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Posts Tagged Buddhism

“The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara”

When East Met West Under the Buddha’s Gaze

Stephen Chernin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Buddhist monk looked at a 3rd century Emaciated Siddhartha statue at the Asia Society Museum in New York. More Photos »


After what seemed like an endless run of geopolitical roadblocks, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” has finally come, six months late, from Pakistan to Asia Society. Is the show worth all the diplomatic headaches it caused? With its images of bruiser bodhisattvas, polycultural goddesses and occasional flights into stratosphere splendor, it is.

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Peter Oszvald/Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn

A figure of the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, is on display in “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” at Asia Society. More Photos »

That all but a handful of the 75 sculptures are from museums in Lahore and Karachi is in itself remarkable. Any effort to borrow ancient art from South Asia is fraught, even in the best of times. For an entire show of loans to make the trip, and in a period when Pakistan and the United States are barely on speaking terms, is miraculous. (Without the persistent effort of Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, the exhibition would almost certainly never have happened.) So the show has a cliffhanger back storyas an attraction, and some monumental work, like the fantastic relief called “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise.” (Dated to the fourth century A.D., it’s a kind of flash-mob version of heaven.)

But most of what’s here is neither dramatic nor grand: a chunk of a column; a head knocked from a statue; a panel sliced from some long-since-crumbled wall. Like most museum shows aiming for a big-picture view of a vanished world, it’s a scattering of small effects: precious scraps and remnants. For every stand-back-and-stare item, there are a dozen others that require close-up scrutiny and informed historical imagining to make their point.

The multilayered and time-obscured history of ancient Gandhara is particularly difficult to grasp. The area, which encompassed what is now northwestern Pakistan and a sliver of Afghanistan, was a crossroads for international traffic. If you had business that took you to or from the Indian subcontinent, you passed through Gandhara. If you were in the business of empire building, you made every effort to control it.

Persia, under Darius I, colonized the area in the sixth century B.C. Two centuries later Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and a conquest addict, charged in and charged out, leaving behind a Hellenistic occupation, which held firm even as Gandhara was absorbed into the Mauryan empire of India, South Asia’s first great Buddhist power.

Over time Greco-Bactrians, Scythians and Parthians dominated the terrain. Then, around the first century A.D., the Kushans, originally nomads from the steppe-lands north of China, settled in, extending their reach down into the Indian subcontinent.

They were genuine cosmopolitans, linked to the Mediterranean, Persia and China, and tolerant of religions. It was under their aegis that Gandharan Buddhist art, compounded of foreign and local ingredients, flourished.

The exhibition, organized by Adriana Proser, a curator at Asia Society, begins by showing elements interacting. The first thing you see is a substantial female figure carved from the dark schist that was the common stone of the region. She has a funny look, familiar but not. She’s dressed in a sort of cocktail-dress version of a Roman stola; her hairdo is pure 1970s Charlie’s Angels, long but with back-flipped bangs.

Because she wears a helmet, she’s been called Athena in the past, though she probably represents some regional genius loci modeled, at a remove of thousands of miles, on Greco-Roman prototypes. Another female figure with comparable features has more certain identity. Much as she resembles a Roman goddess of good fortune, the three clinging children she juggles mark her as the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, who, after a little enlightenment, changed her ways.

The culture mix thickens further. On a fragmentary stone panel we find in relief a Persian-style column with an Indian nature goddess posed in front of it. A squat stone figure in baggy Kushan pants turns out to be Skanda, the Hindu god of war. And a stele devoted mainly to sober scenes from Buddha’s life doubles as a playground for dozens of cupids.

The point is, Gandharan art was all over the map. Yet confusion sparked innovation. The first known figurative images of the Buddha are thought to have emerged from this region. So did, despite all the crazy components, an instantly recognizable sculptural style, on persuasive display in the second of the show’s three sections.

