Schist Buddha Triad (year 5) [draft]

The Schist Buddha Triad (year 5) first appeared in Oriental Art in the spring of 1973 and was subsequently purchased by the Belgian art collector Claude de Marteau. Based on de Marteau’s place of residence this object was referred to as the “Brussels Buddha” or the “de Marteau stele”. The significance of the piece to Gandharan art and South Asian history was highlighted in two articles published in 1974, one by Gérard Fussman and the other by J.C. Harle. Harle noted, “it is obvious that the emergence of the icon from Year 5, an elaborate composition of a well-known type, of the finest workmanship and style, is a most important event” (1974, 132). The piece was part of two exhibitions, Light of Asia: Buddha Sakyamuni in Asian Art (1984-85) and Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India (1985-86). In 1990, it was purchased by a private Japanese collector. The piece was displayed in the Gandharan Art and Bamiyan Site exhibit (2007-08). In 2020 the Schist Buddhist Triad Year 5 was sold at auction by Christie’s and is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For scholars of Gandharan Art, the piece is notable for both its style and iconography. Stylistically, the sculpture depicts the Buddha seated on a lotus-throne under a leafy canopy flanked by Bodhisattvas and attended by deities above his shoulders. The Buddha and bodhisattvas form a triad, a composition similar to sculptures from Sahri Bahlol and Charsadda, sites located in the Peshawar Basin of contemporary Pakistan, which comprised the heartland of ancient Gandhara. The Sahri Bahlol triad is very similar in composition to this piece, the main difference being the bodhisattvas are reversed (Guy 2022, 98). These stylistic comparisons are significant because it’s exact provenance is unknown; there is no information about the piece prior to its appearance in Oriental Art in 1973. As is often the case, this sculpture most likely emerged on the art market after being looted from a Buddhist site in Pakistan some time prior to this date.

Comparative studies based on the triad’s composition as well as other stylistic features such as robe drapery, hair patterns, facial expressions, and adornments have been conducted by Harle (1974), Mitterwallner (1987), Tissot (2005), Rhi (2008, 2017), and Guy (2022). Rhi’s (2008, 50-56) detailed study of Gandharan visual types assigns the Schist Buddha Triad Year 5 to the Type II category, and pieces in this category were produced in the late 2nd to 3rd centuries CE in workshops in the Peshawar Basin, namely Charsadda, Takht-i-Bahi, and Sahri Bahlol, making this region the probable location for the Schist Buddha Triad. Some features of the seated Buddha resemble those from sculptures found in Swat, a valley north of the Peshawar Basin, making this region another possible location for it’s production.

The iconographic features of the Schist Buddha Triad have been discussed extensively by art historians. The Buddha is depicted seated on a lotus throne in the preaching gesture under a leafy canopy. To the Buddha’s right is most likely the bodhisattva Maitreya based on his figure-eight hairstyle and his left hand, which has broken off but that probably held a water-pot. The bodhisattva on the left is commonly identified as Avalokiteshvara based on the small figure of Amitabha seated in his turban (Mitterwallner 1987, 215-16; Guy 2022, 97). Floating above the Buddha’s shoulders are the Indic gods Brahma (on the Buddha’s right), sporting a similar hairstyle to Maitreya, and Indra (on the left), holding his thunderbolt sceptre. The scene, the Buddha surrounded by bodhisattvas and Indic gods under a canopy, was originally associated with the Buddha’s Miracles at Shravasti (Fussman 1974, 57). More recent scholarship associates this scene with Buddha-fields, paradises described in Sukhavativyuha texts (Guy 2022, 98-100). Buddha-fields is a concept found in Mahayana Buddhism, and relating the iconography of this Buddha triad, along with other similar pieces, with Buddha-fields would suggest that these concepts were current in Gandhara in the early centuries of the Common Era. This identification with Mahayana concepts might align with recent discoveries of Mahayana texts recorded in Gandharan manuscripts (Harrison 2018, 117-118).

