Burmese Pagan Bronze Eight Scene Buddhist Stele
Around the 8th century Buddhist art flourished under the Pala kings of Magadha, who ruled much of Bihar and Bengal (Bangladesh), they were then succeeded by the Sena dynasty which ruled for a little over a century (1097-1225). Buddhism in this region after this went into a decline but flourished in other parts of Southeast Asia and China.
We would assume the presentation of the scenes in this Burmese Pagan bronze eight scene Buddhist stele are presented in the way the artisan or person who commissioned the work has interpreted the scenes to his own understanding of the teachings related to the eight great events in life of the Buddha. Works of art like this are all individual in their presentation, even though they are depicting similar events.
The Buddha’s birth and the important events leading up to his enlightenment, and eventual death as well as the seven weeks after enlightenment have remained relatively consistent. But as it is in the Christian religion where each arm of the Christian faith teaches its own interpretation of events, they all adhere to the basic foundations. Buddhist also have their own interpretation of events, and they can vary, depending on which school of Buddhism one practices.
This attempt to describe the events on this particular stele is a bare bones description of the events from our understanding and interpretations gleaned from various Buddhist texts and Buddhist iconography depicting the events that we have studied and they may not all be correct.
We are describing the scenes looking face on. So, some scenes would be in reverse, for example the Buddha in this stele is seen standing on the left of his mother and we have described it as that, whereas in Buddhist texts he was born from her right side, so looking from behind this stele the Buddha would also be on her right side in this stele.
So here goes – The eight great events from the base upwards:
EVENTS ACROSS THE BASE
On each end of the stele is a devotee of the Buddha kneeling with hand gesture in Anjali mudra. The Buddha had 10 primary attendants.
The second figure from the left of the stele is easily recognizable, she is the Earth Goddess (Vasundhari – Pali or Wathundaye – Burmese). Visudhara also known as Wathundaye, and in Indian sculptures she is referred to as Bhumidevi and has become one of the main figures in the artistic expression in Buddhist iconography, where she is seen wringing from her hair the water gathered from the Buddha’s past merit of giving alms in a previous life.
The five figures to the right of Vasundhari are likely Mara’s daughters, sent by Mara to seduce and distract the Buddha from his path to enlightenment. The daughters named, Lust (Raga), Craving (Trsna) and Discontent (Arati) are the names more frequently mentioned in Buddhist texts, but some literature mention two more daughters “Pride” and “Fear”. Possibly the five figures across the base represent the five daughters. Several Indian stele we have seen also depict five dancing ladies who are described as Mara’s daughters.
- Upon finding their father (Mara) sad and sorrowful, and after hearing the reason for his sorrow when Mara exclaimed, “My women, this great recluse is escaping from my power, long have I watched, but in vain, to find some fault in him, therefore, it is that I am sad and sorrowful.”
The daughters promise to their father
- Saying to their father “We will subject him (the Buddha) to our influence and come back bringing him captive with us.”
There is one more figure on the base, next to the monk on the far right is a more masculine figure, with what looks like the right hand in Abhaya mudra, it also appears to be wearing a crown, this could be the representation of the Buddha sitting at ease after resisting the temptations put before him by Mara’s daughters.
The Buddha’s reaction to Mara’s daughters
- The Buddha paid no attention to their words, nor raised his eyes to look at them. He sat, with mind free by the complete extinction of rebirth-conditions, enjoying the bliss of detachment.
- In the end, the three daughters were obliged to accept their defeat again: saying “Our father spoke the truth indeed. The saint, the Well-Farer of the world is not easily led away.” And then returned to their father.
THE NAGA KINGS
(the tier above the base)
- The lotus pedestal on which the central Buddha is seated is flanked and supported by two Naga kings, a race of semi-divine half serpent, half human creatures, underneath each of the Naga kings is a figure of a lion. (see image)
- Two Naga kings, Nanda and Upananda created a golden thousand petaled lotus, the size of a chariot wheel, with a diamond stem, this we assume refers to the double lotus pedestal on which the Buddha sits. The Naga kings when depicted in the eight-scene stele are traditionally seen holding up the pedestal. Each of the Naga kings is shown with a cobra shaped serpent covering the back of their heads and extending down their backs, very much an Indian Buddhist/Hindu influence.
- Underneath the Lotus pedestal is a decorative section, possibly the diamond stem, mentioned above, with the face of an elephant protruding from the centre. (see image)
- On each side of the Naga Kings there is a crouching demon, also referred to as Mara Kanyas. Mara’s horde of demons are described as having large faces, bulging drooping bellies, sometimes with animal heads, or one-eyed, or having faces in place of bellies, they make all kinds of grimaces and expressions to frighten the Buddha.
