In India from where the Buddhism actually started, Buddha was never shown in human form but through his symbols. The reluctance in showing Buddha in human form was due to many of his sayings which are mentioned in “Dighanikaya” that discouraged showing himself in human form after his demise.
The human representation of Buddha started in 1st century CE in Northern India. The two main centers of creation have been identified in “Gandhara” in today’s North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan and “Mathura” region of central northern India. The Gandhara art emerged due to the centuries of influence from the Greeks since the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. The influence of Greek sculpture is widely seen in the Gandharan Buddhist sculpture. The contribution of Gandharan sculpture added wavy hair, drapery covering shoulders, sandals and shoes, acanthus leaf decorations etc. Where as strong Indian traditions can widely be seen in the Mathuran art which are exemplified by the representation of Buddha in human form with divinities like Yaksas. Mathuran art also added clothes covering left shoulder, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat, etc.
Buddhist art continued to develop in India for a few more centuries and the Mathura sculpture of pink sandstone evolved during Gupta period (4th to 6th century) and reached to a very high fineness and delicacy. By the 10th century the its creations were dying in India due to the rapid progression of Hinduism and Islam but the Buddhist art flourished outside Indian subcontinent during its expansion in 1st century CE. Its artistic nature blended with other artistic sculpture of the countries which adopted the faith. Buddhist art prevailed in the form of “Mahayana” Buddhism towards the northern route to Central Asia, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Whereas “Theravada” Buddhism prevailed on the southern route to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.
In 1st century CE the transmission of Buddhist art was done to Central Asia, China and finally to Korea and Japan when an embassy was sent to the west by the Chinese emperor Ming (58 -75 CE). Though proper transmission started in 2nd century CE with the expansion of Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of Tarim Basin and with the efforts of a great number of Central Asian Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. The amalgamation of different culture in the art on its way of expansion added new impacts on Buddhist art. This can be seen in the area where it has expanded. Like in China the Buddhist regime has a strong impact of Chinese traits and culture. Their historic prints can be seen in the Buddhist art of china. In the same way their stupas has strong Chinese impacts of Tang Buddhist art.
Korean Buddhist art reflects the interaction of Chinese Buddhist influence and pure original Korean culture. The art of steppes are evident in early Korean Buddhist art based on excavation of artifacts and burial goods such as Silla royal crowns, belt buckles, daggers and comma-shaped gogok. In Tibet Tantric Buddhism started as a movement from India in 5th or 6th century. It was derived from the Brahmanism. The Tibetan Buddhist art received influence from Indian, Nepali and Chinese art. One of the most characteristic creations of Tibetan Buddhist art are the mandalas, diagrams of a “divine temple” made of circle enclosing a square. Vietnam also has a strong Chinese Buddhist influence over it. Similarly, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia have direct Indian influence over their Buddhist art.
Japan being geographically at the end of the silk route, had many influences before the advent of Buddhism. Japan, the largest Buddhist country today discovered Buddhism in 6th century when Buddhist missionary monks came to the islands with various art work and sculpture. The Buddhism was adopted by the country in the following century. Japan was able to preserve many aspects of Buddhism at very time when it was disappearing in India, and being suppressed in Central Asia and China only because of its geographical location.
In a nutshell, if we carefully examine the footprints of history, we can clearly see that the Buddhist art known today in many parts of the world has actually evolved from its original form. Every country or society practicing Buddhism today has inducted new things according to their way of living. The cultural impact of different societies on the Buddhist art is evident from the careful study of history and society. From the shape and order of the stupas to the way Buddha look like, everything has been customized by the sculpture of time. Originally sutpas were painted and decorated in a way such that the whole life of the Sidharta Gautama (Buddha) was shown phase wise so that the followers could seek guidance. Later on every society influenced the Buddhist art with its own cultural heritage. Every society left its footprint on the Buddhist art and evolved it into the way they wanted it to be.