History

Gems from the National Museum- New Delhi, Sir Aurel Stein Collection – Part 2


Sir Aurel Stein began his 1906 expedition to Chinese Turkmenistan, or present day Xinjiang, again from Khotan and Niya areas, situated on the southern rim of Takla Makan desert. This time however, he was able to continue his journey further, along the southern rim. After investigating areas near old Miran fort again, he marched northwards and soon reached the areas of Lou-Lan on northern rim of Lop Nor desert. After investigating this area once again, he continued east words, to reach famous landmark caves of 1000 Buddhas, near Dun-huang oasis. I shall describe the rich haul, Stein obtained here, in the next part of this serial. Moving northwards, Stein reached the town of Hami and then turned eastwards along the foot hills of the Tian Shan mountains, towards Turfan-Chong-hissar (Present day Turpan). In this area, Sir Aurel Stein was able to investigate sevaral promising sites and could get a rich haul of artifacts.

Buddha in Dhyanmudra

From his camp at Chong-hassar, Stein was able to examine and with the help of additional labour, managed to clear thoroughly, an interesting group of small shrines, known as Kichik-hassar, or the ‘ Little Castle ‘. It was situated a little over two miles to the north-east from Chong-hassar. The ground, over which the shrines were found, had very very scanty vegetation and the effect of wind-erosion was distinctly more marked. The trenches cut by the wind erosion into the loose soil all ran from west to east and were 5 to 8 feet deep. While on approach to the ruins, Stein encountered drift-sand heaps to a height of 8–to 10 feet. It was due to the protection afforded by the dunes, that the ruined shrines had preserved their essential features.

Stein discovered this wooden Buddha statuette in a small enclosure, which appeared to have once existed around the ruined Stupa. The enclosure had lost its walls almost completely through erosion. But the sand had helped to retain layers of debris embedded inside the sand near the Stupa base and Stein found the wooden statuette in this debris. Dowels at its flat back and also the position in which it was found, suggested that it was once attached to the Stupa base,about 2-1/2 feet above the ground.

Stein describes this Buddha Statuette as “ Wooden statuette of Buddha, seated in meditation on three-tiered throne. Roughly carved, with front and sides only finished, and back flat for attachment to wall or other surface by dowels, some of which remain. An additional tongue-shaped piece of wood, prob. originally rising from base now lost, is pegged into corresponding hollow at lower part of back. Buddha has elongated ears, pierced, and usnisa (Halo). Folds of robe very conventionally rendered by series of semicircular grooves. The whole was originally painted, thick white slip and traces of red paint remaining in crevices, and traces of black on hair. Much cracked and surface worn. 11” x 6-1/2” x 3-7/8”.

Painted Head Stucco

During his third visit (1915) to China, Stein traveled north, almost up to the Mongolia border. Here, in the delta of river Etsin-Gol, and not very far from present Chinese city of Ejina, he investigated old ruins of Khara -Khoto fort. He found many ruined Stupas in the surrounding areas. A structure quite different in type from these Stupas and of far greater interest was pointed out to him on his arrival at the site, from where a Russian archeologist in 1908 had secured great haul of manuscripts, paintings and other antiques. It was situated close to the bank of the western river-bed and about two hundred meters to the west of the western gate of the town, and presented a scene of utter destruction. Stein comments that “ All that could be made out on first inspection was a brick-built platform about 28 feet square and 7 feet high, and on its sides heaps of debris of masonry and timber, mixed up in utter confusion with fragments big and small of stucco, originally painted and evidently once forming part of clay images. Frames of wood and reed bundles, which had served as cores for statues, lay about on the slopes and all round on the gravel flat. All these remains had obviously suffered greatly by exposure after having been thrown down. But even a slight scraping below the surface sufficed to show that, while the remains of paper manuscripts and prints had been reduced, where exposed, to the condition of mere felt-like rags, below the outer layer of debris they were still in fair condition. The careful clearing and sifting of all the ‘waste’ left behind in this sad condition by the first explorers of the ruin occupied us for fully a day and a half.”

