Published Jul 15 2013, by

Stele with the Buddha Shakyamuni’s descent from Tryastrmsa

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According to Buddhist texts, Shakyamuni, the historical buddha, ascended to Tryastrmsa (the heaven of the thirty-three gods) to share his knowledge of the truth with his mother, Maya. After the sermon, the Buddha requested that he might descend to Earth at Sankasya in northern India. Indra, the King of Tryastrmsa, agreed, and miraculously three ladders appeared, permitting the Buddha and his two attendants, the Hindu gods Brahma and Indra, to descend to Sankasya. This event is one of the eight great life events of the Buddha and, by association, Sankasya is one of the eight great pilgrimage sites in Buddhism.

This stele of the Buddha portrays this event using a standard formula of expression in raised relief. Shakyamuni is the prominent central figure standing atop a lotus platform and displaying the gift-bestowing varadamudra (“blessing” gesture) with his right hand as he holds the end of his diaphanous upper garment in his left hand. On either side are the Hindu gods Brahma, to his left, and Indra, to his right, portrayed in a smaller scale to denote their status as attendants and subordinate deities. Three-faced Brahma holds the end of a parasol, an umbrella held for persons of high rank and esteem; Indra holds an alms bowl. Surveying the scene from above are a pair of vidyadharas (celestial beings who are bearers of knowledge) with garlands, symbolizing the spiritual victory attained by the Buddha and by the devotee who worships his image. Following the prevailing convention of the artistic vocabulary of the Pala period (c. 730–1197), ladders are not included in depictions of this event. An as-yet-undeciphered inscription is visible on either side of the Buddha.

The Pala period was a time of great artistic innovation, and prodigious amounts of sculpture in chlorite were produced for several centuries. The rounded-top finial of this stele, along with minimal surface decoration and embellishment, points to an earlier phase of Pala art during the ninth and tenth centuries. Thereafter, the steles became highly ornate and embellished, reflecting the changing tastes of the ruling and religious elite.