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The sculptures displayed in this gallery were created for display in public
temples and private devotional shrines in homes. They are products of the
Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions that arose in India and neighboring
regions. Like many people throughout the world, South Asians have attempted
to explain and understand their place in the universe and their relationship to the
spiritual realm. Buddhist and Hindu sculptures promote this understanding
through the use of symbols. Over time, symbols became standardized for the
depictions of gods and saintly beings, bringing certain beliefs and thoughts to the
minds of devotees. The lotus flower, the flame, the halo, body postures, hand
gestures, body markings and various attributes all hold special meaning.
Graceful forms and special attention to detail invite contemplation and
introspection by viewers. By focusing their attention on these godly depictions
and symbols, worshipers hope to enter into a state of mind that will bring them
fulfillment on a spiritual plane.
Rama, the Archer
South India, 15th–16th century
Bronze (65.168)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Eilenberg
In times of great evil, Vishnu assumed various forms
and descended to earth to restore order and goodness.
Tradition lists ten incarnations or avataras for him––
nine have already appeared, one is yet to come.
Rama, the archer, is the seventh. He is shown here
drawing his bow (now lost). Rama’s deeds are told in
the great Indian epic the Ramayana in which he
overcame the forces of evil. He is regarded as a
symbol of incorruptibility, honesty, loyalty and
MAA 4/06
The Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness
India, Bihar, 10th century
Basalt (66.118)
The Buddha is seated in a meditative “lotus” pose
(cross-legged with soles of the feet upward). He is
shown under the stylized bodhi tree––the tree of
Enlightenment that symbolizes supreme
knowledge. He sits on a pedestal supported by two
reclining lions and ornamented with lotus petals––
the lotus being the symbol for purity. His right hand
reaches downward over his knee in the gesture of
“Calling the Earth to Witness” (bhumisparsha
mudra). He is shown with several distinctive
auspicious marks of supreme being: a cranial
protuberance (ushnisha) atop his head––symbol of supreme wisdom; a mark
(urna) between his eyebrows––symbol of spiritual insight; a halo
(shiraschakra) behind the head––symbol for holiness; and a circular mark
(dharmachakra) on the soles of his feet ––symbol of the “Wheel of the Law” or
Buddhist doctrine. In addition, his ears are shown with long distended lobes
but devoid of the heavy ornaments he once wore as a prince before rejecting
earthly luxuries.
Two saintly beings called bodhisattvas flank the Buddha: Avalokiteshvara
with a tiny meditating Buddha in his headdress is on the left, while opposite
is the bodhisattva Maitreya with a small Buddhist monument called a stupa in
his headdress. At the upper sides of the relief, seated on lotus pedestals, are
two Dhyani Buddhas: Amitabha to the right and Akshobhya to the left.
“Calling the Earth to Witness” was an act the Buddha performed as he was
meditating. The armies of Mara, the god of desire, had been distracting him
from attaining his goal of Enlightenment. When, however, he reached down to
touch the Earth, calling her to witness that he had never interrupted his
asceticism, everything became clear, his torments ceased and he attained
absolute Enlightenment. This act was a key moment in the life of the Buddha,
and thus this pose and hand gesture have been used repeatedly for depictions
of the Buddha in art.
During the Pala period (ca. 750–1200), a time when both Hinduism and
Buddhism were practiced in India, many such sculptures were created for use
in religious sanctuaries, where they were set into niches in walls.
MAA 4/06
Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon
Central India, ca. 12th century
Bronze (66.153)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Eilenberg
Ten-armed Durga, a form of the Great Goddess,
thrusts her trident into the anthropomorphized
buffalo demon, Mahisha, an act that symbolizes the
triumph of good over evil. The demon’s buffalo head,
which Durga has already cut off, is at the feet of her
lion. Her vigorous posture and swirling arms, with
each hand holding a weapon or attribute, reveal her
awesome power. The worn surface of the figurine
indicates it has undergone centuries of ritual
handling by devout worshippers.
