The person who did it and the exact date it was done are not quite certain. Ancient sites around Mathura were a happy hunting ground for amateur British archaeologists and antique collectors during the second half of the 19th century. What is clear is that their spades hit what looked like an almost life-size statue. Further digging and brushing away of dust revealed that it was a statue of the Buddha. This was a cause for some delight to the diggers but when the face was cleaned the archaeologists were dumbstruck – it was the most serene and beautiful face they had ever seen. The statue was taken to Mathura town and housed at the back of the Engineer’s Bungalow along with other bits and pieces. But as word of the beautiful statue spread it is said that British travellers and officials on their way by train to Delhi on government business or Agra to see the Taj Mahal stopped off at Mathura just to see it.
The statue dates from the 5th century, the apex of the Gupta period, India’s golden age. It is made out of the fine-grained Sikri sandstone, its flesh-pink colour making its features look almost like human skin. Other than the right hand and the feet, which are missing, the statue is undamaged. Its fine details are not worn by the elements so that the exquisite details are still sharp. The whole statue is almost perfectly proportioned and the form remarkably realistic. The face in particular is as fine as anything produced by the Greeks or other masters. The serene countenance, downcast eyes, and ever-so-slight smile on the lips perfectly express the gentle, knowing, compassionate mind of the Awakened One. By any standards the statue is a masterpiece.
Eventually, the statue, dubbed the Mathura Buddha, was moved to the new museum in the town when it was established in 1874. Mathura, which is about 90 k south of Delhi, was visited by the Buddha although he did not seem to be particularly impressed by the place. He mentioned that it was dusty and the streets were full of aggressive dogs. By the Kashan period Mathura had become one of the major centres for both Buddhist and Jainism, and during the Gupta period its artists produced some of India’s finest sculpture. Various mounds in and around the city have yielded a vast treasure trove of sculpture over the last 150 years. Much of this ended up being displayed in the Mathura Museum.
In 1901 it was suggested that the cream of Indian sculpture, including the Mathura Buddha and Asoka’s Lion Capital from Sarnath, be shipped to Britain to grace the British Museum. Lord Curzon, who happened to be the Viceroy at the time, strongly objected to this plan, saying that India’s treasures must remain in India and so the statue remained in the museum. In 1949 the India Exhibition held in Rastrapati Bhawan (the president’s palace) in Delhi brought together some of the best and most iconic examples of Indian art, ancient, medieval and modern; Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Islamic. The Mathura Buddha was positioned as the centre of the whole exhibition. When Nehru saw it (he had seen it several times before) the idea came to him to have it placed behind the throne that the president of the Republic of India sits on during formal occasions. It was not just that Nehru had a particular affection and respect for Buddhism, he also saw the need for symbols of India that were not associated with any of the country’s various ethnic and religious groups. Something Islamic would cause the Hindus to ask “Why not something Hindu?” while something Hindu would cause the Muslims to say “Why aren’t we included?” In a sense Buddhism was neutral in that the Buddhist population of the country was insignificantly small. For the same reasons Nehru rejected the call to put Gandhi’s spinning wheel on the national flag, because it was associated with one particular political party, the Congress, and selected instead the Asokan dharmacakra. Likewise, the Republic’s motto, ‘Truth alone triumphs’ (Satyameva jayate) is taken from one of Asoka’s edicts.
After consulting Rajendra Prasad, soon to become India’s first president and getting his agreement, Nehru decided that the Mathura Buddha should be placed behind the president’s throne and that is where it stands today. It’s serene and benign face gazes out at government officials when they assemble on formal occasions, as if to remind them of how they should carry out their duties. At the same time it looks over the shoulder of the most important man in the country, the president, as if whispering sage advice in his ear. The Mathura Buddha is more than a work of art, it is also a powerful symbol of all that is best in Indian thought and culture.