Kuanyin (also written as Guanyin) is a widely represented Buddhist goddess in Chinese art. The very spirit of compassion and kindness, Kuanyin is worshipped for various benefits: she gives children to barren women; she protects sailors and saves them from ship wreck; she takes pity on those who suffer in hell and intercedes for them. Such is the hold this female deity has on the imagination of the Chinese artists that in no branch of Chinese art has she been left out.
Curiously, the goddess Kuanyin had been a male divinity – Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva -- till the 8th century in Chinese Buddhism. Buddhism took root in China in 54 A.D. during the Han dynasty (206 BC-221 AD). Since Buddhism originated in India, the Buddhist images made in China up to 8th century AD have followed the conventions of Indian Buddhist art.
Chinese tradition wins
However, after the 8th century AD the Chinese tradition gained supremacy in image-making and in the case of one Buddhist chief divinity, namely Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva, the Indian influence has all but been erased after the 8th century. Worshipped in recognisable Indian form up to the beginning of the Sung dynasty (960 – 1279AD) the male Avalokiteswara has been represented as a female goddess of mercy – Kuanyin – thereafter, perhaps to accommodate older Chinese beliefs in a female goddess of mercy.
The emblems and attributes given to Kuanyin are varied. She is seen sometimes holding a child in her arms as the divine giver of children. In some carvings and sculptures she stands upon a lotus leaf, a legend saying that the goddess crossed the seas, seated upon one of these leaves.
She is shown in some figures with an eye carved in the palm of her hands: she has the ability to see everywhere and thereby perceives and relieves suffering.
A long-necked vase, rosary, a necklace, a bird (parrot or dove), a roll of prayers, a luminous pearl -- are the emblems given to her in many of the portrayals of the Ming (1368-1644), and Ching (1644-1912AD) periods.
In Salarjung museum, Kuanyin holds in her left hand a vessel and her right hand is positioned to signify ‘vara’. The garments are elaborately carved and fall naturalistically in broad flowing curves. Her other attributes include a diadem on the head and a necklace, the latter a distinct mark of Kuanyins made in Ming and Ching periods.