Buddhism in stone

The remains of Buddhist architecture and sculpture at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh tell the story of the rise, flowering and gradual decline of Buddhism in India. Text & photographs by SHASHANK SHEKHAR SINHA

Located on a hill in Raisen district, around 50 kilometres from Bhopal and 10 km from the ancient trading, religious and art hub Vidisa (Vidisha in modern times) is Sanchi, a site known for its stupas, pillars, temples, monasteries and sculptural wealth. It is a great place to see the beginnings, efflorescence and decay of Buddhist art and architecture from the third century BCE to the 12th century C.E. In a way, Sanchi covers the entire period of Buddhism in India. As the historian Upinder Singh says, it provides a remarkable history of Buddhism in stone spanning some 15 centuries.

Sanchi, a World Heritage Site, has an ancient past. Prehistoric paintings and tools have been found at the well-known Bhimbetka Caves, another World Heritage Site nearby. Recent archaeological and hydrological studies by Julia Shaw and John Sutcliffe have brought to light ancient irrigation works belonging to second or first century BCE. The presence of mud dams and reservoirs indicates the prevalence of rainwater harvesting for drinking water requirements and for irrigation, possibly in rice cultivation. During the Buddha’s time, this area formed a part of the mahajanapada (one of the great states) of Akara in the western Malwa region. Sanchi is referred to as Kakanava or Kakanaya in early Brahmi inscriptions found in the site. In the fourth century, it was known as Kakanadabota, while a late seventh century inscription refers to it as Bota-Shriparvata.

An early Buddhist text, Mahaparinibbhanasutta, says that when the Buddha was breathing his last, he called in his favourite disciples Ananda, Sariputta and Mahamogalana and told them that after his death his body should be cremated, the ashes distributed, and stupas erected over them at crossroads. Following his death (mahaparinirvana), the Buddha’s relics were divided into eight portions and stupas were built over them.

Meanwhile, the powerful Mauryan emperor Asoka was establishing his political supremacy across the subcontinent. However, after the Battle of Kalinga, in which many lives were lost, Asoka decided to transform himself and soon became a devout Buddhist. It is said that out of his zeal to spread Buddhism, he opened seven of the eight original stupas and got the Buddha’s relics redistributed. Stupas were built over the places where the relics were kept. According to legend, he built around 84,000 (some say 64,000) stupas all over northern India and in areas now in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Asoka and SanchiAsoka also built the core of Stupa 1, known as Mahastupa or the Great Stupa, at Sanchi. The archaeologist M.K. Dhavalikar says this is indicated by the fact that the level of the stupa’s floor is the same as that of the Asokan pillar near by. Further, fragments of the chunar sandstone umbrella over the structure bear the characteristic mirror-like polish seen on Asokan pillars.

Why did Asoka choose a site that was not directly connected with the life of the Buddha? The place was not directly connected with any incident in the Buddha’s life. The Buddha did not visit the place, and it is not mentioned in any Buddhist source. Neither Fa Hien nor Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrims who travelled to India in ancient times to visit Buddhist religious centres, mentioned the place.

Asoka’s connection with Sanchi can be traced to his wife Devi, who was the daughter of a merchant based at Vidisha. He married her while serving as the Governor of Ujjayani (modern Ujjain). The only early reference to the site in Buddhist literature is found in the Sri Lankan chronicles Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa. They mention that Mahendra, son of Asoka and Devi, on his way to Sri Lanka as a missionary, halted at Vidisha to see his mother. She apparently took him to the beautiful monastery of Vedisagiri that she had built. This, in all likelihood, is Sanchi. The quietude and seclusion of the hilltop and its suitability as a place for meditation and monastic life may have influenced the choice of location. The patronage of a rich mercantile community from Vidisha ensured a sustained supply of resources and also patronage by traders and business. (Vidisha was located at the confluence of the Betwa and Bes rivers on the flourishing trade routes linking Mathura (northern route) and Pataliputra (eastern route) to western and southern India.)

Architecture and Evolution The Mahastupa consists of a hemispherical mound (anda) built over a relic chamber (tabena). It has a truncated and flattened top on which rests a square chamber (harmika), which has a railing and a central pillar (yasthi) supporting a stone triple-umbrella formation (chattravali). There are two circumambulatory passages. There is an elevated terrace (medhi) enclosed by a three-bar railing (vedika) and accessed by two flights of stairs (sopanas) from the southern gateway. The second circumambulatory passage is on the ground surrounding the mound (pradakshinapath). This whole structure has been put within a stone enclosure with a similar three-bar railing with four carved gateways (toranas) built in four cardinal directions. The ground balustrade (vedika), in turn, consists of stone uprights (stambha or thaba), horizontal crossbars (suchi) and copings (ushnisha), most of which have inscriptions mentioning the names of donors. The three umbrellas on the summit symbolise the “Three Jewels” (tri-ratna) of Buddhism—the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Built with buff brownish stone, the Great Stupa measures 36.8 metres in diameter and 21.64 m in height from the ground level to the original chattravali. The complex was built over several hundred years. The core of the stupa was built of mud and brick by Asoka in the third century BCE. A monolithic pillar of finely polished sandstone was also erected. It consisted of a tapering monolithic shaft adorned by four lions. While the stump of the monolithic shaft is in situ, the lion capital is exhibited in the site museum. The pillar, which was apparently broken into several pieces by a local zamindar for pressing sugar cane, carried an Asokan edict identical to the one at Sarnath warning monks and nuns against schisms in the Buddhist community.

Asoka’s mud-and-brick stupa got a stone encasing and was enlarged in the Shunga period. The ground balustrades, a berm, stairways, and the harmika were also built during this period, and so were Stupas 2 and 3. The role of the Shungas in the persecution of Buddhists and their art is a debatable one. It has also been suggested that the first Shunga ruler Pushyamitra destroyed the original Sanchi stupa. However, his son Agnimitra gave it a facelift. Besides, the Bharhut Stupa was also erected during this period. So, while the Shungas may have been pro-Hindu, they do not come across as consistently anti-Buddhist. Sanchi architecture is testimony to the co-existence of Hindus and Buddhists, certainly for a long period of time.

In the first century C.E., the Andhra-Satavahanas, who had extended their sway over eastern Malwa, constructed the elaborately carved gateways to Stupas 1 and 3. The gateways and the balustrade were built and painted. An inscription on the top architrave of the southern gateway records that it was a gift of Ananda, the royal architect of king Satakarni. The ruler has been identified as Satakarni II of the Andhra-Satavahana dynasty, who according to the Puranas controlled a large empire in central and western India and in the Deccan with his capital at Prathisthan (Paithan near Aurangabad). His coins have also been found in the Malwa region (western part of Madhya Pradesh). Dhavalikar thinks that the early group of Ajanta caves (Hinayana) were possibly also carved during Satakarni II’s reign in the second half of the first century.

Around 150 C.E., the Satavahanas were displaced by the Saka-Kshatraps, who initially were governors of the Kushanas, ruling from Mathura and later assumed independence and ruled from Ujjain. The Kshatraps, in turn, were removed by the Gupta rulers around 399 C.E. when Chandragupta II established control over Malwa. One of the inscriptions dated 412-13 C.E. on the balustrade of Stupa 1 talks about this. The discovery of Mathura sandstone images in the Sanchi complex shows that even in the fourth century Mathura continued to meet such demands. Local art started flourishing in the region soon afterwards, and a manifestation of this trend is the presence of Buddha images seated under canopies against the berm of Stupa 1 facing the four entrances. However, even during the heyday of the Guptas, figures of the Buddha from the ateliers of Sanchi fell short, in standard and number, when compared with their counterparts at Sarnath.

The post-Gupta period was one of gradual decline of Buddhism. Several monasteries and temples, however, were erected at Sanchi during the seventh century, when Harsha was ruling over northern India. The presence of images of Vajrasattav, Tara and Marichi belonging to the 12th century indicates that the Vajrayana sect also had temporary influence at the site. Evidence suggests that Sanchi had declined as a Buddhist centre by the 12th century.

It is uncertain how the end came. It might have been deserted by Buddhists. Brahmanism might have taken over, as indicated by a number of Brahmanical plaques containing representations of Vishnu, Ganga and Mahishasuramardini belonging to the 13th century. Some historians ascribe the decline of Buddhism to Muslim invasions.

Gateways, the crowning gloryThe four gateways (toranas) in the cardinal directions, according to Dhavalikar, constitute the most impressive artistic creation of its class in ancient India—they form the crowning glory of Buddhist art at Sanchi. Although all four were built around the same time, the southern gateway was the first to be erected and formed the main entrance to the stupa. This is indicated by the location of the Asokan pillar at the entrance and the landing of the stairway on that side.

The gateways are intricately carved on the front and back and even on the side of the pillars. There are traces of red paint on the eastern gateway and the balustrade, which indicate that they were painted at some point of time. The carvings on the gateways resemble, even stylistically, the ivory carvings belonging to the Satavahana period excavated at Begram (ancient Kapisa) in Afghanistan. An inscription on the southern gateway records that it was executed by ivory workers of Vidisha. Dhavalikar thinks that the original carvings might have been in wood and were later replaced by those of stone.

