History

Gems from the National Museum- New Delhi, Sir Aurel Stein Collection – Part 3


During his second expedition, Aurel Stein wanted to explore the region in the north east of Tarim river basin and left the town of Turpan and proceeded in the south-west direction. His new destination was the town of Kala-shahr. Stein had a particular interest in this destination as Chinese traveler Hsueng Tsang had traveled on this route and had described the village of Kala-shahr in his travelogue. This region, because of the availability of water from tarim river, was ideal for cultivation and was always inhabited since ancient days.

On December 12, 1906 , Stein left Kala-shahr, towards a little village of Shorchuk, situated about 16 miles in the south-south westerly direction. He camped at the village and visited on the same day an extensive collection of Buddhist shrines situated about 4 miles to the north. The group of shrines was called as ‘ Ming- Oi’ or thousand houses by the local Turki speaking Muhammadans. ( Uighur people)

The site, which from the north-west is approached to within three miles or so, consists of the scattered ruins of about hundred shrines. From the north-west side of the ruins, some of the best Stucco relief figures, exquisitely crafted in true Gandhara styles, were brought back by Stein and can be seen at the New-Delhi Museum. In particular, the cella (Inner chambers) of the temples proved to be a rich mine of stucco relievo remains of greatly varying types and sizes. They turned up here almost all in a burned condition, and obviously owed their preservation to the hardening consequent on a conflagration(Uncontrolled burning). On the other hand, as a result of this process, only a few out of hundreds, retain traces of their original polychrome painting. The total absence of remains of large statues or of image bases makes it clear that the decoration of the temple must have consisted mainly of relievo (reliefs) friezes ,(a long and narrow band of sculptures) covering its walls.

 Bodhisatva stucco relief figure

Stein’s description of this stucco relief is as follows “The form and face is soft and feminine. The face is full and round, with fat creased neck, small chin ; lips small, full, and bowed ; nostrils small and sharply cut ; corners of mouth deeply dimpled ; nose forming straight line with forehead, narrow-bridged and sharp ; eyebrows long, narrow, and arched ; eyes prominent, continuing curve of forehead, but hollowed towards nose, with broad lids almost dosed, only a narrow slit of the eyeball showing. Ears are elongated, the lobes hidden by jewelled disc ear-rings with beaded borders. A linen turban encircles the top of the head tinier, and from this ring rises a fan-shaped top-knot ; the hair proper comes out from the side of this over the right ear, is twisted and carried back through the turban, and the end escapes loosely over the left ear. The head is set at an angle on the body. Body being draped. Clay plastered on to denote close-fitting tunic looped from right shoulder under left arm ; beaded bands over this with double rosette at crossing point. From right shoulder a heavy cloak came down, hiding right arm to wrist, and probably crossing body at waist. Body broken above waist, left arm at elbow, right arm at wrist; most of drapery missing. Head-dress above fillet, and rosette from right ear gone Height 9”. Figure is moulded in finely levigated soft muddy clay, reddish drab in colour when burnt; the moulding was hollow and the separate parts were held together by a core of similar clay strengthened by bundles of wood or reeds running up the centre. All have been accidentally burned.”

 Assorted Stucco human heads from Ming -Oi

This is a collection of few stucco reliefs found by Aurel Stein at Ming-Oi Shrines. His description follows.

Devata. -Stucco relief figure, feminine. Face round and soft with ear rosettes and head-dress (all above fillet missing) of usual type. Fully draped. Outer garment has pointed corset below breasts and is suspended by shoulder-straps having short sleeves attached ; below this, close round neck, is tunic with heavy border and pleated sleeves reaching to elbows. Probably there was a cloak behind the body. Height 5-1/4”

Bust of Devata -Stucco relief figure. Broken at hips, and arms at elbows. The two locks of hair at back of bald head do not here hang down, but are tied up in knot at side of head. Tiny end of right-hand lock missing, left-hand broken short. H. 6”.

Laughing woman – Stucco relief head of old woman laughing, lobe of left ear, most of rosette on right, and head-dress above fillet missing. Chin to crown 2-1/2”.

Head of bearded man – Stucco relief figure of Gandhara style , architectural. Fixed at corner of roof of building as a tassel pendants ( a dangling ornamental figure) from frieze ( a long and narrow band of sculptures) of building.

