1950. Such early images of the Buddha are very rare, and those in western collections would appear to share a similar provenance. The examples in Indian museums typically display a surface patination commonly seen on buried metal objects, and some are known to have been recovered from excavations of monastic sites. The Radiant Buddha, like those preserved in Tibet, show no signs of burial, but it does have the soft wear that comes from centuries of devotional use.

Where the Radiant Buddha was made and how it was worshipped

Altar at Shalu, Southern Tibet showing Buddha images in worship.

Altar at Shalu, Southern Tibet showing Buddha images in worship. Lighted butter lamps and bowls of water are placed beneath the images to honour them. White scarves placed on the Buddhas are a further sign of respect and devotion. The religious paintings on cotton cloth which hang behind the altar are a modern continuation of an ancient Indian tradition which would have been much in evidence in Indian Buddhist monasteries

The altar shown in the image on the right is located in a present-day Tibetan monastery. These altars are crowded with Buddhist images which are worshipped by pilgrims and local people, as they would have been in ancient India. Even today, Tibetan monasteries continue other Indian devotional practices such as the offering of water, light, incense and food to deities or Buddhas. Monasteries were formerly the most significant patrons of religious art in Tibet and India. They were supplied with paintings and metal images by craftsmen living close by.

The artist responsible for the Radiant Buddha probably worked in a workshop attached to one of the great monasteries (maha-vihara) of Bihar, eastern India. The Buddhist monasteries of this region were the leading centres of Buddhist practice and became famous throughout the Buddhist world in the second half of the first millennium as centres of learning and theological debate. They were also major patrons of Buddhist art and the production of images of Buddha was an essential activity.

Early pilgrims from China wrote about the devotional practices in Buddhist monasteries, and the spectacular scale of the most important images of Buddha. They also described the manner in which smaller, portable metal images, like the Radiant Buddha, were carried in procession. This enabled believers to see and worship the deity, share the blessing of a moment of contact, and be reaffirmed in their faith.

How the Radiant Buddha was made

The Lost Wax Casting Process

Diagram of lost wax casting over a core

Lost wax casting over a core. This diagram represents a section through the head of a Buddha image during production. The wax image (red) has been modelled over an inner clay core (blue). Metal pins hold the core and outer clay casing apart.

X-radiograph image of the Buddha, showing the chaplets (metal pins) that held the core

The white dots in this X-radiograph represent a series of metal pins (chaplets) that held the core in position within the mould to prevent its movement during the melting of the wax image prior to casting. An old repair to the neck shows as an area of denser metal, seen on the x ray as a white shadow.

The figure was cast by the lost-wax process in a copper alloy with a high tin content and traces of lead. In the first stage of this process a complete image of the Buddha was modelled in wax over a clay core, then covered in clay and left to dry.

Once dry, the clay mould was heated, dissolving the wax between the clay core and the outer coating of clay. The molten wax could then be poured away. Meanwhile the metal alloy was melted in a crucible, then poured into the cavity, which retained every detail the impression of the original wax image. Once cooled, the clay 'shell' was broken away to reveal the form of the Buddha.

The casting channels (which allowed the metal to be poured and gases escape) would then be sawn off and the surface of the image filed and polished to remove any casting blemishes. The image was then ready for presentation to the donor who would ask for it to be blessed in a ceremony performed by a monk.

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