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THE SPREAD OF INDIAN ART AND CULTURE

TO

CENTRAL ASIA AND CHINA

PRIYATOSH BANERJEE


India had commercial and cultural relations with her neighbours since an early time. Resulting from this, was on the one hand the introduction of foreign elements into the art and culture of India and on the other the extension of Indian religious ideas and art motifs to foreign countries. The present study is confined to some aspects of India's cultural relations with Central Asia and China. Central Asia denotes here mainly Eastern Turkestan. This area is now called the Sinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The older scholars called this region Serindia as it lies between China, the Seres of the Greeks, and India. In common parlance it is often described also as the Tarim Basin, though it is only a part of Chinese Turkestan.

The most part of Chinese Turkestan being arid, it was an inhospitable region. It is bounded on all sides by mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Tianshan, the celestial mountains, on the south by the Kunlun which separates Central Asia from Tibet, on the east by the Nan Shan and on the west by the mountain mass of Pamir. The redeeming feature of the region was that there flourished here some oasis towns along the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan.

In spite of its arid and inhospitable character, the Tarim Basin developed as a flourishing centre of art and culture (the cosmopolitan nature of which constitutes a fascinating study). The reasons for the prosperity of this region are many. Firstly, it occupied a strategic position because of its situation between China and the Western countries and India. India and China are two great old civilisations. Secondly, the old silk road which connected China with the western world passed inevitably through Chinese Turkestan. Silk trade contributed greatly to the economic prosperity of the region. The trade that passed through Western countries brought many nationalities to Central Asia and the Hexi corridor situated on the western frontier of the mainland of China. Added to this, was the introduction of Buddhism in Central Asia about the first century B.C. by Vairochana, the Arhat from Kashmir. Buddhism gave this region not only a highly organised and benevolent religion but a stable culture encouraging various cultural and artistic activities. The popularity of Buddhism in Central Asia was assisted to a great extent by the appeal of visual art in the form of the gorgeously pained shrines and cave temples on the model of those of India.  While the learned were interested in rites and rituals, literary activities and theological and philosophic speculations, the common man's mind and his religious urge could be satisfied easily by concrete representation of Buddha and various scenes from his life as well as of that of compassionate Bodhisattvas and other popular religious subjects, like the Jatakas and Avadanas

Asoka's (3rd century B.C.) zeal in spreading Indian culture to her neighbours was actively supported by Kanishka who is considered to be the greatest of the Kushana rulers (2nd century A.D.). Afghanistan, Bactria, Eastern Iran and Central Asia-all

came in a short period under the spell of Buddhism which created a great impact also on China. China's contribution to the growth and continuity of Buddhism cannot be overemphasised. The.The first and foremost was China's interest in the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese language. This measure led to the popularity of Buddhism among the common people in China.

 Because of the silk road trade and popularity of Buddhism, Chinese Turkestan, as is well known was a meeting place of various races and peoples and served as a channel for interchange of many civilisations, like those of India, Hellenised Asia, Iran, Sagdiana and China. The art of Central Asia was thus a blend of various streams of thoughts inspired by Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaenism and Nestorian Christianity, etc. as the cultural relics found from different sites of Central Asia would show. Though Central Asian arts and thoughts bear the influence of various religions which found their way to this region it was Buddhism and other Indian ideas which came to Central Asia along with Buddhism that contributed most to the growth of the Central Asia art and culture.

In the dissemination of Buddhist faith and art to Central Asia, Bamiyan and Bactria played a unique role. Both these countries were main centres of Buddhism. Bamiyan was a kingdom located deep in the valley of Hindukush. Some 8200 feet high up on the mountains, Bamiyan is situated at the intersection of two migration routes, one coming from China to Iran through the Pamir and the Hindukush mountains and the other route running from the Indus Valley to Balkh. Classical writers have described Bamiyan as the frontiers of languages, civilisations and religions and the cross roads of Central Asia. These routes were followed not only by the traders but also by the conquerors and their armies, Cyrus, Alexander, Jenghiz Khan, Timur, Babur and many others.

Bamiyan served as a gateway for transmission of Indian thoughts and arts to Western countries and arrival of western arts and ideas to India. Situated at a strategic point, Bamiyan encountered many art traditions, such as Iranian, Gandhara, Gupta, Andhra, and Vakataka. The cave temples of Bamiyan were inspired by the rock-cut architecture of Ajanta-the style which it transmitted to Central Asia and China.

