Detail View: The AMICA Library: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

AMICA Library Year: 
Object Type: 
Creator Nationality: 
Asian; Indian Sub-Continent; Indian
Creator Dates/Places: 
North or Eastern Indian
Creator Name-CRT: 
North or Eastern Indian
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Full view
Creation Date: 
late 7th-early 8th century
Creation Start Date: 
Creation End Date: 
Materials and Techniques: 
Creation Place: 
India, Bihar
H. 77 in. (195.6 cm)
AMICA Contributor: 
Asia Society
Owner Location: 
New York, New York, USA
ID Number: 
Credit Line: 
Asia Society: The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection
One of the longest lasting and most important Buddhist cultures of India developed and flourished in eastern India from the 8th to the 12th centuries. During this period, Bihar and Bengal--present-day West Bengal state and the nation of Bangladesh--were primarily under the control of the Pala family. However, various other families, in particular the Senas, also controlled smaller sections of this region at different times. Monks from all over Asia traveled to eastern India to study Buddhism at the famous monasteries there. As a result, the influence of Pala-style art spread throughout Asia. Pala contributions to Buddhist art include the development of a new figural type, which was loosely based on prototypes developed during the Gupta period (c. 320-c. 500) in north and north-central India, and the evolution of a more complicated iconography that illustrates contemporary changes in Buddhist thought.

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.

Related Document Description: 
Asher, Frederick M. The Art of Eastern India, 300-800. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980, p. 78, pl. 147.
Related Document Description: 
Asia Society. Handbook of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. New York: Asia Society, [1981], p. 10.
Related Document Description: 
Heeramaneck, Alice N. Masterpieces of Indian Sculpture from the Former Collections of Nasli M. Heeramaneck. New York: Privately printed, 1979, fig. 109, pl. 14.
Related Document Description: 
Huntington, Susan L. 'Pre Pala and Pala Period Sculptures in the Rockefeller Collection.' Apollo (November 1983), pp. 371-72, 374.
Related Document Description: 
Lee, Sherman E. Asian Art: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd. New York: Asia Society, 1970, pp. 15, 30.
Related Document Description: 
Newman, Richard. The Stone Sculpture of India: A Study of the Materials Used by Indian Sculptors from ca. 2nd Century B.C. to the 16th Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, 1984, pp. 31-34, 45, 68, 84.
Related Document Description: 
Pal, Pratapaditya. The Ideal Image: The Gupta Sculptural Tradition and Its Influence. New York: Asia Society in association with John Weatherhill, 1978, p. 115.
Related Document Description: 
Young, Mahonri Sharp. 'Treasures of the Orient: A Rockefeller Collection.' Apollo (November 1970), p. 330.
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