MAA 4/06
Dancing Krishna (Navanitakrishna)
South India, ca. 16th century
Bronze (66.185)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Eilenberg
Krishna, the much-loved Hindu god, is one of the
incarnations of Vishnu. Here he is depicted as a nude
boy gracefully dancing on a lotus pedestal. In his right
hand he holds a butterball that he had stolen from his
mother. When his mother caught him, she opened his
mouth to find the butter and found instead the entire
universe, twinkling inside. Worshipers would have
been quite familiar with the god’s unusual childhood
as well as his other stories and exploits that give proof
of his divine powers of cosmic transformation.
MAA 4/06
South India, perhaps 18th century
Bronze (66.228d)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Eilenberg
This tiny figurine depicts the Hindu goddess Parvati, the
consort of Shiva and the benevolent aspect of Shakti
(Cosmic Feminine Energy). Small figurines like this are
used in personal devotion as a means for focusing
worship on a chosen deity. Even at this small scale,
artisans meticulously adhered to prescribed standards for
the depictions of the various gods.
MAA 4/06
The Buddha with Bodhisattvas
Pakistan (Gandhara), ca. 2nd century
Schist (67.137)
Gift of the Mary and Leland Hazard Fund,
Pittsburgh Plate Glass Foundation, in
memory of Governor and Mrs. James T. Blair
The large Buddha in the center is hieratically scaled to
emphasize his importance. Richly dressed attendant
bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara (right) and Maitreya (left)
are smaller; monks in lower corners are even smaller. The
Buddha is seated on a lotus flower, the symbol of purity. A canopy of leaves
from the tree of Enlightenment––the bodhi tree––arches over his head. He makes
a gesture of teaching with his hands (vyakhyana mudra). The Buddha’s faithful
bearded bodyguard, Vajrapani, stands behind at the upper left and holds a vajra,
the symbol of the emptiness that is the essence of all existence. The other small
figure at the upper right is probably Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
Reliefs like this were affixed to Buddhist monuments called stupas or
surrounding structures, often located within religious or monastic sanctuaries.
As part of their pilgrimage, devotees ritually walked around the stupas. The
sculptural reliefs served as instructive as well as decorative devices.
MAA 4/06
South India, Chola period, late 12th century
Bronze (67.173)
Gift of Michael de Havenon
Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, is one of the
most popular Hindu gods. Invoked at the beginning of
worship or any other venture, such as the start of a
business day or a journey, Ganesha’s name is daily on
the lips of virtually every devout Hindu. Such large
sculptures were not used in homes but were displayed
in temples. The two upright spikes attached to the base
were meant to support an aureole (a full-body halo)
that surrounded the image, and the rings on each side
were used to carry the figure in processions on festive
In his upper hands the god carries a battleaxe, symbolizing power, and a
noose, symbolizing attachment to worldly matters as well as the god’s capacity
to capture evil and bind ignorance. His lower right hand holds his broken tusk,
and his lower left hand holds sweet cakes that he picks up with his trunk. He
wears a crown ornamented with a lotus. Flowers decorate his shoulders, and he
has a “sacred thread” around his torso.
Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head because, according to myth, his
father Shiva, who had been absent during his birth, didn’t recognize him and,
when he first encountered him, killed him as an intruder. Shiva later restored
Ganesha to life with the head of the first animal that walked by––an elephant.
MAA 4/06
South India, 17th century
Bronze (69.1068)
Gift of Dr. Samuel Eilenberg
Narasimha is the half-man, half-lion
incarnation of Vishnu. Here he is shown
reclining in slumber on a coiled serpent-bed
that floats upon the cosmic waters during
the interval between two cycles of existence
of the universe. The god Brahma, the
creator, emanates from his navel on a lotus
stem. Bhudevi, the earth goddess, and Sridevi (also known as Lakshmi), the
goddess of wealth, attend him. He holds attributes common to Vishnu: the
discus and conch shell trumpet.