During the Kushana times Central Afghanistan became largely Indian in spite of the presence of Hellenistic and Iranian influences. The Kushanas ruled over a vast empire from Central Asia to the Gangetic valley. This created a common bond which facilitated the interchange of art forms among the various nations living in the Kushana empire. The Kushanas were mainly responsible for the safety of the trade routes and they acted also as the intermediaries for commercial relations that developed betw.een the two superpowers, Imperial Rome and Imperial China.

Bamiyan was an important centre of the Lokottaravadins who considered Buddha as a transcendental being. The colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan seem to have been inspired by the Lokottaravadi conception of Buddha which seems to have travelled from here to Yungang in China. The huge Buddhas of Yungang corroborate this fact. There were many other centres of art in Bamiyan, namely, Kakrak, Fondukistan, etc.

which produced many Hindu and Buddhist deities, such as Siva, Durga, Buddha, Avalokitesvara and several other figures. Further, it was an important centre of the sun worship which spread from here to Central Asia and China.

Bactria or Balkh also was a very important centre of Buddhism. It served as a political and cultural link between Afghanistan and Central Asia. We learn from Xuanzang's account that when the pilgrim was in Kunduz its ruler was Tardu who was the eldest son of the Khan of Western Turks and he was also the brother-in-law of the king of Turfan. It clearly shows that Kunduz and Turfan had close contacts with each other facilitating the interchange of art motifs and religious beliefs between these countries.

At Kunduz, Xuanzang met some important Buddhist monks of whom Prajnakara was endowed with profound wisdom. The Chinese pilgrim saw here many relics of Buddha, including his tooth relic.

The active intercourse between India and Central Asia which began about the 1st century A.D. and lasted for about 1,000 years was of a peaceful nature and beneficial to both the sides. While India enriched Central Asian art and culture, Central Asia on its part played a unique role in the dissemination of Buddhism to China, Korea and Japan. It had also preseved in its sand dunes Buddhist manuscripts and texts of varied nature: religious, medicinal and astronomical; most of which were lost long ago in India. Thus, the discovery of cultural relics from Central Asia has not only revealed the character and magnitude of Central Asian culture but provided also enough material to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Indian cultural history.

Most of the Central Asian towns flourished along the silk road. The silk road started from Changan, ancient capital of China and came to the oasis of Dunhuang. Leaving Dunhuang it passed through the famous Jade gate where it branched into two routes, the northern and southern. The northern route ran across Hami and proceeded along the foothills of the Tianshan to Turfan, Karashar, Kucha-Kizil, Aksu, Tumshuk and Kashgarh.

The southern route followed the oasis townships called Miran and then Khotan and Yarkand. From Yarkand it proceeded to join the northern route at Kashgarh. From Kashgarh the silk road continued westward through the Pamir and proceeded to Kokand, Samarkand and Bokhara and from there to Merv and then through Iran it came to the Mediterranean coast and therefrom the goods were carried by ship to Rome and Alexandria. It may be noted here that there was a nexus of silk routes. Many subsidiary routes branched off from the mainline to serve the local or regional needs. Not only silk but religious ideas and art styles also travelled along it.

China's political contact or influences penetrated first to Central Asia during the reign of Emperor Wu (140 B.C. to 87 B.C.). He despatched Zhang Qian as an emissary to contact the Yue Ches who left the Gansu border because of the omlaughts of the Huns. As the Huns proved a menace also to the security of the heartland of China, Emperor Wu wanted to mobilise the help of the Yue-Ches to fight their common adversaries (i.e., the Huns). Zhang Qian met the YueChes at Bactria. But the Yue-Ches were no longer interested in their original home. Though Zhang Qian failed in his original mission, the information he carried about the Central Asian countries, including Ferghana, Samarkand, Bokhara, Balkh as well as the distant regions of Persia and India helped China to frame Central Asian policy to promote their territorial expansion and trade relations. Zhang Qian's visits to Central Asia brought China, Hellenized West Persia and India into a fruitful contact. Zhang Qian who was in Bactria in 127 B.C. saw the Chinese textiles and bamboo being sold in the local market. This caused surprise to him and on enquiry he learnt that these objects from SouthWestern China were brought to Eastern India via Yunnan and Burma and then brought the whole way to North India and Afghanistan.