The second feature of this relief that drew scholarly attention was the inscription on the pedestal. Within the large corpus of inscribed objects from Gandhara, this schist Buddha triad is one of only five inscribed Buddhist statues found in the region; the most numerous being inscribed Buddhist reliquaries. The text is a single line inscribed at the base of the image, albeit there is no decorative rim to distinguish the base from the image.  The beginning of the text starts at the right edge of the base above a triangular chip in the stone and slopes down towards the centre of the image.  The slope in this part of the text suggests the base was chipped prior to inscribing the text.  The stem of the lotus throne extends over the base in the middle of the image and intersects the text.  To the left of the lotus stem the text is level and concludes before reaching the left edge of the base.  The letters and numerals throughout the text are legible.

A transcription and translation of the single-line inscription is relatively clear, and it states that the object was a donation made by Budhanada [Buddhananda] and commissioned to honour his deceased parents (Rhi 2017, 43). The contested part of the text is the date, year five. Most scholars agree that this year falls in the Kanishka era, which commenced in 127 CE. However, the Kaniṣka era spans at least two centuries, with the hundreds unit being dropped in the second century of the Kushan period. This means that year five could be either 132 CE or 232 CE. Rhi’s comparisons with Gandharan art typologies suggest the latter date, 232 CE for year five and this would align with the Mamane Dheri statue dated to year eighty-nine, making them sixteen years apart (105–89) rather than eighty-four years apart (89–5). Some scholars have proposed other eras such as the Gupta era (Khandalavala 1985) and the Huna era (Mitterwallner 1987), but when taking into account the chronology Gandharan art and the emergence of Buddhist images during the Kushan period, year five corresponding to 232 CE seems most plausible.

Although questions about the exact provenance and date of the Schist Buddha Triad still remain, the piece exemplifies the sophisticated skills of Gandharan artisans and contributes to our understanding of Buddhism in Gandhara in the early centuries of the Common Era.

Conventional Name Year 5 Buddha | Item Schist sculpture | Findspot Unknown | Dimensions Height: 61.6cm, Width: 59.1cm | Date Year 5 | Collection Private | Current Location Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States | Language/Script Gāndhārī/Kharoṣṭḥī

