In the 21st century, we often see antiquity as a period of time when great artworks were produced despite limitations in technology. From Greek statues in fine marble and the colossal architecture of ancient Egypt, to classical masterpieces displayed in the Vatican and ornately-decorated manuscripts from the Arab world, these works of art were usually commissioned under the pretext of advancing a religion. As the world’s largest continent, Asia has witnessed the birth, rise and fall of a number of religions, and naturally this means that across its vast swathes of land incredible pieces of art have been produced for millennia. Some of these are already known to us, but many of them are still buried in layers of history.
Of all corners of Asia, the Indian subcontinent has produced two of the most influential faiths in the region: Buddhism and Hinduism – both of which have reached distant corners of the continent – as well as other religions including Jainism and Sikhism. From what is now northern India and Nepal, Buddhism spread to places as far as Japan to the east and Kalmykia (now part of Russia on the northwestern side of the Caspian Sea) to the west. Meanwhile, Hinduism took root in Southeast Asia and remained dominant there for centuries.
Whether they were working on the great Khmer temples mostly found in what is now Cambodia, to Cham sanctuaries in modern-day Vietnam and the colossal temples of Java made from andesite (a type of volcanic rock), local artisans interpreted the Hindu gods of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Durga and many others in their own artistic styles. The same also goes with Buddhist sites in Thailand, Myanmar, China and Japan where depictions of the Buddha changed as the religion traveled further.
As an ancient temple enthusiast myself, I’m lucky to have visited some of Asia’s most impressive Hindu and Buddhist sites which were constructed hundreds of years ago – some even date back more than a millennium. However, recently I learned that for those who share the same passion for centuries-old temples and artworks but have little or no time to go to those places, the second-floor galleries of Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) provide a glimpse of the incredible creations of Asia’s great sculptors and painters in the past, who produced what are probably some of the world’s finest and most beautiful works of art.
Sitting inside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery, I was mesmerized by the beauty before my eyes. What captivated me was the imposing stature of a Khmer-style Vishnu, the wonderfully-ornate depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva as the cosmic dancer) from southern India, the elegant disposition of Prajnaparamita from Nepal, and a curious object procured from Nepal or Tibet which shows Vajradhara holding Prajna on his lap in a position many people today would deem too explicit – in fact a very common depiction in Tantric Buddhism as a symbol of the attainment of knowledge. After taking too many photos inside the gallery, I sat down and marveled at these artworks, each and every one of them a brilliant masterpiece. I was in my little piece of heaven.
Just as I thought I had seen the museum’s most impressive collection, under the theme of Ancient Religions, I walked toward the next room which was smaller than the previous gallery. It might have been smaller in size, but once I stepped inside I was immediately awestruck by its centerpiece: a seemingly floating giant head beautifully lit to highlight the figure’s peaceful facial expression. Upon closer inspection, I learned that this mysterious-looking sculpture in fact originated in an ancient region called Gandhara which today corresponds to parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
Gandhara became one of the major centers of Buddhism in South Asia since the third century BC when it was annexed by the mighty Maurya Empire which controlled vast swathes of land in the Indian subcontinent. As the religion thrived there for centuries, artistic expression also developed into sophisticated architecture and sculptures, creating impressive monuments including the Buddhas of Bamiyan which were mercilessly blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
What was being displayed at the ACM is only a tiny fraction of the vestiges of the Gandharan civilization that managed to survive the turbulent past this part of the world has gone through. Buddha statues with Greco-Roman facial features and Corinthian columns adorning Gandharan Buddhist stupas are some of the examples of the intermarriage of East and West that created fine works of art which we’re fortunate to see today.
Another section on the museum’s second floor introduced me to the localization of Christianity, a religion introduced by the Europeans through trade and colonization. Although it arrived in Asia only a few centuries ago, the religion spread fast and is now the predominant faith of two Asian countries, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. Its followers also form a significant minority in places like India, Myanmar and in relatively recent times, South Korea. Christian iconography made from ivory and wood, as well as those depicted on traditional clothes, dominated the museum’s Christian Art collection.
There was also an entire section on Islam, unsurprising since Muslims are the majority in countries in West Asia (the Middle East), some places in South Asia, and all the way to the Indonesian archipelago at the southeastern fringe of the continent. However, with just minutes to go before the museum’s closing time, we had to skip it for now and save those galleries for a future visit.