The archaeological wealth of Chinese Turkestan attracted the notice of many a distinguished scholar and expert. Between 1890 and 1916 many scholars visited and explored its ancient sites. The acquisition in 1891 by Colonel Bower of the birch-bark

manuscripts containing medical texts in the Gupta script of the 4th-5th century A.D. (the manuscripts were found by two Turks in 1891 near Kumtura on the northern silk road) and the discovery of the birch bark fragments of the Prakrit DŇammapada of the lst-2nd century A.D. from the Khotan region caused a great sensation in the scholarly world. Among the well-trained and regular archaeologists who visited and carried out explorations in Central Asia to unravel its history and art, mention may made here of Dr. Klementz of Russia (who seems to have been one of the great explorers of the world), Sir Aurel Stein from the Government of India), A. Gruenwedel and A. von Le Coq of Germany, Paul Pelliot of France (a great Sinologist), Berisovski and Kozlaf of Russia and Otani of Japan for their highly significant work leading to the discovery of vast treasures of Central Asian antiquities. Sir Leonard Wooley has called Stein's expeditions as the most daring and adventurous raid upon the ancient world that any archaeologist has attempted".  Stein's credit lies in the fact that he was all in one acting at once as an organizer and leader, interpreter, secretary, archaeologist, geographer and cartographer (and when necessary as the detective who found the Khotanese forger of antiquities and put him out of business).

Central Asia has yielded, apart from other objects, huge quantities of manuscript remains of varied interest and they throw extensive light on the history of some important aspects of Buddhist literarture. The discovery of the fragments of Kharosti Dhammpada from Komari Bazar, 13 miles from Khotan (by the French traveller Dutreil de Rhins) has already been referred to.  The importance of these fragments was recognized first by Prof.Senart. They reveal a form of Kharoshti script hardly met with in any other Kharoshti document. Again, it is interesting to note that though the contents of the manuscript correspond to the Pali Dhammapada verses, the language of the fragments is a kind of Prakrit dialect.

The German mission discovered from the Turfan area some very important manuscript fragments of Asvaghosh's dramas. Asvoghosha who was a poet in Kanishka's court (2nd century) and best known as the author of the Buddhacharita was a creator of several epic and dramatic compositions. According to tradition, he was also an excellent musician and he moved along the street with a band of male and female actors singing melancholy songs on the impermanance of human life. The Chinese pilgrim, Yijing, who visited India in 671 A.D. described Asvaghosha as the composer of songs and author of various works including the Buddhacharita.

Though Asvaghosha was both a poet and dramatist, his dramatic talent was not known to us until the discovery of the fragments of the Sariputru-Prakarana (2nd century A.D.). The Sariputra-Prakarana is one of the oldest Sanskrit dramas and it shows that the dramatic art attained full development by second century.

The portions of the manuscript that have survived are the ninth and the last chapter of the drama, presenting the scene of the conversation between Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, two of the chief disciples of Buddha. Besides these characters, there are two other characters in this chapter and they are Buddha and his disciple Kaundinya. The disciples utter on the stage a verse in honour of Buddha.

The German mission discovered from Turfan also a few other contemporary fragments of manuscripts. Though the subject of these manuscripts is also Buddhistic, the author of their composition is not found mentioned. But from the nature of the subject matter and the style of treatment, it is presumed that the author of these fragments representing certain dramas was also Asvaghosha. These dramas are purely of an allegorical nature and the characters seem to be the personification of

abstract qualities.

In one of the dramas represented in some of the above fragments there are three abstract characters, called Buddhi, Dhriti, and Kirti (measuring intellect, retention and glory respectively). They appear on the stage to praise Buddha.

The other fragments of the collection represent perhaps another drama by Asvaghosha and they mention characters like Buddha, Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, an ascetic, a Brahmana, a courtesan and the Vidushaka. The name of the courtesan was Mrigavati from Rajgir.

The fragments of the dramas in question would prove that the Buddhists already gave up their austere attitude towards the dramatic art. Among the other Central Asian manuscript finds, mention may be made of the Sanskrit Agamas of the Sarvastivadins and the texts of many Mahayana sutras including the Vaipulaya sutras. It may be interesting to note that magnificent illustrations of many Buddhist sutras occur on the walls of Dunhuang caves. They include the Amitabha sutra, Aparimitayus sutra, Maitreya sutra, Vimalakirti Nirdesa sutra, Bhaishajyaguru sutra, the Rudraksha story, the Vajrachchhedika, Suvarna-prabhasa sutra, the Avatamasaka and the Lankavatara sutra.  The Mahaparinirvana sutra is also included in the Dunhuang wall paintings.