The carvings show a variety of motifs and narrative panels, including the Bodhi tree, Tri-ratna, stupas, representations of the Buddha, eight auspicious symbols (ashta-mangalakas), the wish-fulfilling creeper (kalpa-lata) or tree (kalpa-vriksha), besides figures of animals, humans and mythical creatures. They depict in detail significant episodes and miracles in the Buddha’s life and his previous incarnations as Bodhisattva described in the Jataka tales. The Buddha has been represented by footprints, wheels, empty thrones, a canopy under the Bodhi tree, and so on, instead of in a human form. Among human or mythical figures are horse riders, corpulent dwarf males (yakshas) and nymphs (shalabhanjikas). Some of the friezes of Sanchi also show devotees in Greek attire (Greek clothing, attitudes, and musical instruments) celebrating the stupa. The art historian Vidya Dehejia says the architects of Sanchi used visual storytelling as a way of popularising the Buddhist faith. Major events in the Buddha’s life were “given a historic dimension through visual biographies that became the ‘text’ of images which appear everywhere, though presented in different ways”.

The Sanchi carvings and embellishments were funded by the local population—individual men and women, family groups and village associations of Buddhist and Hindu leanings and monks and nuns. There was no royal patronage, as is usually assumed for enterprises of this kind. Around 631 records of donations are inscribed on the carvings. Such donations were connected to the idea of spiritual and religious merit common to both Hindus and Buddhists. Dehejia says the donors may have requested their favourite stories to be carved on the panels and then have their names inscribed on them. This may explain why certain stories (such as the Buddha’s enlightenment and the Great Departure) are repeated on the gateways.

Other MonumentsBesides the Mahastupa, Sanchi contains several other monuments, including some already mentioned—stupas, temples, monasteries and buildings, pillars and votive stupas. Of the stupas, Nos. 2 and 3 still survive. A large number of stupas are spread across the complex on the main terrace around the north-east, south-east and south-west quadrants of the Great Stupa. Stupa 2 stands on an artificial terrace down the slope of the hill. It does not have a gateway and appears somewhat bare. However, the ground balustrades are well decorated with floral and plant motifs, real and mythological animals (including a stag with an elephant’s head, a lion with a human face and a woman with a horse’s head), birds, fish, nagas, human figures and demigods such as yakshas, yakshis and kinnars. Stupa 3 was built during the Shunga period (second century BCE) and the gateway was added during the first century C.E. Most motifs and scenes appearing on the gateway are similar to the ones on the Mahastupa except the scene of Indra’s paradise. Relics and reliquaries of two of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Sariputta and Mahamogalana, were found in Stupa 3.

Sanchi also has small votive stupas in the vicinity of the larger ones. They mostly contained funerary remains of devout members of the laity. Individuals could sponsor the casting of votive stupas in order to gain merit and improve one’s karma.

Temples belonging to different periods from the second century BCE onwards are also found in Sanchi. The earlier structural temples, belonging to the Shunga period, were mostly apsidal in plan, but squarish temples began to be built during the Gupta period, from the fifth century onwards.

The Buddha was not worshipped in a human form by the followers of the Hinayana school. However, from the first/second century C.E., Buddha images began to be built and enshrined in Buddhist temples, which also started appearing.

The shift from the veneration of stupas and symbols and relics of the Buddha to the worshipping of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas in the form of images in shrines reflected the impact of Mahayana Buddhism.

Temples 17 and 18 are particularly important. Temple 18 is built on a raised platform and is apsidal in plan like the Buddhist rock-cut temples of Bhaja and Karla. It consists of an apse, a central nave and side aisles. The pillars are very high (5.18 m) with a square shaft and octagonal necking. The inner doorway has figures of river goddesses Ganga (identifiable by her vehicle, the crocodile) and Jamuna. These goddesses begin to appear on temple doorways from the Gupta period. The three different floors of the temple belong to the Maurya, the Shunga and the later Gupta periods.

Temple 17, built around the fifth century, is a flat-roofed structure with a front portico supported by four pillars. The doorway at the entrance has floral patterns and the door jams have images of Ganga and Jamuna. The shrine has no image now, but Captain Fred G. Maisey, the 19th century explorer, reported the presence of an early-medieval style Buddha image seated on a lotus throne supported by lions and inscribed with Buddhist mantras.

There are also a number of free-standing pillars in Sanchi, most of which exist in bits and pieces. The earliest of them is Pillar 10, which was erected by Asoka near the southern gateway. Pillar 35, near the northern gateway, is surmounted by a figure of Vajrapani. The capital now lies in the site museum.

Excavations and Relic-huntingSanchi remained deserted from the 13th century onwards, only to be rediscovered by the British officer General Taylor in 1818. Repairs and preservation work were, however, taken up only in 1881 by Major Cole. Another person who worked very hard (between 1912 and 1919) to bring the monuments to their present condition was John Marshall, the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. He set up a small site museum to house the loose antiquities found during the course of repair and renovation.

On the dark side, however, the rich sculptures and carvings of the stupa complex attracted amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters, some of whom ravaged the site. In 1822, Captain Johnson, Assistant Political Agent in Bhopal, opened up Stupa 1 from top to bottom on one side. This left a great breach resulting in the collapse of the western gateway and a part of the enclosing balustrade.

In 1851, Alexander Cunningham, together with Captain Maisey, excavated Stupas 2 and 3 and found relic caskets of Sariputta and Mahamogalana within. A shaft was sunk at the centre of the Mahastupa, but no relics were found there.

The story of the discovery of relics and reliquaries of the two Buddhist saints by Cunningham and Maisey from Stupa 3 at Sanchi; the journey of the relics to England and their eventual purchase by the Victoria and Albert Museum; a protracted agitation by Buddhists in England, Sri Lanka and India led by the Maha Bodhi Society; the return of the relics by England and their tour of Asia and final re-enshrinement at Sanchi in 1952 presents an interesting account of relic adventurism by colonial fortune seekers and a subcontinental Buddhist nationalist effort to get the relics back. The journeys of the relics have also been a subject of debate among historians.

There are also demands for the return of artefacts taken from another stupa. The government of Andhra Pradesh is making serious efforts to seek the return of several artefacts and sculptures excavated from the Amaravathi stupa and taken to London, where they are now on display at the British Museum.

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Major exhibition of masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, presented in Houston in October

Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2016 7:00 pm

Community Report

This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will open Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, a major exhibition of more than 160 works of art from the renowned collections of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The exhibition features a unique selection of paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, and decorative arts, such as porcelain, textiles, enamels, and jade, and will be on view in Houston from Oct. 23, to Jan. 22.

Co-organized by the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the National Palace Museum, Taipei, the exhibition is composed of treasures that have rarely been displayed outside of Taipei. Highlights include a white pottery vase from the 11th century, a supreme example of the art of the Chinese potter; landscape paintings by court artists of the 12th century; a calligraphy by the Emperor Huizong in his distinctive style; a “chicken cup” produced in the mid-Ming period, for centuries the most sought after of all porcelain wares on account of its superb quality; fine silk tapestries little known outside China; and the Qianlong emperor’s box of small treasures.

Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commented, “We are grateful to the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the Asian Art Museum for making this exhibition possible. The collections of imperial treasures housed at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are unmatched in rarity and scope, and we are thrilled to be able to provide Houston audiences with the special opportunity to experience these remarkable objects in person.”

“The artworks and objects displayed in Emperors’ Treasures celebrate the cultural contributions of these significant imperial rulers, illustrating their roles as distinguished patrons of art, and often, as gifted artists,” added James Watt, consulting curator and curator emeritus of the department of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “The exhibition exposes visitors to the art of this important period, including many works and objects never before seen in the U.S.”

Emperors’ Treasures presents examples of the finest craftsmanship and imperial taste, exploring the roles that eight emperors and one empress—who ruled between the early-12th-century Song dynasty and the early-20th-century Qing dynasty—had in the establishment and development of new artistic directions through the masterpieces they collected and commissioned, and in some cases, created.

The exhibition will illuminate the legacies of Emperors Song Huizong (r. 1100–1125), Kublai Khan (r. 1260–94), Yongle (r. 1403–24), Xuande (r. 1425–35), Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723–35), Qianlong (r. 1735–96), and Empress Dowager Cixi (r. 1861–1908), revealing how each ruler developed his or her distinct aesthetic and influenced the production of the imperial workshops under their reign.

Through the examination of each work’s subject, style, and type of craftsmanship, Emperors’ Treasures outlines how Chinese art came to evolve and flourish under Han Chinese, Mongol, and Manchu rulers.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, where the exhibition will be on view from June 17 to Sept. 18.

This exhibition is co-organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The presentation in Houston is a collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Asian Art Museum; and the National Palace Museum.

