Pendant in the Form of Buddha Sakyamuni

Limited scholarly research has been conducted on this pendant and therefore, there is little known asbout the object, how it was made, where it traversed, and to whom it belonged. All that is know about this pendant is that it is associated with and may have been found in Kashmir from the 8th to 9th centuries—a geographical region situated between India, Pakistan, and China—and that it presumably depicts Buddha Sakayamuni making a gesture titled abhaya mudra—a gesture of no fear—with his right hand. The pendant is speculated to have functioned as an amulet to be worn around one’s neck. Although incongruence in time, the legendary Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, and other monks and Buddhist navigators of the Silk Road like him may have worn a similar object. Xuanzang embarked on a legendary pilgrimage across the Silk Road in search for the sutras of Buddha Sakayamuni from 629 to 645. He was a devout follower of Buddha  Sakayamuni and travelled along his multiyear pilgrimage to pay tribute at the sacred sites associated with this Buddha. Along his travels, he may have worn something similar to this pendant as a marker of his faith and practice.

Although there is not much information on this particular pendant, more research has been done on similar pendants associated with the Sogdians and the Silk Road, for example, the pendant found in Khotan (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 173). Although there is currently no accurate way to date jade, scholars have shown that the pendant is made of mix of grey and green jade and was carved into a pear shape which, according to Chinese tradition, symbolizes of long life (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 173).

Another pendant was found in 1946 dated to the 3rd-4th century and placed in Bactria. The pendant depicts a female figure carved out of gold and is thought to have once been covered in precious stone. The figure holds a flower bud in her hands—an iconographic feature of the Achaemenid empire during the 4th to 6th centuries. The flower bud motif has also been recorded in Sogdian terracotta statutes. Therefore, the female figure is speculated to represent the Zoroastrian goddess of fertility, Anahita. In ancient religious texts, Anahita is said to have been Ahura Mazda’s—a supreme Zoroastrian diety—daughter and described as “a beauteous maid, mighty and slender, highwaisted, straight (holding herself majestically), of a noble family, and her costume sparkled with gold (Avesta, Yasht V.30:126–29) ( Exhibition Silk Road 2014, 227).

A significant number of Buddhist believers and monks were reported in Middle Asia before the Islamic conquest. Therefore, Buddhist religious sites and artifacts have been uncovered all across Middle Asia with some notable exceptions in Chorasmia and Syr Darya. It is interesting to note that scholars claim Buddhism to have been the most prominent religion in the areas near Sogdiana, however, the religion shows insignificant influence in the art and culture of the Sogdian homeland of Sogdiana (Exhibition Silk Road, 204).

-Soley Esteves


This pendant was acquired in Samarkand in 1896, though it is believed to have been originally discovered in Kashmir. Particularly small and made of bronze, it was very likely made for travel. Given its dating to the 8th or 9th century, and its coverage in Kashmir, it is likely this may have been owned by a member of the Sogdian expatriate community. The figure itself is of the Buddha Sakyamuni, also know as Siddhartha Gautama, or the Gautama Buddha. the Buddha Sakyamuni was The Buddha, the progenitor of the religion, who attained enlightenment meditating under the bodhi tree (Hanh 1998, 6). He likely lived between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. While Mahayana Buddhism was the dominant branch of the religion in and around Sogdiana, the image of the Buddha Sakyamuni would have been recognized regardless of sect (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 68). Had this been an image of a bodhisattva, it could have been identified more clearly as Mahayana.

What is of particular interest is the items coverage. If this is truly an item of Sogdian origin, and that’s debatable, then it seems it traveled quite a ways. Its association with Northern India is particularly interesting. While the Sogdians were often associated with Buddhism, evidence suggests very little was practiced in the Sogdian homeland. A local flavor of Zoroastrianism seems to have been dominant. Buddhism was stronger on Sogdiana’s outskirts. The Chinese Monk Xuanzang, for instance, had much more luck encountering Buddhists during his pilgrimage while outside of Sogdiana than within it (Hansen 2012, 86-89). For example, Turfan, sitting between Sogdiana and China, was home to a monastery as well royalty who patronized the religion. As Nikolay Pchelin describes it,

“In the late 5th and early 6th centuries, when the territory belonged to the Xianbei Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), whose emperors were, for a number of political reasons, patrons of Buddhism, the first Buddhist monasteries and temples were established at Turfan. But we cannot exclude the possibility that the inhabitants were familiar with Buddhism even earlier, since we know that in the 4th century Buddhism reached the Kucha oasis, which became a centre a Buddhist learning and from where canonical texts were brought.” (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 146)

Buddhism was even stronger south of Sogdiana in Bactria. The area of Termez was known to house monasteries, and was a stop along Xuanzang's pilgrimage (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 13). Given the areas proximity to Northern India, where the religion originated, this is hardly surprising. But what is important is that in these lands there were significant Sogdian populations living abroad. These were the Sogdians who were practicing Buddhism, not the Sogdians in Samarkand or Panjikent, and the ones who likely carried pendents like this one.

