A Buddhist Tour Of The V&A

| 07 December 2006
photo shows golden buddha standing in transparent clothes

The Radiant Buddha. Courtesy of the V&A. This statue is co-owned with the British Museum, and showing there until March 2007.

The V&A contains significant and beautiful Buddhist artefacts from across India, Tibet, Afghanistan and Nepal and covering the whole history of the religion. Curators at the V&A have kindly picked out a few items from the collections currently on display to look out for when visiting the museum.

We've organised them more or less chronologically so you can see how the art of Buddhism over the 2,500 years of its existence.

The founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama, was born in the 6th century BC. Initially living a very privileged life, he travelled the world for many years as an ascetic - at one point almost starving himself to death. He finally achieved enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, and founded the faith.

photo shows red pillar with pictures top and bottom

Sandstone pillar from Bihar. Courtesy of the V&A

The site of the tree has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Excavations in the area in the 1880s revealed this sandstone pillar, created sometime between 100BC and 100AD. It's part of a sandstone railing encircling the tree - it was probably built to replace an even older one made of wood.

Buddhist art often includes animal fables, describing the previous lives of the Buddha. The one at the bottom of this pillar probably tells the story of his incarnation as a goose that offered its life for another.

These 'Jakata stories' about the Buddha were translated into Persian, Greek, Latin and Hebrew and formed the basis of some of the most famous story sequences of the Common Era - Sinbad, the Arabian Nights and Aesop's Fables - the latter being compiled by a monk in 14th century Byzantium around 1500 years after this pillar was carved.

photo shows model of temple

Mahabodhi Temple. Courtesy of the V&A.

Today, a tree still grows on the spot, believed to be a descendent of the original. Chinese histories of Buddhism note the existence of this tree from the 5th century AD onwards. The Mahabodhi Temple also occupies the same site. This image of the temple dates from the 12th century. It can partly be seen as a tourist souvenir. But it also acts as a proxy for being at the holy place after pilgrims returned home.

photo shows head of buddha

Head of Buddha, probably from Afghanistan, 5th century

This 5th century head is probably from Afghanistan, but the style of it is reminiscent of Greek statues - indicating some of the cultural cross-fertilisation that occured in the region. Eight hundred years before Alexander the Great had invaded Afghanistan, and the names of some modern Afghani cities are corruptions of his name. By the 5th century this Greek-influenced style was on the wane, overtaken by the Gupta style which spread through Asia along with Buddhism, and became the trademark style associated with the religion.

photo shows golden buddha standing in transparent clothes

The Radiant Buddha

This is the 'Radiant Buddha' in the typical Gupta style. It has the appearance of transparent clothes. The object is small and portable, unlike some of the other almost lifesize figures on show in the galleries. The Radiant Buddha is shared between the V&A and the British Museum - you can see in the Hotung Gallery of the British Museum until March 2007. You can read its history here

Despite being 7th century, the statue doesn't show any signs of having been buried, so was probably used in worship for hundreds of years. A trace of blue colouring still stuck to his hair suggests that he was brought to Tibet at some point, although he's most likely to have been made in the great monastery of Nalanda in India, not far from Bihar.

photo shows torso with swaying hips

Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara

This torso is from India, 400 years later. It represents Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara the primary Buddhist saviour figure. It was created in the 9th century, and again excavated in the 1880s. Although only the torso remains, the fluidity and craft of the body make it a beautiful piece of design and one of the V&A's most treasured objects.

photo shows buddha with no nose and missing arm

Black basalt Buddha. Courtesy of the V&A.

In the 11th and 12th centuries Buddhism declined in East India, and few monuments survive from that period. Buddhism suffered both from the revival of popular Hinduism and from Muslim invasions, and was nearing collapse. This black basalt Buddha is one of the few survivals. The damage to the face and arm of this otherwise immaculate statue suggest deliberate desecration.

His posture indicates the story of Buddha's fight against the evil goddess Mara, but later the lotus position became the norm for images of the Buddha.

drawing shows image of fierce being with monster like features

A dakini from Tibet. Courtesy of the V&A.

Although Tibet had early contact with Buddhism, the religion was not widely adopted until 7th century.

This picture of a Daikini - or "skywalker" in Tibetan, looks incredibly fierce with a ritual chopper (karttrka) in one hand, and a skull cup signifying emptiness in the other. However, her terrifying looks are aimed to protect the followers of Buddhism. These spirits were supposed to initiate and teach Tibetan yogis.

This is the earliest Tibetan painted scroll with a date on it: 1477AD. These objects - like the Buddhist textiles - risk being damaged by light if left on display for too long, so the V&A swaps around the images every few months

photo shows carved wooden shrine with hinges to open and shut

Portable shrine. Courtesy of the V&A.

This shrine is from 15th or 16th century Nepal. It would have originally contained an image of the Buddha in the centre. The surrounding niches are filled with deities and guardian figures. However, along the lower border there is an image of monk: presumably the person who commissioned the shrine. It has closing doors, and was portable.

photo of a gold Buddha figure

18th century Buddha. Courtesy of the V&A.

This gold Buddha is 18th century. It was made in Tibet and its face and hair are painted. There's a prayer written around the bottom for the progress towards enlightenment of all beings. The curators tell us that people sometimes leave money at its feet as an offering as they pass through the galleries.

There are also many objects associated with Chinese Buddhism in Gallery 44. Buddhism thrived in China after it had begun to decline in India. Especially look out for this silk banner. It is one of the textiles controversially brought back from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein.

This is an amazing survival - made in around 700 - 900 AD it is still intact after more than 1000 years because of the exceptionally dry desert air of Dunhuang.

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