Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Plaque with Scenes from the Life of the Buddha

Pala period
12th century
India (Bihar or West Bengal)
H. 3 15/16 in. (10 cm); W. 2 15/16 in. (7.5 cm); D. 1 3/16 in. (3 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Anonymous Gift, 1982
Accession Number:
Not on view
The central scene of this devotional plaque depicts Siddhartha's victory over the demon Mara and his subsequent enlightenment. Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, sat under a tree in meditation and when it became clear that his enlightenment was near at hand, Mara tried everything in his power to prevent it. He sent his daughters to tempt Siddhartha as well as his armies to disrupt his meditation. The Buddha-to-be responded by touching the earth with his right hand (bhumisparshamudra), a gesture that called the earth goddess to witness his right to achieve enlightenment. She responded positively, Mara and his armies were dispersed, and Siddhartha became the Buddha Shakyamuni.
In Indian art, the Buddha's life was often condensed and codified into a series of eight events. Surrounding the central image on this plaque are depictions of these events (clockwise from lower left): the miraculous birth of the Buddha from the side of his mother Maya; his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath; his taming of the elephant Nalagiri, as indicated by the presence of a kneeling elephant to the right; and at the top, his death. The missing scenes running down the right side would have illustrated his descent from Trayastrimsha Heaven, the miracles he performed at Shravasti, and his acceptance of the monkey's offering of honey. Depicted across the base are the seven jewels of the universal king, flanked on either end by devotees, possibly patrons.
The small size of this plaque suggests that it was a personal devotional object. Many such shrines were found in Burma, and they have been associated with that country until recently. Scholars are now suggesting that many are actually of Indian manufacture, and may have been brought to Burma, by pilgrims who had visited Indian Buddhist sites. A large group of like sculptures has been discovered in Tibet, and were also likely devotional souvenirs.
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