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Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Nepal
Transitional period, late 10th-early 11th century
Gilt copper with inlays of semiprecious stones
H. 26 in.

Background
After the death of the Buddha, his teachings were written down by his followers who spread his message. An organized religion began to take form. With the passage of time, a new branch of Buddhism emerged, called Mahayana. An important element in Mahayana belief was the worship of bodhisattvas. While the Buddha transcends mortal concerns after attaining enlightenment and withdraws from the world, a bodhisattva, though spiritually advanced, chooses to remain on earth to help all beings become enlightened.

Buddhism spread from India into surrounding regions. Nepal was a critical link between north and east India and other nations. We assume that Buddhist teachings were introduced into the region during or just after the reign of Ashoka (reigned about 269-32 B.C.E.). Although Buddhism gradually died out in India, many schools and sects of Buddhism were (and still are) active in Nepal.

How to look at this work
Images of bodhisattvas are visual representations of their natures:

  1. Because a bodhisattva lives in this world, he wears the appropriate worldly trappings:
    Here he wears a shirtlike garment (dhoti) with floral design that wraps around his waist and between his legs. A sash is wrapped over the dhoti, around the hips, and is tied at his left.
    He wears elaborate, bejeweled ornaments: a necklace with a large pendant, armlets, bracelets and a belt. He wears long earrings and an elaborate crown. His hair hangs down on his shoulders.
    A sacred thread hangs down from his left shoulder. It symbolized his high social and religious status.
  2. The mark on his forehead (urna) refers to his supernatural wisdom.
  3. Both hands are held in the gesture of teaching, in which the thumbs touch the index or middle finger.
  4. We can identify this bodhisattva as Avalokiteshvara because of the small seated sculpture of the Amitabha Buddha in his headdress. Other bodhisattvas have different identifying marks.

This figure stands in a relaxed posture with one knee flexed. He has a smooth, bare torso with broad shoulders and a small waist.

Function
We cannot be certain about the exact function of this particular image, but we know that in Nepal today, as in earlier times, images like this were the focal point of personal worship and religious ritual. Devotees dress and adorn such images with flowers. Worship also involves attendance by Buddhist priests, who might dress them, bathe them, and burn incense before them. They might reside in a temple or on a home altar or they may be carried in processions to celebrate important religious events.

How this object was made
This image was produced using the lost-wax method. The sculpture was then gilded (covered in gold) and inlaid with semiprecious stones.

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