Until the end of the first century AD, the Buddha was represented only in symbols.
During the first century, Buddhism divided into two movements. The newer movement, called Mahayana (the Great Vehicle), as opposed to the older Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle), deified the Buddha and provided him with a host of “saints” (Bodhisattvas).
Symbols were not suited to the pageantry of the new faith which demanded a human figure as its focus.
The Buddha image developed simultaneously in two places, Gandhara and Mathura.
Gandhara was the northwest corner of India and part of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was the area conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Contacts with Greece and, later, Rome had been maintained and the Buddha image developed here was modelled on Roman sculpture.
In Mathura, 100 miles south of Delhi, the image of Buddha derived directly from the yaksha of popular Indian art.
By the third century, the two images began to coalesce into a form which served as a model for the earliest Chinese versions.
Iconographic elements of the Buddha image include the ushnisha (knot of hair on the head), ulna (a curl of hair on the forehead represented by a dot), long-lobed ears and the mudra (hand gestures).