Greek Buddhism

The story of Greek Buddhism seems to be largely forgotten except when events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas hit the public’s consciousness. When The Family and I chased after a remnant of the neglected Indo-Greek cultures across a flooded river near Bhopal, I had not seen the magnificent schist statue of the Buddha in the National Museum in Delhi (featured photo). The history of the Gandhara kingdom is well documented, widely researched, easy to find, and seldom referred to. In these unsettled days the story is worth keeping in mind.

The Gandhara kingdom was centred around Peshawar and Taxila, and in the period between about 200 BCE and 600 CE it was the meeting place of three cultures: the Greek, the Indian, and the Persian. It was part of the Mauryan empire. The Emperor Ashok was introduced to governance as the satrap of Gandhara, during the reign of his grandfather, Chandragupta the founder of the empire. Buddhism came to Gandhara (and to the rest of empire) with the conversion of Ashoka. The influx of Greek artists and artisans to Central Asia which started after Alexander’s conquests settled into a constant exchange during the Seleucid dynasty, with spillage into the Mauryan empire.

The Indo-Greek melding which created the style we call Gandhara arose during the 1st century CE, during the reign of Kushan kings. Standing Buddha from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, delhi The featured photo is of a magnificent example of this style. Another one which I liked is the plaster statue of the standing Buddha pictured here. The Kushan kings traded with Rome, and the influence of the imperial Roman style is clear in both the statues. The faces of the Buddhas and the flowing dresses remind me of the flowing robes of 2nd century Roman sculpture, and the faces of Apollo. The statues were often painted and occasionally gilded, but I could not see any trace of paint on the ones I examined.

Bodhisattva from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, Delhi

The head of a Bodhisattva that you see above was striking (in spite of being badly lit). The label did not say much beyond the fact that this is dated to the 2nd century CE. A little search later convinced me that this must be a representation of the Maitreya. He seems to have been very popular in the Gandhara tradition, perhaps almost as much as Gautama. The Maitreya sports a mustache in all the pictures that I saw.

The ascension to the throne of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka, who ruled during the period these three artifact were made, dates the beginning of the Saka calendar, the official calendar of the Indian state. Kanishka’s empire extended as far east as Pataliputra and northwards up to Turfan in present day Xinjiang province. Trade with Rome in this period opened up the silk route and is said to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism into China.

I understand that "most of the archaeological finds of Gandhara art have been the result of casual discovery or clandestine treasure hunts". This explains the lack of provenance that I noticed in the labels in the museum. In the absence of modern field data, expert opinions on the history of Gandhara art diverge from each other. Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the major archaeological sites of Peshawar, Taxila, and Swat valley in Pakistan and Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan have become less accessible. New scholarly expeditions seem to be unlikely in my lifetime. The full story of the flowering of an Afghan-Greek-Iranian-Indian melding will only emerge in a gentler future.

Mohenjo-daro: a Different Vision

A non-artist like me thinks of animals as they are normally shown in photos or paintings. This iconography, the way of representing animals, differs only slightly across the Eurasian continent; cheetahs painted by Delacroix differ slightly from those shown in Mughal miniatures. But when you come across a representation from a entirely different culture, you realize with a shock that there are other ways of seeing. The four and half thousand year old tiny terracotta head of a bull that you can see in the featured photo shocked me, when I recognized what I was looking at. This was, literally, an eye opener.

The Family and I were in Delhi for a baking hot weekend, and took refuge in the Indian Museum one afternoon. I had wanted to go there for long, and The Family wanted to go back and see the Indus Valley galleries. At its peak, this civilization spread far beyond the core Indus river valley, to cover a region from Afghanistan to modern day Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in India, and supported a population of about five million people. The high period of the civilization is usually taken to be 2600 to 1600 BCE. All the photos you see in this post are of artifacts from this era.

Oxen from the Indus civilization, National Museum, Delhi

The representation of oxen, widely observed farm animals, are beautiful. They emphasize the massive power of the beasts. It is remarkable that this degree of beautiful modelling is visible in a tiny piece which is less than 4 cms in size. That is the larger piece. The smaller one is a little larger than a cm!