-Matthew Dischner


This gilded bronze Buddha pendant represents Buddha Śākyamuni making a variation of the abhaya mudrā with the right hand and the varada mudrā with the left. It was discovered in Middle Asia, and acquired in Samarkand. The 3cm high pendant was worn around the neck as an amulet, and its value is stressed by a thick layer of gild which preserved in the folds of the robe. Presumably, it was one of the “portable cult objects”, which were connected to Buddhist pilgrimages (Forte, 2015). Many of them circulated in the territories between China and India. Its presence in Sogdiana, in the middle of the Silk Road but away from the major Buddhist centers of the time, offers good evidence of the circulation of people and ideas. Although the abhaya mudrā is a fairly standard part of Buddhist iconography, this is also an auspicious gesture, ensuring the protection to the owner. It would be especially helpful to have such a protection while travelling on rough and dangerous roads from India to China and back. At the same time, the varada mudrā, symbolizing welcome, charity, offering and compassion, protects the owner from greed and anger, which is important for their future lives. It wasn’t a locally made figure, and probably traveled with its owner from Kashmir or Tibet (Expedition Silk Road, 2014; Compareti, 2008). Indeed, if the attribution to the 8th century is correct, that was the time when Kashmir emerged as the center of Buddhist teaching and art, responding to the crisis of Buddhism in India (Mkrtychev, 2007, 482). Contributing to this possibility are what could be earrings in the ears of the Buddha, which would attribute the figure to Tantric Buddhism, the only branch of Buddhism where the Buddha is depicted wearing jewels. It is however difficult to judge whether we see earrings here or a more usual attribute of Buddha iconography, elongated earlobes, since not much attention has been given to the details, the mold used to make the cast being of an average quality. Again, the average quality of the statue or its sheer small size prevents us from clearly seeing the gesture of the right hand, which could be an unsatisfactory execution of a variation of the abhaya mudrā, when the hand tends to form an enclosed shape. Yet it could be a mixture of iconographies, something which happens in Himalayan Buddhist art, when a hand in abhaya mudrā is presented as holding something, either a shell or a lotus shoot. The facial features, such as the strong forehead and flat cheeks together with a small nose and mouth, and the drapery of the robe, refer back to late Gandhāran iconography, which also contributes to a syncretic reading of the figure. There is no evidence that this talisman belonged to a Sogdian. It may have belonged to a traveller from India crossing the Sogdian lands or be a part of Sogdian merchandise, since as merchants they assisted Buddhist monks and their followers, who created an increasing demand for ritual items (Sen, 2014, 42).

- Maria Slautina

Bibliography

Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West Treasures from the Hermitage. 2014. Amsterdam: Hermitage. (MD) (MS)

Hansen, Valerie. 2012. The Silk Road: A New History. New York: Oxford University Press. (MD)

Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1998. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. New York: Broadway Books. (MD)

Forte, Erika. “A Journey “to the Land on the Other Side”. Buddhist Pilgrimage and Travelling Objects from the Oasis of Khotan”, in Cultural Flows across the Western Himalaya, edited by Patrick Mc Allister, Cristina Scherrer-Schaub and Helmut Krasser,Vienna: VÖAW, 2015, pp. 151-185. (MS)

Compareti, Matteo. “Traces of Buddhist Art in Sogdiana”, in Sino-Platonic Papers, 181, August, 2008. (MS)

Mkrtychev, Tigran. “Buddhism and Features of the Buddhist Art of Bactria-Tocharistan”, in After Alexander. Central Asia Before Islam, British Academy:OUP, 2007, pp. 475-485. (MS)

Sen, Tansen. “Buddhism and the Maritime Crossings”, in China and Beyond in the Mediaeval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections, Amherst and Delhi, 2014, p. 39-62. (MS)

Metadata

Date

8th-9th century

Coverage

Possibly Kashmir (?)

Format

Pendant

Dimensions

h 2.9 cm

Materials

Gilded bronze

Location

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Inv. SA–12962

Additional Research Metadata

Description

The standing figure of Buddha Śākyamuni makes the abhaya mudrā or gesture of no fear with his left hand and holds the edge of his garment with his right. This pendant was presumably worn around the neck as an amulet. There were significant numbers of adherents of Buddhism in Middle Asia before the establishment of Islam. Buddhist temples, monasteries and religious objects have been found in most parts of Middle Asia save Chorasmia and the middle reaches of the Syr Darya. During the pre-Islamic period Buddhism would seem to have been the main religion among the populace in Tokharistan (roughly the border area of the modern states of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the towns of the Chuy Valley (the border area of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), although it is scarcely documented in Sogdiana.

Provenance

Chance find in Middle Asia; acquired in Samarkand; 1896 transferred from the Archaeological Commission

Sources

Previously unpublished

Files

Citation

“Pendant in the Form of Buddha Sakyamuni,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed April 20, 2019, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/386.