MAA 4/06
Vishnu Flanked by Lakshmi and Sarasvati
Bangladesh, Pala period, end of 11th century
Basalt (77.292)
Anonymous gift
Vishnu is the Hindu god who preserves the universe. He
stands in the straight and sturdy pose called samabhanga––
a pose that fits his role to uphold and preserve order. He
holds four attributes in his hands: a conch shell to
summon troops to battle the forces of evil (symbol of
eternal space); a club with which to defeat his enemies
(symbol of eternal law); a discus––a throwing weapon
(symbol of eternal time); and a lotus (symbol of purity and
ever-renewing creation). He wears a long garland
composed of groups of gems that derive from the five
elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. He is flanked by two goddesses:
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, who holds a flywhisk, and Sarasvati, the
goddess of learning, who holds a stringed musical instrument (vina). Vishnu
and his flanking consorts all stand on double lotus pedestals. Among the
convoluted tendrils decorating the pedestal is Vishnu’s sacred animal
(vahana), the eagle-like Garuda, at the center; at the bottom corners are figures
of donors. The back slab of the stele forms a great vertical throne decorated
with mythical aquatic animals (makaras), leogryphs rearing over combating
heroes and fallen elephants, celestial musicians (kinnaras), and garland
bearers (vidyadharas) flying through clouds. At the very peak of the stele was
once a decorative motif called a “face of glory”(kirtimukha), a symbol of
Such steles were made for display in niches in temple walls and votive
shrines. Worshippers often place offerings before them and anoint the figures
with pigments as an act of devotion.
MAA 4/06
Head of the Buddha
Pakistan (Gandhara), ca. 3rd–4th century
Stucco (78.113)
Gift of Alan and Ann Wolfe
Stucco was a preferred medium for decoration of
stupas in the later Gandharan period. Heads like this
were molded separately, then joined to bodies, and
finally affixed to stupas with tenons; thus many are in
actuality very high reliefs, not works fully in the
round. The cranial protuberance (ushnisha) atop the
Buddha’s head, a symbol of intellectual wisdom, has
been rendered as a topknot; the curls of the hair are
shown as rows of dimples––a style that appears in
stucco renditions but is uncommon in stone
sculptures. The Buddha’s partially closed and downcast eyes indicate his
introspective detachment. The mark (urna) between his eyebrows,
symbolizing spiritual insight, was rendered by means of a slight indentation
and red pigment, only traces of which remain. In such delicate and deftly
modeled heads, artists gave perfect expression to the Buddha’s serene
withdrawal from the material world.
MAA 4/06
The Buddha Visited by Indra
Pakistan (Gandhara), ca. 2nd–3rd century
Schist (80.192)
Gift of Dr. Eric Neff
Here, the Buddha is shown meditating in
the Indrasala cave. He is visited by Indra,
an ancient Vedic deity and king of the
gods. Indra had come to pose questions
about karma, or human actions and their
consequences. Indra, seen at the right,
rides his elephant and makes a gesture of
greeting and respect, bowing his head as he does so. With his trunk the elephant
holds a parasol, a symbol of nobility. Indra’s harpist, Panchasikha, plucks his
instrument at the left side of the relief. With this encounter Indra acknowledges
the superiority of the Buddhist doctrine over the older teachings of Vedic
Events from the life of the Buddha were presented on stupas in sculptural
panels such as this. The scenes were often shown in static, isolated episodes,
framed and separated by pilasters. The play of light and shadow over their
surfaces must have made for a dazzling display.
MAA 4/06
South India, Chola period, 11th century
Bronze (80.240)
Gift of Dr. Samuel Eilenberg
The Hindu god Vishnu is shown holding two of his
normal attributes, the war discus and the conch shell
trumpet. His lower right hand makes the gesture of
protection or reassurance (abhaya mudra), his lower
left is held in an attitude of ease. His sturdy upright
posture (samabhanga––literally “without bending”) is
typical for his representation and is appropriate to the
god’s role as upholder and preserver of the universe.
The upper set of rings on the side of the base once
supported an aureole, a full-body halo, and the lower
set facilitated attachment to a platform so that the
statue could be carried in processions. Normally, such large sculptures are
displayed in temples.
The sculpture was cast in bronze using the “lost-wax” casting technique.
Artists in southern India during the Chola period (900–13th century) excelled in
this technique, creating sophisticated works, some on a large scale and often
with sensuous forms and delicately rendered surface details.
MAA 4/06
Prince Siddhartha Preparing to Leave the
Pakistan (Gandhara), ca. 3rd–4th century
Schist (81.4)
Gift of Mr. Eric Neff
This relief comes from a stupa––originally a
symbolic grave mound around which a Buddhist
monastery developed. Stupas were visited by
pilgrims who came to experience the unseen
presence of the Buddha. Such stupas were often
encased in sculptural reliefs that told the life
stories of the Buddha. Here, Prince Siddhartha,
who was to become the Buddha, has awakened in the night. Surrounded by his
still-sleeping wife and servants, he prepares to leave the palace on his quest to
find Enlightenment.
