One of the classic reference
points for the stylistic appearance of a Buddha image is
the 32 marks of a great being §.
If you read this list of human attributes literally some of the items
may seem a bit fanciful. When considering imagery from a symbolic
perspective, it is important to reflect on the human tendency to idealise
greatness. It is also useful to remember the inclination toward myth
in much of Indian history. The symbols on a Buddha image are seen
for a variety of reasons - not just because they are on 'the list'.
There are pictorial examples for each of the symbols
discussed here but rather than clutter the body text with link information use
the '§' to jump to a list at the bottom of the page.
A significant number of the traditional symbols relate
to the head.
images used a relatively natural hairstyle but this was gradually
replaced with a mass of 'snail shell' curls turning to the right.
There seems no obvious racial, social, or otherwise reason for this.
The only reference that I can find is to a story of the time when
Sidhattha first cut his princely hair - it sprang into spiral curls
and never needed cutting again. §
Images generally show a
cranial bump of some form. §
This has sometimes been thought of as a symbolic bony protuberance
indicating wisdom but its origin probably lies more in the hair styling
of India. Men commonly wore their hair long and it would often have
been in a bun or arranged for wearing a turban or, in the case of
the Buddha, the ascetic's top-knot. It is generally known as the ushinisha.
The 31st mark is a whorl
of hair between the eyebrows. § Many
images have a raised circle, dot or inset gem at this point. It is
known as the urna. § Another consideration
is its origin as a symbol of the sixth (of seven) energy centres (cakras)
in the ancient yogic system. [see thumbnail link above]
The earlobes on
all images are long; presumably extended by the weight of pendants
worn by the Buddha when he was prince Sidhattha. Certainly it is a
symbol of his regal ancestry. Many images go so far as to show a slit
on the lobe as a sign of the original piercing stretched by heavy
The halo makes an early appearance in Buddhist imagery.
In its simple form it is a plain round disk behind the head. As styles
develope this disk became increasingly ornate. There is a superb example
on the Sarnath Buddha. §. As a symbol
of radiating light the halo becomes quite stylised in some instances.
Palms and soles
are sometimes have wheels in their centre. [2nd mark]
The neck is commonly
seen with three rings or lines around it. Other than representing
'flesh folds' artistically I have no thoughts as to why this should
be so consistent. §
The robes are often
seen as two garments - rather than the prescribed three of the monk.
The lower robe (held up by a belt) is particularly visible on the
early standing images. §. Images show
an outer robe worn either in the 'open' mode, leaving the right shoulder
bare §, or covering both shoulders
and reaching almost to the ankles §.
Differences often depend on whether the image is standing or seated.
The third robe is occasionally seen worn folded and draped over the
left shoulder §. The sculptural treatment
of the robe varies but is usually either realistic, showing folded
drapery, or 'wet' where the robe is almost invisible. §.
The Tibetan page [STYLES]shows painted examples
of the robe pattern - not normally seen on statuary. [see: thumbnail example
& MONASTIC REQUISITES for more on the robe
Hand gestures - mudras
- became stereotyped relatively early. The seven primary mudras generally
have their basis in relation to the life story of the Buddha. They
vary considerably and are such a distinctive aspect of any image that
it is worth a seperate page. §
These links are to examples of various symbols as discussed above.
Links to 'BBTF'
are to the small booklet on symbols - Buddhas Back to Front (note
the page number).
The 32 marks of a great being.
A page of small images exemplifying the spiralled hair and bump on
top of the head.
BBTF - The ushinisha - see page 29.
Four images showing different representations of the urna - the 'dot'
on the forehead.
BBTF - the urna - see page 28.
A collection of five heads showing different styles of earlobe.
Sarnath Buddha - good examples of the halo, mudra, ears, hair, wheel.
Simple halo. Very ornate metal halo. Intricate stone lattice work
Two simple examples
An example of the outer robe worn over both shoulders with the under
robe visible - see page 5.
The outer robe worn over one shoulder leaving the right shoulder bare.
A recent photo of monks wearing the outer robe over both shoulders.
A recent photo of monks wearing the third (upper) robe - as well as
the usual two!. Statue example of same.
A Tibetan example of the 'wet' style robe. (bottom, centre) Thai example
Two Chinese examples of the rings on the neck.