Asian Art and Architecture: Art & Design 382/582

Lecture 18

Central Asia

Lee 151-155; R&J 166-180

A After considering the spread of Nikaya Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma and then contemporary Buddhism in Thailand, the last class looked into the spread of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism to Indonesia and Cambodia. With today’s discussion we begin to follow the course of Buddhism’s spread north, through Central Asia to East and Northeast Asia.

B Also important to today’s discussion is developing our understanding of the ways in which the visual arts were used in the spread of the ideology and culture of Buddhism and the ways in which we interpret this spread. Lee’s text is an example of diffusionism, tracing the trail of images, or elements of images, that look alike as if they were genetically related examples of copying. If this form in China resembles another form found in Central Asia, India, or Rome, it was assumed that the design originated in the earlier or more important location and was simply copied in the later or less prestigious example.

C After many years as an unchallenged explanation of the spread of visual culture, because of its intuitive compellingness, diffusionism has been seriously questioned and revised over the last generation. You we will see an example of that in my interpretation of Lee’s approach here. There are two lines within which this questioning has run. First it is the recognition that diffusionist thinking has been too simplistic in its privileging of Western culture over all other cultures, tracing incorrectly to the West the source of a great deal that was not Western at all. The second was the privileging of all larger cultures.

In both cases there is the problem lacking a theory or interest in explaining imagery on the basis of local or indigenous development. And in both cases there is the problem of trying to explain more than the evidence will bear when the desire to explain superficial similarities exceeds our knowledge and yet fit a desired cultural goal, such as demonstrating the superiority of one culture over another.


191 175 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

Plato’s Cave Paintings at 175 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

Plato’s Cave Caves at 175 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

192 Surya, over 120 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

Plato’s Cave Ceiling mandala Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

Plato’s Cave Buddha Fondukistan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

193 Garland Bearers Miran, Xinjiang (China) late 3rd c

194 Yakshi Dandan Uiliq, Xinjiang (China) 5th - 6th c

196 Mahakashyapa fr Parinirvana Kizil, Xinjiang (China) 5th c

Plato’s Cave Bodhisattva (?) c 300

Central Asia is by any definition ambiguous. We have the term because there has not been one large national entity in the region which has developed a unified image of itself. On the WWWeb’s Asian History List there was a running thread of attempts to define the region in the Spring of 1997. For the purposes of this course we will be referring to the region between eastern Iran and western China. This encompasses northern Afghanistan and the sites lining the two trade routes running along the northern and southern borders of the Taklamakan Desert, up to Dunhuang, the western gateway to China. Most of these sites are now part of China’s Xinjiang Province. North of Tibet and the Kunlin Mountains, south of Mongolia. See Lee’s map.

The Silk Road that ran between Rome and Chang’an passed through this region. In Afghanistan it met and joined another great trade road coming north from India. From the Indian side the great majority of traders and missionaries traveling along it were Buddhist. Hindu’s as a rule did not leave the bounds of India without incurring unwanted ritual pollution. Buddhists, on the other hand, were among the more adventurous traders in India and certainly the main overseas traders along with Jains, who maintained that role after the diasppearence of Buddhism.

The treasure site of Begram was located along this route, as were the major settlements of Asian Greeks and Mediterranean traders and trading enclaves. This was the route by which The Kushans moved westward out of China in the last centuries before the common era and into India in the first century CE. And so it was the route that Buddhism took north out of India and eventually into China, in the same century. Indeed it was the Kushan conquest of India’s northern frontiers and eventually north India that opened the way for traders and eventually Buddhist missionaries to spread the Buddha’s gospel to Central and then East Asia. Though there was some Nikaya Buddhism in Central Asia, it was Mahayana Buddhism that was the dominant form in Central Asia and the east.


The History of the region has been divided into three periods by Robinson & Johnson. (1) from the introduction of Buddhism in Ashoka’s time to the end of the Kushan period. c 240 BCE - mid-4th century. (2) Mid-4th to mid-8th when it was ruled by a succession of adjacent kingdoms, and (3) mid-8th on as the Rise of Tibet was its dominent controlling element. So we see Buddhism arriveing here via the same evangelical impetus that took it to Sri Lanka. There are 2 Ashokan inscriptions in Afghanistan. The first monastery in Khotan was inaugrated in 211 BCE. Indeed Khotan traced its founding to a grand son of Ashoka named Vijayasabhava. If nothing else this is certainly a demonstration of the impact of Indian Buddhist culture in the region. The Kushans were the greatest state to ever rule the region. [I don’t know exactly how to interepret R&J’s suggestion about the Kushana introduction into India of a new type of stupa tower, by which they seem to mean the type that we see later in Nepal and call by the Portuguese pigeon term "pagoda."] The first translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese was a Parthian bhikshu from Central Asia.

