Aloof from the hustle and bustle of the office going crowds, an impressive building stands on Janpath (People’s way) in New Delhi. Frequented mostly by the foreign tourists and school children on day excursions arranged by their schools, this impressive building, exhibits some of the rarest archeological gems from ancient India and China. Out of the large collection of antiques in possession of the National Museum, three categories of antiques are the most impressive. The stone carvings of the ancient India, Indus valley civilization relics and lastly the Sir Aurel Stein collection from Taklamakan and other desert areas of China, are perhaps some of the the most unique and exquisite remnants from a long gone by and ancient era. These aptly demonstrate the richness of culture and history of the Indian sub continent and also it’s effect on the famous silk route from China to India and to the west.
In this serial, I would be trying to recapture some of the history and the glamour from this ancient past. Luckily for me, National Museum allows to take photographs of the exhibits. I was thus able to take snaps of the exhibits that impressed me most. We begin our tour with the ‘Aurel Stein collections’ from Chinese Turkmenistan or today’s Xinjiang..
Sir Aurel Stein, the foremost, amongst the archaeological explorers of the early 20th century, led three major expeditions to Chinese Turkmenistan (Presently known as Xinjiang) and western chinese areas around the great deserts of ‘Takala Makan’, ‘Lop-Nor’ and ‘Gobi’, during 1900-01, 1906-08 and 1913-16 . His expeditions were financed and supported by Government of India.
Sir Aurel Stein was born in Budapest, Hungary and was the youngest son of his parents. His brother, who was much elder to him, and his maternal uncle, groomed him and influenced his education so as to prepare him for a scholarly career in a university. He however, opted for a job in British India. Right from his childhood, he had a fascination for Central Asia and wanted to travel in the footsteps of ‘Alexander the Great’. His job in India introduced him to ancient Indian culture and he became interested in ‘Gandhar’ influence on early Buddhist culture. He felt that this ancient culture must have influenced the ancient silk route towns in China. During his expeditions,which were organized almost single handedly by him, he discovered large number of objects, artifacts, silk banners- books, Stuccos and Frescos from a wide area on the rim of these great deserts. His name became almost legendary in his times.In all Stein marched some 25000 miles across Central Asia, often in appalling conditions. He was festooned with international Honours, but to the Chinese, he was an imperialist villain who systematically robbed them of their history.
The places in China, from where Aurel Stein collected the antiques, is shown with yellow markers in this Google Earth image.
In all the three expeditions, one place which Sir Aurel Stein made a point to visit, was Khotan, a desert oasis, located on south west side of the great Taklamakan desert. In each of these visits, he found a wealth of terracotta and wooden figurines and objects. A small village called ‘Yotkan’ lies few Kilometers north-west of Khotan. Stein discovered many antiques here in a pit, which as Stein found out, was an abandoned gold mine famous for gold dust. At the New Delhi Museum, I found at least five beautiful exhibits from Khotan and Yotkan (a small village few KM away from Khotan.) area.
A Pilgrim’s water bottle.
Stein describes this as “Terra-cotta bottle, shaped like pilgrim bottle, with short expanding neck and mouth, small handles tucked under spreading lip, flat base. Each side decorated with fully open lotus occupying whole surface ; two rows of petals with grotesque human head in centre. Bands of herring-bone pattern divide two sides. Surface coated with rich red glossy slip resembling quality of Samian ware. The grotesque is applied and has no slip over it. Very good work. 6” x 4- 3/4” x 3-3/8”. This bottle was procured by Stein from Yotkan gold mine area.
A Man with wine container
Stein describes this terracotta fragment as “.showing a Bacchic(intentionally shocking) figure applique, of unmistakable Gandhara type, with wine-skin and rhyton (Vessel for drinking or pouring a drink) ; the handles with fine palmette(spread like a palm leaf) ornaments, Fresco of neck of terracotta vessel, with Bacchic figure appliqué. Pose of figure suggests atlas-like supporters found in Gandhara friezes (A decorative horizontal band). Seated on ground the figure has left foot planted with lower leg vertical ; right leg missing but probably bent and resting flat ; side of knee and ankle touching ground. Body inclined to right. Head , turned slightly upward towards long pendent object held up at arms length in left hand. Right hand at right side, grasps mouth of wine-skin. Upraised object probable a form of rhyton. Head of child. Bracelets, and a mark at neck, perhaps necklet, or edge of tunic. Head slightly weathered. 3-5/8″ X 2-1/8”. This item also obtained from Yotkan.