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Chance fall in Udon Thani unearths Bronze Age pots

Chance fall in Udon Thani unearths Bronze Age pots
Stephen Young

The Ban Chiang National Museum in Udon Thani is a World Heritage archaeology site. Many of the artefacts of the 5,000-year-old village are on display here and at the National Museum in Bangkok (Photo by Wassayos Ngamkham)
Fifty years ago in the summer of 1966 in the Udon Thani village of Ban Chiang, I tripped over an exposed tree root, fell on my face in the dirt and so discovered a never-before-known Bronze Age culture.
Ban Chiang village is now a Unesco World Heritage site. A big museum has been built there containing a framed, rough outline drawing of me falling down in front of a tree. Villagers sell to tourists refrigerator magnets each covered with a copy of that black and white drawing, making me famous to some I suppose. But I get no royalties.
New finds and excavations over the past half century have proven the old Ban Chiang and similar cultures were widespread over mainland Southeast Asia.
These finds have overthrown the received history of Asia which was China-centric. Now we know that Southeast Asia was not a cultural vacuum to be filled with imports from China, India, and later Europe.
The ancient history of Southeast Asia is now an established fact just as the Chinese are asserting imperialist military claims to the South China Sea and are using warlike rhetoric against the United States for our attempts to block their expansionist ambitions.
The Ban Chiang Project is online at this link.
China’s current claims to traditional hegemony over Southeast Asia are bogus, as recent archaeology has proven.
The Ban Chiang Museum and the Thai Fine Arts Department graciously asked me to come back and speak at a conference in Udon Thani convened to mark the 50th anniversary of my serendipitous stumble.
My stumble has become a big deal. How many people do you know have ever found a Bronze Age culture.
I wasn’t sure for a while what to say. I felt a need to address openly two groups who had never really reconciled themselves to my role as the “discoverer” of the Ban Chiang Bronze Age culture.
Some Thais are not all that happy that a foreigner was chosen by fate to bring the site to notice and so to get special attention. And only by unwitting accident, too.
Second, many professional archaeologists are similarly resentful that one of their tribe is not the discoverer but only a political science undergraduate, someone not trained at all in the science of archaeology.
So I looked for a way to talk about chance and mindfulness which would honour those feelings but yet still leave us all with a constructive way as to how to live when chance happens.
So what happened to me in Ban Chiang 50 years ago?
First, I was there entirely by chance. I was directed to one village out of a thousand or so by a French Jesuit archaeologist in Bangkok when I was looking for a place to interview villagers on their views on politics for a senior honours thesis at Harvard College under the supervision of Prof Samuel Huntington.
Then, one day after arriving in Ban Chiang — again by chance — I turned right down a short-cut path instead of going straight ahead the long way around.
Third, walking on the narrow path sloping downwards, I was talking with my village host, Siripong, who was walking to my left. I was looking at him as we talked and not ahead.
I missed seeing the tree roots in the dirt running from a tree on my right to the left across the path. So, by chance, I tripped and fell on my face.
As Siripong grabbed my left arm to help me up, I saw a circle in the dirt, the same colour as the dirt. But then I saw a second, third, fourth, and more all grouped together.
I asked Siripong: “What are these?”
“Old pots,'’ he replied.
I thought: “Of course, anyone can see they are old pots!”
But then my mind opened and the mindfulness part of the episode kicked in.
“How old?” I wondered. That is the big question.
At that point I happened to see some 30 metres away two little boys breaking off pieces of the pots at their rims and throwing them in a game of toss and keep.
So I followed suit. I quickly broke off shards from three pots and examined them.
Prof Stephen B Young, now Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and a visiting faculty member at Sasin Graduate Institute Of Business Administration, received an award marking the 50th anniversary of Ban Chiang village from Anant Chuchote, director-general of the the Fine Arts Department. (Photo courtesy Sasin)
Now I was mindful of old Thai art and pottery because my parents had seen to my education in that way, especially my mother, Patricia Morris Young, recently deceased.
In 1961, Dad had been sent by President Kennedy to be the US Ambassador to Thailand. He had insisted we kids learn to speak Thai. He took lessons too. Mum, with her love of art history took us to more museums and lectures than we care to remember to learn about Thai art and history.
So in 1966 — perhaps also by chance — my mind was somewhat cognisant of what to look for in old pottery shards.
I quickly saw the shards had no glaze on their surfaces — a sign of primitive manufacture. They had grains of rice and rice husks in the clay still visible — a sign of low firing temperature and so of primitive technology.
And, most importantly, each piece in my hands had been painted with superb designs in red, each one different from the other, and all unlike anything ever found in Thailand.
I sensed they were very old and important and saw that the site was large. I was standing where hundreds of pots were poking up through the surface of the dirt path.
So as unobtrusively as I could I collected some specimen pots and took them back to experts in Bangkok and the Ban Chiang Bronze Age was then officially discovered.
I went back to Harvard College to write my thesis and finish my senior year.
Yet my mindfulness one day in 1966 in a small village in northeastern Thailand turned chance into history.
What happens to us by chance — for good or bad — gives us opportunities to take charge, to use our minds, to think, to draw on our education, our insights, our courage, to do right, and so to shape the history of our times.
We are not necessarily always pawns of those in power or victims of bad luck. Each of us has a capacity to engage with destiny and shape it.
Stephen B Young is Global Executive Director of Caux Round Table.

Bangkok Post

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Buddha Triad from the Three Kingdoms period

Korea

Name: Stele of Buddha Triad and a Thousand Buddhas with Inscription of the “Gyeyu Year”

Period: Unified Silla Period

Location: Gongju City, South Chungcheong Province

Status: National Treasure No. 108

Discovered at a Buddhist hermitage called Seogwangam located in Jochiwon, Yeongi-gun in Chungcheongnam-do, this monumental stele is filled with Buddhist images and inscriptions carved in relief.

It features a Buddha triad carved prominently on the lower part of the front face with its sides filled with inscriptions.

The rest of the front face, the rear and both sides are covered with carvings of tiny Buddhist images.

The Buddha triad placed on a semicircular base decorated with lotuses features a principal Buddha seated on a cubic pedestal with two acolytes on both sides.

The Buddha is heavily damaged, losing most of its details except for the robe that covers both shoulders, which is drawn down to cover most of the pedestal.

The two bodhisattvas attending him are also heavily damaged, but their inner robes crossed over the knee, which shows that the monument was made during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE - 668 AD).

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Ancient Shrine That May Hold Buddha’s Skull Bone Found in Crypt

A skull bone of the Buddha was found inside this gold casket, which was stored in a silver casket within the stupa model, found in a crypt beneath a Buddhist temple.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural RelicsArchaeologists have discovered what may be a skull bone from the revered Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The bone was hidden inside a model of a stupa, or a Buddhist shrine used for meditation.

The research team found the 1,000-year-old model within a stone chest in a crypt beneath a Buddhist temple in Nanjing, China. Inside the stupa model archaeologists found the remains of Buddhist saints, including a parietal (skull) bone that inscriptions say belonged to the Buddha himself.

The model is made of sandalwood, silver and gold, and is covered with gemstones made of crystal, glass, agate and lapis lazuli, a team of archaeologists reported in an article published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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Excavations at Sannati and Kanaganahalli reveal many facets about Ashoka and Buddha

Sannati and Kanaganahalli villages, resting indolently on the backwaters of Karnataka in Kalaburagi district, were relatively unknown to the rest of India, leave alone the world. However, the discovery of a nearly 2000-year-old Buddhist Stupa and the first inscribed portrait of Emperor Ashoka, among others in a wave of archaeological excavations that began in 1986, put an end to their anonymity.

The A Sundara-led excavation in 1986-87 had revealed the existence of a rectangular brick structure, now presumed to be the stupa’s citadel beside the Bhima river at Ranamandala in Sannati. The size of the bricks used range from 39cm x 20cm x 6.5cm to 40cm x 30cm x 7cm. Former joint Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) director general KR Poonacha, who was involved in the excavations, said the department secured the stupa when the Karnataka government built a barrage at Sannati in 1990.

“We explored 24 villages and discovered cultural artefacts dating back to lower and Middle Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. It provided significant information regarding the cultural ramifications in the area. A trial excavation conduced by ASI Bengaluru Circle revealed the plan of a giant stupa, built using local limestone. Remains of ‘pradakshinapatha’, depicting Dharma Chakra, Jetavana, Vajrasana, etc. also came to light. Encouraged, the team took up a systematic horizontal excavation of the mound spread across an area of 3,600 square metres in later years,” he said.

However, a full-scale excavation at Sannati commenced only in 1997. Monument attendant Hazeemsab Mulla recalled how he was trained for months in the handling of archaeological remains during the excavation. Seetaram Joshi, manager, Chandralamba Seva Sangh, Sannati recollected how ASI officer Kapatral Krishnarao identified relics of Buddhist faith. “He was a devotee of Dhandralamba and used to come here. He spotted a stone at the temple and found that it belonged to the Mauryan or Shatavahan era. The ASI then started a serious exploration,” he added.

While examining a possible image of Yaksha in Hassargundi village near Sannati, Poonacha identified the ancient town as Santimati, from which the name of Sannati village is derived.

Assistant archaeologist in Kalaburagi sub-circle, Kishor Raghubans mentioned how a team of experts comprising MV Vishweshwarayya, Poonacha, CS Sheshadri, Praveen Singh, Lingaraj, RS Athani, among others, played a vital role in the protection of Sannati’s monuments, dating from 3 BC to 2 AD.

The excavations have not only ignited the curiosity of historians and archaeologists, even the lay public in the nearby villages appear to have been swept up in the wave of the discoveries. A hill located in Shahapur, with no known archaeological significance, is now called ‘Sleeping Buddha’ by the people, who firmly believe the hill resembles the Buddha’s sleeping posture.

“Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, who took a keen interest in the area, had initially wanted to construct a stupa in Sannati. However, Rudrayya, an engineer with the irrigation department, suggested the idea of a Vihar. It was completed after eight years in 2009, and was inaugurated by the then President of India Pratibha Patil,” said Ishwar Ingan, an administrator of the Vihar.

How to get there?

While the site falls under the limits of Kanaganahalli village, it is more popularly known as Sannati, since the fields were once owned by a Sannati villager. The site can be reached either from Kalaburagi, which lies 70km away or via Nalwar, 17km away. From Kalaburagi, tourists need to reach the Bengaluru highway and touch Shahapur, before reaching the destination via Shirwala village.

