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Sultanganj Buddha Statue

By Gaurav Manandhar at
Sultanganj Buddha Statue

Sultanganj Buddha Statue

One of the most artistic creation of Gupta artists is a Sultanganj Buddha Statue. In fact, it was created during the transitional period of Gupta and Pala dynasty. This statue is the largest substantially complete copper Buddha statue known from that time. Regarding the height and weight of this statues, it is 2.3 m high, 1m wide, and weighs over 500 kg.

This statue was found in the North Indian town of Sultanganj, Bhagalpur district, Bihar. It was during the construction of the East Indian Railway in 1861. Hence, this statue was called as Sultanganj Buddha statue. Archaeologists suggest that this statue may be from the time period between 500 and 700 AD. At present context, this statue has been displayed in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

Description and iconography of Sultanganj Buddha Statue

Sultanganj Buddha Statue is depicted in standing position with Abhaya hand mudra. His left hand is held downwards with a palm outwards while his right hand is bend in his ankle and palm spread outward. Abhaya mudra represents fearlessness and is associated with the event where he was charged by an aggressive elephant sent by his cousin Devadatta. The monastic robe covers the body of the statue and the end of it is held in the manner that is still practiced by Theravadin monks. Like other Buddha statues, this one also confirms the general characteristics of the statues.

Discovery and later history of the Sultanganj Buddha statue

In 1861, E.B. Harris, the railway engineer discovered the Buddha statues during excavation on the ancient remains near the Sultanganj station that he was constructing. Later he published a detailed account of his work along with a site plan and photographs. In that publication, he described that he had first found the right foot of the Buddha which was ten feet under the surface, beneath the floor. Later he learned that it was Buddha statue that was buried due to unknown reasons. The floor was used to conceal the statue after it had been toppled from its former place.

After he unearthed the statue, he sent it to Birmingham and the cost of transportation was paid by Samuel Thornton, a Birmingham manufacturer of ironmongery. Thornton offered the statue to the Borough Council for their proposed Art Museum in 1864. In Birmingham, the Art Museum was intended to be an exemplary and inspiration for local metalworkers and other artisans.

Over the years, the Buddha statue has been displayed in a number of prominent locations throughout Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). This statue remains as an indispensable display item and most treasured possession.

Along with this large standing Buddha statue, Harris also discovered other Buddha statues and Buddha head. Two standing Buddha statue of much smaller height carved in stone was also discovered. One of them is displayed in the British Museum and the other in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. A stone Buddha head that was excavated by Harris is now displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sultanganj Buddhas Statue at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

After the Sultanganj Buddha statues were brought at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, it became the centerpiece. This gallery started to display a number of Buddhas and related artifacts. Hence Birmingham started to hold an annual Buddha Day when West Midlands-based Buddhist groups from a range of traditions would bless the statue.

Later in 2015, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery worked with representatives of a number of faith groups from the city and the outcome was the creation of a new 'Faith Gallery'. Then the Sultanganj Buddha was moved from its previous location to this newly created gallery. Hence after the Sultanganj Buddha Statue is displayed in this gallery to date.

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