Next three exhibits are from collection of antiques by Mr. C. Hardinge, late British Vice-Consul at Kashgar in Xinjiang, acquired from one Badruddin Khan and generously presented by him to the museum in 1923.
Monkey carrying a bowl
Stein describes this as “Terracotta ornament, from pottery vessel. Grotesque monkey, modeled in the round, squatting on part of wall of vessel and supporting a small bowl on his head. The two arms upraised steadying the bowl. Treatment very stylized. Broad grinning sharp-cut mouth showing upper row of teeth ; eyes, just two punched rings with straight gash at inner and outer angle; nose flat. Fur on body expressed by widely spaced dashes. Figure would appear to have been placed on upper curve of vessel near mouth. Broken and mended, but part of small bowl missing. 6” X 4-1/8” ”
Buddha and Avalokitesvara
Stein describes this beautiful carving as “Fresco of carved wooden panel. Buddha in Dharmachakra mudra, legs in padmasana, on lotus. This rests on high rectangular pedestal (or altar), covered by a cloth which has fringed edges outside plain narrow border and a field filled with lozenge diaper. Figure wears jewelled ornaments: on breast, a massive necklet; on arms, bands with daisy like flower and bracelets; otherwise only a loin cloth. High Usnisa(Halo like representation of a goddess) with wavy hair. Body halo treated with parallel very heavy wavy lines. To left a figure to smaller scale stands on lotus with reversed petals in three imbricated rows; has narrow waist, drapery from hips to ankles. Upper part nude except for stole and necklet. On head a low flat coronet. Projections at shoulders, like tops of wings, may he parts of stole. Curious nimbus, plain centre surrounded by rays which are excessively short above head and increase in length as they approach lower border. Figure has right fore hand raised in Abhaya-mudra. Left palm of hand down holding Aorta jug. Above this figure, hangs end of drapery from canopy (broken away). Above canopy an ornamental border of which small piece only remains. All above Buddha head and to right, broken away. Below, a band of five-petalled rosettes, dividing upper subject from lower. Lower portion all broken away, excepting canopy of overhanging formal leafy fronds, each terminating at their lower extremity in a six-petalled rosette. Musical instruments float in the air, of which a Veena, two drums, a flute and another instrument are distinguishable. Below and on a more recessed plane is upper margin of flame-bordered halo with field of radiations. Style recalls Gandhara relievos(relief carvings) . Split into two pieces now joined 13” x 4-3/4” x 7/8” ”
Head of a figure
Described by Stein as “ Stucco relief fresco, burnt. Fresco of Gandhara figure. Legs and forearms broken away. Traces of pink paint. 4-1/2” x 3-1/2″.
Documents on wooden tablets in Kharoshti script
During his first expedition in 1900, Stein came across the first of the two most important archeological finds made by him. He was investigating along bed of Niya river on the south west corner of Taklamakan desert. Here, he came across a ruin of a township, which had flourished during Silk route centuries. In this town, which was named by Stein as Niya ruins, he found in a rubbish heap, more than 200 numbers of inscribed wooden tablets of various shapes and sizes(mainly flat or wedge shape). Some of the tablets were single and some were found as pairs, tied to each other by rope. Most of the wooden tablets were inscribed with writing in an ancient Indian script known as Kharoshti script. The language used was early Prakrit. Most of the wooden documents are dated from early second or third century and contain official correspondence and records of various kinds, such as reports and orders to local officials on matters of administration and police, complaints, summonses, directions for the supply of transport, &c., to persons travelling on public business. Stein visited the Niya ruins subsequently in his second as well as third expeditions and came across even more number of such inscribed wooden tablets. Chinese traveler Xuanzang had claimed in his travelogues, that this region was conquered by Indians around 200 BCE and was ruled by them. Stein was able to find direct evidence at Niya, in form of wooden tablets, to support Xuanzang’s claims.