This female Stucco head was found by Stein in this debris. He describes this antique as “ Clay stucco head, female (?) ; painted. Plump oval face ; straight, normal eyes, small nose (broken) and mouth ; delicate and rather weak chin. Eyebrows well arched ; hair in short close curls (?) over brow, long in front of cars. Tiara (broken). Hair at back in loose flat bands interlacing ; at top it is drawn high up like a plume, but coiled into tight roll, presenting volutes at the sides. Flesh pink, hair black. Type very Etruscan(An ancient Italian civilization). Stick projecting downwards from neck. 3-1/2″ x 2” x 1-3/4” ”

During his second expedition, Sir Aurel Stein investigated number of sites such as Kichik hassar and Shorchuk, which are in the vicinity of the Chinese town of Turpan. He however, did not investigate a major site during this expedition. Astana oasis is located directly south of the Turpan town. This oasis was directly on the silk route and was a very flourishing place. Stein came to know about a huge ancient grave yard nearby this village. In his third expedition, Stein excavated a large number of graves

in this cemetery, where people of the Turpan region were buried for a millennium. Although most of these tombs had been already plundered and robbed, the objects that meant the most to Stein, the silks encasing the corpses, remained intact. Unearthing of these ancient and beautiful silks, proved to be a fitting conclusion to Stein’s career. Besides these silks, Stein was able to discover wooden toys and few Stucco figures as well. Following five exhibits are enough the give an idea to the reader about immense value of these ancient objects.

Figure of a lady in wood

Stein has described in detail the grave where he found this wooden figure. He writes that “ In order to test the general character of the tombs that were seen to be scattered at intervals over the northern portion of the area without any enclosure or distinct grouping, I next turned to an isolated tomb, marked by a mound somewhat above the usual height. The tomb chamber with an area of 11 square feet was reached at a depth of 15 feet and showed a conical roof cut into two superimposed squares after the fashion seen in Gandhara and Kashmir temples and illustrated by modern examples in Chitral, Mastaj (Now parts of Pakistan). Its height was 7 feet. Here, three bodies, all badly damaged, lay in a confused heap on pieces of coarse matting. The heads were all detached and the corpses decayed. But the bones were still wrapped in thick folds of mixed rags, exactly after the manner indicated by my finds in the grave-pits of the Lou-Ian cemetery. The sepulchral (related to a Grave) deposits had also been completely disturbed by plunderers. Among them were found three coarsely worked wooden figures, one representing a woman and the two others men. ”

What is of special interest here are the remarks about the construction of the conical roof of the grave, which was very similar Gandhara and Kashmir temples. About the wooden figure itself, Stein says “ Wooden figure of woman ; roughly carved with slightly curved, flat arms, ‘leg of mutton’ shape, attached by wooden pins at shoulders and movable. Neck and back of head round, face flat with slightly projecting nose. Hair in high knob above, painted black and sloping backwards. Eyebrows and eyes black and not oblique, mouth a dab of red. Bust rectangular, skirt long in form of octagonal pyramid truncated at top. Painted white on all exposed surfaces, over which other colours. Sides of pyramid alternately red and green, the front being red and continued up in divided line to form edge to V-neck. Bust green ; red band round hips. No feet. Arms in transverse green and red stripes.Painting very rough and fragmentary. 9-3/4” x 2-1/2” x 3″. ”

Sasanian type figured silk from head cover

Stein describes the tomb, where he found this piece of cloth as “ The tomb contained the remains of two bodies, one of which was still fairly preserved and recognizable as that of a woman. Both were wrapped in shrouds of plain white fabrics in cotton and silk . Underneath this, the woman’s head had a cover made up of a piece of polychrome figured silk, with a frilled border of plain white silk. The figured silk portion is very interesting by reason both of its design of ‘ Sasanian ‘ type and of its weave, and fortunately very well preserved but for a missing part of the lower half. It shows two oval medallions one above the other, each holding two different pairs of confronting animals, and in the spandrels (Space between arches), other pairs of confronting animals. In the mouth of the woman’s body, was found a silver coin, too much decayed for exact identification, but from its size and design, recognizable with certainty as a Sasanian piece. In conjunction with the inscriptional record from the adjoining tomb, this coin contributes to prove that this group of tombs is approximately contemporaneous with the group.. In the hands of both corpses, were Vajra-shaped pieces of wood. Two small rags of creamy silk suspended from pegs in the corners were all that remained of the hanging which was probably placed on the back wall of the tomb. ”