Here we find the classic Gandharan Buddha. Dating from the second to fifth century A.D., he is a standing figure in an ankle-length tunic and a togalike cloak that falls in rhythmical folds, with hints at the shape of the body beneath. The facial features are symmetrical and crisply cut, and idealized, though on ethnic and aesthetic terms different from those of a Greek Apollo.

On the whole the image is naturalistic in a way that the purely Indian equivalents being carved from sandstone farther south were not. And the naturalism is especially pronounced in Gandharan images of bodhisattvas, those evolved beings who postpone nirvana to aid struggling creatures on earth.

One example from the Lahore Museum suggests a leader-of-the-pack biker: slightly paunchy, with a handle-bar mustache, a cascade of curls and a challenging stare. Technically, he’s Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, though judging by his ornamental hardware — bicep bracelets, neck chains — he still has something to learn about the spiritual path of less-is-more.

The show’s highlight, “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise,” is in this section too, and culturally everything comes together here. The big Buddha seated at its center wears an off-the-shoulder robe, South Indian tropical attire, while a couple dozen of mini-bodhisattvas around him mix and match international fashions, with no two outfits, or gestures, or poses, quite the same. Two figures gaze raptly up at the Buddha; another, chin propped on hand, looks daydreamingly away; far below, two tiny observers feed lotuses to fish in a stream.

Was this really designed as a vision of Paradise? We don’t know, though we might if we had some clue as to the piece’s original setting, probably as one of several related panels in an architectural context. But, as is true of most Gandharan art collected before very recent times, such information went unrecorded, and an accurate sense of what this art meant to its makers and early viewers is lost.

Ms. Proser addresses the issue of context in the exhibition’s last section, which is in its own gallery, by going with what we know: that much Buddhist art from Gandhara took the form of carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha; that these panels once appeared on the walls of sanctuaries or cylindrical stupa mounds; and that many of the artists were entertaining storytellers.

Their skills are evident in the sequence of a dozen or so panels arranged around a stupalike structure in the gallery. In one, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, anticipates his birth in a dream, and the artist has made her look like a Roman matron en déshabillé and asleep on her couch. But in a second panel, carved by a different artist and showing the infant Buddha being examined by a sage, we’ve switched countries and cultures: now we’re in a land of turbans, boots and layered outwear.

A third episode takes place after the Buddha’s enlightenment, as the lords of the four directions, essentially Vedic or Hindu beings, decorously offer him bowls of food. And a panel set next to that is packed with the figures of demons who had tried hard to prevent that enlightenment. The scene looks like a Wookiee convention. It’s very funny, but also rich with information about armor and weaponry in use centuries ago.

For historians the value of an exhibition is in just such details, while for nonspecialists the main attraction is likely to be visual impact. Ordinarily, I’d rather look at Kushan-era Buddhist art carved farther south from rosy Indian sandstone than at sculpture made in cold, dark stone in Gandhara. (Asia Society had a show of both in 1986.) But that’s just personal taste, and, besides, the show has changed my mind about this: it pulses with human warmth. That’s one of the things we go to great art for, though in this case, and against very long odds, some of that great art has come to us.



