A bhikkhuni active between the late-first and early or mid-second century, Buddhamitra has been identified as the patron of three Buddhist cult sculptures, two of which were installed in Kaushambi, in present day Uttar Pradesh, India. She is likely to have been a nun of the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism and held the epithet of trepitaka — one who is learned in the Tripitaka texts.
Details about Buddhamitra’s life are scarce, and available information has been gleaned from her donor inscriptions as well as those of the monk Bala, who was her contemporary and patron of two bodhisattva sculptures installed at Shravasti and Sarnath, with the latter’s inscriptions referencing Buddhamitra. Donor inscriptions of Buddhamitra’s niece Dhanavati, dated to thirty years after Buddhamitra’s first commission, also state that the nun was a student of Bala.
Of Buddhamitra’s three statue, the earliest is a standing bodhisattva (now damaged; missing the right arm and headless) and is dated to the second year of the Kushan ruler Kanishka’s reign between the late first century to mid-second century CE. The red sandstone sculpture is 1.13 metres tall and is likely to have been made at Mathura and transported to Kaushambi. In its size, modelling of the costume and physical form, it bears significant resemblance to the bodhisattva sculpture commissioned by Bala at Sarnath, following the early Kushan style of Buddhist iconography in Mathura. It is currently part of the collection of the Allahabad Museum.
The second sculpture patronised by Buddhamitra, also broken, bears an inscription on the pedestal and is housed in the Kaushambi Museum, Allahabad University. A third image was installed at an unknown date by Buddhamitra at Kaushambi. While these sculptures are named bodhisattvas in the inscriptions, they are believed to depict the Buddha himself, with the term “bodhisattva” indicating the period between his renunciation and enlightenment.
Scholars consider Buddhamitra and Bala’s patronage of these images to be indicative of how monastic intervention by monks and nuns encouraged the use of anthropomorphic imagery in Buddhist worship. The installation of these images at Sarnath, Shravasti and Kaushambi — sacred Buddhist sites that were located at a distance from Mathura — also suggests that the monks and nuns held enough influence to commission and transport these images over large distances with the aim of propagating worship of the image.
Asher, Frederick M. “Indian Subcontinent.” Grove Art. 2003.
Hartel, Herbert. “An Inscribed Sculpture From Mathura.” In Indian Art and Connoisseurship: Essays in Honour of Douglas Barrett, edited by John Guy, 32–43. Middletown, New Jersey: Grantha Corporation, 1995.
National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities. “Allahabad Museum, Allahabad.” Accessed February 21, 2023. http://nmma.nic.in/nmma/antiqDetail.do?refId=23852.
Schopen, Gregory. “On Monks, Nuns and ‘Vulgar’ Practices: The Introduction of the Image Cult into Indian Buddhism.” Artibus Asiae 49, no. 1/2 (1988): 153–68. https://doi.org/10.2307/3250049.