What’s The Mystery Regarding Buddha With a Mustache?

We all know how Buddha looks like. A man seated with a serene expression on his face, utterly content and calm. A figure that radiates tranquility and silence. Wearing a simple garb, sometimes with a begging bowl, the image of Buddha has become a well-known phenomenon in contemporary consciousness. So, what is a mustache doing on the face of the Buddha sculpture from Gandhara? 

The contemporary image of Buddha is rooted in centuries-long evolution. The story of the evolution of the Buddha’s image is spread around huge geographical areas from the ancient Gandhara, in present-day Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and Kashmir, to the city of Mathura, in the present-day Uttar Pradesh. It includes artistic influences from the Greco-Roman world as well as indigenous traditions. 

Image Credits: Facebook

The development of his image also has to do with the politics of a nomadic pastoralist tribe from the Yuezhi confederacy in northwestern China, which has come to be known as the Kushan empire. It is also a story that documents shifts in Buddhist philosophy and culture. Gautama Buddha, who talked about “shunyata”, loosely translated as nothingness, put forward the goal of the annihilation of all ego, desire and ultimately identity to attain nirvana. It is quite revealing that his first images were made almost three to four centuries after his death, fueled by the rise of Mahayana doctrine and patronage of the Kushana kings. By that time, nobody remembered what the historical Buddha must have looked like. 

It was up to the artisans to carve the idea of Buddha on stone. These early artisans and sculptors employed already existing and widely used artistic techniques in their arsenal to construct the Buddha image. In the Gandhara region, where some of the earliest such sculptures were created, there was a considerable influence of Greco-Roman art due to the erstwhile Indo-Greek kingdom and the central position of the region on the silk route. Therefore, the artisans based the image of Buddha on the Greek god of the sun, Apollo. 

Image Credits: Jsotr

The similarities can be traced through characteristic Greek features such as the halo around the head of the Buddha, wavy hair, the forehead lines and drapes around his body, which are almost akin to a toga. Built widely on grey schist and stucco, these sculptures depict the symmetry of the body with utmost care and precision, including the muscles and moustaches, which were shown in a natural setting. The development of the Buddha image continued from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century AD and gave way to gigantic statues of Buddha, that were over 40 feet tall, including the massive Bamiyan Buddha. That explains more than one interpretation of Buddha’s image. 

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