The northeastern regions of the Indian subcontinent, in what is now the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh, were, from the 8th to 12th centuries, some of the intellectual, cultural and artistic centers largest in South Asia. . The location of many of the Buddha’s most important life stories, including attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, these regions coalesced into a relatively unified political entity under the rule of the Pala dynasty. The political stability and economic prosperity offered by Pala’s rule led to the growth of many Buddhist institutions, including Nalanda University and Vikramashila Monastery. Scholars and pilgrims from all over Asia traveled to the territory of Pala to study or worship, and there was an explosion in the production of Buddhist imagery from the eighth century until the devastation of the region as as a Buddhist center at the end of the 12th century. Thousands of small portable images in bronze, wood and stone were made as tokens for these traveling pilgrims, many of which have been preserved in other countries such as Tibet and Nepal. An important tradition of carving more permanent and larger images in stone, often in the dark, almost black shale found in the region, was also established, and the current image is an example of this latter tradition.
The central image of Buddha Shakyamuni is depicted in a diaphanous sanghati draped over both shoulders, revealing the soft contours of the Buddha’s body below. The depiction of the Buddha’s form, barely concealed by his robes, closely follows earlier Gupta styles such as those developed at Sarnath. The Buddha stands on a carved double-lotus base with an inscription below and is framed by a U-shaped coil of leafy garlands, with further inscriptions running down either side of his body. It is flanked by the tiny images of Brahma on its right side and Indra on its left. The first is indicated by the presence of two visible faces (the other two are not represented due to the complex composition of the stele, but the viewer would have accepted the presence of the other two) and its general ascetic bearing, and the second by the princely outfit (Indra being considered the king of Trayatrimsha). Brahma grasps the handle of a parasol which rises behind the Buddha image and shades his head at the top of the stele; such imagery has its roots in early Indian culture and was seen as a sign of respect for a great person or leader. Indra holds a bowl of offerings in his clasped hands, another symbol of reverence for the central Buddha image. The significant juxtaposition in size of the figure of Buddha and the two accompanying Brahmanic deities reinforces the pre-eminence of Buddha over Brahmanic deities and Buddhism over the Brahmanic faith.
The current stele depicts the time of Buddha Shakyamuni’s descent from Trayatrimsha heaven. After the Buddha’s miraculous demonstrations at Shravasti, Shakyamuni ascended to Trayatrimsha, the second kingdom of heaven where the devas to reside. His mother, Maya, descended from heaven Tushita to receive her teachings on the abhidharma. The Trayatrimsha, literally the “kingdom of thirty-three”, refers in this case to the thirty-three figurative deities, that is to say to the whole pantheon of Brahmanic gods, who reside in this sky. After completing his teachings in the Trayatrimsha, the Buddha asked Indra to build a ladder or staircase for his descent; the central ladder was to be constructed of precious jewels, while the flanking ladders on each side, for the use of Brahmanical deities, were constructed of gold and silver. Three stages of the ladders are shown under Brahma and Indra and two steps appear under the Buddha’s lotus pedestal. Compare the present work with a closely related example in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (Acc. no. 961.171), illustrated by S. Huntington in Leaves of the Bodhi Tree: The art of India pala (8th-12th centuries) and its international heritage, Seattle, 1990, pages 132-133, cat. nope. 9.The Buddha’s descent from Trayatrimsha heaven is considered one of the eight great moments in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha (along with the birth of the Buddha, the triumph over Mara, the first sermon, the miracle of Shravasti, the gift of honey from the ape, the taming of Nalagiri, and death, or parinirvana). Some Pala period stelae depict all eight scenes in a single composition, such as a 10th-century black stone stele in the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and illustrated by R. Ghose in In the Footsteps of the Buddha: An Iconic Journey from India to China, Hong Kong, 1998, p. 178, cat. 24. As the present work represents only one scene from the life of the Buddha, it has been postulated that groups of stelae, each with a scene from life, could have been venerated together. When placed in niches within the walls of a temple or Buddhist institution (as the unfinished backs of many Pala stelae indicate), such grouping would have been a powerful visual reminder of transcendence. of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddhist faith.
The inscriptions running on either side of the Buddha’s body can be translated as: “Of all objects which proceed from a cause, the Tathagata has explained the cause, and He has explained their stop too; this is the doctrine of the great Samana.” The inscription at the base of the stele is less readable, but can possibly be translated as “Pious Gift of Harimitra [].”