Stein has given detailed description of the piece of the cloth as Fragment. of figured silk,’ Sasanian ‘ (Persian) type, from head-cover. Portions of two medallions one above the other. Field and border rich green, interrupted by blue band of weft passing across junctions. In upper medallion (Like a medal ), two confronted eagles or cockatrices in red, with upraised wings and tails, the latter with six green spots outlined white and yellow. Heads thrown well back, and foliate crest balanced on beak and curved backwards. Angular treatment. As base are two reversed foliate (thin leaf like) scrolls. Border of closely set fleurs-de-lis (Like a lily flower ), outside which small pearls in white and yellow. A thin line surrounds subject just within fleur-de-lis border. Above cockatrices two small confronting animals (lions ?) with trophy on foliate base between them. Extreme upper part missing. Lower medallion confronting seated winged lions with foliate upraised tails , white and yellow, outlined red. Base, reversed foliate scrolls. Above, object not distinguishable, but a flaming jewel to right. Upper spandrel on red ground confronting running deer regardant (looking backwards) , blue with red spots and white antlers(Horns of deer) and outlines. Above and below a four-petalled yellow and white rosette with red centre and green outlines. Lower spandrel two confronting marching animals, perhaps sheep, without spots. Colouring as in upper spandrel but green heads, and rosettes as above. Horizontally the repeating medallions almost touch. Vertically a small square, yellow with red centre and blue outline, bridges the interval between. Drawing, design, and weaving very good. Colours very rich and splendidly preserved. Side half of lower portion missing and rough edges at this part discoloured and perished. As usual with this type of fabric, the colours are in successive bands, excepting the red, which runs all through. Consequently where outlines are not red they may suddenly change from white to yellow as they occur within the limits of one or the other colour band ; or, as in the case of some of the fleurs-de-lis, blue suddenly replaces green. The blue deer has one hoof green because it falls within the green band and beyond the limit of the blue. The weave is closer than usual and plain, with faint rib, suggesting transition between older warp-rib and twill. Probably Chinese work. 7-1/2” x 3-1/4”. ”

Ladies in garden, Silk Painting

I found that this was one of the best exhibits in he New-Delhi Museum from the Aurel Stein collections. Even though the painting was found in fragments, the quality of the painting is absolutely striking. Stein found this silk painting in a tomb which is described by him as “ Its plan was unusually elaborate, a small outer room giving access first to another of cruciform shape and thence to the tomb chamber, which was provided with a kind of alcove raised 2 feet above the general floor level. The contents of the tomb had fared badly at the hands of those who had first opened and plundered it, but nevertheless proved of distinct interest. The headless body of its occupant was found in the approach trench close to the entrance where the coffin had evidently been dragged to be searched in daylight. The head was subsequently discovered within the tomb. The body was wound in a miscellaneous assortment of rags.”

He adds further about the painting as “ The object claiming most interest among the relics of this tomb is certainly the fine painting on silk, unfortunately surviving only in the form of numerous fragments. They are all extremely brittle, and only the exercise of great care made it possible to recover them safely, while clearing the sand from the floor of the principal chamber of the tomb. What position the painting had originally occupied it was impossible to determine. But the arrangement observed in the large piece, made it clear at the outset that the fragments belonged to a horizontal scroll.”