Head of a warrior – Stucco relief head of warrior. Plume and ears missing. Surface poor, colours faint. H. 6”.Face has fierce expression well rendered; highly arched black eyebrows are drawn down and in at their inner corners, making vertical furrows in forehead and a ridge across root of nose. Eyes prominent with heavily marked lids, black lashes, and round protruding black eyeballs; nose slightly aquiline with sharply cut nostrils; mouth small and curved, full, with prominent hanging lower lip; chin cleft. Face a rather long oval, On head a close-fitting helmet, of lacquered leather plates fitted with crest and cheek.pieces ; a narrow plate hangs from rim down forehead to root of nose. Rim of helmet plain ; three diminishing rows of plates, whose curved overlapping edges run right to left from front medial (middle)line, round helmet off to solid ring from which a bevelled(meeting at an angle) boss rose to form base of crest. Over the temples came cheek-pieces, which were apparently continued round back of head. They were formed of two horizontal bands each containing two rows of leather scales, bordered and divided by plain rims ; the plain border with a certain amount of scale-armour was continued under chin and united with gorges(throat). ”

The Caves of the 1000 Buddhas

The last group of artifacts covered in following paragraphs are perhaps the most important. At the caves of the 1000 Buddhas, near Dun-Huang oasis, Stein perhaps stumbled upon his greatest discovery ever. Here he bribed Abbot Wang, the leader of the monastic group in charge of the caves, and smuggled away thousands of manuscripts written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian(ancient civilization in Iran), Tibetan, Runic Turki(Ancient alphabet: called Turki for unknown reasons) and Uighur. Among these manuscripts were rich Buddhist paintings and the world’s oldest printed document, The Diamond Sutra, from 863 CE.

 Embroidered Silk hanging

Aurel Stein has described this as “Remains of embroidered silk hanging (9), of dark greenish-blue silk gauze backed with fine indigo plain silk. Very bad condition. Complete design now irrecoverable, but was an all-over pattern of birds, butterflies, and flowers on a small scale, in naturalistic Chinese style. It is worked through both gauze and silk in satin-stitch; chiefly in buffs, yellows, and terra-cotta, with green and white. Gauze of open lozenge(diamond or rhombus) weave, sewn to backing in strips of 3” wide at top and widening to 6”; but direction of gores reversed in right and left parts of hanging, so that whole preserves roughly rectangular shape. 4′-10” X 3′-4”.”

 Paradise of Amitabha

Large silk painting with Chinese inscriptions, representing the Paradise of Amitabha.

Mahayana Buddhism believes in the Triad of Buddha Amitabha, The Buddha of Infinite Light; Avalokiteshvara, The Bodhisattva of Compassion; and Mahasthama-prapta the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom. Buddha Amitabha is belived to have created his Pure land or paradise. In this painting, this triad is shown seated in this pure land. Aurel Stein describes this painting as, “ Without side-scenes, but evidently complete except for border, and in good condition. Though retaining the lake and front terrace, this Paradise is unlike others in composition, and drawn in freer style. Inscriptions refer only to details in pictures, and give no date. Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, and Mahasthama-prapt, appear seated on stiff, very- ornate, lotuses rising directly from a tank ; beside each of latter stand two attendant Bodhisattvas on smaller lotuses. These are the only figs. in upper two-thirds of picture, and the attendant groups are placed at some distance from the Buddha. Amitabha closely draped ; both shoulders and arms covered ; his legs loosely locked, with feet showing on ground. His right hand is in vitarka-mudra, left hand mostly destroyed, but at breast, pulling together his mantle and perhaps holding lotus bud. On either side of him is a carved and decorated post topped by flaming jewel; behind rise stems of two red-flowering trees (also conventionally decorated) supporting canopy ornamentation. with floral scrolls.

Similar trees carrying many-tiered canopies rise over two Bodhisattvas, who sit with legs locked and feet invisible: Avalokitesvara on left with hands in adoration ; Mahasthama on right, left hand upright in salutation, right on knee but upright as in abhaya-mudra. The attendant Bodhisattvas have their hands in attitude of argument or adoration, and one beside Avalokitesvara, a specially graceful figure, holds also scarlet lotus. At back is a wall of many-coloured marbled blocks, bounding the lake ; behind rise two bamboos. Air above scattered with seated Buddhas descending on clouds, souls in form of naked infants floating with outspread stoles, and beribboned (adorned with ribbons)musical instruments—harp, lute, flute, and drum. Two Apsaras, sweep down on either side of Amitabha’s canopy. On the lake, swim pairs of ducks, the emblem of happiness, and oval lotus buds rise enveloping infant souls.

