Buddhist Art on Ancient Coins

Buddhist art on ancient coins.

By Brig Siri Munasinghe[retd] [ sirimuna39@gmail.com].

A Temple painting depicting the Conception and Birth of Buddha

A Temple painting depicting the Conception[ A dream of a white elephant] on the right and Birth of Buddha, depicting Sakyan lady[Mayadevi] been bathed prior to a delivery of a child to left[ see Indras elephant or rain clouds]

Indra’s elephants, the rain clouds

In early ancient buddhist art, the Buddha was not portrayed in person. Some of  the  main event of his life, the birth scene is  shown with his mother a Sakyan lady emerging from the ritual bath in a lotus pond, , his mothers dream of an Elephant entering her womb, his departure from the palace as a rider less horse, the tree with an empty seat  underneath stood for the attainment, and the Buddha’s first sermon is represented by a wheel, the Stupa represented death or salvation.

The first of these events the birth is symbolically shown on Sri Lankan coins of the 1CentBC. These coins are now called Laksmi Plagues. The Buddha’s mother Maya-devi is shown  standing on the centre of a lotus flower holding on to two stalks emanating from either side capped with  lotus flowers at shoulder height. Standing on these lotus flowers ,sprinkling water over the of her head are two elephants  representing the two Naga kings  miraculous streams of water bathing the young Prince after his birth. The origin of this art form is described in length in JCBRAS – Centenary Volume- Numsimata Zeylanica by DPE Hettiaracchi, from which most of the information is obtained.  The only other local  examples of this scene is found  on the outer Stelae of South end of the West front piece of the Abayagiri Dagaba at Anuradhapura. Unfortunately the standing figure between the two elephants has been mutilated. It is shown over the Buddha seated statue at Isurumuniya Rock, also as a Lintal at the Dalada Maligawa at Yapahuwa.

Fig 1

This very same type appears not less than 6 times on square dies of the gateway of Stupa I at Sanchi[ Fig 1] , India . The sculptures of the gateway is reserved exclusively for the four miracles- the Nativity, Illumination, First Sermon and Decease of Buddha. On the Sanchi sculptures Maya-devi the mother of Buddha is shown both in standing and seated postures been bathed by two Elephants.

Fig. 2

Here the Nativity of Buddha is only a symbolic representation, since during that period to show Buddha in bodily form was not yet permissible. Major R. Raven Harts in his book ‘Where the Buddha Thread’ describes this art form of the elephants  pouring water over his mother as  symbolizing the first bath of baby Siddartha. Maya devi and the Elephants stand on full blown lotus flowers, and at the side are lotus[the tree of fortune], with birds amoung the leaves and flowers.[Fig  2].

The Sala was the totem tree of the Sakayans, to which tribe  the Buddha was born. The Buddha’s Mother Maya may well have kept all the observances  then in force, in a manner of most Indian women of what ever class and historical  period, bathing in the sacred lotus pond before the delivery of a child.The Sala trees were sacred to the mother goddess Luminni who was worshipped at Lumbini. The worship of goddess Luminni has survived for over 2500 years, at this very same spot which was identified as the place of birth of Buddha in 1896 by A. Furher. Until this time the sculpture there  was known as Rupa devi, the Goddess of the SalaForest. A sculptured representation of birth , with the mother holding on to Sal tree branch is in the present HinduTemple.

Buddha as born in the groove of Sala, after Maha-maya devi had bathed  in the adjoining sacred investure  Pushkara or the artificial lotus pond  of the Sakyans. The Pushkara or the Lotus pond and its association with fertility ritual baths and for consecration of Kings and Priests by sprinkling of water goes back to the  Mesopotamian and Indus Civilization, perhaps the successive waves of Aryan that swept through Mesopotamia and Indus may have picked up these traditions from the people they conquered  as they moved on  into India.

Lumbini is mentioned in  ancient manuscripts in the Island as well as in many early Chinese and Tibetan writings. An early Chinese  translation describing the large numbers of the Great Chaitiyas in ancient India states “ First is in the city of Kia-pi-lo[ Kapilawastu] in the Gardens of Lu-mi-ni [ Lumbini]on the spot where the Buddha was born”. Fah Hien and Huen Tsian visited lumbini in the 5th and 7th Cent AD. Fah Hien description is brief. But Huen Tsian provided a detail description of the site. His descriptions  of the birth place starts where the Maya Devi bathed  prior to the birth of Sidartha ending with the pillar. The position of each  and every event during  the birth of Buddha was marked by a Stupa. He writes “ Here is the bathing tank of the Sakayas…..To the north of this,  a stupa built  by Asoka Raja on the spot where the baby Prince was bathed…. Etc.

