Hong Kong forum explores how the ancient Silk Road tied nations together through art

By Luo Yunzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/29 19:08:40

B.R. Mani gives a speech at The First Silk Road and the Art of the Tibetan Plateau Forum in Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Ma Haojie

As one of the most critical and active areas along the ancient Silk Road, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region has a rich and varied cultural and artistic heritage that has been the subject of growing global academic research. Recently, with the implementation of China's Belt and Road initiative, research concerning Tibetan art and its connection to the Silk Road has been on the rise.

The First Silk Road and the Art of the Tibetan Plateau Forum - Pala Art and its Influence in China was held at the Asia Society in Hong Kong on Saturday and Sunday, bringing scholars from all over the world to meet and share their ideas and findings.

Focusing on the Buddhist relics, artistic styles and archaeological discoveries made in the core area of the Silk Road, (today's Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and Nepal), the forum explored how the Silk Road, as an economic and cultural transmitter, affected the many Himalayan areas it ran through in terms of multicultural and religious dissemination, migration of ethnic groups and commerce.

Pala art

"Flourishing from the mid-eighth century, the major Buddhist art style known as Pala art originated from the Pala Empire (750-1150), a kingdom located in what is now Bengal and Bihar and which lasted until the rise of Islamic power in the 13th century," Huo Wei, a professor at Sichuan University's Chinese Institute of Tibetan Studies, explained at the forum.

According to Huo, the influence of Pala art extended to the neighboring Nepal and Tibetan regions during the empire's height as trade between the western regions of China and Central Asia also promoted the exchange of fine art. Based on evidence from recent archaeological excavations, Pala art entered the Tibetan Plateau through several routes.

"The earliest art exchange began during the Yarlung Dynasty (7-9th century), a time when Buddhist artworks showing Pala stylistic elements appeared in both central and eastern Tibet. This can be regarded as the first peak of development for Pala art in Tibet, with its influence most likely penetrating into neighboring Nepal and Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province," Huo explained.

The next peak period for Pala art in Tibet lasted from the 11th to the 13th century. During this time, the art style in the region began showing some distinct Tibetan characteristics. As the art style continued to evolve in western Tibet, it also continued to have influence in Dunhuang, the home of the well-known Mogao Grottoes. Among the 735 caves in the Mogao Grottoes, most are filled with Buddhist art, but there are also several examples of early Tangut Buddhist art.

A melding of many different art styles from various regions, Tangut art includes elements of Han, Uyghur, Tibetan, Indian and Pala art. Absorbing these different styles, Tangut art formed its own unique style that came to be a highlight of Esoteric Buddhist art.

Tangut, also known as the Western Xia Empire, existed from 1038 to 1227 in what is now large swathes of Northwest and North China.

India and Tibet connection

"Art in India and China was separated at first, but then by a certain time, they began interacting," Doctor B.R. Mani, the director general of the National Museum of New Delhi, told the Global Times when talking about the connection between the art of the two nations.

"Buddhism has played an important role in art and religion in Southeast Asia and East Asia."

The first scholar to give a lecture at the conference, Mani talked about Nalanda, a famous Buddhist monastery in India and a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar). Located around 95 kilometers southeast of the Bihar capital of Patna, the site is near the town of Bihar Sharif. Making its way onto UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2016, Nalanda is considered to be the earliest organized center of learning on the Indian Subcontinent.

The relation between Nalanda and China can be dated back to the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), when the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang traveled from China to India to study Buddhism. During his 17 years in India, Xuanzang spent five years studying at Nalanda, during which time, the monastery attracted many scholars from all over Asia.

After his time in India, Xuanzang brought back the results of his studies back to China. He is considered to be one of the most important figures when it comes to the development of Buddhism in China.

Newspaper headline: Artistic connections

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