The site, spread across 23 acres, was purchased by the Chikkamath family in the 1980s. ASI has constructed three sheds and a large room that houses the remains and statues that are inventoried regularly and appointed 21 guards to secure the place. While entry to the site is free, permission from Dharwad’s ASI office is necessary for photography and videography.

Buddha Museum to attract tourists and research:

The Karnataka Housing Board has built a huge Buddha museum beside the site of the stupa. The district administration has said it will be handed over to the ASI once the necessary renovations on the structure are completed. Karnataka tourism minister Priyank Kharge expressed the hope that research programmes would held at the museum in the future. A 1.2km stretch of the road connecting Sannati to the site needs to be developed and the state government has sanctioned Rs 40 lakh for their improvement.

Priyank Kharge, who represents the Chittapur constituency, is eager to develop the site. “The many finds in Sannati are helping historians fill gaps in the country’s knowledge of the Emperor Ashoka,” he said.

(with inputs from Mounesh Sonnad)

Broaden scope of study:

Poonacha believes the site remains an area of immense archaeological interest. “It was a major socio-economic centre during the Shatavahana period. The ASI needs to develop a proper plan for excavation. The state government has earmarked Rs 2 crore and if the district administration repairs the connecting road, Sannati will emerge as a major tourist hub,” he said.

While the ASI’s many initiatives in the area have drawn praise from all quarters, there are also mild rumblings over the pace and limited scope of the excavations. Joshi believes that the restoration work will consequently lead to more tourists. In October 2015, Buddhist monk Bhante Tissavro, who heads the Bodh Gaya-based Budh Avsesh Bachao organisation had emphasised the need to widen the scope of the explorations.

The first inscribed portrait of Ashoka discovered at Sannati:

The discovery of the first inscribed portrait of Emperor Ashoka, named Raya Ashoka, was discovered in the stupa, attracting the interest of the international archaeological community. It has also shed light on his forays into South India. While Ashoka’s empire extended deep into the south, there is still no definitive proof of Ashoka’s sojourn here, said Raghubans. “We can assume that he and his children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, might have passed through this region,” he added.

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Review: Chinese treasures spanning 1,000 years at Asian Art Museum

Review: Chinese treasures spanning 1,000 years at Asian Art Museum

By Robert Taylor, Correspondent


The exhibit “Emperors’ Treasures” has brought nearly 150 Chinese artworks from the National Palace Museum in Taipei to the Bay Area.

On view at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through Sept. 18, these represent just a small fraction of the 700,000-object treasure trove in the Taiwan museum’s collection.

Though founded in 1925 in the Forbidden City of what is now Beijing, the museum treasures were moved from the mainland during the Chinese civil war, which left the Communists in control of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the Nationalists in control of Taiwan. The island is located some 110 miles off the coast of the People’s Republic — 1,100 miles from Beijing.

A porcelain vase with underglaze decoration showing West Asian entertainers-- created in Jiangxi during the reign of Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle(1403 1424)

A porcelain vase with underglaze decoration showing West Asian entertainers — created in Jiangxi during the reign of Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle (1403 1424) — is featured in “Emperors’ Treasures” at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. (© National Palace Museum, Taipei)

The title of the San Francisco show may suggest a spectacular display of imperial fortune. But instead of a blockbuster, Jay Xu — director of the National Palace Museum and curator of the show at the Asian — gives us an intimate look at choice objects spanning 1,000 years of Chinese cultural history.

“This is the absolute ‘best of the best’ of Chinese imperial art,” Xu said last week at the Asian, pointing out that the exhibit explores the lives of eight rulers — seven emperors and one empress. Their taste, Xu noted, “created standards of beauty and elegance across Chinese culture.”

Tracking the exhibit from dynasty to dynasty through the Asian Art Museum’s four galleries, one finds enough stunning works to satisfy any aficionado of Asian art — paintings on silk scrolls, intricately carved lacquerware and Ming vases, plus jewelry and ornaments of gold, pearls, jade and turquoise.

You can go simply to enjoy the beauty, workmanship, rarity and value of these works. (A porcelain wine cup like one on display recently sold for more than $36 million.)

But those interested in the history will find the museum’s superb labels and wall texts, augmented by large detailed photographs, tremendously helpful.

There’s also a video demonstrating the “slender-gold” style of calligraphy devised by Emperor Huizong in the 12th century as well as an interactive screen with which visitors can explore the Forbidden City, where these treasures were once housed.

The simplicity of some early works makes them look strikingly modern. A cobalt blue cup and saucer from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) would be the envy of a 20th century Art Deco collector. A rugged-looking ritual bronze bell from the Song dynasty (960-1127) could be a model for contemporary California metal crafters.

This ritual dou vessel with phoenix-shaped handles -- created in copperalloy with cloisonné enamel inlays by the Imperial Workshop during thereign of Qing

This ritual dou vessel with phoenix-shaped handles — created in copper alloy with cloisonné enamel inlays by the Imperial Workshop during the reign of Qing dynasty Emperor Yongzheng (1723 1735) — is featured in “Emperors’ Treasures” at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. (© National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Other works are exquisitely detailed and ornately worked on a surprisingly small scale.

A glass vase painted with bold red peony blossoms (from the reign of Emperor Kangxi, 1662-1722) looks massive in the museum’s photographs and catalog, but it’s merely 5 inches tall. A gold and pearl “Buddha of Boundless Life” is a 3-inch-tall ornament for Emperor Qianlong (who ruled 1736-1795). He would have worn it on the front of a court hat at his summer retreat.

Over the centuries, the exhibit points out, Chinese dynasties established their legitimacy through art and culture. Some rulers developed and promoted their own talent.

Emperor Huizong was a calligrapher. Ming dynasty emperor Xuande was an accomplished painter. The Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong was a comprehensive collector in the 18th century. His holdings make up the core of the imperial collection.

Given the 1,000 years of culture on display, it may be a shock to discover in the final gallery a photograph of the Dowager Empress Cixi, taken inside the Imperial Palace in 1903. On the cultural side, she recruited female artists to work in her Studio of Great Elegance. Politically, she was a powerful figure. It was Cixi who selected the boy who would be China’s last emperor.

From 13th century calligraphy to the novel 19th century stone that resembles a serving of pork belly, the collection prompts questions that transcend artistic merit. How did all this survive China’s tumultuous history, the rebellions and world wars? How did these works get to Taiwan?

The Palace Museum was opened in Beijing to protect and display these artifacts. After Japan invaded China, tens of thousands of items were moved, beginning in 1933, to Shanghai and Nanjing, then southwest to the interior.

After World War II, in the midst of China’s civil war, the Nationalist government moved much of the artwork to Taiwan. International efforts brought it back to life. In 1957, a grant from the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation led to the first public display of the artwork since 1932. A new National Palace Museum opened in Taipei in 1965. Selections from the collection were last seen in San Francisco in 1996.

“Emperors’ Treasures” has its own international and multicultural presence.

A stunning Ming Dynasty porcelain vase is decorated with figures of West Asian — not Chinese — musicians and dancers. Its flask-like shape is based on Islamic metalware. The only similar vase is at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

A ritual “dou” vessel on a pedestal combines Western-style enamels with a traditional Chinese bronze shape. A delicate 18th-century pitcher includes Chinese ornamentation and a painting of a European mother and child. It would fit in perfectly on Marie Antoinette’s breakfast table.

“White Falcon,” an 18th century painting on silk, can be admired for its composition and evocative detail, but the story behind it is even more remarkable. It was painted by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary from Italy who was dispatched to China in 1715 by the Portuguese Evangelical Society.

An accomplished painter in his early 20s, Castiglione became a court artist and teacher under three emperors and took the name “Lang Shining.” In a tribute to international culture, and possibly diplomacy, after his death in 1766 he was buried in the Jesuit cemetery outside Beijing with the posthumous title of “Master to the Regal Manor.”

‘Emperors’ Treasures

Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei’
Through: Sept. 18, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, until 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
Admission: $15-$20 weekdays, $20-$25 weekends; 415-581-3500, www.asianart.org

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US Photographer Josh Bulriss on Searching for Lost Buddhas Across Asia

US Photographer Josh Bulriss on Searching for Lost Buddhas Across Asia

A Buddha of the Gal Vihara rock temple in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.
(Courtesy Josh Bulriss)
Photographer Josh Bulriss, from upstate New York, is on a mission. Torrential rain is flooding the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. But he has learned that persistence pays off, and upon reaching the 12th Century rock temple of Gal Vihara, soaked to the skin, he is in his element, capturing images of Buddha that have been carved in granite by Sinhalese sculptures some 800 years ago.

Bulriss is traveling all across Asia in search of Buddhas, many of them lost or unknown to most visitors. “There was a cave in Vang Vieng, Laos, that I was planning to photograph,” he says. “Until I arrived and realized it was not there. It had been pushed over a cliff inside the cave, you could only see it now from far above, led between rocks.”

Fascinated by Buddhism from his first trip to Asia ten years ago, Bulriss has built a strong fanbase for his art works and prints online, especially on social media Instagram where he has built a following of over 33,000 people who find inspiration from his work, and Buddhist sayings he shares with them.

“About 15 years ago I began travelling with a trip to Hawaii, and when I returned home I shared my photos with family and friends. They all said the same thing ‘these look like postcards’ and I realized I had a natural eye for composition,” he says. “In a desire for further feedback I wrote to a couple of professional photographers and shared my work. The reaction was the same,” he adds.