The illustrations of sutras in Dunhuang began in the Sui period and continued till later. Very few of these sutras occur in the existing Indian art except the Saddharma-pundarika and Mahaparinirvana sutras.

There arose in Central Asia many schools of art inspired by Buddhism. Of them, the schools of Miran, Khotan, Kucha-Kizil and Turfan deserve our special mention. The art of this region reveals its ethnic diversity and various religious and artistic traditions from different sources and countries with which this region came into contact.

Again, as mentioned above the Buddhist cave art which originated in India travelled to Bamiyan, Kucha-Kizil, Turfan, Dunhuang and the mainland of China.

The Buddhist caves were excavated for the meditation and retreat of the monks. Buddhist temple culture developed on a grand scale in Central Asia and China. So far as China is concerned it had a grand palace culture. The Buddhists introduced temples in China which were accessible to all classes of people, the rich and poor, high and low.

In the Tarim basin, to be specific, there were four main schools of art, at Miran and Khotan regions on the southern silk routes and at Kucha-Kizil and at Turfan on the northern silk route.

 

Miran

At Miran, which was situated near the western edge of the Lop desert at the slopes of the Actin Tagh, Stein discovered some old stupas and shrines embellished with frescoes and stucco heads. Stein's excavations revealed at Miran a painted dado with winged angels with large and fully-opened eyes, small dimpled lips and an acqualine nose recalling affinities as Stein has suggested, "to those fine Levantine-looking portrait heads preserved for us or painted panels from Fayyum mummies of the Hellenistic period" (Aurel Stein, Serindia, p. 494). Hellenistic influences might have entered into Central .4sia with the conquest of Alexander the great as far as Kashgarh.

Miran has also yielded a large number of other mural fragments one of which shows Buddha with six shaven-headed disciples. It represents according to my study the scene of the conversion of six Sakya princes. It is interesting to note that while the head of the Buddha is definitely Western, his ushnisha and long-lobed ears follow the established Buddhist convention of India. Another very interesting subject occurs in the Miran temple No. 5. It is a broad undulating festoon of wreaths and flowers carried by youthful figures on the shoulders. The fresco-frieze surmounting this dado depicts the Vessanta-a Jataka. On the right leg of Vessantara's elephant occurs the word Tita in Indian script. According to Aurel Stein, Tita corresponds to Oman Titus who was probably an artist and author of this painting. This was rendered possible as the Tarim basin was connected with the Roman world by silk trade. In Miran existed Hellenistic, Graeco-Roman and Gandhara styles. The theme of the Miran paintings was largely Indian. These paintings have been ascribed by scholars to the third or fourth century A.D. They are the extension of the Kushana style of painting which is lost in India.

 

Khotan

Khotan is the most important Buddhist centre on the southern silk route. It had a cosmopolitan character with Indians, Chinese, Iranians and many others inhabiting this region and the art of Khotan bears the impress of this fact.  Of all the sites of Khotan schools of painting, Dandan-uliq, excavated by Stein, proved to be the richest in art treasures.  They have been ascribed by scholars on numismatic and other grounds to the eighth century. The walls of the cells of the Dandan-uliq shrine No. 11 had a small series of frescoes, one of which depicts a unique female figure. The painting, marked by a spirited drawing, shows a woman standing in an oblong tank of water enclosed by a tassellated pavement and filled with lotuses of Indian or Kashmirian type. The figure has been described as a water nymph, nagi and yakshi, etc. by various scholars. In my opinion, this is a composite figure representing or combining attributes of both Hariti (as indicated by the presence of a child) and of Lakshmi indicated by her attribute, lotus and by her association with water in which she stands. Now, regarding the style of the figure the use of the vine leaf as the lower garment is a proof of Western influence on Khotan art. The pose and contour of the body points to Indian art idiom.

Indra from Balawaste, an ancient site on southern silk road, is also a product of mixed Indo-Iranian traditions. Hariti from Farhad-beg-yailaki (southern silk road) and Vairochana from Balawaste present a synthesis of Indo-Iranian art traditions.

