|Head of a Bodhisattva, 5th c., Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.|
Continuing the mention of South Asia (see last week), I want to introduce you to some of the art from the Gandharan region of Pakistan dating from when it was Buddhist, before the advent of Islam. Gandhara was an ancient kingdom in what is modern-day northwestern Pakistan and parts of eastern Afghanistan. Yes, a hot spot today but one to which I feel an especial affinity ... even a long-seated familiarity though I only passed through it once back in 1970 when my husband and I were on our way overland to India. I valued its high dry landscape, deep blue skies, lamb kebabs, sun-warmed apricots, and men playing stringed instruments. And now that I am familiar with the Buddhist art that came out of that region, I value it as well--its early representations of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, as well as ordinary men, women, and children.
I won't go into the history except to say that as well as being a center of learning, this was the collection point for such goods as lapis, turquoise, and silk from three major trade routes that came together--from Persia, Central Asia, and India. Darius added this region to his Persian Empire. Alexander added it to his. (He is said to have feasted on 3,000 oxen and 10,000 sheep when he crossed the nearby Indus River.) Bactrian Greeks later took over. Then Kushan kings who gave this region its golden era centered in what are today the two Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Taxila.
The art got started by a Kushan king who read Buddhist scripture daily. (He even wrote a history of Buddha.) Already acquainted with the West from trade and diplomatic connections, he hired Greco-Roman sculptors to decorate stupas and monasteries with Buddhist art as well as to produce small pieces with which to embellish niches. These were made from stone, stucco, terracotta, lime plaster--some still with traces of pigment.
This all peaked from the first to the fifth centuries, all with those Greco-Roman elements--Buddha wearing classical Roman drapery, Buddha's mother resembling an Athenian matron, Buddha with an open, Apollo-like face, plus such Roman-style embellishments as vines, scrolls, and garland-bearing cherubs. Then it all shut down when the Huns invaded after their grasslands dried up and the Great Wall of China stopped them from going in that direction ... and when the Muslim conquest then arrived.
|Future Buddha Maitreya as a Bodhisattva, 3rd c., Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.|
Though my husband and I traveled through that region in 1970, we were not then familiar with Gandharan art. From Afghanistan, we stopped in Peshawar only long enough to change money and get the Khyber Mail train onward. We passed through Taxila at night, mindful only of reaching India after two months on the road.
|Head of a Female Figure, 4th c., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Terracotta.)|
But now I stop whenever I'm near a museum that displays this gentle art. And sometimes I make a sketch (such as these) because I find the sculptures highly appealing, highly accessible with a lovely human quality, even a sweetness. I am no scholar of Gandharan art ... but you could call me a hobbyist.
|Head of a Youthful Male, 4th- 5th c., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Terracotta with traces of ocher and red pigment still visible.)|
|Head of Buddha, 4th to 5th c., Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (With traces of pigment.)|
|Standing: a Bodhisattva, 2nd to 3rd c., Art Institute of Chicago.|