- This type of grotesque imagery is depicted in the Sanchi reliefs in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India with variations, some are seen squatting with a pot belly, large head, flat nose, big mouthed and with gigantically proportioned bodies.The figures on the far left and far right, above the figures of a kneeling elephants and in line with the Naga Kings are possibly the Buddha’s two most important disciples Sariputra and Maudgalyayana.
THE KNEELING ELEPHANTS
- We are not sure of the two elephants under the disciples on each side, possibly the interpretation referring to elephants in a paper written by John C Huntington (sadly now deceased Nov. 2021), he suggests that the recumbent or kneeling elephants presence may go back to the earliest known version of the story from the Dhammapada Attakatha in which the elephant serving the Buddha, provides the role model for the monkey a feature which he states does not occur in any other Pala period versions know to him.
- On the left in line with the Pedestal on which the Buddha is seated, Maya is seen with the small Buddha standing by her side, left side looking face on (in Buddhist text it is the right side). The small Buddha is seen with a small usnisha (cranial bump). This scene represents the Buddha’s first steps after birth. Maya is seen with her hand stretched upholding onto the Sala tree, with no attendant present. Next to her is a figure of the Buddha in Bhumisparsa mudra.
Offering alms to the Buddha after enlightenment
On the opposite side a Buddha is seated with hand gesture in Bhumisparsa mudra with two disciples next to him holding an alms bowl, this could be a representation of Trapusa and Bahalika, the first two lay disciples. The first account of these two disciples appears in the Vinaya section of the Tripitaka where they offer the Buddha his first meal after enlightenment.
THE FIRST SERMON
- Above the Birth scene is likely the scene of the first sermon that the Buddha gave in the deer park at Sarnath. Other iconographic depictions of this scene also show him with his hand gesture in dharmachakra mudra, the teaching mudra.
- Other representations of the Buddha with this hand gesture could refer to the twin miracle in which he duplicated himself.
CENTRAL FIGURE OF The BUDDHA
(The enlightened Buddha)
- The Buddha is seated crossed legged on a lotus throne also referred to as Padmasana posture, under the Bodhi tree, with hand gesture in Bhumisparsa mudra, flanked by two Bodhisattva. In Indian and Himalayan Buddhist iconography they refer to these two attendants as Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, it is also a feature in Burmese eight scene stele, sometimes they are dressed in a simple monks robe with others such as this in a Hindu/Buddhist dress style.
- Behind the Buddha’s head on either side are figures of the hamsa bird. The hamsa bird is the totem animal of the Mons which dates back to the earliest artistic creations of Central Thailand and was also a consistent feature in Buddhist art and iconography during the Pagan era. (see image)
TAMING OF The NALAGIRI ELEPHANT
- The standing figure of the Buddha on the top far right depicts the event when the Buddha tamed the Nalagiri elephant. In this depiction a small elephant is seen kneeling at the Buddha’s feet in obeisance to Sakyamuni, with a small figure kneeling on his left side, possibly his disciple Ananda.
- The other three standing figures are more difficult to interpret accurately, but hope the following makes sense, it is our interpretation, and our understanding of the eight great events.
- The two standing figures of the Buddha on the top register next to the incumbent Buddha show each with a Naga or serpents head referred to as Mucalinda in Buddhist texts, they protrude over their shoulder (see image), this possibly represents the scene when Sakyamuni recites the Abhidhamma to the devas for the full rains-retreat, without stopping or taking a break from collecting alms for food.
- During his daily lunch hour, the Buddha created a duplicate of himself and orders it to preach in his place while he is away. The prominence of the naga snaking up over the Buddha’s head is likely the artisans license of expression depicting what we see in other Buddhist art or iconography with a multi headed naga (Mucalinda) protecting the Buddha from the rain. (see Image)
- The standing figure on the far left we interpret this according to the Avatamsaka Sutra, Sakyamuni, at the moment of his enlightenment ascended to Akanishta paradise/heaven and, donning his Vairochana robes, gave the first teachings of the Dharma to his mother and the higher Devas. (The first teachings of the Dharma to his disciples in the deer park at Sarnath came seven weeks later).
BUDDHA IN PARI-NIRVANA
- In the top register the Buddha is seen lying in Parinirvana with his five distraught disciples weeping and gesticulating in sorrow and grief. A larger than usually stupa is overhead with the leaves of a tree underneath directly over the dying Buddha.
- Other unexplained scenes are likely those of Maitreya’s future Buddha’s and the many smaller figures of devotees.