The Siva cult associated with Tantric elements was deeply rooted in Dandan-uliq as is apparent from Siva-sakti figures represented on some wooden panels, from this region. Dandan-uliq has yielded also a few wooden panels with the silk deities and the story of the introduction of silk into Khotan. The figures represent Iranian and Chinese art idioms. A panel from Dandan-uliq represents the worship of a rat. Kautilya's Arthasastra informs us that in ancient India rats were worshipped during the time of emergency. Thus, the Khotan art presents a variety of themes and styles, mainly Indian and Iranian, mixed with Chinese art traditions.

 

Kucha

Kucha enjoyed a special position both politically and culturally in the history of Central Asia. It is mentioned in the dynastic annals and other Chinese texts from Han to Tang

times. There existed many Buddhist sites in the district of Kucha. As is well known, Buddhism came to Kucha towards the end of the first century A.D. The famous Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva originally lived in Kucha. He was brought to China in 385 A.D. by General Li Guang after his conquest of Kucha. He was a person of encyclopaedic learning. During 12 years of his stay in China he translated many Buddhist texts into Chinese and introduced Mahayana Buddhism there in a systematic manner.

Of all the monastic establishments in Kucha, the Kizil cave complex, known as Ming-oi is the most famous. The Kizil paint-ings depict various Buddhist themes, the Jatakas, Avadanas (following the example of Ajanta), scenes from Gautama Sakyamuni's life, the figures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, devatas, musicians, and donors, and scenes of hell and some Brahmanical subjects, such as Brahamana figures, Saints and Yogis.1

Kucha developed a composite culture with Indian and Iranian elements The art of Kizil can be divided into two phases, the earlier and the latter, both showing Iranian and Indian art idioms. The earlier works of art from Kucha belong to 500-550 A.D., while the latter phase can be dated to 550-700 A.D. The Indian element in Kucha consists in the sensitive modelling of the figures and smooth blending of colours. The Chandraprabha Avadana and Jatakas of Kucha show the influence of Andhra and Ajanta art.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya from Kizil is a good example of Indo-Iranian style, so also the painting depicting a beautiful celestial god and goddess. The Iranian element in Kizil art can be noticed specially in its pictorial details.

It is worth mentioning that the Kizil artists have drawn largely on Ajanta art, especially in the case of the representation of the Jatakas and Avadanas Scholars have drawn our attention to the fact that many of the Jatakas and Avadanas depicted in Kizil correspond to those painted in Ajanta, for example the Sasa Jataka, Vyaghri Jataka, Visvantara Jataka, the Prabhasa Jataka, the Kshantivadin Jataka, the Sutasoma Jataka, the Syama Jataka, the Saddanta Jataka, the Riksha Jataka, the Mahakapi Jataka, the Sibi Jataka, the Maitribala Jataka, the Mukapangu Jataka, the Simhakunjara Jataka, the Vanara Jataka, the Hasti Jataka, the Ruru Jataka, the Vartakapota Jataka, the Bodhi Jataka, the Purna Avadana the Sudhana Avaduna, etc. There is, however, some difference in the mode of delineation of the Jatakas, in Ajanta and Kizil. While at Ajanta the stories are depicted in various scenes in spatial

arrangement according to the different settings of the Jatakas, in Kizil only the most dramatic part of the story is generally delineated.

 

Turfan

Gaochang or Turfan has a long and varied history.  It was an important staging point on the silk road skirting the northern oasis towns of the Taklamakan. As the northern silk road was vital for the expansion of silk trade, China was deeply concerned with the safety of the Tut-fan region (which was often subjected to nomad raids) and conquered it during the first century B.C. Since then Turfan was mostly under the Chinese control until its occupation by the Uighur in 870 A.D. Before the Uighurs rule, Turfan was conquered for a short period by the Tibetans.

The Uighur rule over Turfan, marked by prosperity, lasted for a long time until it was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century A.D.  The imperial Chinese envoy Wang Yande who visited the Uighur king in 982 has recorded the flourishing conditions prevailing in Turfan, the abundance of Buddhist convents, the presence of the Manichaean priests from Persia as well as the intelligent and capable character of the Uighurs.

