Sandstone figure of the Buddha
From Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh,
Gupta period, 5th century AD
The sculpture of the Gupta period (AD 320-550) forms a standard to which all subsequent Indian art can be referred. Indeed, the influence of the visual arts of this period spread beyond the confines of India, to Sri Lanka, South-east Asia and the Far East.
Images of the Buddha at this time are known for their monumental simplicity. They often have heavy lidded eyes and a gentle smile marked by a pronounced lower lip, set in an oval head with heavy cheeks. Most sculptures of the Gupta period have elaborate wig-like hairstyles, and those of the Buddha have tight snail shell curls. In addition to these features, this image wears a characteristically clinging garment that looks almost wet in appearance. He holds his right hand up with an open palm in abhaya-mudra, the gesture meaning that in his refuge, there is nothing to fear.
Images of the Buddha were further distinguished by special attributes, such as the cranial protuberance (ushnisha), an emblem of his superior mental powers; the urna on his forehead; elongated earlobes; three lines across his neck; lotus and chakra (wheel) marks upon his palms and feet, and long arms that reach his knees. The Indian affinity for nature led to images with attributes shared with the natural world, such as the shoulders which were meant to convey the power of a lion, eyes like lotus buds, eyebrows like swans in flight etc. These attributes are not merely physical resemblance, but serve also as poetic metaphors, that come from a deep respect and understanding of the realms of the divine and the natural, manifest earth.