There is no altar, no dancer or musicians, no mansions, and no subsidiary Buddhas ; but a sacred vessel is borne on lotus rising from water before Amitabha, and small Bodhisattvas holding scarlet and blue lotuses kneel on either side. In front of them again, on wooden raft or platform level with water, are grouped a two-headed Garuda, crane, peacock, duck, and phoenix.

Whole foreground filled by terrace on which appear Bodhisattvas, a pair of half-naked infants, flaming jewels on lotuses, and even the donors on an unobtrusive scale. The Bodhisattvas are only four a side and well spaced. They have no distinctive attributes, but sit with legs half unlocked and hands in attitude of argument or adoration. The infants, almost as large as they, are by rail in foreground, one advancing slowly, other dancing or running, and both holding flowers or berries. Their heads, like those of the infants in sky, are shaved except for two-lobed tuft of hair over fore. head and one over each ear.

In the middle a large blank panel for inscription, in slab form with arched top; the donors kneel on mats on either side, a woman alone on left, two men on right. The woman wears plain brown pleated skirt high under arms, red-flowered buff jacket with long close sleeves, and greenish fiche or shawl gathered closely on the breast. Her hair is done in knot on top and quite plain. The men have long belted coats, and small peaked and tailed caps. Between lotus-buds on lake and on Garuda raft, are short cartouches with Chinese inscriptions; a blank cartouche(figure enclosed in an ellipse) is beside each donor. Inscriptions by the birds are illegible, but the eight beside the lotuses describe the rest taken by the soul in its new life. Nine would have completed the series as set forth in the Amitayurdhyana-sutra, part III, which the painting apparently illustrates.

The quiet and coolness of colour and the emptiness of background give an effect of air and space which is lacking in formal crowded Paradises. Naturalness of effect is increased by unobtrusiveness of the haloes, which are transparent and often shown only in black outline, and never by solid discs or successive solid rings of colour. The figures are generally graceful and dignified, the drawing rapid and free, but rough in detail. Size 5′-3” x, 5′ 6′. ”

 Paradise of Amitabha with Legend of Vaidehi

This large silk painting is another version of the Amitabha’s (or Sakyamuni) pure land or paradise with side-scenes showing legend of Ajatashatru and meditations of Queen Vaidehi on Sukhavati. Incomplete top and bottom, but remainder intact and in good condition. Aurel Stein describes this painting as “ The presiding Buddha has right hand in vitarka-mudra, left hand lying in lap. Two chief Bodhisattvas sit in ‘ Enchanter’s Pose ‘, with one leg pendent and one bent ; the one on left with right hand before breast, thumb, second and third fingers joined, and left hand erect on knee with three fingers extended as if in blessing ; the one on right has right hand in vitarka-mudra, left hand on knee in bhumisparsha-mudra. Between each of them and the Buddha sits a youthful disciple(?), in under-robe, mantle, and necklace, with black hair short over his head but falling in Bodhisattva-like locks behind his shoulders. and ornaments of all Bodhisatwas are of ‘ Indian ‘ type, with narrow scarves only across breast and narrow stoles leaving most of body and arms bare. The musicians’ dress the same, but their features are here of masculine type, their expression realistic, and their hair like that of disciples on either side of Buddha. Dancer completely attired in crimson robe reaching born elbows to ankles, with copper-green girdle and elbow frills, orange under-sleeves, and bronze-bound orange collar. The musicians play on clappers, pipe, flute, and reed-organ (or wu, teapot-shape). Of the Buddhas in bottom corners only head and shoulders remain, and of lake only small part, in which scarlet and orange lotuses, but no infants. Workmanship good, and colour in good condition. It consists chiefly of usual crimson and dull green, with some blue on altar and stoles and robes of side-scenes, and is enlivened by plentiful copper-green on trees, haloes, and ornamental vesicas and Padmasanas of central trio; but the latter much worn. Floor of main terrace dull brown ; no black except in hair of minor figures. (In this case hair of central triad light blue, painted over light green which now alone remains ; their eyes ob’ique with thickly painted whites ; their flesh yellow shaded with red. Flesh of other figures white shaded with pink.) Side-scenes represent on right, legend of Ajatashaatru, on left, meditations of Queen Vaidehi. 3′- 3” x 3′-8”.