Having started shooting things that brought him peace, he spent an extensive amount of time in Asia, evolving his work in to a focus on Buddhism, mixing his paintings with original shots in obscure locations. “I want people to own something original and unique,” he says.

Now he’s back on the road for “The Buddha Project,” aiming to be the first photographer to capture a variety of Buddhas from across Asia. The collection will be produced in his first fine-art book. Artinfo caught up with Burliss to discover some of the stories behind the famous shots.

When did you first become inspired to focus your photography on Buddhism? 

I felt that my work slowly evolved in that direction from the amount of time I have spent in Asia (two and a half years all together) submerged in Buddhist culture and just my real interest in learning more about Buddhism. It was a slow progression, not something that just happened over night.

How did the Buddha Project come about?

I always wanted to create a fine art style book of Buddhist images from my journeys along side beautiful quotes that were inspiring. But I didn’t have enough images I felt to make that happen. My real push was after my mother passed away. I decided to begin a new “Buddha Project” to finish what I felt I already started. She always pushed me to do what I love and follow my dream and it had been four years since I was in Asia.

What’s your favorite image so far and why?

I would have to go with “Buddha Hand” a photo I took in Bali, Indonesia. The contrast, texture, and color really make this a unique photo. And the story is quite interesting as well. I shot it in Ubud, and I love to travel light, so I only had one lens on me at the time and that lens was having some major issues.

Every time I would take one photo, my camera would turn off. It was a problem with the connection from the lens to the camera. So I would have to hold the lens partially attached to the camera and turn it a certain way for my camera to work for just long enough to take one shot. I learned a very important lesson that day to always have at least a small back up lens while traveling. But luckily I pulled off one of my favorite shots during that time period. And one of my most popular images.

On your latest trip, what was your most unexpected or inspiring experience?

When I arrived in Phonsavan, Laos, there was a Buddha cave that I was eager to photograph. A farmer found this cave 11 years ago while farming his land. He saw some bats flying out of a hole, and was just curious where they were coming from. When he looked inside he saw over 200 ancient Buddha statues standing in the cave. He wasn’t sure if he should tell anyone, or sell them himself. He decided to tell people and make it a place of worship.

I couldn’t find too much about the cave or find many photos. I traveled over seven hours by bus to get there, then at the entrance was a sign “no photography.” My heart sank… I went inside and just sat in awe. The farmer told me I could photograph the cave, but no Buddhas. So I left discouraged. Then I saw a boat about to go into the cave and three monks walking up. So I backed off and let the monks go ahead to sit on the front of the boat. It turned out to be one of my favorite pictures from the entire trip and showed me that you have to be able to adjust and be ready for change, and never give up.

Do you have a favorite Buddha?

I would have to go with the half-buried Buddha at Inle Lake, Myanmar. It’s just amazing to see this beautiful Buddha Half buried under rubble, sticking out so beautifully. The best part is the journey by boat to get there.

What are your hopes for the book?

I hope the book will inspire people to follow their dreams and continue working on the things they love most. I have always dreamed of having enough photos to finish a book and now I do. I think that the quotes and photos can help people on their day-to-day journey when they need something uplifting.

Click “Slideshow” to see images from “The Buddha Project.”

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The Hand Gestures in Thai Buddha Statues Have Their Own Meanings

Buddhism started in India hundreds of years ago. From India it spread to the rest of the world. The culture of Buddhism was absorbed by the new country instead of imposing itself on the country’s own culture. Because of this, Thai Buddhism is different than Indian Buddhism. One thing that is unique about the Thai Buddha statues is their gestures.

While many of the mudras, or hand positions, are similar, there is one gesture that is completely unique to Thailand. That is the reclining Buddha. This position is unique to Thailand and Laos. These countries share much including the hand gestures of Buddha statues.

There are 6 main madras, other than using an arm as a pillow in the case of a reclining Buddha, that are associated with Thai Buddha statues.

Mediation, pang sa-maa-ti or dhyana mudra. This gesture is usually shown with a seated Buddha. Buddha’s hands are palms up, flat in his lap. This position shows the mental concentration that Buddha is using to discipline himself and his mind.

Absence of fear, pang bpra-taan a-pi or abhaya mudra. When the hands of the Buddha are shown in this position it symbolizes Buddha either being fearless in the face of a foe or adversity, or admonishing others to be so. While this is usually seen with a standing Buddha it also shows up in a seated Buddha. There are two variations. One is one arm bent at both the wrist and the elbow. The fingers are pointing up and the palm is facing out. When it is the right hand it is called calming animals. If it is both hands the position is called forbidding the relatives.

Charity, pang bpra-taa pon or varana mudra. The Buddha’s right hand is pointing down with his palm facing front and the fingers are extended. This is most often seen on a standing Buddha and is associated with him either receiving or giving offerings of charity.

Touching the Earth, pang maa-ra-wi-chai or bhumisparsa mudra. When this position is on Thai Buddha statues it can also be called Buddha subduing Mara. Mara was a demon that tempted Budda. His right hand is on his leg with the features touching the Earth, sometimes only symbolically. Buddha is renouncing all worldly desire. This is the most often seen position.

Setting the wheel in motion, dharmachakra mudra. The index and thumb of each hard are touching each other with the fingers of the left hand on the right palm. The fingers from the left hand are touching the right palm. This is a very rare position. It refers to when he set the wheel of his life in motion in his first sermon.

Reasoning and exposition, vitarka mudra. The thumb and index finger of one hand, usually the right are brought together with the remaining fingers pointing up. The arm and hand is bent at the elbow and the wrist. This is often seen as a call to peace because Buddha is trying appeal to logic and reasoning.

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Revealed: Cambodia’s vast medieval cities hidden beneath the jungle

Archaeologists in Cambodia have found multiple, previously undocumented medieval cities not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat, the Guardian can reveal, in groundbreaking discoveries that promise to upend key assumptions about south-east Asia’s history.

The Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans, whose findings will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Monday, will announce that cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology has revealed multiple cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Some experts believe that the recently analysed data – captured in 2015 during the most extensive airborne study ever undertaken by an archaeological project, covering 734 sq miles (1,901 sq km) – shows that the colossal, densely populated cities would have constituted the largest empire on earth at the time of its peak in the 12th century.

Evans said: “We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there – at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and, it turns out, we uncovered only a part of Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen [in the 2012 survey] … this time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big.”
The new cities were found by firing lasers to the ground from a helicopter to produce extremely detailed imagery of the Earth’s surface. Evans said the airborne laser scanners had also identified large numbers of mysterious geometric patterns formed from earthen embankments, which could have been gardens.

Experts in the archaeological world agree these are the most significant archaeological discoveries in recent years.

Michael Coe, emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University and one of the world’s pre-eminent archaeologists, specialises in Angkor and the Khmer civilisation.

“I think that these airborne laser discoveries mark the greatest advance in the past 50 or even 100 years of our knowledge of Angkorian civilisation,” he said from Long Island in the US.

“I saw Angkor for the first time in 1954, when I wondered at the magnificent temples, but there was nothing to tell us who had lived in the city, where they had lived, and how such an amazing culture was supported. To a visitor, Angkor was nothing but temples and rice paddies.”

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Charles Higham, research professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and the leading archaeologist of mainland south-east Asia, said it was the most exciting paper he could recall reading.

“I have been to all the sites described and at a stroke, they spring into life … it is as if a bright light has been switched on to illuminate the previous dark veil that covered these great sites,” Higham said. “Personally, it is wonderful to be alive as these new discoveries are being made. Emotionally, I am stunned. Intellectually, I am stimulated.”

David Chandler, emeritus professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, the foremost expert on Cambodian history and the author of several books and articles on the subject, said the work was thrilling and credited Evans and his colleagues with “rewriting history”.
Chandler said he believed it would open up a series of perspectives that would help people know more about Angkorian civilisation, and how it flourished and eventually collapsed.

“It will take time for their game-changing findings to drift into guide books, tour guides, and published histories,” Chandler said. “But their success at putting hundreds of nameless, ordinary, Khmer-speaking people back into Cambodia’s past is a giant step for anyone trying to deal with Cambodian history.”

David Kyle, an archaeologist and ecological anthropologist has conducted projects at Phnom Kulen, the location of the biggest findings, the massive city of Mahendraparvata, the size of Phnom Penh, beneath the forest floor.

He said the “survey results have revolutionised our understanding and approaches. It’s impossible not to be excited. It facilitates a paradigm shift in our comprehension of the complexity, size and the questions we can address.”

While the 2012 survey identified a sprawling, highly urbanised landscape at Greater Angkor, including rather “spectacularly” in the “downtown” area of the temple-city of Angkor Wat, the 2015 project has revealed a similar pattern of equally intense urbanism at remote archaeological ruins, including pre- and post-Angkorian sites.

check the full article with pictures https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/11/lost-city-medieval-discovered-hidden-beneath-cambodian-jungle

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Big Buddha statue installed at Nagarkot

Gautam BuddhaBhaktapur, June 10: A big statue of the Lord Buddha has been installed at Shantidanda, Nagarkot of Bhaktapur in view of attracting the tourists.

The statue was installed at the open space of about 80 ropanis of land there as the area was at high risk of encroachment. The construction of the idol and other infrastructure was begun three years back.

The statue was installed at a total cost of over Rs 10 million rupees which was collected from the donors as well as from the parliamentary development fund, said Dhan Bahadur Lama, chair at the users’ committee.

