An Introduction to The Evolution Of Buddha Statue Design In India
For several hundred years after the Buddha entered Nirvana in 486 BCE, there were few, if any, sculptures or carvings depicting the historical Buddha. In fact, anthropomorphic (human-like) images were quite uncommon, with artists preferring to depict Buddhist symbols instead. In temple carvings and artwork, the presence of the Buddha was represented by the depiction of spiritual objects closely associated with the religion, such as a lotus blossom, instead of trying to depict the actual Buddha himself.
It wasn't until the Maurya Dynasty, when King Ashoka (about 273 to 227 BCE) had united most of the Indian subcontinent, did Buddhist art have an official patron. Prior to that, there were precious few statues or sculptures of any kind, as the Aryan people and their Vedic religion focused on written and oral works, but almost no sculptured pieces. Even then, Buddhist art from this period tended to be pillars or other non-human depictions.
Gandhara Period Statues
By the third century of the common era, the Gandhara style had developed, and artists were producing what is called "Greco-Buddhist" artwork. These statues had been directly influenced by Hellenistic arts, so it appears that statue making had been so minimal in the hundreds of years preceding this period that they had to "import" ideas from Greece (where Buddhism had spread) of how an image of the Buddha should look. As Gandhara is centered in the Northwest of India, and was a place were many invading armies had passed, it probably should not be too much of a surprise that early Buddhist art was heavily influenced by Persian and Greek forms. Contemporary of the Gandhara period were the Mathura and Amaravati styles, which also produced large amounts of Buddhist artwork. The Mathura style was also heavily influenced by foreign styles of art, while Amaravati sculptures were less so.
The Classic Indian Buddhist Sculpture
Indian art historians look to the Gupta period, which spanned from approximately 320 to 550 CE, as the classic period of statue making. Buddhist art started to shed its Greek influence, and the Buddha was depicted looking more Indian like. At the same time, the images became more stylized - less emphasis was put on making a realistic portrait, and instead the focus was on producing a carving that looked like the subject was lost in a spiritual quest. Where Hellenistic art had been lifelike, the new Buddha's face had symmetric features, a calm expression, and details that were considered "nonessential" were left out. The favorite materials used in sculpture making from the Gupta period were sandstone, limestone and schist.
Statue Styles from Asia
As the Gupta period came to an end, Buddhism also was declining in India as well. It had to contend with a resurgence in Hinduism, as well as persecution from invading Muslim groups that eventually ruled almost all of present-day India. But as Buddhism declined in the land of its birthplace, it was on the ascension throughout much of East and Southeast Asia, and the Buddhist art produced in those countries could arguably rival any of that produced in the preceding years in India. The Sukhothai style of Buddhist art from Thailand, for example, is considered by many people to be the ultimate expression of the Buddha in sculpted form. Others will argue that Khmer (Cambodian), Japanese, Chinese, etc., styles are the ultimate artistic expression.
But what almost everyone can agree on is that the statues and other art from each region have distinct characteristics. To the trained eye, it is easy to tell a Chinese statue from a Thai piece, or a Korean sculpture from an Indian one.