There are a number of Buddhist archaeological survivals along the great trade routes, but little more than architectural skeletons remain. What survived to the 19th century was pillaged by treasure hunting, military maping expeditions by the British, Germans and French at that time.

Sarvastivadans (a Nikaya school) seemed to have dominated the northern route sites, while Mahayana groups seemed dominant at Khotan and on the southern route. Parts of the Avatamsaka Sutra, mentioning important Central Asian sites, seem to have been composed at Khotan. It seems possible that two of the more popular Mahayana figures of Japan, Ksitigarbha (Warth womb) best known as Jizo the Bodhisattva patron of children, and Bhaisajyaguru, were both "originated" [first written of ?] in Central Asia.

Dunhuang, the Chinese city marking the eastern end of the Central Asia and the gateway to China, was settled between 202 BCE and 220 CE. Dharmaraksha the great Indo-Scythian translator of the mid-third century worked there. The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas was created there in 366 as the largest of 492 excavations at the site. Another 600 or so are found in the surrounding region. The largest Buddha at Dunhuang is 109’ high.

The Tibetans rose in the 7th century and did a good deal of damage to Buddhist foundations before converting to Buddhism, capturing Ch’ang-an in 763 and Dunhuang in 787. Dunhuang was retaken by the Chinese in the 11th century, around which time a major library collection, opened in the 20th century, was sealed up.

The Mongol, Gengis Khan conquered the retgon in the 13th century, though eventually the Mongols too converted to Buddhism. After Islam came into the region in the 14th century, only the Uighir Turks maintained their Buddhist affiliation. In 1907-08 the sealed library at Dunhuang was reopened by the French and English, who subsequently expropriated some 20,000 volumes produced between the 5th and the 11th centuries.


191 175 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

Bamiyan, in northern Afghanistan, lies along what we might call the cotton or ivory branch of the great silk road, more or less where it splits off, running south through the western Himalayas toward India. It is a caravan stop, standing to the south of a shear stone ridge honeycombed with rock-cut Buddhist sanctuaries running for a mile and a half.

Was this a vast sanghrama, monastic complex? Undoubtedly such a concentration of Buddhist monuments suggests the presence of a large number of monks. Its location on the trade route guarantees both the access to the lay patronage that would support great numbers of bhikshus. It was, without question, a symbiosis of lay Buddhist traders and monks that spread Buddhism in this direction, out of its Inidan place of origin, into and eventually through Central Asia to the east. And yet one must wonder what sort of meditation and spiritual progress was possible in a location filled with such a vast number of elaborate, and in some cases spectacular, images and bustling international trade caravans. To what extent is such a site the outcome of monks, gathering to follow their spiritual practices for the benefit of their lay followers, and to what extent was it a caravansary for long distance traders, inhabited by monastics and artists and a service industry working for their material needs? Perhaps there was little difference.

The Colossal Buddha is cut into the rock of the cliff near its western end of the wall. It is 175 feet in height, and was the single largest Buddhist figure of the ancient world. (It was certainly the tallest existing one before the completion of the great 100 meter plus rock-engraving south of Bangkok, completed in 1997.) A massive relief set deep in the side of the cliff, it is a standing image of a post Gandharan style, somewhat more naturalistic than its predecessor. Xuan-Zang, the most important of all the Chinese scholar-travelers to visit India, records seeing it, brightly painted and gilded, in the early seventh century. Its robe is over both its shoulders. The image was likely of a standard model, with its right hand in Abhaya mudra, but later iconoclasm has made it difficult to be sure. The stone body was roughed-out to a relatively smooth surface and then finished in plaster washed over great ropes to establish the folds in its robe, thus creating in actuality the "string folds" of the Mathura Buddha of the same period.

In a way this points up the etherial nature of the finishes on most of the Buddha imageries we have seen. unlike the deep folds characteristic of the Gandharan images, with their strong folds and deep crevaces, these have been images created with anatomies that disguised the corporiality of the bodies they covered and surfaces that deemphasised their materiality.