Archaeological finds from Turfan consist of a varietg of objects, such as manuscripts of all kinds, Buddhist, Christian, Manichaean and Zoroastrian, mural fragments, stucco reliefs, decorated textiles, and several other things. As is apparent from the manuscript finds, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianty, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism-all found a favourable soil in Turfan. The Uighur rulers adopted Manichaeism as their personal faith but they were tolerant towards all the religions. The mural fragments from Bezeklik and Toyuk would show that Buddhism and Buddhist monastic establishments in Turfan enjoyed great popularity in spite of the presence of other religions, specially Manichaeism which was the royal faith, under the Uighur rule. During the ninth century, Buddhism gained an unassailable position both in China and Central Asia and the Buddhists gave a feeling of superiority over the minor groups of "Western" religious followers as is recorded by Shu Yuan-yu on a stone as follows: "Among the different foreigners who have come there (i.e. china) are the Moni (Manichaeans), the Daqin (Christians), and the Xianshen (Zoroastrians). All the monasteries of these three sorts of foreigners in the Empire together are not enough to equal the number of our Buddhist monasteries in one small city" (jane Gaston mahlor, The Western among the Figurines of the T'ang Dynasty Mahler, The Western among the Figurines of the Tang Dynasty, Rome, 1959, p. 48).

The Uighurs adjusted themselves well to the existing civilisation in Chinese Turkestan and they have left the evidence of their skill in art and interest in the older culture of Asia.  They were reorganised as the most civilised of the Altaic people who preserved the heritage of Indo-European culture.

In early Turfan paintings, two elements are prominent, the Iranian and the Chinese. Iranian elements are very distinct in the Manichaean wall paintings and miniatures discovered from Khocho by the German archaeologists. Khocho has yielded also certain mural fragments pertaining to Nestorian community which brought Western art elements to this region. So far as the Chinese influence in Turfan paintings is concerned, it is vivid mostly in the mural paintings of Bezeklik, a very big I Buddhist temple complex consisting of more than a hundred monasteries.

German expedition in Turfan is especially memorable for the discovery of illustrated Manichaean texts. The founder of Manichaeaism is Mani who was born about 215 or 216 near Ctesiphon in the province of Babylon which belonged then to Persia. Manichaeaism is a strictly ascetic religion forbidding all sexual union, the use of meal or wine and acquisition of wealth and other worldly goods. In this respect it resembles the Buddhist by way of life.

The Manichaean manuscripts are distinguished by excellent calligraphy and decorated with leaves, flowers and foliages. These manuscripts are written either in Syrian or Sogdian alphabet. Some of the Manichaean manuscripts contain the figures of the Hindu gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Siva along with Ganesa.

During the rule of the Uighurs there was a great activity in temple construction in Bezektik. These temple cells, partly cut into the rock, are decorated with paintings in tempera, representing scenes of Buddhist legends and worship in a considerable variety of style and subject.

Bezeklik has yielded several large-sized paintings of Buddhist monks, both Indian and East Asiatic distinguished by their physical features, Buddha figures of different types, seated and standing, various scenes from his life, including his journey in a boat, probably to Vaisali, lamentation of his disciples over his death, the Dipankara Jataka and Various other subjects such as devas, devotees, musicians, dragons as well as some Tantrik deities, called Dakinis.  These paintings show various ethnic groups, Indian, Persians, Uighurs, Arabs and Chinese.  A notable feature of Bezeklik paintings is that the figures are shown in profile and the Buddha figures are shown with moustaches, and endowed with elaborate haloes and they wear sandals. The style of Bezeklik paintings is predominantly Chinese with a strong admixture of Gandhara elements.  Very little Iranian elements are noticed in Bezeklik paintings.

 

Spread of Buddhist art to China

As is well known, Buddhism spread to China in the first century A.D. It is, however, worth noting that during the early period of India-Chinese relations, India was represented not by the Indians directly but by her neighbours, the Yue-Ches, the Parthians and Sogdians. Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna (?) who were the first missionaries to go to China belonged perhaps to the Yue-Che country. Again, it was in the year 148 A.D., that a Parthian prince came to China with a large number of Buddhist texts. He was called An Shigao by the Chinese.

The Sogdians too played an important role in the transmission of Buddhism to China. The most important of the Sogdian monks who preached Buddhism in China was Kang Senghui. His father was a Sogdian merchant who settled in Tonkin in the third century A.D. After his father's death, he became a monk and came to Nanjing where he built a monastery and established a Buddhist school. He was the first to introduce

Buddhism in Southern China. From the fourth century onward, however, there was a regular flow of Indian monks to China, who devoted themselves to the translation of Buddhist texts and propagation of Buddhism. This was the period when many Chinese monks also came to India.