Stein describes the painting as Silk painting. Shows part of three compartments each about 21 inches in height and about 8-1/2 inches in width, divided from each other by strips of reversible figured silk. Left shows a small yellow table on which are traces of gilded objects, and beside it a portion of drapery, yellow, striped red. Central compartment shows right side of dancing figure in orange long-sleeved robe, right arm upraised ; crimson boots, now perished. right compartment, head and shoulders of female figure in dark crimson robe spotted white, white kerchief, and blue braces. In hair, which is dressed turban fashion, a large gold double-barred ornament at right side. Head 3/4” to left; Face. delicate pink, deeper on cheeks, small red lips, red crescent mark with stem at outer angle of right eye. Red A few thin hairs over ear. Left hand, raised to shoulder level, holds black object (toupee) with circular rosette (jewel) of gold red and pearls. A kind of palm-tree stem rises at back. To right place stands an attendant (page ?) in soft pink robe, spotted pink, to ankles, and black girdle from which depend six ribbons studded with pearls. Sleeve long and pendent, hands missing. Hair black, parted in centre and tied in large close bunches over ears. Face long Red stripe at right eye and spot on forehead. Shoes (small part only remaining) orange vermilion. All outlines black. To left, two small patches of orange vermilion drapery, spotted white. 23” x 15-1/4”. ” I found the ‘Bindi” like red spots on foreheads of both women in the painting, really surprising. The lady on right has a red spot, which looks like face of a bull, complete with horns. The other lady wears a diamond shaped red spot.

Fu -Hsi and Nu-Wa Silk Painting

Fu Xi or Fu Hsi was the first of the Three Sovereigns of ancient China. He is a culture hero reputed to be the inventor of writing, fishing, and trapping. According to the legend, the land was swept by a great flood and only Fu Xi and his sister Nü wa survived. They retired to Kunlun Mountain where they prayed for a sign from the Emperor of Heaven. The divine being approved their union and the siblings set about procreating the human race. It was said that in order to speed up the procreation of humans, Fu Xi and Nüwa found an additional way by using clay to create human figures, and with the power divine being entrusted to them, they made the clay figures to come alive. Fu Xi then came to rule over his descendants, although reports of his long reign vary between sources from 115 years (2852–2737 BCE).

Stein found this silk hanging with figures of Fu-Hsi and Nu-Wa in a coffin in one of the Astana tomb. While this coffin was being opened, the silk hanging fell down from the rough wooden pegs, by which it was fastened to the back wall, merely through the movement of the air caused by that operations. It fortunately fell on the cover of the coffin and hence suffered damage only in the bottom portion. The two figures of Fu-hsi and his consort shown in embrace and with entwined serpentine bodies here are shown with mason’s emblems in the hands and the constellations marked around them. Stein also notes that the width of the silk hanging is 17-1/2” which is quite different from standard textile sizes of han and Chin chinese. This may indicate non-Chinese manufacture.

Stein describes the silk hanging in details as

This silk hanging was still in its place on the back wall of the chamber, showing on ivory-coloured silk the coarsely painted figures of the legendary sovereign, Fu-hsi and his consort with their lower serpentine bodies entwined. Silk is now dark ivory colour, perhaps originally white. Subject, the legendary Emperor Fu-hsi with his consort, Nu-Wa, facing each other.The bodies rise from a continuous flounce-like short white skirt, and lean away from each other. Their two inner arms stretched stiffly and horizontally towards each other and fused into the appearance of one arm joining both bodies ; but the hand of each appearing under opposite armpit of other shows that they are embracing. Both wear close-fitting dull red tunics fastened down centre, with wide-mouthed elbow sleeves. Fu-hsi holds in his uplifted left. hand a mason’s square and two other objects not recognizable, but perhaps plummet and lines. Nu-wa holds in her right. uplifted hand a pair of compasses. Lower edge of their combined skirt is a perfectly straight horizontal line. From below of which issue two intertwined serpentine bodies, which coil round each other three times, and then open out into two simple tapering tails. Serpentine body is composed of parallel, longitudinal bands of white, black, red, and yellow, each band ornamented with dots or pearls of a contrasting colour, black, white, or red. Sometimes an undulating black line is used instead of pearls. Between heads is the sun disc, white with red spokes and outlined with red. Outside and surrounding it is a ring of small white discs, outlined red and linked by a single red line ; probably representing a constellation. In triangle formed by bodies and their fused arms, in the space between their tails, and down the two sides of the cloth are other constellations. The Great Bear is to the right. Flesh white with red shading, and red spots on cheeks and ear-like white strips beside face. Hair of Fu-hsi dressed high and smooth. On front, sloping downward and forward towards forehead, is a square white cloth (?), cross-hatched with black. Upper part of face and most of hair of consort missing ; but the top which remains suggests a three-lobed coiffure. Outlines all black, and most of the red has turned black, e. g. the spots on cheeks. Silk of fine close texture, but perished and ragged ; in three widths sewn together ; Bottom perished and missing. Painting width at top 43″, at lower end 33″.”

