Head of the Buddha, dark grey schist
From Gandhara, north-west India, 2nd century AD
The historical figure known as Gautama Buddha was born Siddhartha, a prince of the Gautama clan, in the sixth or fifth century BC, in the kingdom of the Shakyas, which was located on the present day Indo-Nepalese border. He was born to the royal couple, King Suddhodana, and Queen Mahamaya.
When the Buddha’s mother was expecting, the family decided that she should proceed north to the hills to give birth. This she did, but gave birth along the way, in a place called Lumbini in the foothills of the Himalayas. The site of Lumbini is in modern-day Nepal.
He is, therefore, also called Shakyamuni, or ‘sage of the Shakyas’. While it is clear that the Buddha was an historical personage, the precise dates of his life remain uncertain. Sri Lankan texts suggest that he lived between around 566 and 486 BC, while Tibetan sources indicate around 448 to 368 BC. These dates are thus still the subject of scholarly debate.
Whatever the dates of the historical Buddha himself, it is clear that by the third century BC his ideas and teaching had gained widespread currency in South Asia. Buddhism was promoted under the imperial patronage of the Mauryan emperor Asoka (reigned about 265-238 BC), who sponsored monks to proselytise abroad, carrying the Buddha’s teaching to Sri Lanka, China and the North western region of Gandhara from where this sculpture originates.
Positioned at the 'crossroads of Asia', Gandhara has always been an ancient transit zone; it was certainly well known to the Greeks in the fifth century BC. Though the conquest of Alexander the Great was short-lived (329–325 BC), subsequent Indo-Greek kings held sway for another three centuries until the early years of the first century AD. Thereafter the region fell to the Shakas, Parthians and the Kushans. This sculpture, like most of the Buddhist art from Gandhara, can be dated between the first to fifth centuries AD. As a result of the various cultures that either settled or moved along these trade routes, the sculptures have taken on a distinctive style, combining Graeco-Roman, Indian, Chinese and Central Asian influences.