The death of the Buddha is the subject of this fine schist panel. The Buddha Shakyamuni lies on his right side, his haloed head rests on a cushion, and his body and feet are enveloped in his robe. His bed cover is an elegant textile. The seated monk being pulled aside in front of the bed is usually identified as Ananda, a disciple who always traveled with the Buddha and who is credited as the only follower to have heard the complete doctrine.
Behind the bed is a group of mourners reacting with emotion to the Buddha's death; one holds his hands to the sides of his head, one stands with bowed head, and one stares unseeingly. Such displays of emotion are absent in Gandharan art except in representations of the parinirvana. The parinirvana is the last of the four primary life events. Dying his final death, the Buddha ended his samsaric cycle and passed into nirvana.
The reaction of these mourners contrasts with that of the Buddha's last convert, Subhadra, seen at the lower right; he sits with his back toward us, looking on at Shakyamuni without demonstration of grief since he realizes the Buddha has reached nirvana. Subhadra was an ascetic, like the initial converts at the first sermon, as indicated by his tripod. At the feet of Shakyamuni is another monk, sometimes identified as Anuruddha who is seen here consoling the monks and admonishing their future course of action, reminding them of the Buddha's decree to follow the dharma. The scene is flanked by two sal trees, and from the trees fly arboreal spirits who join in the universal sorrow.
In various versions of the Mahaparini, the texts tell us that when the Buddha was eighty he ate a bad meal near the city of Kushinagara, fell ill, lay down between two trees with his head pointed north, and died. The death of the Buddha, or parinirvana, was extremely important to Gandharan Buddhists because, although the Buddha had reached a state of enlightenment in the middle of his life, at the moment of his death he ceased to exist and entered nirvana. At this point his body - the relics - became available for veneration. Gandharan narrative sculpture often depicts the Buddha's cremation, the division of the relics, and their transport to the stupas where they were ultimately enshrined and venerated. The stupa itself probably always symbolized the Buddha's death, but the concept of representing the moment of ultimate transcendence (nirvana) through a narrative image became increasingly important beginning in the second century A.D.
For related examples, see Ingholt, Harold. Gandharan Art in Pakistan. Pantheon Books Inc (1957) figure 139 and Behrendt, K.A. "The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art", 2007 MOMA.
Bibliography: Behrendt, K.A. "The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art", 2007 MOMA.
Condition: Intact fragment as described, side panel decoration mostly lost, small loss to center of bottom frame but in very fine condition overall. Loss to the face of three figures, but all very finely carved with curly hair and large, rimmed eyes. The draping folds of their robes are beautifully rendered, revealing and accentuating the movement of the bodies. Museum quality custom mount.
Dimensions: height 8.5 inches (22 centimeters), width 14 inches (35.5 centimeters)
Provenance: The Bernice Longazel Collection of Gandharan Art, assembled in the early 1960's.