The Mother Maya is seated or standing on a lotus, which is long regarded as a sacred plant, the lotus and its flower aptly symbolizes life’s fulfillment. With its roots in the earth, its stem in water, its blossoms in the air, and blooming in the rays of the sun, the lotus thus symbolizes four elements. It is also a symbol of rebirth; its seeds pass from the air to the water and then into earth where they germinate. It also symbolises purity as well as Nirvana- the spiritual goal of Buddhism

Ananda Coomaraswamy an authority of ancient eastern art  totally agrees with this interpretation to quote ‘but at the same time the origin of this formula in his view was nothing specifically or originally Buddhist in early imagery, whether visual or verbal. For the artists before Buddha this meant the miraculous birth witnessed  every morning when Ushas rose from the ocean and the mystic Bramha Lotus, the creators throne unfolded its rosy petals. Usha was  the celestial maiden who opened the doors of the sky and was bathed by Indra’s elephants, the rain clouds. In Buddhist times the meaning of the myth changed. Brahma is dethroned and Ushas become the mother of the blessed one under the name of Maha Maya Devi, the great illusion, the cause of pain and sorrow, from which the Buddha showed the way to light. . Maya devi cult as a mother God was worshiped in many South- East  Asian countries.

Fig. 3


The famous Paleolithic sculpture  Venus of Willendorf and Luussel are parallels of the mother god Image ingEurope.  Images of naked female figures found inIndiagmay well depict a mother goddess. Two such examples of pregnant females are depicted on copper struck coins found at Akurugoda, Tissamaharama.The reverse of the coin has a railed swastika , the Royal emblem of the Sinhala King. This may have been the imagination of the minter of the coin or the engraver, but the inspiration had been the Fertility the continuation of the human race or the worship of the cult of Maya devi.

This subject was later interpreted  with matriarchal elements had won over by identifying the mother goddess with the wife or mother of some male Gods  examples of which are Pravati the wife of Siva and Lakshmi for Vishnu.[ Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline-DD Kosambi]. This symbolizes Lakshmi, the bright goddess of the day, greeting her consort Vishnu, the preserver as he rises victorious from his conflict with the spirits of darkness and bringing with her the nectar of immortality from the cosmic ocean” as worded  in the Handbook of Indian art.

The earliest art  of these  design is found in India are on the seals of the court of Vadrantapa 6th Cent AD. On  paleographic evidence the year 500 AD has been put down approximate terminus ante queen of these seals found in India. Ananda Coomaraswamy writes in1927 “ The nativity of the Buddha represented by a figure of Maya devi seated or standing on a lotus with or without elephants  pouring water from a inverted jar….. but after the third century AD disappear from Buddhist… art and invariably represent the Hindu goddess Sri or Laksmi. Thus it is evident that the figure of Laksmi referred to by Codrington will not rightly fit into the frame as our plaques undoubtedly date back to a period of great activity in Ceylon during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

Most Sri lankan coins  of this period  symbolized the main events of the life of Buddha. The Multi strike Elephant and swastika  coins, the four main events are symbolized by the Elephant, the Bodhi Tree in enclosure, the Railed Swastica and the Chaitiya is emblematical of his birth, his reaching enlightenment, his promulgation of the doctrine and his decease.. The small Elephant and Swastica  coin represents  the birth of Buddha , and  the Tree and Swatica Coin  the attainment. Perhaps the Chaitiya under the Lion in Lion and swastika the Nirvana.

The two Elephants may represent Rain clouds may be associated with the last of Buddha’s incarnations before he was born Goutama in Vessantara Jatakaya. Here he donates the White Elephant who had the magical power of producing rain. This elephant curved in and around the pond at Meghagiri[MountainofClouds] now known as Issurimuniya , with the statues of Angi and Parjanya[ Rain God] is believed to represent Clouds.

This Coin of Mayadevi with the railed swastika in the reverse is found in large quantities at most ancient Buddhist sites such as  Anuradapura, Tissamaharama, Kantarodi etc. The different types are shown on Table 1. Though buried for over a two thousand years some coins display intricate design of  miniature art. Few show signs that they had been worn as talismans as indicated by the hole drilled in them. There are many variations and denominations of these coins which the collectors look for .The current price for a good piece is between Rs 1000/ to Rs 2000/.

This symbol[the Birth of Buddha] in also found on the coins found at the great Buddhist centres inIndia along the Uttarapatha,the northern  trade route toPersiaand beyond and mainly on the Dakinapatha the Southern Trade Route toSouth India. Along with this symbol is  found  the symbols – Tree in enclosure, the Elephant etc which are commom to Sri Lankan Coins. Few examples of these coins from the catalogue of Coins of Ancient India by J Allen belong to the 3 -1 Cent BC is shown in Table 2.


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