Buddha Muchalinda

Khmer empire
late 12th–early 13th century
more object details

General Description

Portable metal sculptures played an important role in both the Hindu and Buddhist art of Southeast Asia. In Buddhism, the commission of any image of the Buddha or other Buddhist figure allowed the patron an opportunity to acquire merit for himself or for those to whom he dedicated the piece. The acquisition of merit through good deeds is the customary manner in which the lay believer can better himself in his next life, for the concept of reincarnation is integral to Buddhist belief. Sculptures such as this crowded the altars and storerooms of the Buddhist temples of the region.

The most common Buddhist image in both Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Cambodia into the 13th century), and the Theravada Buddhism now practiced in Cambodia, is the Buddha. Sculptures of the Buddha seated under a seven-headed serpent are first found in Dvaravati sculpture of Thailand in the 8th century, and became popular in Khmer art of the 10th century. Various interpretations have been given to this representation. The earliest and most common interpretation of this subject matter is that it represents the story of the naga king Muchalinda, who protected the historical Buddha as he meditated unaware of the terrible storm that swirled around him. More recent interpretations suggest that this form of the Buddha manifests the dharmakaya (law body), sambhogakaya (serene bliss body), and the nirmanakaya (transformation body), and that the coils of the serpent represent the three worlds or the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, sangha).

The serene Buddha sits in sattvasana, holding his hands in the meditation gesture (dhyana mudra). His downcast eyes allude to his meditative state, while his adornment suggests royalty. One unusual (though not unknown) aspect of this particular Buddha is the fact that he wears monk's robes beneath his jewelry. The naga heads also differ from the more common snakelike heads in their dragon appearance. Still, the style of the sculpture, the proportions of the Buddha, and the overall treatment of jewelry and naga place the piece firmly during the Bayon period of Jayavarman VII.

Excerpt from

  • Nancy Tingley, "Buddha," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 223.

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