Experts dig deep to trace the origin of Naga Buddha statues

The 1400-year-old Buddha idol was found recently at Banapur in Khurda district of Odisha.

THE ASIAN AGE. | AKSHAYA KUMAR SAHOO
Published : Jun 3, 2017, 4:03 am IST

The discovery was made by Prof. Anam Behera of Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, and his student Dakhineswar Jena.

Bhubaneswar: The recent discovery of Naga Buddha idol from Odisha’s Banapur area has inspired researchers to conduct further studies to establish if this cult of Buddhist sculpture was prevalent in the state or the statues were brought from other parts of the country. The discovery was made by Prof. Anam Behera of Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, and his student Dakhineswar Jena.

Not only in India, but in countries like Burma, China, Laos and Thailand, many statues are seen where the Buddha is depicted in meditation pose sheltered by a multi-headed snakes, which is depicted in Hindu mythology as Shesh Nag. In Buddhist literature, Buddha idols sheltered by multi-headed snakes are known as the Naga Buddha statues.

According to Prof. Nrusingha Sahoo, a researcher who has discovered many Buddhist sites in Odisha’s Jajpur district, it is yet to be established if the three Naga Buddha statues found in Odisha — two in Ratnagiri of Jajpur district and one in Bolangir district — were made by Odia sculptors or imported from other parts of the country.

“It requires further studies to establish if Naga Buddha statues were built in Odisha also. As far as I know, our researchers have sought the assistance from Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and State Museum for further research on the statue,” says Mr Behera.

Sculpture at Odisha’s Ratnagiri. Naga Buddha Sculpture at Odisha’s Ratnagiri.

Many historians believe that the Naga Buddha statues originated from India but later, with the spread of Buddhism, the carving of such unique statues started to appear from many Southeast Asian nations, specifically Burma, where the Buddhist arts flourished under the patronage of many Burmese kings.

Naga Buddha statues are also considered one of the rarest Buddhist artefacts around the globe as these specific Buddha statues are not as common as the Shakyamuni Buddha statues. Therefore, many Buddhist and antique art collectors around the world consider the Naga Buddha statues as the gems of their personal collections.

According to Peter Vredeveld, a Netherlands-based researcher who has made extensive research on Buddhist sculpture — “Naga” in Hinduism and Buddhism is a Sanskrit word for the deity taking the form of a great snake, specifically the multi-headed king cobra. “The tradition about Nagas is common in all the Buddhist countries in Asia. In many countries, the concept of Naga has merged with local traditions of many great and wise serpents,” said Mr Vredeveld.

The Buddhist Naga, adds the researcher, has the form of a great cobra, usually depicted with a single head but sometimes with many heads.

According to Prof. Sahoo, the Naga which is seen sheltering the Buddha while meditating is known as Mucilanda and Muchalinda. “According to followers of Buddhism, Mucilanda or Muchalinda is believed to have protected the Buddha from the elements like rain and storm after he attained enlightenment,” adds Dr Sahoo.

The iconographic representation of this Buddhist folklore is known as the Naga Buddha statues.

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