This monumental sculpture of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, provides a link between the 5th- and 6th-century style of art associated with the Gupta empire in north and north-central India, and the later Pala traditions of eastern India. Avalokiteshvara is the most popular deity in the Buddhist pantheon and is worshipped in a wide array of forms. He is identified by the small sculpture of Amitabha Buddha--head of Avalokiteshvara's spiritual family--in his headdress. The stem that he holds was once part of a lotus and further identifies this form of Avalokiteshvara as the Lotus Bearer (Padmapani). The small female attendant may represent the donor of the image; she has also been interpreted as a symbol of Avalokiteshvara's ability to grant children to barren women. The contrast between his powerful form and the serene expression on his face continues an aesthetic established during the Gupta period. He wears a long skirtlike garment, a full sash tied around his hips, and, as befits his status as a bodhisattva, earrings, a necklace, and armlets. Similar clothing and jewelry are worn by Gupta-period representations of Avalokiteshvara, and the smoothness of the body and clinging drapery also reflect earlier prototypes. This piece is distinguished from the Gupta-period sculptures, however, by the heaviness and fullness of the figure, the slight rigidity in his pose, and the more elaborate treatment of the jewelry. Moreover, Avalokiteshvara's straight nose and the somewhat square shape of his face differentiate it from earlier works. These features characterize the beginnings of the Pala style and help to date the piece to the late 7th or early 8th century.
The development of the bodhisattva cult is part of a series of changes that led to the emergence of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Whereas, after attaining enlightenment a buddha transcends mortal concerns and the cycle of reincarnation, a bodhisattva--although as spiritually advanced--vows to help all sentient beings become enlightened and chooses to remain accessible to the devout in their daily lives. Worship of bodhisattvas and the belief in multiple buddhas of the past, present, and future ages are among the main elements that distinguish Mahayana, the 'Great Vehicle,' from the more austere branch of Buddhism based on an earlier group of scriptures and known as the Theravada, or 'Way of the Elders,' which emphasizes the Historical Buddha rather than a complex pantheon.