Along with the installation of the idol, a park, rest rooms, water taps and attractive garden were also constructed at the place. The construction committee has aimed at developing the site as the meditation place for Buddhist followers and it is expected the idol will contribute to developing Nagarkot area as a notable touristic hub in the future.

Lawmakers, Prem Suwal and Anuradha Thapa Magar stressed on developing the site as the Buddhist study centre adding that it will help preserve the culture.

Another lawmaker, Rameshwor Dhungel urged for developing a model e-library at the site.

http://nepalireporter.com/32138/big-buddha-statue-installed-at-nagarkot/

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Stunning facts about Hussain Sagar’s Buddha Statue in Hyderabad

Mumbai: The Hussain Sagar lake of Hyderabad boasts of being home to one of the most brilliant yet modern architectural marvels in the world – a giant Buddha statue – which is now a busy tourist attraction.

But the installation of the iconic structure proved to be a tough task. It was indeed a challenge for the engineers working on the project to succeed in their mission and it took about two years for them to finally realise their dream of mounting it on a platform built in the lake.

Here’s taking a look at some of the interesting yet shocking facts believed to have been associated with the installation of the statue:

  • The Buddha Statue is former Andhra Pradesh CM, NT Rama Rao’s brainchild. He was mighty impressed by the Statute of Liberty in the USA so he decided to give Hyderabad, the then capital of the state of Andhra, a sculpture that could turn into an iconic landmark.
  • It is perhaps the world’s tallest monolithic statue of Gautama Buddha - meaning it has been sculpted out of a one single piece of rock. It is 16 meters tall and weighs about 350 tonne.
  • Architect and sculptor SM Ganapathy Sthapathi instrumental in saving a number of archaeological structures and a Padmashri awardee, was roped in to carve Buddha Statue from the solid granite rock.
  • It took about 5 years and 3 million US dollars to complete the sculpture.
  • But the challenges began when the statue was being taken to the spot in the lake where it had to be installed in 1990. A tragedy struck - the statue slipped into the lake and about 10 engineers got killed.
  • The statue is believed to have remained underwater for two years.
  • Two years later, attempts were made to install the statue as per the initial plan. And it was a successful attempt indeed. The statue stands tall on a 15-feet concrete platform that supports the majestic sculpture.
  • In 2006, the Dalai Lama was invited to perform rituals that would help the statue gain the divine status.

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Taipei’s Imperial Masterpieces Travel to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

A selection of esteemed masterpieces from Taipei’s National Palace Museum will make their North American debut at a blockbuster exhibition opening at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco next month.

Entitled “Emperor’s Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei,” the exhibition is the centerpiece of the Asian Art Museum’s program this year, designed in part to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary.

Showcasing some 160 paintings, ceramics, and jade pieces spanning a period of almost a thousand years, many of which are being exhibited in North America for the first time, “Emperor’s Treasures” will open June 17 at the Asian Art Museum before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in late October.

Despite the esteemed reputation of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, displays of its collection have only rarely been seen in the United States. The last significant showing of these Chinese treasures from Taipei was in 1995-6, at an exhibition jointly presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Asian Art Museum.

What promises to be thoroughly fascinating, even for the lay viewer, is the way in which this selection of objects reflects the distinct, eclectic collecting habits and aesthetic preferences of each of the nine Chinese rulers whose former holdings and possessions are represented.

“This is the absolute ‘best of the best’ of Chinese Imperial art,” says Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu. “By exploring how artistic taste was cultivated and evaluated — which created standards of beauty and elegance across Chinese culture — the exhibition reflects the museum’s mission of connecting audiences today with the great arts and traditions of Asia.”

More significantly, however, Xu points out that Chinese Imperial masterworks differ from ancient Egyptian, Roman, or European equivalents in terms of the scale and context against which they were appreciated and consumed. “Chinese emperors commissioned and collected extraordinary works of art for personal pleasure and scholarly contemplation behind palace walls, rather than for brandishing as outward expressions of wealth and power,” he says.

Spread over four galleries, the exhibition opens in the Osher Gallery with the majestic landscapes and calligraphy of the Song emperors (960-1279), notably the “slender-gold” script of Emperor Huizong, and portraits commissioned by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) ruler Kublai Khan, before moving on to a spectacular showcase of Ming porcelain (1368-1644).

Occupying a considerable portion of the exhibition and housed in the Hambrecht Gallery are ornate objects produced for the Manchu rulers during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), especially the relatively longer reigns of the Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong. This period is marked by a more catholic range of artistic influences, many of which were the direct result of increased international trade with the European empires.

Perhaps most influential during this period was Giuseppe Castiglione, whom Kangxi invited to the Imperial court in the early eighteenth century. Castiglione’s hybrid fusion of European chiaroscuro and perspective combined with the precepts of Chinese landscape painting helped to inaugurate a new era of artistic creativity among other Imperial court artists.

“Emperor’s Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” runs at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from June 17 through September 18, 2016.

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Asian Civilisations Museum’s new exhibition Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour is the first of its kind in Asia

Published: 4:15 AM, May 27, 2016

SINGAPORE — Following an extensive revamp last year, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has chosen to portray how Christianity was interpreted by artists around the world across 800 years, for its inaugural special exhibition titled Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour (until Sept 11).

What is most interesting about this exhibition is that many of the artists behind these works were not Christians. In fact, many belonged to faiths such as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and so on, or were from countries that were predominantly non-Christian, such as Syria, India and Iran, noted Clement Onn, curator of the exhibition. Describing it as “a celebration of artistic innovation, experimentation and the diversity which emerges from cross-cultural influences”, Onn said an example would be an inlaid metal candlestick made in Syria between 1248 and 1249, which was decorated with both Christian scenes and medieval Islamic art.

Onn said Asian art had absorbed influences from many different cultures, including the Middle East, India, China, Japan, the Philippines and South-east Asia itself.

“It often blends European Christian subjects with local motifs and patterns, or is made in distinctive local materials. Many of the artists who created Christian images belonged to other faiths, but, nonetheless, made powerful and beautiful images too,” he added.

This, he said, “demonstrates the curiosity and openness evident throughout Asia”, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Asked why the theme was chosen for its first exhibition since the revamp, Dr Alan Chong, director of ACM said: “Christianity in Asia links all the parts of the continents, and indeed all of its cultures.”

He added: “ACM has recently done exhibitions on Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu art, so this is an innovative exploration of a religion which has played a role in Asian culture since the 7th century.”

Still, one of the key challenges in this exhibition, revealed Onn, was the coordination of loans across the different countries as well as working with several institutions. On display are over 150 exhibits from 20 acclaimed institutions and private collections, including the Musee du Louvre, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art across six countries (Singapore, France, Hong Kong and the Philippines among them). Some items from ACM’s collection, which have never been exhibited before, will also be shown. This includes the largest ivory sculpture of the Virgin made in 16th century Sri Lanka.

The exhibition was made possible because of the strong relationships between ACM and its many international partners, he pointed out. “Many of these lending institutions understand that this is the first exhibition of its kind (covering the history and spread of Christian art in Asia), and were very generous to lend us their works of art and support.”

Viewers can see pieces ranging from the 13th to the 20th century, but the showcase focuses specially on the period from 16th to 18th century, “where significant trade and missions occurred”.

This is why some artworks, he added, also demonstrate the knowledge exchange between Asia and the West in terms of art techniques such as ivory carving, which were then unknown in the West but grew in popularity after, and the use of rare materials found in Asia, including rock crystal, ivory, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and precious stones.

Onn hopes visitors will go home from the exhibition with a larger perspective.

“We hope that visitors will not only be exposed to the wide array of Asian Christian art, recognised by its intrinsic quality, originality and aesthetic merit, but also learn that common threads such as religion can also bring people of various cultures and from different countries together,” he said. “It is definitely an exhibition for everyone.” Joy Fang

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Grottoes with Hundreds of Buddha Statues in Guangdong Become Popular Overnight

Hundreds of Buddha statues previously little known to the outside world have become an overnight hit on the Internet after they were discovered by a group of tourists who sought adventure in Foshan, south China’s Guangdong province.

The statues were carved on steep cliffs 20 years ago as a project funded by local government, but were abandoned before its completion.

Enveloped by surrounding trees, they had remained in obscurity for two decades until now.

more pictures http://english.cri.cn/12394/2016/05/19/4061s928198.htm

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Ancient Chinese letter of just 124 characters sold for $43 millions

BEIJING: A letter dating some 1,000 years back to the Song dynasty (960-1279) has been sold for a staggering 207mil yuan ($43 millions) in China.

The 124-character note by famed politician and scholar Zeng Gong was sold to Chinese media mogul and art collector Wang Zhongjun at a Beijing auction on Sunday night.

Titled Jushi Tie (A Letter on Happenings), the letter was written on Sept 27, 1080, during Zeng’s 12-year service in local administrations.

In the letter, he thanks an unidentified friend for being supportive in the long term. Between the lines, however, he also shows a dissatisfaction at being unable to implement his political ideas in the royal court.

Zeng is ranked among the “eight masters of prose of the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties”. Very few of his writings still exist.

Once owned by Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens, the letter was sold for 108.6 million yuan at an auction in 2009.

The participation of Wang, who bid over the phone, surprised many people, since he is known for being an ardent buyer of contemporary Chinese and, recently, Western art.

He spent US$29.9mil (RM164mil) on a Picasso painting, Woman With a Hairbun on a Sofa, at a Sotheby’s sale in New York in May last year.

