Indian & Central Asian Art: Narrative Interpretations of Unique Fragments - Book Review

January 8th, 2009 - 12:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Book: “Indian & Central Asian Art: Narrative Interpretations of Unique Fragments”; Authors: P. Banerjee and Radha Banerjee-Sarkar; Publisher: Abha Prakashan; Price: Rs.4,000Shakti or Durga, Hindu god Shiva’s consort, was worshipped in the ancient Khotan region of China in the 7th century AD, reveals a new book that traces how Buddhism and Hinduism flourished together in China, India and Central Asia along the ancient Silk Route.

As China and India emerge as the Asian giants in the global art market, the book throws a vital insight into how similarities between the religions and arts of the two countries helped foster a pan-Asian aesthetic legacy.

“Indian & Central Asian Art: Narrative Interpretations of Unique Fragments”, a scholarly insight into common Asian artistic traditions by art historians P. Banerjee and Radha Banerjee-Sarkar, shows how similarities in religious lores and myths bound central Asia, China and India together through cave paintings, rock art, numismatics, artefacts and local cultures.

Hinduism and Buddhism and their artistic manifestations flourished simultaneously in the region, explains Banerjee-Sarkar, in charge of the East Asian Programme at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

The book attributes the artistic and cultural overlap in the region to the Silk Route, which originated from Chang’an, the ancient capital of China, and went to the Mediterranean coast.

It traces the growth of the two faiths in the continent and analyses how each has drawn from the other in terms of ideas, texts, scripts, arts and creeds - along with Hellenistic, Indian, Gandhara, Iranian, Sogdian, Chinese and Tibetan influences.

At several places, including Kumtura, Kizil, Termez, Khocho (Turfan) in central Asia bordering China, in Duldur Aqur (Xinjiang) and Fondukistan (Afghanistan), the authors trace depictions on the predictions of Siddhartha’s birth and the events in his life, suggesting continuity of the faith.

After exploring iconography of Buddhism, the book moves on to the iconography of Hinduism in central and south Asia and brings out the common threads. It describes a clean shaven boy crowned by an ibex head in a central Asian rock mural as Skanda Karttikeya, the son of Shiva, and a mural in Duldur Aqur (Xinjiang) depicting a young deity offering food to a person as of Skanda and Vishakha.

“They both connect to Yama (Hindu god of death),” Banerjee-Sarkar told IANS. The Yama trail leads the authors to a horse rider with a dog and a quiver in a Kakrak Bamiyan mural in Afghanistan.

According to the book, Durga was worshipped in the Khotan region of China (the Chinese-Turkestan area).

“A seventh century cave art depicts Siva-Shakti in the ancient Bhima city, located to the west of Khotan. This (concept of) Bhima is Durga and she is the Sri Mahadevi, as mentioned in Tibetan books and was worshipped in that country. The rock panel reminds us of the worship of Bhimadevi in the Gandhara region (northwestern Pakistan), pointing to the close cultural ties between Khotan, Gandhara and Afghanistan,” she said.

Apart from Maheshwara and Siva figures, the Central Asian treasure trove has also yielded figurines of Ganesha and Skanda, both of whom are the sons of Siva and Parvati. Ganesha is the elder and Skanda or Karttikeya, the younger.

The Narayana, often equated with Vishnu and Krishna in Hinduism, in the Buddhist context is a Buddha or the enlightened one, according to the Khotanese Saka (Buddhist text). In a Dunhuang (Chinese) Buddhist painting of Avalokiteshwara (Buddhist deity), Narayana seated on Garuda is shown as an attendant deity, bringing out the strong links between the two religions, says Banerjee-Sarkar.

The sun cult, for instance, which goes back to the Vedic days, was equally popular in Hinduism and Buddhism - the reason being that both Rama and the Buddha traced their lineage to the sun. The great Kuchean Buddhist monk Kumarajiva (4th century AD) studied the Vedas at Kashgarh (a Central Asian city).

The book is also full of striking similarities between the Buddha and Hindu god Indra - especially in respect of their births, aims and achievements.

“It may be noted that there was a nexus on the Silk Route. Many subsidiary roads branched off from the mainline to serve local and regional needs,” Banerjee said. “Not only goods and ideas but art styles also travelled along it.”

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