If we persist in thinking about the Indus civilization in terms of land area and land routes, it is blindness on our part. The Indus people were sea farers. Water trade between Indus cities played a major role in commerce and full-fledged ports for sea-going vessels have also been excavated in Gujarat. I saw a seal (larger than life sized picture here) with clearly marine motifs: a starfish surrounded by fish, an eel and seaweed.

Two indus figurines, National Museum, DelhiWhen I first looked at the little figure which you see at the top of this image, I thought it was a deer or an antelope. The Family read the label and exclaimed "Rhino!" Indeed it is, as you can see from the horn sprouting from its forehead. The massive body is the second, and relatively minor, clue. The other figure is a farm animal, as you can see from the decorative strips of cloth draped across its back. It took me a while to figure out what the prominent snout and large ears tell us. Do you recognize it?

Another fact about this four to five thousand year old civilization which we may forget is that the towns and villages of that time were situated in the middle of cleared forests. The large-scale clearing of forests in India has happened within living memory. My parents remember seeing herds of antelope from a passing train, or a leopard slinking away from the headlights of a car. The Indus civilization left reminders of its highly forested environment in numerous tiny terra cotta figures of wild animals. The armadillo you see in the photo above is just one example.

The collection of the National Museum is vast, and we spent more than a couple of hours just peering at the tiny terra cotta seals and figurines in the part of the museum which deals with the Indus valley civilization. It will take us the reminder of our lifetime to walk through this museum.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

The National Museum in Yangon

The highlight of Myanmar’s National Museum in Yangon is the lion throne (simhasana) of the Mindon dynasty. Once carted away by the British as a spoil of war, it has now been brought back and displayed in teakwood-lined room in the museum. Unfortunately one is not allowed to take photos here.

Photography is allowed in all other rooms of this small but interesting museum. There is enough variety here for any interest: from royal dresses and fossils to items of daily use. One of the things that impressed me was from the gallery which showed household instruments. The large orange press in the shape of an elephant’s head, which you see in the featured photo, must have belonged to a pretty extensive family.

Bodhisattva image in the National Museum of Yangon in MyanmarThere were wonderful pieces from many different periods. I had to hurry through the museum and did not have the time to appreciate the changes in styles over the centuries, but the variety of media was interesting. Buddhism arrived early, soon after the Indian emperor Asoka’s time, and stayed. The Indian influence has merged with Chinese to create a very different aesthetic. Here is a photo of a wooden sculpture of a dancer which shows this melding.

Tablet in the National Museum of Yangon in MyanmarWhen one has little time to travel across a country, a national museum is often the place to head to. Myanmar is no exception: the museum has a curated display of some of the finest pieces of art I saw in the country. The tablet with a scene from the jatakas which you see here is an example. The pagodas of Bagan and Indein are full of beautiful art, but to see the quality and variety that is easily accessible here, one has to spend much time at those places, and others. Another way to look at a museum is to motivate you to visit the country so see more. Either way, the National Museum succeeds.

Among the other exhibits which I found interesting was the hall which showed the evolution of the modern Burmese script. The exhibits in the natural history section were also interesting; among the fossils was an exhibit of an early anthropoid and cave art and artefacts from the neolithic era.

Ming Buddhas

In the National Museum in Beijing I saw these three beautiful statues of serene Buddhas from the Ming period. The symbiosis of Buddhism and ceramics has to be seen to be believed. I was especially impressed by the large and colourful porcelain Buddha (photo below), whose buffed surface looked like any of the decorative Ming vases in an adjoining hall. If it were not for the serenity radiating from the face and fingers of the right hand held in the Karana mudra, warding off evil, I would have had a tough time guessing who this represented.

We nearly did not go to the museum; three weeks is not a long time in Beijing if you are also in meetings most of the time. The museum is not billed as one of the must-sees. After our visit we thought it is unfairly neglected.2015-05-28 15.35.36 In any other city it would be one of the star sights.

The immense building has eight large exhibition halls on each of its four floors, and more in the basement. We knew we didn’t have time to see everything, so our list of priorities was based on an abstract idea of classical Chinese art: ceramics, paintings, statues and jade. Each of these collections was enormous. We missed much, and we plan to visit the museum again when we come back to Beijing.