For the first time, the cream of treasures have been gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sometimes entire worlds disappear, yet art survives and tells us the stories that would have remained untold. ‘Sivapada’ (Siva's footprints), a wonderful sandstone sculpture by unknown artists in Northern Cambodia of 7th-8th century, shows us the imprint of Hinduism on the Southeast Asian cultures of the first millennium that have vanished.
That age also saw a major flowering of Buddhism via India with a rich treasure-trove of art.
Fabulous life-sized images of Siva, Vishnu, Ganesha, and a pantheon of Hindu Gods have been unearthed in Southeast Asia and they look not quite like the deities in India.
The features seem Southeast Asian, the headgear is different but there is no doubt as to their Supreme Power.
Though the inspiration is Indian, local aesthetics and local artists have given these vibrant, exquisite masterpieces of Hindu and Buddhist icons a flavor all their own.
For the first time, the cream of treasures have been gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the ‘Lost Kingdoms - Hindu Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia’ brings to light this long-forgotten world. The exhibition (April 14 - July 27) is the first international loan exhibition with over 160 sculptures from the cultures of Pyu, Funan, Zhenla, Champa, Dvâravatî, Kedah, and Srîvijaya.
“These early states represent the beginning of state formation in Southeast Asia, and their archaeological footprints broadly define the political map of the region today,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The surviving corpus of early religious art from these kingdoms, much of it spectacular in scale and often sublimely beautiful, is our principal window into these cultures.”
As he points out, the exhibition traces the interactions between South and Southeast Asia largely through the circulation of Hindu-Buddhist imagery throughout the Diaspora, revealing the flow of ideas, artistic styles and religious and political structures across the region: “Imported concepts continued to evolve in their new setting, displaying substantial cultural and political transformations as they were absorbed and appropriated to suit the needs of the host cultures. It is the metamorphosis of Indian imagery into a Southeast Asian guise that defines the art's unique contri- bution.”
John Guy, curator of the Arts of South and Southeast Asia at the Met, who curated the show and also edited the catalogue, walked one through the galleries. The masterpieces, many of them monumental, have been brought together by negotiating loans from six Southeast Asian countries, Paris and the U.S.
Many are national treasures and have never travelled outside their home countries before.
In fact, Myanmar has made its first international loan to this exhibition, including the Throne Stele (4th century) - which is the oldest religious object surviving from Southeast Asia, and has Hindu and Buddhist emblems on the reverse sides, showing that the two faiths enjoyed royal patronage concurrently in early Southeast Asia.
This art tells a more expanded tale of the robust trade between India and Southeast Asia, and the first Brahmans and Buddhist monks who ventured to that region travelled on merchant ships.
The local touch
“The “Indianisation of Southeast Asia - that is the adoption and adaptation of foreign, Indic ideas - fundamentally shaped cultural developments in the region, providing a conceptual and linguistic framework for new ideals of kingship, state and religious order,” observes John Guy.
The artworks were done under royal patronage and the artists worked in workshops along with master artists. The majority of the works are in stone, with others in bronze, gold, silver, terracotta, and stucco.
Among the masterpieces at the exhibition, there is a spectacular Krishna holding Mt. Govardhana from the hill shrine of Phnom Da, in southern Cambodia; and there is a similar one also from the same region, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This Krishna myth, famous in the Bhagavata Purana, is rarely found in sculptural form in India. In fact, Guy observes that the Phnom Da sculptures evolved from a long-standing local tradition, which surpassed any Indian prototype.
Hindu deities from Brahma, Durga to Lakshmi are found in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Another remarkable sculpture rarely seen in India is Kalkin, Vishnu's future avatar, found in Southern Cambodia, near the village of Kouk Trap. Kalkin (having or being a white horse) is the 10th avatar of Vishnu. From its compelling size and powerful physique, one knows this was an important deity.
An entire gallery is devoted to Siva in his many forms, and to his consort - Devi, known as Uma in early Cambodia.
There are many images of Ganesha: particularly endearing is one from the 8th century, from My Son in Vietnam.
It depicts him as an ascetic like his father, with a third eye and wrapped in a tiger skin. His sacred thread is a snake and on his wrists are bracelets of snakes. Huge icons of Ganesha were found from Vietnam to Thailand, and Guy says, “These works bear witness to a cult that had assumed a prominence not seen in Ganesha's native India.” The Buddhist art is an expression of state identity, represented by some of the most monumental works in the exhibition: stone Buddhas, sacred wheels of the Buddha's Law, and narrative steles and reliefs.
There is also a late seventh-century Avalokitesivara discovered in the Mekong delta of Vietnam, “arguably the most beautiful image of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion from all of Southeast Asia.”
‘Lost Kingdoms’ is an evocative story of the past, of how Indian influence spread far and wide.
In those days, India was a hotspot for trade and culture, influencing nations. Could history repeat itself, I asked John Guy, half in jest. He smiled, perhaps half in jest too: “Well, look at all the Indian diamond merchants in New York! Look at all the Hindu temples being built here!”