Buddha, 7th century
Bronze 2 3/4 in. x 2 in. x 1 in. (6.99 cm x 5.08 cm x 2.54 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, anonymous gift2006.4.1
From ancient times, Buddhism thrived in the Western Himalayas, an area comprised of northern Pakistan, Kashmir, and Western Tibet. The Swat Valley in northern Pakistan is considered to have been an early center of esoteric Buddhism, while the residents of Kashmir practiced both Buddhism and Hinduism. Western Tibet was home to Buddhism and the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion. In all of these areas, the production of small, portable bronzes reflected the need for imagery for private household altars and for pilgrims on their journeys.
Unraveling the provenance of artwork from the Western Himalayas has proven a difficult task for art historians. One art conservator has been instrumental in answering questions about provenance through analysis of the metallurgical composition of bronzes and the assignment of works of similar make-up to a specific geographical area.1 This method has been particularly effective when the scientific assessment has been paired with stylistic analysis. Still, a mystery remains about just where some works, such as the Mahakaruna Lokeshvara illustrated here, were fabricated.
The four-armed form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Mahakaruna Lokeshvara, the great compassionate Lokeshvara, is identified by the attributes he carries: lotus, kamandalu (flask), and rosary. The number of extant examples of Mahakaruna Lokeshvara from the 8th century suggests that this bodhisa ttva was very popular throughout the Buddhist world.
Another bodhisattva in the collection, a seated Vajrapani, was probably cast in the Swat Valley, an attribution based on the treatment of the tasseled lion throne. Similar lion thrones are found in Kashmir, but tassels are particular to Swat. Vajrapani, who holds his attribute, the thunderbolt, is often paired with Avalokiteshvara as attendants to Shakyamuni, where he represents wisdom and Avalokiteshvara, compassion.
The third bronze illustrated here may also be from Swat, though similar works of a different metal composition and seated on a lotus throne with a pinched waist are also found in Kashmir. This Buddha differs from other comparable works in the treatment of the upper portion of the throne, which mimics a lotus pod rather than lotus petals, and in his gesture of meditation (dhyana mudra). The broad face and slightly weighty body are more characteristic of Swat bronzes than Kashmiri examples, but without metallurgical analysis it is not possible to identify exactly where it was made.