Buddha and Six Monks
Wall painting in Tempera (Tempera is traditionally created by hand-grinding dry powdered pigments into a binding agent or medium, such as egg, glue, honey, water, milk (in the form of casein) and a variety of plant gums.)
During his second expedition in 1907, moving along the southern rim of Takla Makan desert, Stein started excavations in an old Tibetan fort at Miran. About a mile west-north west of the ruined fort, Stein found a cluster of five ruined mounds. Curious appearance of one of the mounds with a well preserved dome, had Stein’s attention. This ruin turned out to be a Stupa with coloured Fresco panels all around, now in damaged condition. This particular fresco panel was found by Stein, lying on the ground and saved miraculously from destruction. Stein describes this Fresco panel in great detail as “ Fresco panel (incomplete) fallen in front of another Fresco panel. On left, is upper half of a Buddha, right hand raised as in abhaya-mudra, but with thumb bent inwards touching second joint of third finger (eighth on hand). Dr. Venis suggests that this may symbolize Buddha expounding ‘the eight-fold way’ or the eight Päramitas. Left hand low, probably gathering up drapery. Behind him are six disciples, in two rows of three. one above the other ; the nearest to him in upper row holding a yak-tail fan in raised right hand ; to right again of disciples, appears naked right arm, which grasps handful of white bud, or flowers, apparently in act of throwing. As background to arm appears part of dark conical (?) mass of black, covered with red and white flowers and poppy-like leaves in greenish grey ; and on extreme left is similar mass of black on which are scattered well-drawn leaves in greyish blue ; both are intended to represent trees. Background elsewhere vermilion, turning to pale buff between Buddha and disciples (paint probably lost); along top runs a black band.
Buddha wears dark purple-brown robe, covering both shoulders ; outlined black and lined with buff, which shows at turnover on left shoulder. Head of Western, slightly Semitic type, with high straight forehead and somewhat domed top; large well-opened straight-set eyes, partially covered by eyelids ; nose aquiline; short upper lip ; small curved mouth ; softly rounded cheeks and chin ; ears are elongated and pierced, and there is small moustache and rippling lock before ear ; eyebrows nearly meet over nose ; left strongly arched ; hair in curves along forehead, receding at temples; usnisa (Halo like representation of a goddes) partly lost ; all hair black.
Flesh pale buff, flat on face, but with grey shading on arm ; contour lines rapidly drawn with broad brush in light red, and emphasized with lines of reddish-brown wherever a true outline is in question or strong outline of feature is required ; elsewhere (along sides of nose, line of jaw against neck and of forehead under hair, round ball of chin and for wrinkles in neck) the light red only is used, giving effect of rough shading but producing required effect at a slight distance. Eyes look slightly downwards under eyelid, and are painted like those of angels’ with white on eyeballs, brown on irises, and black for pupils and iris outline; behind head is circular halo of light buff bordered with red.
The disciples are of a strongly Western type, with decidedly hooked noses and fuller and more prominent eyes. Their heads are of a shorter and rounder type, and the method of painting is different from that of the Buddha. The colouring, however, is much stronger and cruder than that of the latter. All heads are shaven and are seen three fourth way to left; fig. on left in top row carries white cauri (A fan made from horse’s hairs) in right hand uplifted behind Buddha, and wears bright green robe lined with white, leaving right shoulder bare ; next wears bright red robe lined with white, covering both shoulders ; figure on left in lower row, light buff robe with folds indicated in red (right shoulder broken off); and figure at other end of row dark red robe covering both shoulders ; a hand of the latter appears at edge of fresco from inside of breast of robe, fingers clasping edge ; this figure also has two transverse wrinkles in forehead and heavy double-curved eyebrows meeting over nose ; ears are all pierced. The monotony of the heads is diversified by the difference of their gaze, some looking to their right, others straight before them, another more directly towards spectator and up under eyelids.