Hairhair parted in middle with lateral continuous waves; separate uṣṇīṣa
(Harle 1974, 132) “wavy, rolling up and inwards from the hairline on either side of a central little almond-shaped dividing point”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 217) “rendered in a systematized manner in the form of semi-circles… bound by a band”
(Guy 2022, 97) “his uncut hair is drawn back in prominent waves and tied up to form a large chignon-ushnisha”
Ring at base of uṣṇīṣaring at base of uṣṇīṣalight
Roberobe with arm, right shoulder and feet exposed, and section of the lower underrobe (?) visible
(Harle 1974, 132) “shown as passing twice under the right shoulder”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 217) “right shoulder and crossed feet uncovered by upper garment, serves as a point of evidence that his dressing mode had been indianized”
(Harle 1974, 132 ) “hands are portrayed in dharmacakra pose, signifying ‘preaching’ and, as is almost always the case with this hand position, the right shoulder and arm are uncovered”
(Pal 1984, 191) “The gesture he makes with his hands held against his chest is generally interpreted as symbolic of teaching, although it seems to be depicted rather tentatively here when compared to the more articulated representations observed in later sculptures”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 218) “shown preaching with both hands raised in front of his breast, the right hand with its palm turned towards the breast and the left placed below the right hand… rendered in such a way that only three of the fingers of the left hand, thumb, index and middle finger, are in contact with the right hand, touching its little finger”
(Guy 2022, 97) “his hands are poised before his chest in the teaching gesture known as Turning-the-Wheel (dharmacakrapravartanamudra)”
Ūrṇābuddha, ūrṇā
(Harle 1974, 132) “very small and set low, practically on top of the nose”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 216) “small raised disk between his eyebrows”
(Guy 2022, 97) “a small forehead mark (urna) at the meeting of his eyebrows serves as one of his many auspicious signs (lakshana)”
Long earlobebuddha, long earlobe
(Harle 1974, 132) “only moderately extended”
Earlobe holeearlobe holelight
Earlobe holeearlobe holelight
(Harle 1974, 132) “relatively small for its height”
(Guy 2022, 97) “large chignon-ushnisha”
Nimbus of Buddhanimbus, plainmedium
Lotus seat
(Harle 1974, 132) “artichoke-like lotus having four rows of petals, the top three turned upwards, the bottom row downwards and almost suggesting legs or props. The stem of the lotus is traced upon the base”
(Pal 1984, 191) “seated on a flower that looks more like an artichoke than a lotus”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 219) “six lotus petals, three on either side of the stem, carved gracefully bent downwards. The short stem of the lotus is likewise depicted on the plinth descending downwards”
(Guy 2022, 97) “grand lotus bloom with stem emerging from pond, sometimes supported by nagas, but absent here… seed pod of a large lotus with multiple tiers of upturned petals, its supporting stem clearly demarcated such that it interrupts the flow of the inscription”
Standing bodhisattvabodhisattva, standing position
(Harle 1974, 132-3) “almost certainly Maitreya (proper right) since the long lock of hair resting on top of his head like a horizontal figure eight, a feature which he shares where with Brahmā, is one of the identifying marks of Maitreya in Gandhāra sculpture.”
(Pal 1984, 191) “the figure on the left is probably Maitreya” (Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “Maitreya can be identified as such because of the breakage of the now missing flask which he once held in his left hand. He smiles almost as brightly as the god Brahmā, with whom he shares the same hair-do”
(Tissot 2005, 396) “lost its left arm, its moustaches is practically non-existent”
(Fussman 2012, 34) “the bodhisattva standing at the right of the Buddha is most probably Mahāsthamaprāpta although he looks like Maitreya”
(Guy 2022, 97) “Maitreya conventionally holds the elixir flask (lost here) and shares the ascetic’s topknot worn by Brahma”
(Harle 1974, 132-3) “hair resting on top of his head like a horizontal figure eight”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215 ) “mesh of hair in the form of the number eight, placed horizontally across the head”
Kamaṇḍaluflask, plain ovoid flask
(Guy 2022, 97) “elixir flask (lost here)”
Abhayamudrā OR namaskāramudrāgesture of reassurance, gesture of salutationmedium
Cross-piece necklacenecklace set, second long cross-necklace resting on the upper right arm with stonesmedium
Brahmanical cordnecklace set, brahmanical cord passing under right armpit with amulet boxes (kavaca)
(Harle 1974, 133) “a cord with amulets and armlets, these last appearing in outline under the shawl draped over one arm, a common stylistic mannerism of Gandhāra”
(Guy 2022, 97) “the sacred cord (yajnopavita)”
Long necklacepeople, bodhisattva, ornaments of bodhisattva, necklace set, central stone of a necklace, long necklace with one or multiple strandsmedium
Short necklaceshort flat-band necklace with decoration of rosettes separated by vertical filletsmedium
Armlet with lobe (armlet with keyūra)armletmedium
Thong sandalthong sandalmedium
Thong sandalthong sandalmedium
Nimbus of bodhisattvanimbus of bodhisattvamedium
Earringearring, ring-shapedmedium
Earringearring, ring-shapedmedium
Standing bodhisattvabodhisattva, standing position
(Harle 1974, 132) “identifiable by the small seated Tathagata figure on the crest of his turban”
(Pal 1984, 191) “identified as Avalokitesvara by the effigy of a seated Buddha that appears in the crest of his turban”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “identified as such on the evidence of the small seated figure of the Buddha Amitābha in his turban crest”
