As an Asian Art Museum Docent trainee, I had the assignment of giving a 3 minute presentation on meaning of the colored pattern behind this seated Buddha. The museums curators haven't come to a conclusion as to what it represents as there are several possible interpretations.
One interpretation is that the background is a hood of snakes based on the story of Buddha's 7 week meditation at Bodhgaya. According to the story, during the 6th week a great rain storm arose and the snake deity rose to form a protecting cape to keep the Buddha dry.
Others believe it represents fire -- showing Buddha's enlightenment. Still others believe the pattern shows lotus leaves -- a continuation of a lotus leaf base -- a common buddhist theseen many times. I pondered this for a while as the three little knobs at the top and sides certainly could represent cobra heads. If they were cobra heads, then perhaps the top and back of the sculpture would reinforce that ideal - so I tried to get a glimpse of the back. Although it wasn't possible to see the back since it is up against the wall, I went up to the side as close as possible. I was surprised NOT to see a continuation of the knobs as snakes, but a field of objects that looked very flower-like to me. My conclusion is the background represents lotus leaves rather than a hood of cobra snakes -- but that's only my opinion. If you look at the museum's website for the Seated Buddha, you will see a picture of the back that clearly shows a field of flowers.
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