Though much of the plaster and most of the painting has been lost over the centuries, there is still enough painting left to see its style. Sherman Lee divides is understanding of Central Asian art into four styles: Romano-Buddhist, Sasanian (Iranian), Central Asian and Chinese. This is an Orientalist attempt to trace most of the art of the region to somewhere else. But since there was a great deal of Buddhist art going on here over hundreds of years, we can be more true to both the Buddhists and the artists who lived here by recognizing local styles flavored by a number of foreign elements, rather than a mixture of foreign elements standing somehow on their own. Those parts of Central Asia closer to China shared culture with China, and those, like Afghanistan, bordering on Iran shared culture with the Sasanians. In Kushan Gandharan and subsequent times, Afghanistan’s Buddhist art continued to play out its the incorporation of Hellenistic elements from the Gandharan tradition.

On the exterior walls of the niche enclosing the Colossal Buddha, there still survives some of the painted imagery of Buddhas witnessing and gandharva-apsaras figures strewing flowers over the Buddha from above. The style reveals a style comparable to the one we found in India: virtuoso linear outlines and slight modeling from shading at the edges. There is no reason to suppose the style was simply inherited with the iconography, but no reason to say it has not been. (DS) If the style is distinctly more built up around a linear drawing model than the more color mass model found at Ajanta, and if the scale is wholly on a different scale and like many elements in the cave structures themselves more beholding to local that imorted building traditions, we may reasonably suppose that the monastic theology and praxis too owe something significant to local traditions.


Caves I to VIII surrounding the Colossal Buddha.

Surrounding the Colossal Buddha, at its base are cut a series of small chambers, profusely decorated with an imagery suggesting Mahayana’s infinite universe of Buddha fields (ksetra). The fact that they are eight in number suggests the South Asian formula of the eight directions, or the cosmos as a whole–like the division of the Buddhas remains into eght portions at the climax of the original struggle for the relics. Each of these rooms has a more or less consistant form cut into the walls, originally finished in plaster and paint. Level upon level of arched niches filled with meditating Buddhas, rise up to a domed ceiling, coffered with a continuous repetition of still more. Is this a chamber for meditation or for some specific ritual or is it here to complete the Colossal Buddha by framing it in the cosmos? Again we can only guess. It certainly has the potential to do all three.

Entering into the chamber between the Colossal Buddha’s feet (Cave I), we become the eighth figure completing an octoganal mandala, in a concave, empty space, that is the inverse of the stupa imagery we are more familiar with. We can see an example of that in the Ali Masjid stupa. In either case a cosmos of the Buddha fields that composed the Mahayana universe.


Plato’s Cave details of a lantern ceiling revealed in a monastic (?) chamber

What we see here is the upper portion of a chamber, too little of which is left to explain more thoroughly. Was it a treasure room, a monks dormitory, a meditation hall? We can’t say. But we can point to the structure of supporting beams colums in battered angle and the domed ceiling–composed of beams in an outer square over-layed with a square rotated ninety degrees, and over-layed with another, rotated another ninety degrees–to be of a local, or at least Central Asian, regional standard.


192 Surya, over 120 foot Buddha Bamiyan (Afghanistan) 4th - 5th c

The scene of the Sun deity over the head of the 120 foot (36.6 meter) Buddha is the largest single piece of painting to survive. It is a two-armed figure in a Central Asian warrior’s felt coat driven in a four horse chariot by winged attendants. Above these attendants are kinnaras, bird-bodied human-torsoed beings; above the sun disk are figures flying with billowing scarves. Lee says, "The figure may be identified as Surya, the Hindu sun god, or Apollo, or more likely, as Mitra, the sun deity of Vedic India (related to the Persian sun god Mithra)." Surya is known from Buddhist texts in India. Indeed this figure plays the same role here as it does paired with Sakra (Indra) at Bhaja’s small vihara. To suggest Apollo would be unthinkable without the biases of Orientalism. The particular name of the locally recognized sun deity may be unknown to us, but it was not likely a Greek deity from known to a small nearby trading community a two centuries earlier. Kinnaras are an Indian iconography, that appears in Buddhist art, to suggest that their origin is in Greek harpies is also without foundation. Winged figures are unquestionably not Indian. Such figures are shared from Afghanistan west. One can find such figures in Iran, so tracing them to Rome is pointless–unless one is acustomed seeing whatever has parallels with one’s more familiar understandings as coming from those familiar places. More significant in this case, South Asia’s flying figures, unlike those of Iran and Rome, soar without the aid of wings, as the figures above, with billowing scarves catching the wind.

Lee writes, "[t]hese heavenly attendants are executed in a decorative and flat style, more in keeping with the Persian tradition than with the Indian style of Ajanta which was carried into Central Asia as well." The problems with this approach is not just that it is technically wrong, as the modeling on the figures indicates, but that it focuses on the wrong sort of evidence. To begin with it takes the one example of painting that has survived in India as the universal Indian form. That must be a mistake. Besides that it makes its conclusion depend upon which of two foreign sources the art must come from, and this is a mistake because it omits the most likely source of the style, the continuing local tradition. It both privileges and essentializes the better known traditions.

