A Look at the Earliest Buddhist Statues

This guest post by Robert Cain takes us on a tour of some of the earliest historical instances of Buddhist sculpture. 

The Buddha at Daibutsu is one of the largest in Japan.

Sculpture is the visual art form most closely identified with Buddhism. The types of Buddhist statues that we see today took time to develop, and changed significantly along the way. This post will highlight some of the earliest portrayals of the Buddha and Buddhism in sculptural form around the world.


Footprint of Buddha, 1st Century

Following the Buddha’s death around 400 BCE, the earliest portrayals of his presence were symbolic—footprints, a vacated seat, or an empty space beneath a parasol. An early Buddhist expression that paved the way for the later statues was the stupa, a large hemispherical mound housing relics.

The Stupa

Stupas became central features of Buddhist monasteries, attracting veneration from monks and pilgrims. At first Indian artists used perishable materials—wood, thatch, brick, and bamboo—to build the structures. Stone was used starting in the first century BCE. The use of stone allowed for the creation of relief carvings that depicted events, both actual and legendary, from the Buddha’s lives (there were thought to be 550 previous incarnations). These carvings were added to gateways and railings, thereby heralding the beginning of Buddhist statuary.

Dhauli Giri Shanti Stupa

In the first century CE the human form began to predominate in Buddhist statues.   Hellenistic art, which come into Gandhara (now northern Afghanistan) in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, greatly influenced the first such representations. Statues of the youthful Buddha might have Apolloesque curls, and a toga-like garment, sometimes covering both shoulders.

A standing Buddha from Ghandara, 1st- 2nd century

Another style emerged in the Andhra Pradesh area of southern India early in the Common Era: a somewhat bulkier Buddha, with a serious, unsmiling face and robe revealing the left shoulder. This style influenced the statues of Sri Lanka, and similar types are found today throughout Southeast Asia.

Gupta Empire Statue

The succeeding period of the Gupta Empire in northern India (320 to 550 CE), saw the creation of an “ideal image,” which combined Greek-inspired elements with more sensual elements from Mathura sculptors. Buddha images had their hair arranged in tiny individual curls, robes had a network of strings to suggest drapery folds or were transparent sheaths. Faces had a downward look and suggested a spiritual aura. These Gupta images became the pattern for future generations.


Over the following centuries a new form of Buddhism emerged, characterized by an expanding pantheon and more elaborate rituals.   The concept arose of heavenly bodhisattvas, as well as goddesses. A key element in Mahayana Buddhism is an emphasis on salvation, which is facilitated by bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who assist mortals in the attainment of enlightenment.  This Buddhism often produced statues not only of the Buddha, but also of a variety of bodhisattvas.

Tibet and Nepal

In Nepal and Tibet, where exquisite metal images and paintings were produced, divinities were created in both sculpture and painted scrolls. Ferocio
us divinities became protectors of Buddhism and its followers. Further theistic elements were introduced and images depicted god and goddess in embrace, as well as the concept that salvation resulted from the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male).


Buddhism may have been known in China as early as the second century BCE. There were centers with foreign monks serving as translators and teachers by the second century CE.  Although statues of Buddha are found in tombs of the second and third centuries, there is little evidence for widespread production and use of images until the fourth century CE. In addition to freestanding sculptures, numerous images were carved in cave temples at various sites. Multiple schools of Buddhism came into being in China from the fourth to the tenth century. These included Pure Land, which stressed devotion and faith as the path to enlightenment and Chan (or Zen), which emphasized mediation and mindfulness in daily activities.

Chinese Buddhist sculptures often illustrate an interplay between China and other Buddhist centers. Works with powerful physiques and thin clothing derive from Indian prototypes, while sculptures featuring thin bodies with thick clothing are in the Chinese style. After Buddhism largely disappeared from India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, China, along with centers in Korea, Japan, and the Himalayas, became the focal point for the continuing development of practices and imagery.


Statuary in Korea was not contained in enclosed temple complexes, but rather took the form of large-scale images for public display and worship, as well as statuettes for use in the home. The early styles derived from various Chinese styles. These included the Bakje, with its gentle faces and harmonious proportions, and the Bodhisattva Maitreya with its seated posture, right leg bent over the left and the right hand touching the face. The Tang China (618-906) style, with its round faces, dreamy expressions, and fleshy curvaceous bodies, influenced not only the Buddhist statuary of Korea, but also that of East, Central, and South Asia.


Buddhism reached Japan from the continent in the mid-sixth century. Artists and builders from China introduced Chinese styles of sculpture and temples into Japan. The splendid temple complex at Nara became the location for the most important examples of early Buddhist art in Japan. As in India, China, and Korea, distinctive styles developed in Japan over the following centuries
The history of the earliest Buddhist sculptural representations is a rich and fascinating world to explore. It is a much bigger topic than can be thoroughly covered in a single post. Hopefully this provides a glimpse into these early developments and perhaps a little context for viewing Buddha statues today. 

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