The letter by Zeng Gong topped the Grand View auction of classical Chinese paintings, staged by China Guardian Auctions, which grossed 1.11 billion yuan in total.

In the same sale, a calligraphic album in running script by the Ming calligrapher Song Ke was sold for 92 million yuan to Zhang Xiaojun of Shanxi province. An album of calligraphic Buddhist sutras, poems and paintings by intellectuals from the Tang and later dynasties sold for 57.5 million yuan.

The Grand View auction of classical Chinese ink art, held twice a year, is seen as a barometer of China’s art market.

Luan Juli, general manager of China Guardian’s Chinese painting department, said after the sale that classical Chinese art will play a bigger role in supporting the whole art market.

The most expensive classical Chinese ink art sold at auction is Di Zhu Ming, a calligraphic hand scroll by Song Dynasty master Huang Tingjian that fetched 436.8 million yuan in Beijing in 2010. – China Daily/Asia News Network

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Gold leaves for statues

SOME 200 devotees at the Thai Buddhist Chetawan Temple in Petaling Jaya, held a ceremony to apply gold leaves on five Buddha statues at the chief abbot’s premises.

The event, to give the statues a gilded makeover, was also participated by 42 monks from Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The application of gold leaves ceremony was initiated by the temple’s chief abbot Phra Sophorncariyaporn, who is also the chief monk of Selangor (Thai sect).

Also invited to participate in the ceremony were Kedah & Perlis (Thai sect) deputy chief monk and chief abbot of Wat Nikhrodharam, Alor Setar, Kedah, Phra Nikhrodhammathada and deputy chief monk of Sik district, Kedah, Phra Khru Viriyakphatanakkit,.

Devotees were invited to buy and offer the gold leaves to be applied on Buddha statue made of brass and copper.

The top 18 donors (each sponsoring RM888 worth of gold leaves) were given the privilege of symbolically sticking one gold leaf each on the Buddha statue with blessings from the monks.

The thin foil-like gold leaves were purchased in bulk from Bangkok, Thailand.

(Below) Thai experts ensuring that the gold leaves stick neatly on the Buddha statue.

Thai experts ensuring that the gold leaves stick neatly on the Buddha statue.

It took 24 hours to finish applying the gold leaves on the main statue, which is 2.4m high and about 50 years old.

Two coats of primer paint, red then brown, were applied on the statues before they were gilded with gold leaves.

“The ceremony to cover the Buddha statue with gold leaves is to honour Buddha’s teachings. Buddhists regard this as an act of loving kindness. It is also an act to transfer good merits.

“This is the second time such a ceremony has been conducted in 50 years,” said Deenies Tang, 54, a devotee and one of the main sponsors of gold leaves.

Dr Phra Maha Surasak Pachantakseno from Maha Chulalongkorn University also gave a sermon on the merit of sticking gold leaves.

The next day, Phra Nikhrodhammathada was given the honour as guest chief abbot to perform the ceremony to stick gold leaves on top of the Buddha’s head.

In conjunction with Wesak Day on Saturday, the temple has a three-day programme beginning May 20.

On Friday and Saturday (Wesak Day), the temple will be open from 6.30am until 1am for various religious activities.

Devotees can also participate in the offering of gold leaves for a set of seven new Buddha statues this Wesak Day.

Gold leaves can be purchased at RM10 for 10 pieces.

There will also be a two-day food fair on Friday and Saturday from 8.30am with items such as vegetarian mee, Thai laksa, kaoyam (kerabu rice), kuih, ruam mit (Thai dessert of tapioca balls and corn in coconut milk), mango rice, coconut ice cream and juice drinks for sale.

Coupons are available at RM10 per booklet from the temple.

(Left) Guest abbot Ven. Phra Nikhrodham-mathada sticking gold leaves on the Buddha statue.

Guest abbot Ven. Phra Nikhrodham-mathada sticking gold leaves on the Buddha statue.

On Sunday from 8am to 10pm, there will be a Special Wesak Blessing by the temple’s monks and also senior monks from Thailand.

At 11am, there will be a tark bart (similar to dana offering) ceremony to offer food to the monks.

At 5.30pm, there is a phapa (robes) offering and presentation of saffron robes at Mondope Shrine.

The offering of the phapa robes is said to remind devotees of the basic teachings of Buddha such as mindfulness, giving and sharing.

At 9.30pm, there will be chariot and candlelight procession.

A statue of Lord Buddha will be placed on a chariot for the procession around the temple compound.

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Buddhist Sculptures Discovered in Ruins of Ancient Shrine

Sculptures and carvings dating back more than 1,700 years have been discovered in the remains of a shrine and its courtyard in the ancient city of Bazira. The sculptures illustrate the religious life of the city, telling tales from Buddhism and other ancient religions.
Also called Vajirasthana, Bazira is located the in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. It was first constructed as a small town, during the second century B.C., and eventually developed into a city located within the Kushan Empire. At its peak, this empire ruled territory extending from modern-day India to central Asia.
The Kushan Empire declined during the third century A.D., at the same time that a series of earthquakes ravaged Bazira. The damage caused by the earthquakes — and the financial problems brought about by the decline of the Kushan Empire — meant that Bazira gradually fell into ruin, with the city abandoned by the end of the third century.
Today, the ruins of Bazira are located near the modern-day village of Barikot. The Italian Archaeological Mission has been excavating Bazira since 1978, gradually unearthing remains of the ancient city. [See Photos of the Ancient City Ruins and Sculptures]
The great departure
One of the sculptures, carved in green schist, depicts a prince named Siddhartha leaving a palace on a horse named Kanthaka. The sculpture likely form part of the shrine’s decoration, the archaeologists said.
According to ancient Buddhist stories, Siddhartha was a wealthy prince who lived in a palace in Kapilavastu, which is in modern-day Nepal. He lived a cloistered life, but one day he ventured outside his palace and encountered the suffering faced by common people. After this experience, he decided to leave his palace to live as a poor man in order to seek enlightenment. He later became the Gautama Buddha. [In Photos: An Ancient Buddhist Monastery]
In the carved scene, two spirits known as yakshas support Kanthaka’s hooves, wrote archaeologist Luca Olivieri, who directs excavations at Bazira, in the Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology. Meanwhile, the town goddess of Kapilavastu, who is shown wearing a crown, holds her hands together in a sign of veneration.
An unknown man — maybe a deity, Olivieri said — stands behind Kanthaka, with his left hand to his mouth and his right hand waving a scarf-like garment called an uttariya.

In the courtyard, archaeologists found another carving, this one dating to a time after an earthquake had damaged the shrine. The shrine had been rebuilt using perishable materials, likely wooden posts, the archaeologists said. Also at around this time, the courtyard was converted into a kitchen area that serviced nearby homes.
The carving “pictures an unknown deity, an aged male figure sitting on a throne, with long, curled hair, holding a wine goblet and a severed goat head in his hands,” Olivieri told Live Science, adding that the figure looks a bit like images of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.
Wine was widely produced in the Swat Valley, and some people in the area, even monastic Buddhists, had issues with drinking alcohol, Olivieri said. “We found dozens of ancient winepresses and vats in the countryside,” Olivieri said.
From “texts, it seems that Buddhist schools tried their best to curb the habit of consuming wine and other ‘intoxicating drinks’ even amongst the monastic community,” he added.
The goat’s head in the carving also symbolizes a local passion, Olivieri said. “The goat is an animal associated to the mountains in the cultures of Hindu Kush, the local region,” Olivieri said, adding that it was used as an icon in ancient rock art.
Stupa with lions
Another beautiful carving that once decorated the shrine depicts a stupa, a structure shaped like a mound that is used for meditation. Near the top of the stupa is a platform known as a harmika, which is decorated with a rosette design. Above the harmika, there are three parasol-like structures called chattrasthat face up toward the sky.
Two columns, with lions on top, are carved next to the stupa. The lions peer down at the stupa (which is at the same height as the columns), as if they are watching over it.
This scene could be based off of a real, ancient stupa that existed in the Swat Valley, Olivieri said. “Real stupas with four columns — topped by crouching lions’ statues—at the corners of the lower podium have been documented in Swat,” Olivieri told Live Science.
One stupa like this was excavated in the 1960s and 1970s. Archaeologists found that it was used between the first and fourth centuries A.D., the same time that Bazira flourished.

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Revered Chinese monk is mummified and covered in gold leaf

BEIJING (AP) — A revered Buddhist monk in China has been mummified and covered in gold leaf, a practice reserved for holy men in some areas with strong Buddhist traditions.

The monk, Fu Hou, who died in 2012 at age 94 after spending most of his life at the Chongfu Temple on a hill in the city of Quanzhou, in southeastern China, according to the temple’s abbot, Li Ren.

The temple decided to mummify Fu Hou to commemorate his devotion to Buddhism — he started practicing at age 17 — and to serve as an inspiration for followers of the religion that was brought from the Indian subcontinent roughly 2,000 years ago.

Immediately following his death, the monk’s body was washed, treated by two mummification experts, and sealed inside a large pottery jar in a sitting position, the abbot said.

When the jar was opened three years later, the monk’s body was found intact and sitting upright with little sign of deterioration apart from the skin having dried out, Li Ren said.

The body was then washed with alcohol and covered in layers of gauze, lacquer and finally gold leaf. It was also robed, and a local media report said a glass case had been ordered for the statue, which will be protected with an anti-theft device.

