Gray schist relief fragment portraying a seated crowned figure with crossed legs and joint hands within an ornamented porch, below two figures slightly projecting forward from a small balcony with railing and architrave; on the side another figure with his head placed upside down on a lotus plinth as if about to perform an acrobatic posture. The dominant figure inside the alcove could be interpreted either as a member of the upper class or as an early representation of a Bodhisattva, judging from his crown and jewels adorning his chest; he is looking aloofly at the acrobat. On the lower level, the other two human figures are engaged in conversation, facing each other and distractedly looking beyond the balcony over some external scene, forever lost. This mundane scene could have well belonged to a larger narrative frieze depicting some of the early jatakas.
The architectural frame is recognizably Indian, featuring the curved arch and pillars of the chaitya windows found also in rock-cut shrine architecture from Central India. Yet the method of representing the story of the Buddha’s legend in a series of separate panels is a definite borrowing from Roman art. This was accomplished in much the same way than the pictorial iconography of the Christian legends, based on the Roman methods: on portraying the careers of the Caesar’s several distinct climatic events were shown on separate panels.
The Gandhara region had long been a crossroads of cultural influences. Geographically it included roughly northwestern India between the Khyber Pass and the Indus River and the region of the Kabul Valley in Afghanistan. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka around 3rd century B.C., the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity; and, in the 1st century AD, rulers of the Kushan empire such as Kanishka (AD 129-160) maintained contacts with Rome and employed foreign artists from the eastern centres of the Roman Empire to realise many sculptural works. The many archaeological discoveries of Alexandrian and Syrian workmanship at Taxila in the Punjab and Begram in the Kabul valley testify to the cultural and diplomatic connections with the Graeco-Roman West. Many artifacts, in particular sculptures, have survived and are now dispersed in major museums throughout the world.
In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara school thus incorporated many motifs and techniques from classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs, while retaining the fantastic monsters, sphinxes and griffins of the Indian school. Inevitably, given the overwhelming patronage of Buddhism, most of the Gandharan sculptures are indeed depicting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and their retinue. As in the case of our fragment, all early Bodhisattvas are shown in wearing turbans, jewelry, and muslin skirts, a costume that was an adaptation of the actual dress of Kushan and Indian nobles, while the jewelry of these royal statues were a duplication of Hellenistic and Sarmatian gold, created by Western artisans.
The earliest and most frequently used material by the Gandharan artists was a soft indigenous schist that varied in colour from light to dark gray, and often contained sparkling mica particles. Many of these statues were covered with gold leaf to give them a luster in dark interiors. The most popular media, however, later became an easy-to-work material terracotta and stucco. Because of the fragility of the material most statues were supported by attaching them to walls, giving them the appearance of a three-dimensional relief. Stucco sculptures were given a final coat of gesso, which was then painted.
This interesting relief depicts a beautiful scene of popular amusement, possibly related to a specific event in the Buddha’s jataka stories. It sympathetically portrays a mundane occasion that brings us back thousands of years to the time of the first Buddhist communities, but with a more lay accent. The composition is lively and not restrained by the codification of Buddhist iconography. This is where the artist would have expressed his sympathy and curiosity for the world around him, imbuing these marvelously sculpted figurines with the breath of life through time.