Theravada (literally, the way of the elders) Buddhism stresses the importance of perpetuating the teachings of the historical buddha. This figure represents the person, originally known as Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563–483 b.c.), who was born into the royalty of the Shakyas, a fierce hill tribe native to northern India and Nepal. Despite being sheltered from the harsh realities of the real world, the young man renounced his princely life in favor of wandering the world as a poor ascetic, searching to escape the endless cycle of rebirth. After attaining nirvana (enlightenment) through intense meditation under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha traveled to the deer park at Sarnath to give his first sermon, thereby setting the dharmachakra (the wheel of the law) in motion. To mark these formative episodes in the life of the Buddha, the artists of Theravada Buddhism—who were dedicated solely to making images of the Buddha—adopted a distinct repertoire of rich symbolic imagery. As merit is gained as much through the financing of a work of art as in its crafting, images of the Buddha are commonplace, especially in Southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism took firm root over the past millennium.
This sculpture is a classic Thai representation of the Buddha. Crafted out of cast bronze, the head has been rendered in an elongated manner, with an aesthetic emphasis on linear verticality that is specifically characteristic of the Ayutthaya period (1378–1767). The face has been smoothly modeled with a rounded chin and full, pursed lips, the edges of which have been demarcated by incised musculature. The nose is sharp and angular, framed above a stylized V-shaped brow line and flanked by slightly inverted, almond-shaped eyes. The latter have been shown in a typical Thai manner, with heavy lids that are slightly opened to reveal crescents and dark pupils crafted out of mother-of-pearl inlay. The hair displays a distinctive knotted coiffure that appears in the form of a crown. The depiction of the lakshanas (auspicious symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment) focuses primarily on the raised ushnisha (cranial bump), symbolic of wisdom and enlightenment, and the elongated earlobes, symbolic of the heavy earrings the Buddha wore as a young prince before attaining enlightenment, rather than on the urna (the tuft of hair between the eyebrows). Together with the raised ridge lines throughout the face, the representation of the ushnisha in a flamiform manner is a local Thai convention especially popular during the Ayutthaya period. The overall appearance of this work is a conventional depiction of the Buddha, whose calm, mask-like face effectively expresses the innate serenity and spirituality so emblematic of the deity.