The local Buddhist belief is that only a truly virtuous monk’s body would remain intact after being mummified, local media reports said.

“Monk Fu Hou is now being placed on the mountain for people to worship,” Li Ren said.

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China: Mogao’s Grottoes of the Buddhas

The Mogao Caves began when a monk saw a vision of the Buddha above the cliffs. Over the next 500 years, travellers added to the figures leaving a cultural stamp in the rock. Photo / Jim Eagles

Big ones, small ones, painted ones, sleeping ones: ancient Buddhas have Jim Eagles entranced at the crossroads of the Silk Road.By Jim Eagles

It took some time to adjust to the gloom after the bright sunshine outside. I used the weak beam of my torch to look around and suddenly realised I was standing beside a giant foot, around 6m long.

As my eyes slowly adjusted, a huge hand appeared high over my head, as though delivering a giant blessing, then flowing robes and finally, when I craned my neck back to look up, the light through an aperture far above illuminated a giant face.

“This,” said our guide, pointing his much more powerful beam at the figure, “is the largest indoor statue in the world.”

The scale of work involved in creating this 35.5m Buddha in its cave was mind-boggling. It took 12 years to carve the great smiling Buddha out of the rock 1400 years ago - with nothing more than primitive hammers and chisels.

Replica of a picture from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang city. Photo / Jim EaglesReplica of a picture from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang city. Photo / Jim Eagles

Then the walls had to be plastered with a mix of mud, straw and some sort of glue, to a depth of 3-4cm. Finally the plaster was been painted meticulously using ground minerals - malachite, ochre, lapis lazuli - as paint.

Yet this is only one of about 500 equally spectacular caves carved into a riverside cliff in the middle of the desert, at Mogao near the Chinese city of Dunhuang, over a period of about 500 years.

It is all said to have started around 366 when a monk saw a vision of Buddha above the cliffs, decided this must be a holy place, and carved the first cave as a tribute.

There is no trace of that cave but it, and news of the monk’s vision, inspired others to follow suit and, according to Lonely Planet’s China, at its height there were 18 monasteries, 1400 monks and nuns, plus countless artists, craftsmen, labourers, translators and calligraphers all working here.

For centuries the caves were forgotten, except by a few monk guardians, and over the centuries there has been some deterioration from flooding - the river has now dried up - sand from the desert looming at the top of the cliff, earthquakes and oxidisation.

But for the past 50 years or so the Chinese Government has made a big investment in preserving what Lonely Planet describes as “one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world”.

When we arrived at the cave site, and were confronted with a massive concrete wall dotted with hundreds of doors and dozens of staircases and landings, one woman asked, not unreasonably,”Is this a hotel?”

Bin, our Chinese tour leader, burst into laughter. “Yes. It is a very old hotel. More than 1500 years old. These are the caves.”

Later our guide explained that the concrete facade and lockable doors had been added in the 1960s to stop the rock face from collapsing, improve security and reduce the deterioration of the works of art.

The amount of art here is extraordinary, as is the range of cultural influences on show.

In the earliest of the 10 caves we were taken to see, dating from the late 5th century - it was cave 259: they’re all numbered just like hotel doors - our guide pointed out that the statue of a disciple, standing on the left hand of the 3m high Buddha had Turkish, not Chinese or Indian, features “because Turkish nomads were in control of this area when it was built”.

A group of tourists are riding camels in the desert at Dunhuang City in China. A group of tourists are riding camels in the desert at Dunhuang City in China.He pointed to influences from Persia - in the style of clothing of a painted Buddha - India, Pakistan, Han Chinese, Afghan - a statue in the style of those at Bamiyan - Mongol, Turkish - in the features of a disciple - and Greece.

In another cave he drew attention to the main Buddha statue dressed in Chinese robes and then, with the aid of his torch, highlighted an amazing conglomeration of religious figures on the ceiling from Hindu gods to Taoist immortals and from Chinese nature gods to multi-headed demons and monsters.

Most ceilings, however, were covered with hundreds of small figures of Buddha - his face black, not due to some racial statement, but the result of the red pigment having oxidised - and the most common wall painting themes were scenes from his life or visions of paradise.

As you’d expect from people living in caves in the desert their paradise was one of comfortable palaces amid lush green parks, ample food and pleasant music.

In one particularly imaginative version the instruments were playing themselves. Often, angels were flying above. But, as our guide pointed out, “These are not like your angels. They do not have wings sprouting out of the middle of their backs. They do not need them.”

Every cave contained at least one statue and most contained several. The larger ones were mainly carved out of the rock but the smaller ones were built of earth, straw and adhesive material around a framework of sticks.

Now and again we saw a figure whose hand had broken off but had not yet been repaired, so sticks and bits of straw extended from the shattered wrist.

Always at the centre was the Buddha; in one of several poses, mostly surrounded by a couple of disciples and several Bodhisattva (those who have attained enlightenment but stayed in the earthly realm to help others).

Several had guardians at the entrance, ferocious snarling creatures whose frightful appearance was aimed at scaring away evil spirits. I’d have thought they might have made cave robbers a bit twitchy too.

There were other giants figures, too, besides the world record holder. In one cave, which echoed to the sound of of drilling and banging - “they’re building a better viewing platform at the other level” - there was a 27m-tall Buddha in whose cave archaeologists had found silk banners saying it took 29 years to sculpt.

A concrete entrance structure for the Mogao Caves. Photo / Jim EaglesA concrete entrance structure for the Mogao Caves. Photo / Jim EaglesIn another, outside which two fearsomely tusked guardians growled, a 15m-long Buddha lay at rest, eyes closed in peace, having attained nirvana. It was built in the 8th century but a line of around 70 mourners behind the giant figure, each with the features and clothing of a different race, were added in the 19th century.

But remarkable though all these carvings and paintings were, the greatest treasure in this great complex was found when a monk cleaning a fairly nondescript 9th century cave discovered a small, bricked-up side room.

Inside were 50,000 manuscripts, mostly containing ancient Buddhist sutras, but also everything from poems and histories to medical recipes and biographies, enough fascinating material to found a whole new branch of study called Dunhuangology.

Continued below.

However, as our guide pointed out bitterly, Western archaeologists were quick to hear of this find and sweet-talked the hapless monk out of most of the papers. Today, only 8600 manuscripts from the hoard are left in China. A few are on display in the Dunhuang Museum and in national institutes in Beijing.

“The rest are in Britain and Europe and the United States.”

I could have pointed out, but didn’t, that reprehensible though that cultural larceny might have been, at least it prevented the documents from suffering the fate of the millions of ancient relics destroyed during the madness of the Cultural Revolution.

As our tour of the caves ended, one of our group asked where the people who built the caves lived. “Did they live and work here?”

“Oh no,” said the guide, “these were sacred places. They lived in another group of about 300 caves further north.

“Those caves are not open to the public because they are still being excavated. Already they have discovered two pages from the Bible written in Syriac, two Nestorian crosses and a Persian coin from the 5th century BC.”

It all served to underline what a crossroads of civilisations this place was when the Silk Road was at its height and Dunhuang was a vital oasis for travellers through this arid landscape.

Indeed, the harshness of the next leg of the route, westward through the terrifying Taklamakan Desert, evidently played a big part in the caves being built, according to the guide.

“Some people gave money in the hope the gods would allow them to survive the Taklamakan. Others gave money in gratitude for having crossed the desert safely.”

And, sure enough, round the bottom of many caves were lines of painted figures who turned out to be the sponsors: the monks, traders and devout business people who provide the funds for the cave’s construction. If it was today, I thought to be myself, logos of beer and tobacco companies would probably be painted there.

The Mogao Caves began when a monk saw a vision of the Buddha above the cliffs. The Mogao Caves began when a monk saw a vision of the Buddha above the cliffs.My special souvenir of a pilgrimage down the route of the Silk Road through China is a rather magnificent chunk of yellow rock.

I acquired it when I was wandering the streets of Dunhuang taking photos of the replicas of artworks from the Mogao Caves, which the proud citizens have erected on blank walls, street corners and open spaces.

You’re not allowed to take photos inside the caves so I thought pictures of these official replicas would give a slight idea of what the amazing artwork is like.

During my fairly brief stroll I came across wall paintings of court scenes and visions of paradise plus sculptures of angels and heavenly musicians.

The best was a huge statue - taken from one of the cave paintings of paradise - featuring a beautiful young woman playing a lute behind her back.

When we first saw her, Bin, our group leader, commented drily, “I think that must be very difficult.”

Later, in the caves, I found that very figure in the 8th century cave 172.

But while I was going about this photographic exercise the local schools closed to allow pupils to go home for lunch and I was soon surrounded by a mob of giggling youngsters who obviously hadn’t seen a lot of round-eyed people, even though most of them spoke a bit of English.

One cluster of boys, aged around 10 at a guess, stared in fascination at the notes I was taking in a small notebook and when I turned the pages towards them so they could see my cramped script they just about collapsed in giggles.

Several more came up to say “hello” and there were lots more giggles when I replied “hello” and, especially, when I tried a tentative “nihao”.

One boy then came up with his hand extended and said, “Hello. Here, something for you,” and he handed me the rock.

When I took it and said “thank you” he beamed in delight and ran off with his giggling mates.

I’ve kept the rock and brought it home. I think it’s rather splendid.

The Mogao Caves began when a monk saw a vision of the Buddha above the cliffs.The Mogao Caves began when a monk saw a vision of the Buddha above the cliffs.

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