According to many Chinese and Japanese works the introduction of Buddhist art into China is closely associated with the arrival of Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna along with an icon of Buddha to the court of the Han Emperor Ming. But it is doubtful if there was any Buddha image made at such an early date.

The earliest Buddha image seems to have been made probably around A.D. 190 in Jiangsu by the patron, Chai Rong who was known as an active propagandist for Buddhism. The account of his career given in the history of the Three Kingdoms

is as follows:

He erected a Buddha shrine making a human figure of

                     bronze whose body is coated with gold and clad in

  brocades. He hung up nine tiers of bronze plates (on the

   spire) over a multi-storeyed pavilion; his covered galleries

                     could contain three thousand men or more.

This description approaches that of a Buddhist temple (Alexander Soper, Literary Evidence For Early Buddhist Art in China, pp. 4-5).

We may concentrate now on the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex of Dunhuang situated in the Gansu province of China.  Buddhism was deeply implanted in Dunhuang as early as the 2nd-3rd century A.D.

Dunhuang caves have been hewn into the soft sedimentary rock. They are embellished with magnificent murals, stucco, sculptures and pictorial remains, such as silk banners and canopies recovered by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot from a walled-up chapel of the temple-complex. The grottoes of Dunhuang, known also as the caves of thousand Buddhas, are a vast complex stretching for a mile. Both quantitably and qualitably, it is a wonderful repository of Mahayana art and iconography.

The Dunhuang wall paintings show a wide range of subjects, such as Buddha and Bodhisattava figures; Jatakas; scenes from Buddha's life; paradise scenes; sutra illustrations; vaulted roof painted with Asuras and monsters, Lokapalas; mahesvara;

Ganesa; chariots of the sun and the moon; the story of Vaidehi; dance and music in heaven; Arhats and donors; Xuanzang's journey to India, Khotan royal families; Gandharvas; Apsaras and other celestial beings, among others.

The Dunhuang art reached its zenith during the Tang period as was the case with the mainland of China. This art, though predominantly Chinese in inspiration and style, has absorbed some amount of Western influences, such as Indian, Graeco-Buddhist and Iranian. Though the art of the Northern Wei period is dominated by the Jataka scenes and scenes from Buddha's life, from the Sui period onwards Mahayana themes gained in popularity. Some of the Avalokitesvara and Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Kshitigarbha figures from Dunhuang are excellent works of art. Regarding the paradise scenes, the paradise of Amitabha has attracted the attention of the local artists most because of the popularity of the theme. The Saddharma-pundarika too was a source of great inspiration to the Dunhuang artists.

The Indian influence on Dunhuang banners is marked by partial nudity of figures, lolling poses (head on one side, body bent on hips, and one leg drawn up) and Indian type of countenance.  The Chinese Buddhist type shows rigid symmetrical pose and Chinese or non-Indian type of faces. The side scenes of the banners showing the donors in typical Chinese costumes mark the influence of Chinese secular style. Some of the figures depicted in Dunhuang banners are marked by Tibeto-Nepalese art idioms. We may refer here also to a few other Buddhist cave temples of China, namely, the Yungang, Longmen and Maijishan. Though the themes of these caves are not as varied as those of Dunhuang, they are also very important for the study of the early Buddhist cave art of China. In the Yungang figure style we notice deep links with the west. The central Asiatic Yungang style is composed of Gandhara, Iranian and Indian elements. The colossal Buddha figures of Yungang seem to have been inspired by the Lokottaravada concept (which considers Buddha as a transcendental being) as is the case with the large-sized Buddha figures of Bamiyan.

The Longmen caves had been begun in 494 in the southern out-skirts of Loyang. The first phase of Longmen art is represented in the Guyang cave and can be dated to the late fifth century.  But here more striking are the later shallow-cut, cross-ankled Bodhisattava figures with emaciated body and narrow face.  The drapery envelops the form heavily.

At Maijishan there are figures as early as the fifth century.  Early Northern Wei works at Maijishan are the recesses Nos. 69, 86, 167, and 169 and cave Nos. 90, 92, 100, 114, 129, etc. In cave No. 100 there is a standing Avalokitcsvara figure of excellent workmanship with the elongated body, and thin robe. The drapery folds show fine incised lines and there is a 'lively movement' in the scarf-ends! Cave sculpture in China reached its zenith in the Tang period.

 

Indian Horizons                     Volume 43             Numbers 1-2                   1994.

 

 

Papers by Dr. Priyatosh Banerjee

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