Asia Society Exhibit Explores Pakistan’s Buddhist Past

BY Annie Strother  August 31, 2011 at 4:25 PM EDT

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Buddhism may not come to mind these days when people think of Pakistani culture, but that religion’s practice and philosophy was prevalent in the kingdom of Gandhara, which was centered in present-day Peshawar. A new exhibit at the Asia Society in New York, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara,” is the first American show in decades to examine works from this chapter of Pakistani history, featuring objects that illustrate the artistic flourishing that occurred there from the first century B.C.E. to the fifth C.E.

Sculptures, reliefs, columns and decorative artifacts serve as both art and as historical items, and their aesthetics reference the Buddhism that took root in Gandhara, as well as Greek, South Asian and other influences that contributed to the region’s society. The religion grew in importance in Pakistan as the result of trade along the Silk Road and greater exposure to East Asia. Contact with other societies and periods of great support for artists created significant and dramatic works of art.

The goddess Hariti with three Children.Photo by Peter Oszvald, (c) Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.But while the artifacts in question are the product of fluid and mobile cultural exchange, today these pieces rarely travel. The last time Gandharan art traveled to the United States was 1960, when Asia Society held a similar exhibit.

And this time, getting the objects to the United States took longer than expected. The exhibit opened in August after months of delay, the result of bureaucratic breakdown at a period of rocky US-Pakistani relations. Communication troubles between national and local governments within Pakistan and an eventual devolution of Asia Society’s case meant that Chiu and the institute had to make additional requests and visits to ensure that the exhibit would open at all. Trips to Karachi and Lahore took place during periods when the State Department issued strong travel advisories for Pakistan, and at times coincided with public contention between the United States and Pakistani governments about anti-terrorism initiatives in the region.

“I traveled there on a number of occasions, and certainly security is an issue when you travel to Pakistan,” says Chiu. “I would say that one of the more difficult things for us was not so much me going to Pakistan, but actually getting the Pakistani representatives from museums U.S. visas to come to New York!”

Representations of the Buddha are central to both the study of Gandhara and to its art. Buddhas and bodhisattvas have their own section in the exhibit and their diversity is striking. Many figures are swathed in drapes, like Grecian figures, but reflect South Asian influences as well. Many show the Buddha as a full-bodied, richly detailed person, a significant departure from earlier depictions of the religious figure.

Vision of a Buddha Paradise.Photo by Peter Oszvald, (c) Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.“Prior to this, the Buddha was represented symbolically, either through his footprint or a parasol or other representation,” says Chiu. “This is really an occasion where we can see the Buddha as a human being in art.”

Like these statues that influenced other depictions of the Buddha — as well as Buddhist ideology — across Asia, Chiu believes that this show may offer Americans some influence in understanding Pakistan’s diverse history.

“This is a really unique opportunity for people to see these fantastic cultural treasures that have come all the way from Pakistan that probably will not leave the country for many decades to come,” she says. “They also offer us a glimpse to another side of Pakistan, to a much earlier Buddhist culture, when this part of the world was very pluralistic and Buddhist culture was all about a great deal of tolerance.”