Bamiyan and beyond

Print edition : November 16, 2012

One of the greatest examples of the dissemination of philosophic and artistic ideas is the spread of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent to the other countries of Asia.

BUDDHA FROM FAYAZ-TEPE, 1ST-2ND CENTURY C.E. COLLECTION: TASHKENT NATIONAL MUSEUM, UZBEKISTAN. We see here the distinctive style of the Gandhara school in the northern part of the Kushana empire. The attempt is to convey the reality of the garments and the human figure. It is very different from the idealised style of the Mathura school, in which the bodily form was only a personification of the spiritual concept.-

One of the seeming miracles in the story of man is the spread of ideas, across formidable mountains, vast oceans and national boundaries. The warm acceptance of concepts from distant lands goes to underline the deep similarity of human nature and aspirations everywhere. One of the greatest examples of the dissemination of philosophic and artistic ideas is the spread of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent to the many other countries of Asia.

BUDDHAS IN MEDITATION, 8TH CENTURY, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF BANGLADESH, DHAKA. Such representations of various forms of Buddhahood have been found in many sites of this period across eastern India and Bangladesh.-

The concept of samsara, of maya and mithya, the illusory nature of the material world around us, was crystallised in the Upanishads by the 8th or 9th century BCE. The high purpose in life was to be able to see the eternal truth beyond the veils of illusion. Persons who were able to achieve this were known as Buddhas, or enlightened ones, and Tirtankaras, or victors over the fear of death.

GANDHARVA, TERRACOTTA PLAQUE ON MAIN STUPA WALLS, PAHARPUR SITE, NAOGAON, BANGLADESH. There is an exquisite tradition of terracotta art in the stupas and temples of Bengal. This is a heritage shared by Bangladesh and India. In India, such figures are seen on the plinths of temples and stupas from Nalanda in Bihar to Tripura.-

Over the next 2,000 years, this vision of life and of a path to escape from the web of maya spread to many countries of Asia. It pervaded the culture of present-day Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan.

MALE FIGURE, TERRACOTTA, ANANDA VIHARA EXCAVATIONS, MAINAMATI, BANGLADESH. The beatific expression and gentleness on the face transport the viewer to a different realm. The gentle swelling of the belly and the smooth planes of the torso are found in figures in this period across the subcontinent.-

Present-day Bangladesh was culturally very close to Bengal in India. In fact, the Buddhist traditions of Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal were deeply connected to those of Bangladesh. Even today there are districts in Bangladesh where Buddhist sites can be found every few kilometres.

BODHISATTVA, 1ST-3RD CENTURY. FAYAZ TEPE, OLD TERMEZ. COLLECTION: STATE MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF UZBEKISTAN, TASHKENT. In the region of Termez, in south Uzbekistan, Buddhism arrived from north-western India. Some scholars date its arrival to the time of the Kushana king Kanishka (the first half of the 2nd century C.E.). Others date it to an earlier period. Greek coins of the 2nd century BCE found in this region have Indic deities and motifs. The Buddhist stupas in Termez are important in the study of the history of Buddhism in Uzbekistan. From the excavations of the early stupas of this area begin the study of Buddhist monuments in Central Asia.-

Afghanistan is situated at a crossroads on the Silk Route. Owing to its geographical position, it became the meeting point of different people and civilisations. The Chinese pilgrim monk Xuan Zang visited Afghanistan in the 7th century. He mentions that there were many monasteries and Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan.

BUDDHA, 8-9TH CENTURY, BRONZE, PAHARPUR BUDDHIST MONASTERY, PAHARPUR MUSEUM, NAOGAON, BANGLADESH. The inwardly turned eyes direct us towards the direction of our search, for all that is important is found within. The noise and clamour of the material world is to be forgotten as we seek eternal truth. The peaceful expression and smile portray the joy to be found through the search.-

Bamiyan was also on the trade route linking India with Balkh, in Afghanistan, through which spices, pearls, ivory and cotton were traded.

