The Buddhist heritage of Pakistan: The beauty of ancient globalisation

October 20, 2011

TODAY Peshawar in north-west Pakistan is a hotbed of insurgency and a strategic military entry point into Afghanistan. But more than 1,500 years ago the Gandhara region, which surrounded present-day Peshawar, was an important point along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. Propelled by Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, settlers from the West brought classical Greco-Roman influences, while traders from the East brought Buddhism. This unique cross-pollination permeates art from the Gandhara region, which encompassed swaths of north-west Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. These works are an extraordinary example of ancient globalisation.


The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara”, the first exhibition of Gandharan art from Pakistan in America since 1960, is on view at the Asia Society in New York through October. Pakistan’s problems with violent extremism have eclipsed the region’s historical role as a place with an ancient tradition of tolerance and pluralism. Amid deteriorating relations with America, getting the artwork to New York was an epic undertaking involving diplomats, government officials, museum staff and art patrons on both sides. The display of Gandharan sculpture, architectural relief, and bronze and gold pieces, nearly all borrowed from the Central Museum in Lahore and the National Museum in Karachi, represents “a once in a lifetime chance” to view these works in America said Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum.

The unusual East-West syncretism in historic Gandhara results in some surprising images. One sculpture from the second to third century AD depicts the torso of Atlas carved into schist, a type of stone; figures resembling the Greek deity were common in Gandharan art. A stone palette from the first century BC shows Apollo pursuing Daphne.

Some of the first human images of Buddha first appeared in Pakistan, with pictures in Gandharan art dating from the third century BC. A few on view here break from more conventional portrayals of the Buddha, such as a dramatic sculpture titled “Emaciated Siddhartha”, which depicts Buddha as a skeletal ascetic, with hollow eyes and jutting rib cage. There are some striking examples of Eastern influences on classical forms, such as a Roman Corinthian column that features a seated Buddha instead of a traditional flower. Similarly, a winged Aphrodite stone sculpture has come from Taxila, a Hellenistic settlement 30 kilometres from present-day Islamabad.

The untimely death last December of Richard Holbrooke, America’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, dealt a severe blow to staging this exhibition. A former chairman of the Asia Society, Holbrooke had been a champion of the show, which was two years in the making. Without him, momentum stalled. The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in February, but its prospects seemed doomed in light of Pakistan’s political turmoil and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA operative early in the year. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in May seemed to make the show impossible.

To salvage the exhibition, Ms Chiu reckons she made 1,000 phone calls to Pakistan earlier this year and travelled there four times. Others were instrumental in finally getting the exhibition to New York, including Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon. When a series of brutal murders terrified locals in Karachi in the spring, museum staff had to be escorted by security personnel to crate artworks to be shipped to New York.

“This was the most difficult show we’ve ever organised,” said Ms Chiu, who admitted that many presumed the show would not open at all. But the effort had a simple but important objective. “It’s an opportunity to see a different view of Pakistan. It truly is another perspective.”

The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara is on view at the Asia Society in New York through October 30th