(Tissot 2005, 398) “half its right arm intact and above all a complete head with the small Buddha seated in the knot of the headdress identifying it… head seems to be on a slightly smaller scale then that of Maitreya”
(Fussman 2012, 32) “Avalokiteśvara is shown with a little Buddha sitting in his turban”
(Guy 2022, 97) “Avalokiteshvara, the highest embodiment of compassion, already displays his defining cognitive sign in his turban cockade, a diminutive image of the transcendent Buddha Amitabha”
Turbanskull-cap turban with decorated zones, fantail, figured central diadem and ribbonsmedium
Left hand at the waistmedium
Gesture of reassurancegesture of reassurancemedium
Cross-piece necklacenecklace set, second long cross-necklace resting on the upper right arm with stonesmedium
Brahmanical cordnecklace set, brahmanical cord passing under right armpit with amulet boxes (kavaca)
(Harle 1974, 133) “a cord with amulets and armlets, these last appearing in outline under the shawl draped over one arm, a common stylistic mannerism of Gandhāra”
Long necklacenecklace set, central stone of a necklace, long necklace with one or multiple strandsmedium
Short necklaceshort flat-band necklace with decoration of rosettes separated by vertical filletsmedium
Armlet with lobe (armlet with keyūra)armlet with lobemedium
Thong sandalthong sandalmedium
Thong sandalthong sandalmedium
Earringearring, pendentmedium
Earringpendent, earringmedium
(Harle 1974, 132) “clean shaven but a highly realistic boursoufflure of flesh above the upper lip”
Nimbus of bodhisattvanimbus of bodhisattvamedium
(Harle 1974, 132) “identifying feature is the long lock of hair lying on the top of his hair, ichnographically an Indian jaṭā but here rendered as a Greek krobylos. In keeping with his ascetic character, Brahma wears no jewellery, appears to be carrying a bowl in his left hand and wears a simple robe leaving his right shoulder bare”
(Pal 1984, 191) ascetic figure represents Brahma”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “attitude suggests that the artist possibly had a literary source, such as the Mahāhavastu, in mind according to which the two gods ‘Mahābrahmā’ and ‘Śakra’ (Indra) requested the Buddha after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya to set rolling the wheel of law (dharma-cakra)”
(Guy 2022, 98) “unadorned ascetic figure of Brahma, with his figure-eight topknot of braided hair, likely here understood as Sahampati, who urged the newly awakened Buddha to first espouse his teachings (dharma)”
Hair of young brahminhair of young brahmin
(Harle 1974, 132) “long lock of hair lying on the top of his hair, ichnographically an Indian jaṭā but here rendered as a Greek krobylos”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “consists of a loop of hair in figure ‘eight’, placed horizontally on the crown of his head”
(Guy 2022, 98) “figure-eight topknot of braided hair”
Kamaṇḍalflask, plain ovoid flaskmedium
Dressdress of brahmacarin, young brahminmedium
(Harle 1974, 132) “identified by the fact that he is wearing a crown. He also wears ear-rings, a torque, a necklace and armlets and held the vajra (thunderbolt), now broken, in his left hand”
(Pal 1984, 191) “crowned figure on the right hols a thunderbolt and is certainly Indra”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “attitude suggests that the artist possibly had a literary source, such as the Mahāhavastu, in mind according to which the two gods ‘Mahābrahmā’ and ‘Śakra’ (Indra) requested the Buddha after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya to set rolling the wheel of law (dharma-cakra)”
(Guy 2022, 98) “pentagonal-crowned Indra, the Vedic storm god and bringer of rains who is Buddhism presides over the devas that populate the various paradises to which the liberated are reborn. He holds the thunderbolt sceptre (vajra), of office, not yet metamorphized into Vajrapani, its Buddhist personification”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “enriched by several jewelled tassels”
(Guy 2022, 98) ) “pentagonal-crown”
Hourglass-shaped vajrahourglass-shaped vajra
(Mitterwallner 1987, 215) “conical ends”
Long necklacelong necklace with one or multiple strandsmedium
Long necklacelong necklace with one or multiple strandsmedium
Short necklaceshort flat-band necklace with decoration of rosettes separated by vertical filletsmedium
Brahmanical cordbrahmanical cord passing under right armpit with amulet boxes (kavaca), necklace setmedium
Earringpendent, earringmedium
Earringpendent, earringmedium
Armlet with lobearmlet with lobe
armlet with keyūra
Roberobe for standing bodhisattva, robe for standing bodhisattva with uttarīya and paridhāna's girdle exposed
(Harle 1974, 133) “dhoti and a long scarf looped over the left upper arm and shoulder, down in front and over the right fore-arm”
Budhanada - schist Buddha triad (year 5)
Transliteration sa(*ṃ) 4 1 phagunasa masasa di paṃcami budhanadasa trepiḍakasa danamukhe madapidarana adhvadidana puyaya bhavatu
Translation In the year , on the 5th day of the month of Phaguna; a donation of Bhudnada, the knower of the Tripitika. May it be for the honour of the mother and father who have passed away.
Flowering tree crownflowering tree crown
(Harle 1974, 132) the characteristic tree which shelters the Buddha in most of these images has, furthermore, not been identified with certainty, in spite of the peculiar appearance of its leaves and blossoms or fruits”
(Pal 1984, 191) “[tree] has not been positively identified… garlands emerging from the clusters of leaves, seems more celestial than terrestrial”
(Mitterwallner 1987, 216) “consisting of several stems which rise behind his head and unfold in branches with rosettes at their ends, from the centres of which jewel-tassels hang
(Tissot 2005, 396) “mango tree forming dais above head of the Buddha”
(Guy 2022, 99) “wish-fulfilling jewel tree (cintamani), with its abundant openwork leaves from which hang strings of pearls and gems”


