A fascinating exhibition entitled “Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE” is set to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, showcasing over 140 early Buddhist artifacts from 18 July to 13 November. The exhibition, comprising everything from majestic stone reliefs and sacred reliquaries to intricate jewelry, will take visitors on a journey through the roots of Buddhist art, linking evocative themes that played a significant role during this transformative era in early Indian art.
Numerous lenders from across Europe, India, and the US have generously loaned pieces to make this exhibition a reality. The exhibit will highlight a broad spectrum of media, including precious metals such as gold, silver, and bronze, as well as ivory, rock crystal, and limestone. The exhibition will feature exceptional sculptures from southern India, newly discovered masterpieces that have never been publicly displayed, further enriching the global understanding of early Buddhist art.
The artefacts on display hark back to the earliest centuries of Buddhism, also known as pre-sectarian Buddhism, a period ranging from 2,200 years ago to the fifth century CE. This epoch signifies the emergence of the initial genres of Buddhist art on the Indian subcontinent, occurring approximately 300–400 years after Buddha’s passing and several centuries after Mahayana Buddhism had spread throughout Asia.
The chosen title, “Tree & Serpent,” offers a glimpse into what attendees can anticipate. The serpent, a universal symbol of wisdom and divine enlightenment, has been ingrained in human culture since civilization’s dawn. Similarly, the tree, represented in Buddhism by the Bodhi tree, symbolizes life and enlightenment. This exhibition will underscore how these symbols’ roles in Buddhist art predate even Buddha’s era.
Recollections from the period following Buddha’s enlightenment recount him sitting beneath a Mucalinda tree, protected from a seven-day storm by Mucalinda, the five-headed serpent king. This narrative, highlighting the importance of trees and serpents in Buddha’s story and early Buddhism, will be a focal point of the “Tree & Serpent” exhibition.
Curator John Guy, in a lecture given at Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum, emphasized that early Buddhist art often personified trees and serpents as nature-spirit deities. These symbols became a recurring theme in the earliest forms of Buddhist art, notably embodied in the stupa, a sacred monument that housed the relics of Buddha and paid tribute to him through symbolic depictions and visual narratives.
Original relics, reliquaries, and images of Buddha will take center stage in the “Tree & Serpent” exhibition. Visitors will find tree and serpent imagery woven into the reliefs on many early stupas, especially at stupa sites along the Krishna River in the Deccan.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a comprehensive catalogue, “Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India,” authored by Guy, will be published by the Met in July 2023. The book will present scholarly contributions on subjects such as the Indo-Roman exchange and Roman bronzes and coins discovered in India, among other topics. It will further explore stupas, relics, and pre-Buddhist nature cults that revered tree spirits, the earth, and water.
Buddha’s emergence brought these natural forces together into a fresh wisdom tradition. His teachings, initially a series of meditative and ethical doctrines, evolved into a grand religious tradition, extending across India, South Asia, and beyond. This rich tapestry of historical narratives will be on display at the “Tree & Serpent” exhibition, offering visitors an illuminating insight into the roots of Buddhist art.