MAA 4/06
Bodhisattva Maitreya
Pakistan (Gandhara), ca. 2nd–3rd century
Schist (84.66)
Gift of Mr. Eric Neff
In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an
enlightened being who has done everything
necessary to attain nirvana, but instead of
progressing to that state, has held back in order
to help other human beings who are still on the
path to that goal. Maitreya is the bodhisattva
who, according to Buddhist teachings, will be
the next mortal Buddha to appear on earth. His
name in Sanskrit means “friendly and
benevolent.” Maitreya is shown with half closed
eyes, a sign of his spiritual detachment. He is
splendidly bejeweled and in his left hand he
holds a flask, his defining attribute. His right
hand, now lost, originally made the gesture of
reassurance and protection (abhaya mudra). He has the mark of Enlightenment
(urna) on his forehead and a large halo. The cranial bump atop his head
(ushnisha), the sign of superior intellect, has been rendered as a hair knot––a
stylistic convention that resulted from Greco-Roman artistic influence. Such
influence was strongly evident in the art of Gandhara, a region in the far north
of ancient India, mostly now in northern Pakistan and an adjoining area of
MAA 4/06
Shiva Bhairava
North Central India, perhaps Rajasthan,
ca. 11th–12th century
Sandstone (86.21)
Purchased with funds generated from gifts of
Dr. and Mrs. Renato Almansi, Mr. and Mrs.
Judson Biehle in memory of Dean Martha Biehle,
Mrs. Josefa Carlebach, Dr. Samuel Eilenberg,
Dr. and Mrs. Martin J. Gerson, Mr. Robert Landers,
Dr. Richard Nalin, and Mr. And Mrs. Irwin A.
Bhairava is the terrifying aspect of the Hindu god
Shiva. He is the ultimate in divine destruction. This
monumental image manifests Shiva’s power over the
material world. Here, his eyes bulge with anger; his staff is topped by a
grimacing human skull; snakes curl around his ears; and his hair, with the
matted locks of an ascetic, is adorned with severed human hands and another
In many of his aspects, Shiva is represented in art as a wandering hermit; as
a doting family man; as creative power embedded in the phallus; as the cosmic
dancer who sets the calendric, climactic and metabolic rhythms of the world;
and as a ferocious destroyer. Ultimately, Shiva is the cosmos and its energy.
The destructive power of Shiva, represented as Bhairava, illustrates the Hindu
belief that creation and destruction go hand in hand. Ultimately, we are to
understand that the manifest world is nothing but illusion. Shiva Bhairava is
the destructive force that liberates us from entanglement in illusion and in so
doing brings transcendent peace.
MAA 4/06
Victorious Durga Standing on the
Head of the Buffalo Demon
India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period,
9th–11th century
Granite (86.81)
Gift of Mrs. Carol Brewster
The Hindu goddess Durga is a form of Shakti
(Cosmic Feminine Power). Her name in Sanskrit
means “invincible.” She is shown standing
victoriously on the head of the buffalo demon
Mahisha, whom she battled and killed. (See also the
smaller bronze depiction of Durga in the display
case where the goddess is actively killing the
demon.) The battle is symbolic of the struggle of
good over evil. Here, in two of her four hands, she
holds a conch shell trumpet and a war discus. Her raised right hand makes the
gesture of protection, offering reassurance for humans; her lower left hand
makes the gesture of royal ease, as if to indicate the outcome of the contest was
never really in doubt.
MAA 4/06
Shiva Nataraja
South India, 16th or 17th century
Bronze (2004.4)
Gilbreath-McLorn Museum Fund
Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, symbolizes the
eternal and cyclical nature of the universe that the
regular rhythm of the dance sets in motion. He
embodies both creation and destruction. With his
drum, he beats out the sound to which creation
occurs. The flame in his upper left hand symbolizes
destruction; his lower right hand makes the gesture of
protection. His raised left foot symbolizes liberation.
The circle of flames around Shiva is energy in its
purest form. Underfoot he crushes a dwarf who represents ignorance.
MAA 4/06