The flesh itself is painted in clear salmon or flesh pink, shaded with warm grey, and with high pink blush upon each cheek ; all outlines are red-brown, and the shaven portions of the flesh are also represented in grey ; the lips are vermilion. The white impasto of the eyes is particularly thick, catching real high lights.
The painting is of the same firm bold style as that of the dado, evidencing well-developed methods of producing a finished effect with economy of work. Colouring very fresh and surface well preserved. Painting size 3′ 3-1/2” x 1′ 10-1/2”. ”
Stucco relief human Head
During his third expedition in 1915, Stein visited ‘Miran’ once again. Near an old watch tower he discovered several mounds, not far from the eastern edge of the riverine belt of vegetation. The mounds looked like shapeless mounds of sun-dried bricks mixed with hard lumps of clay. In one of the mounds this life size head On that side, too, was found this stucco relief life-size head. Stein noted with interest the unusual treatment of the eyes and the peculiar arrangement of the hair in heavy tresses festooned over the forehead. He describes this specimen as “Stucco relief head, almost in the round ; probably Bodhisattva life-size. Finely modelled. Vigorous treatment of eyes, the inner angles of which incline inwards and downwards ; eyebrows well separated. Nostrils very narrow. Mouth small, sharply modelled, and with corners rather dropped. Face round at lower part, and under chin very full. Hair in heavy tresses, curtained over forehead, and with three tresses looping down each side ; ears covered. No orns. Part of neck preserved, but broken away. Broken and very brittle. Chin to crown 8-1/2”.”
Miscellaneous Household objects
Even though, not as vastly spread as Takla Makan desert , Lop Nor desert lies to east of it. This desert became famous later, when Chinese carried out their atomic explosions in this desert. Not far from the sites of these atomic explosions, Stein explored many ancient graves at Lou-Lan in 1907. Stein re-visited this site in 1915 and was guided to an ancient township similar to Niya, now completely engulfed by the over expanding desert. In this township Stein discovered many household items of daily use made from wood . Stein describes these items as “ Wooden comb with arched back and thick widely spaced teeth. Prob. Curry-comb. 3-1/4” x 3-1/4” x ½”; Horn spoon, with long curving handle, thickened towards upper end. Much eaten and twisted. Length of handle 5″, of bowl 2-1/4”; Wooden key with three pegs unevenly spaced. Hole through pointed handle. Good condition. 6-1/2″x 7/8” x 1-1/4” (including length of pegs).”
The figurine of a woman was excavated from a grave of a woman and Stein describes the figurine as “ Stone figurine of woman, found near head of female body. Made without limbs, but well carved and showing more detail. Long narrow head and face, with strong prominent nose, long pointed chin, straight eyes (hollows only), and straight groove for mouth. Narrow round cap, flat-topped, on top of head. Hair taken smoothly back, and done low behind in flat knot. No neck ; small pendent breasts, with narrow bands (shown by pairs of incised lines) crossing between them and at back. Double incised line also round waist. Excellent condition. H. 4-1/2″. ”
Fragment of figured silk, Sasanian style
While excavating Lou-Lan graves, Stein observed that fragments of original fabric that was used to wrap the bodies before burial was still intact in several graves. The fragments of silk fabrics were found to be printed with highly decorative designs. Stein notes here that the designs are similar to Sasanian’ (Persian) textile styles. This style usually has pairs of confronting animals separated by an emblem of ‘ the tree of life ‘. Stein describes this specimen as “Fragment of figured silk, with pattern of Chinese cloud scroll, suggestive of ‘ tree-coral ‘ formation, meandering across fabric. In the bends are alternately a flying duck with neck stretched down and head reverted, and a winged lion with massive open jaws and big teeth, striding to left, in yellow and green outlined red. Tree in yellow, red and green, outlined red and pale yellow. Chinese characters are dotted about, repeating in the length, and changing in the width. Ground dark blue. One edge has selvedge of yellow and bronze ; the other edges are tom or cut. Warp-rib weave ; colours brilliant and well preserved. 13″ x 6″. ”
The exhibits at the National Museum are absolutely fascinating. However I was equally impressed with the precision thoroughness and meticulous discipline with which Stein has recorded details of his finds.
1 April 2011