Circa 9th century BCE First reference to Gandhara in the tenth book of the Rigveda
522–486 BCE Reign of Darius I, king of Persia
518 BCE Gandhara becomes a Persian province
5th century BCE Life of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha
327–326 BCE Invasion of Alexander the Great, Greek-Macedonian king, into Gandhara and northwest India
321–circa 297 BCE Reign of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire
312–281 BCE Reign of Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Empire
312 BCE Gandhara is part of the Seleucid Empire
305 BCE In exchange for 500 war elephants, Gandhara and Arachosia become part of the Mauryan Empire
268–240 BCE Reign of Ashoka, ruler of the Mauryan Empire, supporter of Buddhism
Circa 250 BCE Foundation of the Greco-Bactrian Empire
247 BCE Foundation of the Parthian Empire
Circa 180 BCE Conquest of Gandhara and northwest India by the Greco-Bactrians
Circa 140 BCE Invasions of the Scythians from Central Asia (Sakas, Yuezhi, and others)
1st century BCE Foundation of the Indo-Scythian dynasty
Early 1st century CE Kingdom of Odi in the Swat valley
Mid-1st century Foundation of the Kushan Empire in Gandhara by a Yuezhi tribe
127-150 Reign of Kanishka I, Kushana ruler; first heyday of Buddhist art in Gandhara
232 Foundation of the Iranian Sasanian dynasty in Afghanistan; the so-called Kushanshahs become viceroys
Circa 320 Foundation of the Gupta Empire in North India
400 Chinese pilgrim monk Faxian in Gandhara
630 Chinese pilgrim monk Xuanzang in Bamiyan, makes a record of the giant buddhas
861–900 Islamic Saffarid dynasty in Afghanistan
1008 Gandhara comes under the reign of the Muslim Ghaznavids

The Buddhist heritage of Pakistan

The beauty of ancient globalisation

Oct 20th 2011, 17:22 by A.Y. | NEW YORK


More than 1,500 years ago the Gandhara region, which surrounded present-day Peshawar, was an important point along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. Propelled by Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, settlers from the West brought classical Greco-Roman influences, while traders from the East brought Buddhism. This unique cross-pollination permeates art from the Gandhara region, which encompassed swaths of north-west Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. These works are an extraordinary example of ancient globalisation.

The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara”, the first exhibition of Gandharan art from Pakistan in America since 1960, is on view at the Asia Society in New York through October. Pakistan’s problems with violent extremism have eclipsed the region’s historical role as a place with an ancient tradition of tolerance and pluralism. Amid deteriorating relations with America, getting the artwork to New York was an epic undertaking involving diplomats, government officials, museum staff and art patrons on both sides. The display of Gandharan sculpture, architectural relief, and bronze and gold pieces, nearly all borrowed from the Central Museum in Lahore and the National Museum in Karachi, represents “a once in a lifetime chance” to view these works in America said Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum.

The unusual East-West syncretism in historic Gandhara results in some surprising images. One sculpture from the second to third century AD depicts the torso of Atlas carved into schist, a type of stone; figures resembling the Greek deity were common in Gandharan art. A stone palette from the first century BC shows Apollo pursuing Daphne.

Some of the first human images of Buddha first appeared in Pakistan, with pictures in Gandharan art dating from the third century BC. A few on view here break from more conventional portrayals of the Buddha, such as a dramatic sculpture titled “Emaciated Siddhartha”, which depicts Buddha as a skeletal ascetic, with hollow eyes and jutting rib cage. There are some striking examples of Eastern influences on classical forms, such as a Roman Corinthian column that features a seated Buddha instead of a traditional flower. Similarly, a winged Aphrodite stone sculpture has come from Taxila, a Hellenistic settlement 30 kilometres from present-day Islamabad.

The untimely death last December of Richard Holbrooke, America’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, dealt a severe blow to staging this exhibition. A former chairman of the Asia Society, Holbrooke had been a champion of the show, which was two years in the making. Without him, momentum stalled. The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in February, but its prospects seemed doomed in light of Pakistan’s political turmoil and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA operative early in the year. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in May seemed to make the show impossible.

To salvage the exhibition, Ms Chiu reckons she made 1,000 phone calls to Pakistan earlier this year and travelled there four times. Others were instrumental in finally getting the exhibition to New York, including Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon. When a series of brutal murders terrified locals in Karachi in the spring, museum staff had to be escorted by security personnel to crate artworks to be shipped to New York.

“This was the most difficult show we’ve ever organised,” said Ms Chiu, who admitted that many presumed the show would not open at all. But the effort had a simple but important objective. “It’s an opportunity to see a different view of Pakistan. It truly is another perspective.”


“The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” was shown this year till Oct. 30

at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street; (212) 288-6400, asiasociety.org.


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