Schist Buddha Triad (year 5)

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


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).

Digital publishing by Ian McCrabb, Yang Li and Isobel Andrews

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