Pilgrimage to ancient centre of learning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

Imagine an international centre of higher learning in Asia, where the brightest minds would flock to study medicine, philosophy, logic, science, religion and arts.

Well, such an utopian institution did once exist.

For seven centuries, from 427 to 1197, Nalanda University in eastern India was the heart of Buddhist scholarship. It attracted monks and scholars from across Asia, as far west as Turkey and as distant east as Japan, from China in the north to Indonesia in the south.

On the Nalanda Trail, an exhibition at Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum, traces the influence of Buddhism in India, China, Southeast Asia and beyond by following the paths of Chinese monks who journeyed to the university (one of them was Xuanzang, whose journey inspired classic novel Journey to the West) and Indian monks who travelled to teach the dharma in China.

There are more than 180 artefacts in this show, culled from the Singaporean museum's own collection, six museums in India, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, as well as private collections. Some of the loaned items are national treasures being shown overseas for the first time.

'This is a great chance to see the different interpretation of Buddhism in different cultures in Asia [and in one place],' says the show's curator Gauri Krishnan.

A breathtaking array of religious artworks is on display: Tang sutras and stone sculptures, silk paintings from Dunhuang, terracotta figures unearthed by British explorer Marc Aurel Stein in Taklamakan Desert, sculptures from south Asia, gold and bronze figurines from Java and Sumatra. Among the most valuable are sacred bone relics found in Uttar Pradesh - the only archaeological find that can be linked directly to the historical Buddha. The show gives a glimpse into the evolution and transformation of Buddhist art through time. In the early phase of Theravada, icons and symbols were used to depict the Buddha and his life: his footprint, a throne, Bodhi tree, stupa or three jewels. A sandstone pillar dated to the 2nd-1st century BC features a carving of an empty throne, symbolising the Buddha, and the mythical snake Naga Muchalinda, referring to his enlightenment.

The Buddha began to be depicted in human form when the Mahayana school emerged around the 1st century, introducing a pantheon of Buddhist deities. Many of the earliest Buddha sculptures - particularly those from Gandhara, in today's Punjab in Pakistan - bear Graeco-Roman influence, especially in the clothing, facial and physical features. A 2nd-3rd-century sculpture of Bodhisattva Maitreya from Gandhara is a perfect example of this, featuring wavy hair, pleated robes and a muscular body.

In China, religious art started to appear only after the arrival of Buddhism in the 1st century. It quickly developed its own artistic style, but traces from India are often evident. A beautifully decorated limestone torso of a bodhisattva of the Tang dynasty, dated to the 7th-8th century, assimilates Indian features in the depiction of the robes and accessories.

The Central Asian silk paintings from Dunhuang, where Xuanzang spent some time, show a marvellous blend of artistic styles: Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and north Indian. An 8th-century painting, which depicts the thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara (the Buddhist god of compassion) flanked by Vajrayana deities, reflects the strong Tibetan influence on the art in Dunhuang.

The exhibit includes artefacts from Java and Sumatra - Chinese monk Yijing studied Sanskrit on the latter island on his way to Nalanda. Many of the Indonesian artefacts show affinities with those from India, proof of exchanges between the two regions. But some also show traces of local culture, for example a standing Buddha figurine in gold, dated to the 8th to early 9th century. This unique find in eastern Java has curiously large hands, attributed as significant local features.

One interesting piece from Nalanda is an inscribed copperplate recording a donation made by a ruler of the Shailendra dynasty in Sumatra to build a monastery in the university town and the endowment of land by the Pala king for the upkeep of the new monastery - an evidence of close diplomatic links between the two regions.

The show, initiated by the Indian and Singaporean governments, is part of a broader effort by Asian countries to revive this ancient university. Krishnan believes there are many things to learn from Nalanda, which flourished long before the establishment of great European universities such as in Oxford and Bologna.

'In Asia, we tend not to know much about our neighbours and Asian culture,' she says. 'We hope the exhibition can bring back the spirit of knowledge-based economy and cooperation between different countries.'

The exhibition is not only a feast for the eye; it also offers food for the soul. 'There is so much war and aggression in the world,' the curator says. 'Through the teaching of Buddhism that advocates compassion, we hope this exhibition helps us promote peace and a greater understanding among us.'

On the Nalanda Trail: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia, Asia Civilisations Museum, Singapore, until March 23