Brahmā, Flowering tree crown, Indra, Lotus seat, Seated Buddha, Standing Bodhisattva

Other References

  • Christie’s Auction 18241, Lot 609 (Sept. 22, 2020) – Devotion in Stone: Gandharan Masterpieces from a Private Japanese Collection ( Christies )
  • Fussman, Gérard. 1974. “Documents épigraphiques kouchans.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême‐Orient 61: 1–66.
  • Fussman, Gérard and Anna Maria Quagliotti. 2012. The Early Iconography of Avalokiteśvara. Paris: Collège of France.
  • Guy, John. 2022. “Finding Paradise in Gandharan Buddhism: The Year 5 Buddha Triad as a Buddha-land.” Orientations 53.2: 95-104.
  • Harle, J. C. 1974. “A Hitherto Unknown Dated Sculpture from Gandhāra: A Preliminary Report.” In J. E. van Lohuizen‐de Leeuw and J. M. M. Ubaghs, eds., South Asian Archaeology 1973: Papers from the Second International Conference of the Association for the Promotion of South Asian Archaeology in Western Europe Held in the University of Amsterdam, pp. 128–35. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  • Harrison, Paul, Timothy Lenz and Richard Salomon. 2018. “Fragments of a Gāndhārī Manuscript of the Pratyutpannabuddhasaṃmukhāvasthitasamādhisūtra (Studies in Gāndhārī Manuscripts 1).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 41: 117–43.
  • Khandalavala, Karl. 1985.  “The Five Dated Gandhara School Sculptures and Their Stylistic Implications.”  In F. M. Asher and G. S. Gai, eds., Indian Epigraphy: Its Bearing on the History of Art, pp. 62-71.  New Delhi: Oxford and IBH Publishing.
  • Mitterwallner, G. 1987. “The Brussels Buddha from Gandhara of the Year 5.” In Yaldiz Marianne and Wibke Lobo, eds., Investigating Indian Art: Proceedings of a Symposium on the Development of Early Buddhist and Hindu Iconography Held at the Museum of Indian Art Berlin in May 1986, pp. 213-47. Berlin: Museum für Indische Kunst: Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. 1984. Light of Asia: Buddha Sakyamuni in Asian Art.  Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • Rhi, Juhyung. 2018. “Positioning Gandharan Buddhas in Chronology: Significant Coordinates and Anomalies.” In Wannaporn Rienjang and Peter Stewart, eds., Problems of Chronology in Gandharan Art, pp. 35–52. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tissot, Francine. 2005. “Remarks on Several Gandhāra Pieces.” East and West 55.1/4: 395-403.


Research on this item and production of the digital article was completed with the generous support of Prakaś Foundation and the Power Institute (University of Sydney).

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