Sculpture at Sarnath
Refers to a number of sculptures, mostly made of Chunar sandstone, found near Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh — an important pilgrimage site as well as a centre of Buddhist art and architecture until the twelfth century CE. In addition to sculptures and sculptural remains, the archaeological site is home to Buddhist stupas, monasteries and the Sarnath Museum, which contains artefacts recovered from the region. The Deer Park at Sarnath is believed to be the site where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, in the sixth century BCE, attracting pilgrims and the patronage of Buddhist courts, particularly those of the Maurya and Gupta Empires.
The Mauryan period saw the construction of stupas and monasteries at Sarnath as well as the creation of the earliest examples of Indian stone sculpture, commissioned by the emperor Ashoka. The most renowned of these is the lion capital at Sarnath — a pillar crowned with a capital depicting four lions with their backs to one another seated atop a round abacus. The Sarnath pillar is notable for its polished surface, characteristic of Mauryan sculpture, and its ornate capital and is one of many pillars erected during this period that are inscribed with the edicts of Ashoka. The pillar remains at its original site in Sarnath, while the capital is displayed at the Sarnath Museum. The museum also houses the remains of other inscribed structures from the region. A segment of a monolithic railing, engraved with entwined floral patterns and possibly part of the third century BCE Dharmarajika stupa, is displayed at the site of the stupa. The railing is likely Mauryan but, as with the rest of the stupa, pre-dates Ashoka’s rule.
Other remains from the first century BCE include the fragment of a railing engraved with Buddhist religious motifs, such as the bodhi tree and a stupa, and the capital of a column carved in the Ionic style. The capital is carved on either side with floral imagery and depicts a horse and elephant with their riders. This is likely a remnant of the earlier Indo-Greek sculptural tradition in the northern Indian subcontinent and is unique among the sculptures at Sarnath. Several sculptures that were likely made under Kushana patronage in the second century CE depict standing Buddhas and bodhisattvas performing various mudras. The hand is stiffly positioned at the statues’ chest level and the body is simply clothed, rigid and lacking both the neat intricacy of the lion capital as well as the later style that would be developed in the fifth century.
This later style, more commonly known as the Sarnath style, was established during Gupta rule and is best represented by the figure of the seated Buddha, an iconic subject that was popularised across Asia in subsequent years. A particularly well-preserved example is a statue dating to 475 CE, which depicts the seated Buddha with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra. The lowest panel of the sculpture depicts a wheel flanked by deer and a row of devotees, possibly referring to the Buddha’s first sermon at the deer park. Like the standing Buddhas of this period, this seated figure has a halo of finely carved floral patterns arranged in concentric bands, although this particular statue is one of the few statues to have the halo still intact.
Figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas rendered in the Sarnath style have thin, smooth limbs and ornate but regularised headdresses. The eyes are typically closed in an expression of calm benevolence. The body, seated or otherwise, is more relaxed and life-like than the stiff, commanding poses of previous statues at Sarnath. The postures of the figures from the fifth and sixth centuries represent standard human forms, in contrast with the dynamism and contortions that were characteristic of sculptures from the ninth century onwards. The clothing of the sculptures in the Sarnath style are thin to the point of vanishing, in contrast with those in the Gandhara and Mathura styles, which were made to appear robe-like, thick and full of folds. It is possible that this thinness might have been offset when the statues were painted. The hand gestures are typically in the abhaya, dharmachakra or varada mudras, suggesting the wisdom these figures impart, with frequent references made to the Buddha’s first sermon. Inscribed images, especially those in which the figure is shown in the boon-granting varada mudra, are intended as much as a representation of the patron’s generosity as a depiction of the Buddha’s life and deeds.
Apart from statues, Sarnath was also the site of many narrative reliefs that were likely part of the on-site stupas and monasteries. Unlike other sites of Buddhist art that often featured stories from the Jatakas, these reliefs depict events from the last life of the Buddha, such as his conception heralded by an elephant, his defeat of Mara, his secret journey from the palace to the forest and his first sermon. The Buddha’s size in these panels is used as a metric of his greatness at each event in his life: he is larger than surrounding figures if the event depicted is one that brings him a step closer to his enlightenment and closer in scale to other figures when the scene is from the early stages of his life. Images of bodhisattvas were also greatly detailed and can be identified by their characteristic iconography. For instance, a 475 CE sculpture depicts Avalokiteshwara — commonly understood as the bodhisattva of compassion — feeding nectar to beings otherwise cursed with perpetual hunger as a punishment for prior greed. The inscription on this statue, as with many others, states a hope that the blessings received for the patronage of this sculpture will aid the spread of spiritual wealth and wisdom. Such parallels between the subject matter and the sentiment of donation occur frequently in the sculptures of this period.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, long after the Gupta period, the art of Sarnath was strongly influenced by western India due to the growing political presence of the Gurjara-Pratihara clans. Although the general formats remained the same — images of the seated Buddha and his particular mudras as well as stelae showing the phases of his life — the details of these images changed. Depictions of the Buddha now included variations or aspects like those of the different bodhisattvas, such as the sculpture of Vajrasattva from the eighth century. This figure, although still reflecting the suppleness of the earlier Sarnath style, is more bejewelled, and the motifs on his headdress and the ornaments on his body emphatically represent his enlightenment rather than merely implying it, portraying it as an event of cosmic proportions.
When Sarnath came under the rule of the Vaishnavite Gahadavala Dynasty in the eleventh century, much stronger Hindu influences began to enter the style, even as Buddhism had started waning in the subcontinent. The figures became heavily ornamented, both literally and figuratively, with iconographic references clarifying their specific position in the intersecting mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism. A statue of the goddess Tara from the late eleventh century shows her as a female version of the Amoghasiddhi emanation of the Buddha. The figure is shown in the tribhanga posture — the legs, torso and neck are bent along different axes, and yet, the overall form is stiff and angular, with no bend in the knee. This was characteristic of the last period of the Sarnath style, during which the relaxed postures and litheness of the figure were sidelined by a focus on symbolism and ornamentation.
At the time of writing, much of the art recovered at Sarnath is housed in the Sarnath Museum, which was inaugurated in 1910 for the express purpose of storing, documenting and displaying the remains at Sarnath. In 2019, the archaeological site, along with its architectural and sculptural ruins, was submitted as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site and is awaiting evaluation.
Asher, Frederick M. 2003. “Sarnath.” Oxford Art Online.
Dehejia, Vidya. 2012. Indian Art. Phaidon Press.
Huntington, Susan L., and John C. Huntington. 2016. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Kang, Heejung.2013. “The Spread of Sarnath-Style Buddha Images in Southeast Asia and Shandong, China, by the Sea Route.” Kemanussian Vol. 20 (2): 39–60.
Mani, Braj Ranjan. 2012. Sarnath Archaeology, Art & Architecture. Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
Singh, Upinder. 2016. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson.