One of the most well-known images of the Buddha depicts him seated in meditation but almost skeletal, his body reduced to a frame of bones over which the skin is tautly stretched and the veins and sinews lie like a web. Yet, while a famous image today, it is one of but a handful of such images of the emaciated Buddha. In fact, from the South Asian subcontinent such images occur almost entirely from one small geographical area and from one short time period, that is from the Gandharan area of what is primarily modern Pakistan with dates to the first four centuries C.E. there are examples that occur in Southeast Asian art at a much later time, one type of which, that from Pagan in Burma of the twelve-thirteenth centuries.
The emaciated Buddha images are always identified as representing the Buddha during the six years of extreme austerities that he practiced after leaving home and before reaching Enlightenment. Sakyamuni began his period of renunciation by studying with several teachers, each of whom he surpassed in his respective practices and whom he then abandoned as not leading him to his spiritual goal. His decision to pursue next and then abandon extreme austerities was in his same pattern. The ascetic practice that is emphasized in the texts is that of fasting during which he restricted his eating to almost nothing. Several texts describe in great detail his emaciated physical appearance as a result.