European Private Collection, acquired in 1993
This exquisite stele is a member of a rare collection of small-scale sculptures crafted during the Pala period (8th-12th century) in eastern India. Several of these sculptures have been discovered in the collections of Tibetan and Burmese monasteries, suggesting that they were likely created as sacred keepsakes for pilgrims.
Initially presumed to be of Burmese origin, recent research has definitively traced their roots back to eastern India. This discovery was documented in Hiram W. Woodward's article, "The Indian Roots of the 'Burmese' Life-of-the-Buddha Plaques," published in Silk Road Art and Archaeology in 1997-98 (pp. 395-407). Steven Kossak's influential article, "A Group of Miniature Pala Stelae from Bengal," featured in Orientations July/August 1998 (pp. 19-27), solidified the Indian provenance of this collection.
The central figure on this stele depicts the pivotal moment when Buddha triumphed over Mara, just before attaining enlightenment. This significant event unfolded as he sat beneath the bodhi tree at the vajrasana site in Bodh Gaya. Notably, the depiction of Buddha on this miniature stone stele follows a distinctive stylistic convention: a shorter neck. This trait is associated with the primary Buddha image at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya during the 11th and 12th centuries, a statue that is now lost. The Mahabodhi sculpture was likely a massive bronze artwork made from different metals, with copper for the red monk's robe and brass for the golden body of Buddha. It also possessed the unique short-neck characteristic. Sadly, this statue was probably dismantled and destroyed for its valuable metal content during the Muslim invasions of the 12th century, as detailed in David Weldon and Jane Casey Singer's work, "The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet" (London, 1999, pp. 61-67). The present stele serves as a commemoration of the Mahabodhi vajrasana Buddha in both form and style. Such portable plaques played a significant role in disseminating the aesthetic and stylistic elements of eastern Indian art to regions as far-reaching as Burma, Tibet, and beyond.
The stele intricately portrays the Eight Great Events in the life of Buddha including Buddha's nativity at Lumbini, the first sermon at Sarnath, the taming of the Nalagiri elephant, the miracle at Sravasti, the descent from Trayatrimsha heaven, and the presentation of honey by the monkey at Vashali (some scenes fragmentary). Above the central image of Buddha seated beneath the bodhi tree at the vajrasana site is a scene symbolizing his death and final enlightenment, known as mahaparinirvana.
For a comparable miniature sedimentary stone shrine see Sherman E. Lee, Asian Art: Part II: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III (The Asia Society Inc, 1975, pls. 13-4, pp. 24-25). Additionally, Ulrich von Schroeder's extensive survey of Tibetan monastery collections features nine similar shrines in Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet (Hong Kong, 2001, Vol. I, pp. 400-405, pls. 129A-31C).