The Met Celebrates the Opening of a Major Exhibition Presenting Origins of Buddhist Art in India
Images (clockwise from top left): Dr. B. R. Mani delivers remarks at the opening reception; Ambassador Eric Garcetti speaks with Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu and guests at the opening reception; Monks of the New York Buddhist Vihara delivered a special blessing of the exhibition; Ambassador Eric Garcetti, Nita Ambani, and Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu at the opening reception. Photos by Paula Lobo.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted opening receptions for the exhibition Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE.Opening to the public on July 21, the exhibition illuminates how the religious landscape of ancient India was transformed by the Buddhist presence. The exhibition includes major loans from India and presents a series of spectacular sculptural masterpieces from southern India, including newly discovered works of art from ancient monastic sites in the Deccan, that are being exhibited to the public for the first time.
The opening reception began with introductions from Max Hollein, The Met's Marina Kellen French Director and CEO, followed by remarks from Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Ambassador of India to the United States; Eric Garcetti, Ambassador the United States to India; Dr. B. R. Mani, Director General of the National Museum, New Delhi; Phillip Henderson, CEO of The Robert H. N. Ho Foundation Global; Nita Ambani, Met Trustee and Founder and Chairperson of Reliance Foundation; and John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The Met.
Notable guests who attended the opening festivities included A.K. Singh, Director-General of Bihar Museum; Dr. Hari Krishna, Representative of the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh; Randhir Jaiswal, the Consul General of India; and Dr. Nitish Birdi, Minister of the Permanent Mission of India, United Nations.
The exhibition is organized thematically beginning with “Tree and Serpents: Ancient India’s Living Landscape,” which serves as an introduction to the exhibition. Before the lifetime of the historical Buddha, the religious landscape of early India was already densely populated with nature spirits and demigods, who occupied the trees, rocks, rivers, and ponds. These forces, personified and worshipped as cult deities, constituted the core local divinities in early India, alongside the Vedic gods of early Hinduism. The close relationship between the nature cults and early Buddhist practice is fundamental to understanding the artistic development of Buddhism—such as shrines dedicated to nature deities that were repurposed for Buddhist use—immediately after the death of its founding teacher in about 400 BCE. Snake (naga) shrines were often chosen as sites for new monasteries, and tree shrines—sites of wish-fulfillment—were absorbed into the monastic plan. Both remain a feature of daily religious life in India today.
The next section, “Nature Deities in the Service of the Buddha,” will explore the oldest nature deities in India—the male yakshas and female yakshis. They were fearsome spirits to be honored and appeased with offerings of blood, flesh, and wine. The earliest surviving icons in India represent these powerful spirits, often sculpted at monumental scale. Many Buddhist stories tell of their conversion by the power of the Buddha’s teaching, commandeering them into the service of Buddhism. Originally malevolent deities, they assumed benign natures and became protectors of the faith. Yakshas guarded the stupas, while yakshis ensured fertility and protected infants. According to some legends, the most powerful of all nature deities were the snake spirits (nagas) —responsible for guarding the Buddha’s relics. Nagas were celebrated in the earliest stories tied to important moments in the Buddha’s life, from his first bath to his seven-day meditation.
Ceremonies to honor the Buddha’s relics are at the heart of early Buddhist devotional practice. The next section, “When the relics are seen, the Buddha is seen,” features relics which were understood to embody the person of the Buddha, not merely memorialize him. The power of relics lay in both their concealment and their display. Most were embedded deep within the core of a stupa, never to be looked upon. Their unseen presence invoked the Buddha himself, enhancing the sanctity of the stupa and its efficacy as a place of pilgrimage. In the centuries immediately following the death of the Buddha, his relics were repeatedly subdivided and shared over great distances to sanctify new stupas as Buddhism spread.
“Stupas and the ‘Absent’ Buddha” will delve into the early phase of the Buddhist narrative art, until around the mid-third century CE, when the Buddha’s presence was depicted by means of symbols. Each symbol evoked the Buddha’s presence in ways that devotees could readily understand, with monks providing narrative context. For example, the empty throne beneath a tree references Prince Siddhartha’s place of awakening, while the kneeling deer identifies the forest where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. The sculptures in this gallery display some of the most spectacular and earliest examples of these nonfigurative signs in Buddhist art.
The section “Buddhist Art in a Global Setting” illuminates how early Buddhist art was shaped in part by external influences in India’s early history. Images and ideas from continued dialogue with cultural forces beyond its borders, through trade, diplomacy, and conflict, left their mark on the arts of the subcontinent. India’s flourishing commerce with the Imperial Roman world is well documented. At this time, Roman gold and silver coins, stamped with portrait images, flowed into India in enormous quantities. In this gallery, a Roman bronze sculpture of Poseidon, excavated in India, and an India ivory figurine of a young woman, excavated at Pompeii, attest to the Indo-Roman trade that peaked in the first centuries CE.
“Buddhist Kingship and Buddhist Patronage” spotlights notions of the Buddha as a “world conquering king,” or “wheel turner” (cakravartin), which is mentioned in India’s first political treatise, the Arthashastra. In this vision of idealized kingship, the chariot wheel defines the territorial expanse of a king’s domain. The concept—and imagery—was quickly absorbed into Buddhist thought, casting the Buddha as both a spiritual monarch and conqueror. For Buddhists, the spoked wheel became a metaphor for the Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma. The Buddhists were first to represent this concept in Indian art; depictions of cakravartins at stupa sites in Andhra Pradesh confirm that this imagery was a south Indian innovation. While the rulers of southern India were followers of Brahmanism, many of Buddhism’s elite supporters were identified as women of the ruling households who, alongside merchants, bankers, guilds, and other families of property, funded its monumental monastic structures.
The section “Narrating the Buddha’s Lives” chronicles stupas over time, as they became more complex structures. While storytelling had always been central to their decorative programs, the addition of four projecting offering platforms and sets of commemorative pillars greatly expanded the space available for narrative scenes. This section features sculptures which date to the third and fourth centuries CE. Stories from the life of the historical Buddha, as well as those of past Buddhas and bodhisattvas, are presented through spectacular examples from this late phase of southern Buddhist art. This passion for teaching the Buddha’s message through visual storytelling became the dominant feature of stupa decor, achieved on a scale unrivaled elsewhere in Buddhist India.
The exhibition culminates in the final section, “The Buddha Revealed,” which includes a striking series of works depicting figurative representations of the Buddha. The limestone Buddha images in this room, all carved in the round, date to the third and fourth centuries CE. These sculptures typically occupied freestanding shrines, which became a regular feature of later monastic architecture. A new innovation, small portable metal icons, deployed for personal worship and processional use, also reflect changes in devotional practices that allowed for the transmission of the southern Buddhist style beyond India. The emergence of these figurative representations of the Buddha in southern India is linked to a shift away from narrative—storytelling for both monastics and the lay community—toward veneration of the Buddha as icon.
Credits and Related Content
The exhibition is made possible by Reliance Industries Limited, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Global, and the Fred Eychaner Fund.
Major support is provided by the Estate of Brooke Astor, the Florence and Herbert Irving Fund for Asian Art Exhibitions and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE is curated by John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The Met, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is available for purchase from The Met Store and online.
The catalogue is made possible by the Florence and Herbert Irving Fund for Asian Art Publications.
Additional support is provided by Albion Art Co., Ltd.
The exhibition is complemented by an international symposium to take place at The Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on September 29 and 30, 2023.
The symposium is made possible by the Fred Eychaner Fund.