This is a convenient diffusionism that satisfied earlier art historians, but is no longer acceptable today. We might call it diffusionist imperialism, all power is assumed to come from the big powers. Today’s analysts have to consider that a tradition hundreds of years old must be looked at both as autonomous and capable of creating style on its own. What it shares with nearby larger cultures, or those better known by the analysts, should not be automatically supposed to stem simply from those cultures. Orientalism is the result with such assumptions privilege Western sources, such as the Greeks, from whom Westerners believe their own culture to originate. Or when they simply assume that the Asian culture they consider is not autonomously creative and must draw their style or imagery from elsewhere.


Painted mandala of Buddhas from a dome in Bamiyan

In a fragment from the peak of the dome of another chamber we can see a replica of this same cosmic manda imagery in paint. Rich, flat, color, confident replication of eight Buddhas or Buddha fields surrounding an Adi Buddha, painted upon sligntly convave surface. As we see them reproduced today, from their former home in the Kabul Museum, they are a work of ancient art. Yet we know frm the curve of their surface their original location in a shrine chamber, and form the iconography of their painted figures the Buddhist faith they refer to, and their mandala arrangement their Mahayana or possibly even Vajrayana significance.


193 Garland Bearers Miran, Xinjiang (China) late 3rd c

Fresco [?] 48"

"The Romano-Buddhist style appears principally at Miran. It is particularly evident in a painted frieze of human figures bearing garlands (fig. 193). Their faces look like Faiyum portraits of Coptic Egypt and are treated in late classical style, with wide staring, almost Byzantine eyes. The motif of the garland bearer is also of classical origin. These frescoes bear the signature Tita (Titus?), perhaps an itinerant painter from the late Roman Empire. They represent the farthest eastward penetration of a truly Mediterranean painting manner, though certain elements of that manner, such as shading, reached the Chinese hinterland. " (pp. 152-3)

The problems here reveal our situation effectively. So anxious is Lee to explain what he sees by what he already knows and by deriving what he doesn’t know from he knows that conflates, and so contaminates, all his evidence with this prior knowledge and orientation. Is there indeed any way to read new evidence without basing our interpretation on previous knowledge? Not altogether. But there are rules of interpretation that can save us from the worst extremes of Eurocentric and baseless invention. To begin with, this generation realizes–as Lee’s did not–that the Western view of the East has long been too Eurocentric and so we need to maintain a serious skepticism of easy Eurocentrisms. In the second we have learned through generations of studying foreign cultures that it is always wiser to know where your understanding stops and to separate even reasonable guesses from declarations based on adequate evidence.

Titus may be a Roman name, as Lee may be a Chinese name, but you can tell from the photograph on the back of the book jacket of Sherman Lee’s book that he is not Chinese. And there is no basis in the world, beyond the desire to uncover Western influence, that a careful scholar would want to suggest we change the name Tita to sound more Roman. The extremity of the reach in this matter grows when we recognize that Faiyum painting is an African, not an Italian style. Could there be Egyptians named Titus? There could be, and they could be wandering in third century Central Asia, but the possibility is relatively weak one. It is like the description of these figures as having "wide, staring, almost Byzantine eyes," Put up against a Faiyum portrait we see that there is in fact relatively little similarity. What has driven the comparison is the desire to explain the unfamiliar and new by the familiar in such a way as to make it an extension of the old. Though such reconfirmation of our own centrality in the world and our ability to understand unfamiliar is comforting in some ways, it is unwarranted.

The motif of the garland bearing child is one familiar in the Roman world, but it is also one that has long been a staple of arts of Buddhism. You have already seen it on the so-called Kanishka reliquary (Lee’s fig. 138) and the Amaravati sealing slab (Lee 125), both of the second century CE. Those examples of the motif may well owe it to Roman imagery of the first century. But to say that its occurrence in the "Late 3rd century" may be due to a traveling Roman, who has for some reason changed the pronunciation of his name seems more and more likely to be stretching too few stitches across too wide a space to sew up such a convenient stereotype.

To end this effort with the suggestion that the Chinese owe the device of shading in their painting to the West would seem to reveal a nakedness of intent that should not be missed. For one thing the Chinese designation for painting with shading, to indicate mass, was "Indian." For another, it would seem possible that the Chinese, whose culture was quite as developed as the Roman by any measu