On The Buddhist Road

During the fifth century A.D., caravans traveling along the southern Silk Road from China to India transported silk, spices and edibles. But the treacherous route through the mountains wasn't important just for trading goods, it was also the path by which Buddhism spread across the region. Chinese monks headed to India to study Buddhist scripture, then brought the teachings, icons and ritual practices back to China and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Fortunately, the Buddhist pilgrims from that period kept excellent travel records. Their accounts form the basis of the striking new exhibit "On the Nalanda Trial: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia," now on show at Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum (through March 23). Presented as a story, the exhibit relies heavily on artwork and artifacts, using delicately colored silk paintings and small terra cotta pieces to draw visitors along the Silk Road from Xian all the way to Nalanda, one of the world's first great universities, located in what is now India's Bihar state. "The exhibition highlights the interactions that were taking place between the regions of India, China and Southeast Asia as early as the fifth century," says Kenson Kwok, director of the ACM. "Not only did bilateral ties exist, but relations between these regions were more than just cordial."

Through photographs of archeological sites, terra-cotta tile patterns and university seals in clay, the exhibit paints a vivid picture of Nalanda, which flourished as a center of learning beginning in the fifth century. The site, reportedly visited three times by Shakyamuni Buddha, whom followers recognize as the original human Buddha, drew students from all over the world; at its peak in the seventh century, the campus had dormitories for more than 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers from Turkey, Persia, Indonesia, China and Japan. Every field of learning, from alchemy to anatomy, was covered, but the university was mainly devoted to Buddhist studies.

Seals, tiles and bronzes on display show the frenzied creativity of the surrounding monasteries' guilds. While early representations of Buddha consisted of symbols like a Bodhi tree, a pillar of fire, a footprint or an empty throne, anthropomorphic appearances of Buddha started to appear in the first century A.D. The tradition is vividly illustrated by bronze and stone sculptures of Buddha, bodhisattvas, goddesses and deities.

Stylistically, the Nalanda sculptures have certain defining characteristics. Garments hug the body tightly, letting the Buddha's body show through clearly, explains Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, the exhibition's curator. Some of these sculptures were taken to Southeast Asia during the period of the Shailendras (eighth century), and the "Nalanda style" was absorbed in countries like China, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. But over time, Asian artists from each region established their own unique styles, drawing on influences from their local traditions. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, for example, the topknot on the head was often expressed with a flame, while in China, Buddha's robe draped heavily from the shoulder, like a Chinese robe with long sleeves. "In countries like Japan, Korea and Cambodia, Buddha's facial features and physical proportions reveal local features," Krishnan says.

A highlight of the exhibition is a group of rare sutras and paintings from the Dunhuang grottos along the Silk Road, where the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest known dated printed book was discovered. On loan from the National Museum in New Delhi, these paintings—including an animated pen-and-ink sketch of a caravan scene dating from the 10th century—are being shown outside India for the first time. The exhibition also features bone relics from an archeological dig that have been linked directly to Buddha; an inscription on one of two caskets in which they were recovered in an undisturbed Piprahwa site in 1898 revealed it had been built to contain the relics of Buddha.

Today, Buddha's teachings of contentment and compassion remain greatly relevant in countries like Thailand and Burma, where just weeks ago monks organized pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally put down by government forces. The historical story still resonates, too, as countries of the region continue to improve relations through cultural and trade ties, if not through Buddhism itself.