 Avalokitesvara in Vitarka-mudra

 Vitarka-mudra is a gesture of discussion or transmission in Buddhist teaching. This Silk painting representing Two-armed Avalokitesvara (Kuan.yin) or The Bodhisattva of Compassion is shown seated, with attendants and donors. Aurel Stein describes this painting as “Painting considerably broken and surface worn ; border of dark purple linen with suspension loops of red and yellow silk complete ; but linen on lower edge replaced by purple silk damask with rosette pattern.Avalokitesvara sits with legs in adamantine pose on lotus with scarlet and purple-tipped petals ; right hand in vitarka-mudra at breast, holding long-stemmed scarlet and white lotus between finger and thumb ; left supporting flask at shoulder level ; Dhyani-Buddha on front of tiara.No flame border on vesica ; Bodhisattva’s hair slate-blue, and flesh shaded only with pale pink. Flask a stoppered one of usual shape with short spout seen from front but without ornamentation and painted also blue.On either side below stands a man holding roll of paper. These wear Chinese official dress—long wide-sleeved scarlet jackets and white under-robes standing up round neck and trailing on ground about their feet. Their coiffure is unusual, hair being done on top of head in two blunt upright horns, slightly concave in front, and topped by gold boss ornaments.Donors below kneel on either side of central panel (blank) for dedicatory inscriptions., two monks on right, two nuns on left. Monks wear crimson and yellow under-robes, and black mantles lined with same colours covering left shoulder ; their shaven heads are painted black. Nuns seem to wear women’s girdle and under-bodice crossed over on breast, with olive-green robe over this, and on top wide- sleeved black coat, lined with crimson and covering feet ; but exact make of their garments is not clear. Their faces, however, are painted white (mostly lost) with vivid red cheeks characteristic of women in these paintings. Their features are soft and rounded though of monkish cast, and their shaven heads are painted light blue. The foremost donors hold respectively censer and flask, and those behind scarlet lotuses on platters. Blank cartouche for inscriptions is placed before each. 2′ 11” X 2′- 3-1/2”. ”

 Eleven Headed Avalokitesvara

 Stein describes this painting as “Silk painting representing Eleven-headed and Sir armed Avalokitesvara (Kuan-yin), seated, with attendants and donors. Narrow border of brown silk preserved ; painting almost intact and in fairly good condition. Padmasana rises from small tank; no altar. Upper hands, left and right, hold up symbols of Sun and Moon, former containing three-legged bird; latter, tree, frog, and hare. Middle hands in vitarka-mudra on either ride of breast, holding each, between thumb and forefinger, spray of pink and white lotus. Lower hands placed palm to palm, pointing downwards, before lower part of body ; thumb bent and touching, fingers extended and meeting at tips. Flesh deep pink shaded with orange-red ; same colouring used for seven Bodhisattva heads on top, while heads in profile are respectively yellow and dark olive-green, and Dhyani -buddha’s head yellow with red cheeks.Attendants consist of fourteen small Bodhisattvas seated or kneeling seven a side, with hands mostly in pose of adoration and with no distinctive emblems, and of four Lokapalas ranged in row in background. Small seated Buddhas on clouds fill upper corners. The Kings are of ferocious aspect, with grotesque eyes and bright red complexions.Four of Bodhisattvas have shawl-like stole, opaque under-robes, and white girdles ; rest like Avalokitesvara wear Indian variety of Bodhisattva dress ; flesh of all deep pink like his. This pink, dull crimson, and dark green and grey form practically whole colouring of picture ; though vesicas and haloes show traces of pale blue now almost entirely lost. Avalokitesvara’s ornaments are painted entirely in dark green, and were perhaps originally. gilded over this. Jewellery of attendant Bodhisattvas is red-brown picked out with yellow and black. Work throughout rather rough. Lower end of painting contains central panel (blank) for dedicatory inscriptions and eight kneeling donors, four men on right, four women on left, with a narrow cartouche, also blank, before each. This end of painting, however, much worn, and figures. hardly distinguishable. 3′-6” x 2′ 3′. ”

I shall continue with the other paintings obtained by Aurel Stein, from Abbot Wang of the 1000 Buddhas caves in Dun-huang, in next and the last part of this serial.

2 May 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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