This style of his image represents broadly his three forms : the Buddha in meditation, the Buddha interpreting a mystery or cosmic riddle, and the Buddha granting ‘abhay’; however, the artist has manipulated the form to create a fourth, contextual to one of the best known events in his life, thus it represents in addition, not a form of his image but an occasion in his life. It relates to Amrapali, the Nagaravadhu of Vaishali, or the principal courtesan of Vaishali, one of the major kingdoms during the Buddha’s time.
As the Buddhist texts and traditions have it, till Buddha met Amrapali and was her guest Buddhist Sangha did not allow female monks and ladies as regular disciples. Amrapali was incomparably beautiful and as much virtuous, wise as also an outstanding dancer, and the Buddha was himself her admirer. Amrapali loved Buddha and wished to have him as her guest. And, soon she had an occasion. When the Buddha visited Vaishali Amrapali paid to him a visit and was allowed to see him. She prayed him to be her guest and the Buddha could not refuse. He stayed at her mango-garden, and it is said, it was not the season for their fruition, all mango trees burst with golden mangos. The Buddha stayed there for a month. During this period Amrapali, clad as a monk, visited him every day. She donated all her belongings to include her mango gardens for the propagation of the Dhamma – Buddhism. On her prayer the Buddha allowed her to join the Buddhist Sangha – congregation, and with this Buddhism had the school of nuns – female monks.
Using delightful stretch of imagination the artist has added a new element to the triply manifesting traditional image in the form of the ‘prabhavali’ – fire-arch transforming it from a formal structure to a tree-form in which identically moulded and curved branches of a mango tree create an arch-like form. Laden with golden mangoes and peacocks, the birds that enhance its naturalness and add sanctity, perching on it, the form of the arch links the image to one of the most significant events from the Buddha’s life – his visit to Vaishali where he stayed at Amrapali’s mango gardens. Other aspects that the image incorporates are his ‘vitarka-mudra’ that manifests in the gesture of his forefinger and thumb, ‘abhay-mudra’ that the gesture of the right hand symbolises, and meditation that reflects in his overall demeanour, the position of the left hand, posture of sitting in the ‘padmasana’ mode, fully closed eyes and the appearance of the face. Even his sitting posture, a straightened figure, is indicative of ‘dhyana’ – meditation.
In the Buddhist tradition ‘abhay’ has widely different connotation. The Buddha said, ‘the fear from death, disease or distress, not death, disease or distress but just their fear, is thy enemy and it enshrines thy mind; search it and oust it and then there shall not be for thee any death, any disease and distress; and thou shall search it by descending deep within thee through ‘dhyana’’. Hence, in the Buddhist way, ‘abhay’ and ‘dhyana’ are only the two faces of the same coin. However, a layman shall not know such deep philosophical implication unless the Master revealed it; hence, the ‘vitarka’, the mode of interpreting the mystery. This image of the Buddha leads the mind from ignorance-born fear to knowledge, to ‘dhyana’ and finally to ‘abhay’. Besides a sublime image with the most accomplished iconography and anatomical modelling the ‘sanghati’ – large sheet wrapped around his figure and left over the left shoulder, has been adorned with large flower-patterns and graphic designs. Its border worked with lustrous gold thread and the large leaf design on the shoulder are exceptionally beautiful. As beautifully has been designed the seat he is seated on. Though oval, it has been moulded as consisting of recessed and projected parts, as in a gear, and each part has been beautiful designed.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.