GANDHARVA, 7-8TH CENTURY, MAHASTHAN, BOGRA, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF BANGLADESH. This flying figure evokes a sense of joy. He represents the lightness of the spirit within us, which can leave our mortal chains and soar above. Such figures are visible in Indic art from the period of the Buddhist caves of Maharashtra in the middle of the first millennium.-

RECENTLY EXCAVATED BUDDHA, MES AYNAK SITE, AFGHANISTAN. There must be many sculptures of the Buddha still under the ground in Afghanistan. Wherever Indic culture reached in ancient times, spiritual thoughts deeply pervaded the lives of the people, and deities were made in large numbers.-

SOMAPURA VIHARA, PAHARPUR SITE, NAOGAON, BANGLADESH.This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A number of monasteries came up during the Pala period (8th to 12th century) in ancient Bengal and Magadha. According to Tibetan sources, the five greatest mahaviharas were Vikramashila, Nalanda, Odantapuri, Jaggadala and Somapura, and they formed a network.-

GOKUL MEDH, MAHASTHANGARH SITE, BANGLADESH. Mahasthan village in Bogra district contains the remains of an ancient city. A limestone slab bearing six lines in Prakrit in Brahmi script, discovered in 1931, dates the Mahasthangarh site to the 3rd century BCE or earlier. In ancient times, houses, including those of the rulers, were made of ephemeral materials such as wood. Only buildings made for the spiritual search were made out of lasting material. It is only the monuments to the divine that have survived in the subcontinent.-

RUPBON MURA VIHARA, 7TH CENTURY, BUDDHIST SITE, MAINAMATI, BANGLADESH. There was a flourishing Buddhist tradition across the east of the Indian subcontinent. Present-day Bangladesh has numerous stupa and vihara sites which reflect that glorious heritage. These vast complexes awaken in us a sense of the grandeur of the spirit, far more important than the material concerns of the world.-

BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN. The ancient site of Bamiyan is carved out of a range of hills in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. It was at a crossroads on the historic Silk Route, which connected the countries of Asia and Europe. Afghanistan was the meeting point of different people and civilisations, including Zoroastrian, Greek and Buddhist. It was Buddhism that left the deepest imprint here in ancient times.-

TAJIK VALLEY, BAMIYAN. In the Bamiyan region, there are scores of other Buddhist caves, besides the sites of the colossal Buddhas.-

BAMIYAN (Above and below). On a cliff face next to Bamiyan town, two colossal statues were carved 4,000 feet (1,219 metres) apart in the 6th century. One of them was the world's tallest statue of the Buddha-175 feet (53.3 m) high. It is sad to stand at the Bamiyan site to see the niches where the Buddhas once stood. These were called "Brhad" Buddhas in the Indic tradition. Larger-than-life figures began to be seen in Indian spiritual expression in the 5th century, as in the caves of Maharashtra. The tradition was spread across the faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and represented the expression of the grandeur of the spirit within us.-

BAMIYAN. Besides the colossal Buddhas, there were numerous other caves carved out of the hill face. Devotion to the Buddha was expressed over centuries at this sacred site.-

BAMIYAN: STEPS LEADING UP TO VARIOUS LEVELS OF TORSO OF THE BUDDHA. When the Chinese pilgrim monk Xuan Zang visited Afghanistan in the 7th century, 2,000 monks may have meditated in caves among the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan.-

BUDDHA, MURAL FROM FAYAZ-TEPE, 1ST-2ND CENTURY. COLLECTION: TASHKENT NATIONAL MUSEUM. There was a wonderful tradition of Buddhist mural paintings, with its roots at Ajanta, from the 2nd century BCE onwards. This spread across Central Asia and China. It is one of the world's great traditions of art.-

BUDDHAS, WALL PAINTINGS, BAMIYAN. Some paintings still survive on some of the floors in temples that are cut out of the hill around the smaller of the two colossal Buddhas.-

BUDDHA, CEILING PAINTING, TAJIK VALLEY CAVE, BAMIYAN. There was a time when the numerous Buddhist caves would all have been profusely painted. The few remnants of the paintings announce the very high quality of the art.-

BUDDHIST STUPA AT ZURMALA, TERMEZ, 3RD CENTURY, UZBEKISTAN. The stupas at Termez are among the earliest surviving, after those in India. The distinctive bricks used in this structure show that it is of the period of Kushana rule.-

FAYAZ-TEPE, STUPA NEAR TERMEZ, 1ST-3RD CENTURY, UZBEKISTAN. Travelling in Central Asia takes one back to the wonderful time when stupas dotted the landscape from Central Asia all the way to South-East Asia. These are magnificent reminders of the importance and grandeur of the spirit within us.-

Benoy K Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 35,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made over a hundred documentaries on art history. This series carries photographs from his photographic exhibition on Buddhist Heritage of the World, which is currently on display in Nara in Japan and in the French Reunion Island. It was also displayed earlier this year in London, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Leh, New Delhi and at the International Buddhist Conclave in Varanasi. The series has photographs taken in 19 countries/regions across Asia and in one part of Europe which has a 300-year-old Buddhist heritage.

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