This is Siddharth Gautama (Buddha) sitting under a tree and fasting as he attempts to seek supreme knowledge and/or attain salvation. After six years of such extreme ascetism, Siddharth Gautama adopted the ‘middle path’. He attained enlightenment later while meditating sitting under a Bodhi tree.
After attaining enlightenment, as Buddha, he is said to have meditated and fasted for forty nine days. It is also possible this Vigraha represents Buddha fasting after enlightenment, given the Vajrasana and tree in the background.
The emaciated Buddha sculptures date back to Gandharan period, the third century. The form appears again, in current day Bangladesh area and the bordering Burmese area in the eleventh century. There are no known examples of emaciated Buddha that is attributed to the Mathura or Pala school. The emaciated Buddha form came in to vogue again during the Rattanakosin period, nineteenth century, in Thailand. The above is one such example.
For some reason we do not see any ‘Indian’ version of emaciated Buddha. Some authors opined that such depiction did not fit with the then view aesthetics. However Chamunda Goddess and Karikkal Ammaiyar are examples of Hindu figures worshipped in their emaciated forms.
This gilded Vigraha is about 21.5 cm in height. It may be dated to the nineteenth century and attributed to Rattanakosin period. It is rare to emaciated Buddha under a tree. Thanks to Edmond and Patrick for the information on Rattankosin attribution.
Read this: Met Museum, NY has an example of emaciated Buddha from the Eilenberg collection, accession number 1987.218.5.
Their publication “The Lotus Transcendent” , 1991, identifies it as Fasting Siddhartha, before enlightenment (Page 84 and Cat no 51).
Their website lists the same sculpture with the description “After reaching enlightenment at Bodhgaya, Shakyamuni meditated and fasted for forty-nine days. Thus, showing him as an emaciated renouncer relates to his enlightenment and his status as a yogic ascetic who has ultimate control over his body.”
Interesting to see the learning continues and the views change.