A very fine nineteenth century Burmese carved and lacquered wooden head of Shakyamuni Buddha, showing the Buddha with a serene expression, his half open eyes looking downward below delicate arched brows, with a straight nose, pendulous ears and hair arranged in rows of pronounced coils that are coiffed to a node ushnisha on the crown of his head, on a more recent shaped base
Burma (Myanmar), nineteenth century
Height 125 cm.
Here we see the head of Shakyamuni Buddha or the historical Buddha. He was the founder of the Buddhist religion, who lived and taught in India sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries B.C., which was a period of growing religious and philosophical thought stretching from Greece to China. Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, was born at Kapilavastu, which lay in the foothills of the Himalayas near the present-day Nepalese-Indian border. As the crown prince of the great Shakya Kingdom, from his youth he was groomed to be a king in accordance with the wishes of his royal father. For most of his youth, the prince led a sheltered existence within the palace, where he enjoyed court life, married a princess, and had a son. However, at about the age of twenty-nine, when venturing beyond the palace, he witnessed disturbing sights he had never before experienced before such as sickness, old age and death. Deeply unsettled by what he had seen, the prince finally left the royal palace, abandoning his fine garments, jewellery and other worldly goods and set out on a quest for truth, to confront human suffering and the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Along with other thinkers of the era, he was also troubled by the caste system, which denied many the possibility of salvation, as well as by the exclusivity and abuses of the Brahman priestly caste who controlled religious practices at that time. After about six years of self-deprivation, study and deep meditation he finally achieved his goal at Bodh Gaya in India when he became an enlightened one (a Buddha). After this, it is said that he walked to a deer park in Sarnath (Benares) on the outskirts of Varanasi in India, where he delivered his first sermon - an event which is referred to as the turning of the wheel of Buddhist law (Dharmacakra). The wheel as a metaphor for Buddha’s teaching was to become a common symbol in Buddhist art.
The present head represents a fragment of what would have been a very large statue of Shakyamuni Buddha which would almost certainly have once stood in one of the country’s numerous temples. The Buddha would have been shown seated in the lotus position of meditation, with his legs crossed at the ankles and his soles facing upward. His back would have been completely straight, and he would have been clothed in a thin monk’s robe, covering his left shoulder and arm but exposing the right. Buddhism is believed to have been introduced to Burma (Myanmar) by missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C and by the first century AD the religion and its way of life was flourishing.