Trade routes, both maritime and overland, were the primary means by which Buddhist thought and imagery were conveyed from India, the birthplace of Buddhism, to other Asian countries. These ancient connecting routes provided an avenue for the religious, cultural, and artistic influences of Buddhism to reach the distant corners of the continent and beyond. This essay, illustrated by objects from the Asia Society Museum's permanent collection, the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd collection, provides a base for exploring the development of Indian Buddhist imagery and its interpretation and adaptation by other cultures along the trade routes. An examination of the works illustrated here will reveal some connections as well as distinctions between Indian Buddhist sculptures and their counterparts across Asia.
Buddhist images are remarkably recognizable, regardless of their country or period of origin. They are usually made according to descriptions found in Indian texts intended to help the practitioner mentally invoke the form of the deity. These texts provide the artist with the basic schema of the image, detailing what an image should look like, from the posture, gesture, and color of the deity, to the attributes (objects he or she holds that symbolize specific powers or knowledge). Further similarities that can be seen among the Buddhist objects in the Asia Society's collection stem from the tendency of artists working elsewhere to emulate Indian models. Coming from the homeland of Shakyamuni Buddha and his teachings, such models held religious authority. The most prominent differences of period or culture of origin are usually seen in the images' details of costume, hairstyle, jewelry, body type, and facial characteristics. However, as is evidenced by the array of styles represented by the objects in the collection, artists working outside India did not simply copy Indian models-they created their own distinctive works. The artistic result of a religion that spread thousands of miles across a multiethnic landscape is a corpus of images based on a similar set of beliefs but marked by regional personalities.