Buddha’s nose and good fortune

24 July 2014

The collection is small but impressive: the bequest of Ursula Walter has found a home at the Institute of India Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Indian gods and Buddhas, various everyday objects, and fine votive offerings for the temple can be found here. Part of the collection is on display in the Philosophicum building, but most of it languishes in a nondescript gray metal cabinet at the institute.

The gold Buddha is roughly the size of a thumb. He is meditating in the shade of the Bodhi Tree. The intricately detailed leaves of the ficus religiosa, the sacred fig tree, are made of silver. It is only on closer examination that another remarkable detail becomes apparent: the branches are in the form of slim metal springs attached to the slender trunk. Thus the leaves shake with every movement, every draft sets them in motion, while the Buddha remains seated in divine immutability.

"It is said that Siddharta Buddha experienced enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree," says Dr. Marion Meisig, explaining the story behind the piece. "The figurine comes from Sri Lanka. It was probably intended as a votive offering to a temple or for use as a domestic cult object." Meisig smiles as she points to the tiny Buddha. "We have a nickname for him – Little Longnose."

And indeed, the pointed nose is shining brightly. One of the owners probably rubbed the tiny Buddha's face repeatedly as this is supposed to bring good luck and fortune.

A treasure trove in a cabinet

The figure is part of the Indian Bronze Collection, which includes more than just bronzes. All of the works were bequeathed by Ursula Walter of Friedrichsdorf who, as an enthusiastic amateur collector, brought them back with her from her extensive travels. She acquired pieces she liked and became an expert on Indian art in the process.

In 2000, private sources ensured that her collection of approximately 200 items found its way to the Institute of India Studies at Mainz University, where Dr. Marion Meisig and Nina-Mareike Obstoi act as curators. Walter's daughters wanted their mother's treasures to be accessible to the general public and they are now on public view at the university. Fifty-seven pieces can be seen in four cases on permanent display in the Philosophicum building.

However, the tiny Buddha and a large proportion of the collection are kept in a metal cabinet in the institutes' archives. Obstoi and Meisig have opened the cabinet wide to show us the items that are not currently on view in the display cases.

"Ursula Walter collected objects that might not have interested scholars," says Meisig, "but these are the items that make the collection so fascinating," The collection predominantly consists of religious works of art. The Hinduism of the subcontinent and the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma, in Southeast Asia, and East Asia are well-documented in the collection.

The gods of small things

The collection also includes everyday objects. Obstoi removes a beautifully worked receptacle from the cabinet. Six bronze tins are arranged as flower petals. Each one has a peacock enthroned on its lid. The containers are sealed with the aid of the largest peacock in the center and only when this is removed is it possible to open the tins. "They contained powders used to paint bindis," explains Obstoi. A bindi is the colored dot that Indian women traditionally wear on their foreheads. The residue of the red, orange, blue, and black powders can still be seen.

Walter also bequeathed numerous books about the art she collected. However, what the collection lacks are precise descriptions of the individual items. Meisig and Obstoi will thus work through the collection bit by bit to find out what they actually have, something they do whenever they find time off from their day-to-day work at the institute. "We often come across hints and facts about our objects while reading up for a seminar," tells Meisig.

There is an extraordinary intimacy between gods and believers in Hinduism. Meisig unfolds a small, red, wooden domestic altar. The gods are in the middle. "The figures are touched, stroked. The altars are decorated. Everybody has their favorite god." – "Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is very popular," adds Obstoi. "He brings wealth and good fortune, but his trunk always needs to be positioned so that it faces the door." The worship of the gods may appear to be very playful, but it is no game. "Everything is taken very seriously," explains Meisig.

The smiling monk

While a lot may seem strange to Europeans, other objects are oddly familiar. Meisig points to a bronze horse. "That is not a god, but is probably the mount of a god. Such figures are used to re-enact scenes from the lives of the gods. We do the same thing when we create a Nativity scene for Christmas."

Meisig and Obstoi are still unable to accurately date many of the individual pieces. "A lot of the bronzes are not particularly old, but the forms used to cast them may very well come from the 16th or 17th century."

Here is a monk who is smiling knowingly. His robes are decorated with a sort of sequins, his narrow eyes are carefully painted. The wooden figure was given a red primer and then covered with gold bronze. "It is from Burma," states Meisig. "It may have been a votive offering to a temple. People sometimes took the figures back home after a little while because then it was consecrated."

Vivid teaching

The Ursula Walter collection may be small but it is all too easy to lose one's way among the vast array of different items. Here is a Buddha deep in meditation and near him is a chain of beads – the model for Christianity's rosary and the Muslim prayer beads. Over there is Vishnu riding on his eagle. Then there is Shiva holding his wife Parvati in his arms. Their faces have worn off long ago. The bronze was simply unable to withstand the repeated rubbing of worshipers looking to obtain the pair's blessing.

"The collection is a real hodgepodge," concedes Meisig. But an interesting and insightful one. And as not everything in the collection is particularly valuable, it is uniquely useful. "We can take a lot of it with us to seminars and lectures," says Obstoi. "The items can be used as illustration material that we would not otherwise have available." The divine couple with their faces rubbed off by believers would probably never make it into a large museum, but it tells much about the faith of its owners.

But our time is up. Meisig shuts the nondescript gray metal cabinet in the archive of the JGU Institute of India Studies. The darkness envelopes the gods, the Buddhas, the makeup tins, and the monk. However, anybody who wants to see what the collection of Indian bronzes has to offer can do so at any time in the four display cases in the Philosophicum building full of items just waiting to be explored and admired by visitors.