Designed as a self-contained shrine with the Buddha surrounded by smaller representations linked with episodes of His life, this is a black stone (albeit tainted by brown soil) stele of Buddha executed in alto rilievo in the Pala style. It depicts Him as a crowned king (mukutadharin) seated cross-legged on a double lotus platform with His hands displaying the dharmachakra mudra (turning the wheel of Dharma) (this is likely a representation of Buddha Vairochana, one of the five Dhyani Buddhas who is usually shown with the dharmachakra mudra). Both His forearms have chafed off, leaving only remnants of His hands. His left knee, nose, parts of His upper lips and left eyebrows have also abraded. He wears highly stylised diaphanous robes, distinguished by thin incised concentric curve lines on His body. These line patterns appear to be a variant of the Udayana type of Buddha imagery.
He wears an elaborate three-leaved crown consisting of a front central ornamental triangle hemed with tiny florets and two other similar triangles (viewed from the side) with a double headband and ribbons behind His ears, with an abraded canopy-like structure above (possibly representing the Bodhi tree). The crown denotes that this statue is a depiction of Buddha as a chakravatin king. Basso-rilievo carvings of a nimbus and the skeletal structure of a building can be seen in the background behind Buddha.
He is flanked by two smaller tribangha (tri-bent pose) Buddha figures standing on single-layered lotuses. The left figure displays the varada mudra (wish-granting) with His body slanting to His right, representing the episode of His descent from the Trāyastriṃśa heaven while the right figure displays the abhaya mudra (fearlessness) with His body leaning towards His left, symbolising His subduing of the elephant Nalagiri. Above these two Buddha figures each is an aspara-like figure half-kneeling on clouds with their hands in the anjali mudra (prostration).
Beneath the lotus throne are four figures, two on each side, representing donors or devotees. The two on the left faces inwards (the one nearest Buddha is bigger and wears a crown which may signify royal patronage) and are kneeling respectfully with their hands in the anjali mudra while the voluptuous two on the right seems to be embracing each other, looking outwards, away from the Buddha. These four figures may be intended to be a parable for the viewer who is encouraged to be pious and not to be consumed with desires for worldly pleasures.
The above scene is encased within a highly decorative torana doorway filled with foliate motifs and helmed by a kirttimukha mask. Two other makara figures, depicted from their sides and facing inwards are carved at the left and right sides of the torana, which in turn, sports two magical birds at its ends supported by two ornate pillars, forming a frame for the central figures.
Behind the torana the sculptor has created three levels perhaps as a reference to multiple-storied temple architecture. Spanning the top two levels, above the torana, is carved three diminutive Buddhas in a row seated on dual-layered lotuses in the vajra posture. Each is in their own niche comprising of a torana arching over two pillars. The central figure displays the bhumisparsha mudra (calling the earth to witness), representing the moment when Buddha called upon the earth goddess to testify His past Bodhisattva deeds in His previous lives which qualify Him to attain full enlightenment in this life. The left and right figures are identical and display the dhyana mudra holding an alms bowl each in the palms of their hands and may represent the episode of the monkey’s gift of honey.
The left and right vertical borders of the entire stele are lined with a bead motif common in Pala images.
For similar examples see Lot 79, Sotheby’s Indian and South East Asian Art, New York , 15 Oct 2001; Lot 374, Christie’s Indian and South East Asian Art, New York. 16 Sept 2008; Ratan Parimoo, Life of Buddha in Indian Sculpture by, 2010, p. 347, fig. 162 and Gallery 5, ‘A Black Stone Stele of Buddha’ at www.martinsnowdon.com/wordpress/ (retrieved 24 October 2012).