Clay Horses with riders

Stein found in one of the Astana graves, an anteroom, next to the tomb. He writes, “In the niche on the opposite side and in front of the tomb, there lay in confusion an assortment of figures of clay horses of smaller size, with figures of riders either still adhering to them or alongside. Careful representation of the saddlery of the horses is of special interest. It includes narrow high-peaked saddles placed on tiger-skin saddle-cloths and white Numdahs (embroidered special rug made in Kashmir and Xinjiang), with straps flowing from the back of the saddles, just as they appear in sculptures and paintings of T’ang times. Among other items of horse-millinery, notice may be taken of the elaborate decoration of the trappings with large tassels.’ The figures of the riders are with one exception, those of men, dressed either in scale-armour and pointed helmet of mail or in tight-fitting coats with high-lobed caps, and of the quasi-archaic dress of certain figures represented in scenes from Buddha’s life, The faces, though perfunctorily modelled and painted, are of unmistakably Chinese type,”


Stein describes this Clay figure of man rider as, “ Head and body moulded on pointed stick core, which passed below into hole in back of horse, fixing rider upright in saddle. Legs moulded without core in convex curve, flat on inside, to grip sides of horse, but now broken from body. Arms (so far as preserved) straight by side, but broken off above elbow.Dressed in tight-fitting vermilion coat reaching to knee and black top-boots edged with white. Skirts of coat sprinkled with spot rosettes in brown. Hair short, black. Cap close fitting, red at lower part in front, passing into narrow red band at back above lower edge of cap, which is of the high-lobed crown type, with red bow in front. Lobe is cleft in front. Face painted pink, with black for eyes, eyebrows, moustache, and small beard ; crimson on lips. Features rather perfunctory. Head broken from body, and general condition somewhat worn. Height 10-1/4”.

Clay horse, painted white and in good condition. Left foreleg extant but broken off. Head turned to Left. Tiger-skin Numdah(embroidered special rug made in Kashmir and Xinjiang) , and green saddle with five hanging straps indicated on near side and four on off side. Black headstall and trappings with orange tassels ; orange and black mane ; black hooves. Mark of clay tail, broken off. Height 10”.”


Stein’s detailed description follows as “Clay Figure of man rider, arms lost from above elbow and legs broken from body. Coat pale yellow ; boots or shoes black ; leggings from ankle to knee white with dot and circle decoration in black. Black stirrup-leather passing down front of legs, and pale yellow stirrup. Vermilion bow and band round cap ; but vermilion band down to lower edge of cap at back. Fair condition. Height 10-1/2”.

Clay horse painted blue ; Near hind leg and tips of ears missing ; otherwise in good condition. T’ang type, broad chested with slim legs, full body, large rounded hind quarters, thick arched rather short neck, and small head. Latter turned slightly to right. Fetlocks painted white, and hooves pale blue ; triangular white patch on forehead ; hogged mane and forelock painted black ; tail missing. Tiger-skin saddle-cloth in vermilion and black over white Numdah (embroidered special rug made in Kashmir and Xinjiang) ; black saddle with high pointed front and somewhat lower rounded back. Saddle unpainted where covered by person of rider, and with hole in middle for insertion of stick core. On both sides of saddle-cloth and issuing from back of saddle five black lines representing flowing straps. Headstall and single rein (which is attached to throat-lash) painted in black. No girth shown, but narrow black breast-band and crupper painted in black and decorated with groups of three white spots from which hang vermilion tassels. Four sticks, forming core of legs, project 1″ below hooves for fixing horse in ground. Height to crown of head 10-1/4”.”

(to be continued)

13 April 2011

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About chandrashekhara

I am a retired electronics engineer. I am interested in writing, reading books. Other hobbies include Paper models, wooden fret work and social networking.

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