108 • A Scene from Tusita Heaven the Pectoral Depicting Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Greater Gandhara, 6th century AD
Size: 43 cm wide × 42 cm high

6th century AD gilded bronze pectoral depicting Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The iconographic configuration is unprecedented and adds significantly to our understanding of the cultures, beliefs and artistic output of Buddhist art in Greater Gandhāra at the time of its production. Its iconography is related to a vast area of cross-fertilisation including Gandhāra, Greater Gandhāra, Central Asia, Xinjiang and western China.

The iconography of this pectoral in general was inspired by many forms of art schools, such as Gandhāran art, with its characteristic borrowings from Indian, Graeco-Roman, Scythian and Parthian arts), Sasanian art that resulted from the interactions between the ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman worlds, and Chinese Central Asian art, which itself was partly inspired by Indian, Bactrian and Soghdian arts.

The pectoral under discussion may have been originally placed around the neck of a Bodhisattva image as a decorative piece. Apart from minor damages in two places caused by oxidation, the necklace is in excellent condition and well restored.

The central, most prominent image wears a crown and is seated under a chattra (parasol) adorned with fluttering ribbons. Three Buddhas and a Bodhisattva are depicted on either side of the central figure. Each end of the ornament as a symmetrical and identical design composed of stylised wavy spirals imitating whirls of water. These are reminiscent of Gandhāran prototypes which reproduced the scroll patterns inspired by the acanthus leaf motifs used extensively in the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Starting from the end of the water whirls, two seated Buddhas are depicted on each side with the ones on the extreme ends smaller than the others. They are followed by two Bodhisattvas, one on each side, who in turn are flanked by Buddhas in the same disposition. All the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are shown seated in padmasana, or lotus position (cross-legged), on the pistil of a full-blown lotus with inverted petals. All of them wear a saṃghāṭi (over-robe) that covers both shoulders and has a wide semi-circular neckline. Their feet are covered, but both hands are exposed. They hold the hem of the saṃghāṭi with their left hands. The uttarāsaṅga (upper-under-robe) has low drapery folds and clings to the knees. Three Buddhas on the left side of the pectoral keep the palm of the right hand turned inwards at the right shoulder. The other three Buddhas on the left side make gestures with open palms marked by a lotus motif. The two Buddhas towards the end of the right side of the pectoral hold their right hands in abhayamudrā, the ‘gesture of dispelling of fear’. The Buddha flanking the central Bodhisattva on his right hand side makes a gesture with the right hand designating the ‘Blessed Being’ seated to his right hand side. We believe that this Buddha is Siddhārtha Gautama. The one to his right making abhayamudrā is most probably Maitreya who is mentioned in early

Buddhist texts as the Bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future to achieve complete enlightenment (samyaksaṃbodhi) and teach the pure dharma. In the Lalitavistara, when the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha Gautama was about to leave Tuṣita Heaven to be born into the human realm, he reassures the gods saddened by his departure: ‘The Bodhisattva Maitreya will teach you Dharma.’ He then placed the diadem from his own head upon the head of the Bodhisattva Maitreya and said: ‘Noble Being, after me you will become the perfect and complete enlightened Buddha’. The Gandhāran artists and their sponsors were likely instructed by erudite monks who followed the sacred texts, mainly the Lalitavistara, when depicting the major events in the life of the Buddha Gautama from the moment he left the Tuṣita Heaven. Therefore, they certainly knew about the importance of the Bodhisattva Maitreya as the fully enlightened Buddha to be.

The Bodhisattva holding a lotus in the left hand placed in between two Buddhas could be Padmapāni–Avalokiteśvara. The lotus flower is the characteristic attribute of Avalokiteśvarain Indian and Chinese Buddhist art. Avalokiteśvara is less bejewelled, but wears more ornaments than Maitreya. Apart from the crown, he wears globular earrings (karṇa kuṇḍala), simple necklaces and a highly ornate armlet (kēyūra). Over a paridhāna, he is shown wearing a cloak (uttarīya) covering the left shoulder and leaving the right exposed.

The third Bodhisattva seated in dhyānamudrā might be Manjuśrī, wearing a transparent uttarīya over a diaphanous paridhāna.  He is also adorned with an elaborate crown, long earrings almost similar to makakakuṇdala (makara-shaped earrings), and ornate armlets (kēyūra). He wears two necklaces, one torque close to the neck and then a necklace composed of multiple strands of chains, meeting in the middle with a clasp holding a large pendant.

The Buddha at the end of the pectoral has a mandorla decorated with a saw-toothed pattern with two parallel lines, while the aureole is limited to simple incuse dotted motifs. The Buddha to his right has aureole and mandorla decorated with the saw-toothed pattern. The Bodhisattva seated in the dhyānamudrā has the most elaborate mandorla.

The most remarkable characteristic of the iconography of the pectoral is the fluttering ribbons, also known as fluttering streamers, emanating behind the heads of the Bodhisattvas and also hanging from the chattra above the head of Maitreya.

If our hypothesis regarding the identification of the central figure of the pectoral as Bodhisattva Maitreya is correct, we have to admit that its configuration symbolises Tuṣita heaven, where Bodhisattva Maitreya dwelled for a time. According to the Lalitavistara, the Bodhisattva, future Śākyamuni Buddha, is just about to leave Tuṣita Heaven when he designated Maitreya to be the next enlightened Buddha. We have proposed to identify the Buddha seated to the left hand side of the central figure as Gautama Buddha who shows with his right hand Maitreya as his successor.

Who are then the other five Buddhas depicted in the pectoral? The Buddhavaṃsa, part of the Khuddaka Nikāya, which in turn is a part of the Sutta Piṭaka, mentions

28 Buddhas of the past, Gautama Buddha being the last. The five Tathāgatas depicted in the pectoral could be five Buddhas of the past who preceded Gautama Buddha.

We believe the six Buddhas depicted on the pectoral, including Gautama Buddha, who was the last in the succession, are the Mānushi Buddhas.

Hephthalites & Soghdians

The Hephthalites were a people of Central Asia who were militarily important circa 450–560. They were based in Bactria and expanded east to the Tarim Basin, west to Soghdia and south through Afghanistan to northern India. They were a tribal confederation and included both nomadic and settled urban communities. They were part of the four major states known collectively as Xyon or Huna.  They have often been linked to the Huns who invaded Eastern Europe during the same period.

The stronghold of the Hephthalites was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush in what is present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Soghdia, and by 493 they had captured parts of present-day Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin in what is now north-west China. They expanded into northwestern India as well.

Central Asia was the world’s intellectual hub during 4,500 years, connecting India, China, the Middle East and Europe.  The Soghdians, from around Samarqand and Panjikent controlled the trade of the Silk Road during four centuries of the 1st millennium AD.  They established service industries in every major city and town, providing banking, insurance, a postal service, hostels, caravanserails, bazaars, storage facilities and porterage.  Crucially, also, they supplied intelligence about which routes were safe and which were not.  Every member of the Soghdian community was literate and numerate, with a reputation for hard work and honesty.  The rich merchant class stimulated manufacturing industries and developed technologies.  They lived in magnificent palaces of which the meagre ruins today can provide only a taste of their sophistication and splendour.

The Soghdians established their predominance by handling and trading onwards the vast quantities of silk paid as tribute by the Chinese to the Turkish nomadic tribes.  In the West they ran the trade of Turkic slaves to the Abbasid Caliphate.

We are grateful to Professor Osmund Bopearachchi for his in-depth study of the collar, of which this is an amended version.  The complete article will be published in the UK in the near future.