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Buddhism: Visual & Material Culture: Central Asia

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Image: The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the form of Padmapani; 12th c. CE, Tibet. Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. | License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration.

Tibet  |  The Tibetan mandala  |  Tibetan iconography & iconometry  |  Gandhara & the Silk Road


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The sacred arts play an essential, intrinsic role in Tibetan Buddhist practice. Here, one of the great practitioners and master artists of our time presents a guide to the Tibetan Buddhist path, from preliminary practices through enlightenment, from the artist's perspective. With profound wisdom, he shows how visual representations of the sacred in paintings, sculptures, mandalas, and stupas can be an essential support to practice throughout the path. This work, based on the author's landmark Tibetan text, The Path to Liberation, includes basic Buddhist teachings and practices, clearly pointing out the relevance of these for both the sacred artist and the practitioner, along with an overview of the history and iconography of Buddhist art.

Hofer Bodies in Balance cover artBodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine, edited by Theresia Hofer. Rubin Museum of Art & University of Washington Press, 2014.

This book is the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary exploration of the triangular relationship between the Tibetan art and science of healing (Sowa Rigpa), Buddhism, and the visual arts. This book is dedicated to the history, theory, and practice of Tibetan medicine, a unique and complex system of understanding body and mind, treating illness, and fostering health and well-being. Rooted in classical Indian medicine, Sowa Rigpa has been influenced by Chinese, Greco-Arab, and indigenous medical knowledge and practices and further developed within the context of Buddhism in Tibet. It adapted to new geographic, socio-cultural, and medical environments on the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, and Mongolia and survives today as a living medical tradition whose principles are at the heart of many complementary therapies now widely used in the West.

Heller Hidden Treasures cover artHidden Treasures of the Himalayas: Tibetan Manuscripts, Paintings and Sculptures of Dolpo by Amy Heller. Serindia, 2009.

In 1999, a hidden library was found in the Nesar Temple at a remote village of Bicher in Dolpo, Nepal. It contains more than six hundred volumes of Tibetan manuscripts, ranging in date from the late 11th to the early 16th century. This library in many ways constitutes a cultural history of Dolpo in this period thanks to some sixty volumes with historical prefaces explaining the commission of the manuscripts for the Nesar Temple, while more than one hundred other volumes have illuminations of the scenes of the life of the Buddha and episodes from the Prajñ p ramit (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. These illuminations inform us about the donors, their costumes, their Buddhist rituals while the dedications tell us about the systems of patronage and donation. Some illuminations reflect the ancient manuscripts of Tabo and Tholing, others reflect the sophisticated Newar aesthetic of Kathmandu and all these diverse tendencies reached Dolpo where they were appreciated. By studying these texts within and examining the styles of the manuscript illuminations, Amy Heller was able to shed light on the history of this remote Tibetan enclave, the spread of Buddhism in the Himalayas and its artistic legacy. The manuscripts, sculptures and mural paintings discovered in Dolpo are the concrete expression of the complex economic, political, artistic and religious interactions between the people of Dolpo and their neighbors in India, Nepal and Tibet.


Heller Tibetan Art cover artTibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, 600-2000 AD by Amy Heller. Antique Collectors' Club, 2006.

The subtitle of this book is Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet 600-2000 A.D. and in it Amy Heller places the artwork within its historic, social and religious context, utilising in situ photographs from Tibet. She incorporates the latest research material and features works of international renown as well as those that have never been published. The author approaches Tibetan art through the religious anthropology of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Art will provide accessible and valuable information for both the specialist and the interested novice. The photographic content of the book is superb - detailed colour photographs of mandalas, paintings, gold pieces, metalwork and the stunning Tibetan landscape and architecture reveal the splendours of this long hidden country. Contents: The Era of the Tibetan Empire (630-850) The Flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet (950-1300) The Tibetan Renaissance (1300-1500) The Era of the Dalai Lamas (1500-2000) Bibliography Map of Pilgrims'

Landaw & Weber cover artImages of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice by Jonathan Landaw & Andy Weber. Snow Lion, 2006.

One of the most striking aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is its wealth of visual imagery. Ranging from the tranquility of a serenely poised meditator to the dynamic energy of apparently wrathful figures, this vivid and diverse imagery often leaves Western observers as puzzled as they are fascinated. Who are these figures, and what do they mean? Images of Enlightenment answers the need for a clear and straightforward guide to the inner world of Tibetan Buddhist sacred art. Focusing on some of its most important and representative images, this richly illustrated book introduces the reader to the tradition of spiritual self-transformation embodied by these depictions of enlightened energy through clear iconographic representations and descriptions.

Teiser Reinventing cover artReinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples by Stephen F. Teiser. University of Washington Press, 2006.

The Wheel of Rebirth is one of the most basic and popular images in Buddhist visual culture. For nearly two thousand years, artists have painted it onto the porches of Buddhist temples; preachers have used it to explain karmic retribution; and philosophers have invoked it to illuminate the contrast between ignorance and nirvana. In Reinventing the Wheel, noted scholar Stephen F. Teiser explores the history and varied interpretations of the Wheel of Rebirth, a circle divided into sections depicting the Buddhist cycle of transmigration. Combining visual evidence with textual sources, Reinventing the Wheel shows how the metaphor of the wheel has been interpreted in divergent local traditions, from India to Tibet, Central Asia, and China. Teiser deftly shows how written and painted renditions of the wheel have animated local architectural sites and religious rituals, informing concepts of time and reincarnation and acting as an organizing principle in the cosmology and daily life of practicing Buddhists. Engaging and accessible, this uniquely pan-Buddhist tour will appeal to anyone interested in Buddhist culture, as well as to scholars of religious studies, art history, architecture, philosophy, and textual studies.

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This work is a scholarly catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum's important but still largely unpublished holdings of the Buddhist sculpture and related art of the historic Gandhara region (modern northwest Pakistan / East Afghanistan) in the early centuries AD (c. 0-400 AD). This region was a major centre of Buddhist culture and facilitated the transmission of Buddhism and its art from India via the Silk Road to Central Asia, China and the Far East. The book contains introductory essays, with additional illustrations, suitable for the general reader as well as the specialist.

Morgan Buddhas of Bamiyan cover artThe Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan. Harvard University Press, 2015.

For 1,400 years, two colossal figures of the Buddha overlooked the fertile Bamiyan Valley on the Silk Road in Afghanistan. Witness to a melting pot of passing monks, merchants, and armies, the Buddhas embodied the intersection of East and West, and their destruction by the Taliban in 2001 provoked international outrage. Morgan excavates the layers of meaning these vanished wonders hold for a fractured Afghanistan. Carved in the sixth and seventh centuries, the Buddhas represented a confluence of religious and artistic traditions from India, China, Central Asia, and Iran, and even an echo of Greek influence brought by Alexander the Great’s armies. By the time Genghis Khan destroyed the town of Bamiyan six centuries later, Islam had replaced Buddhism as the local religion, and the Buddhas were celebrated as wonders of the Islamic world. Not until the nineteenth century did these figures come to the attention of Westerners. That is also the historical moment when the ground was laid for many of Afghanistan’s current problems, including the rise of the Taliban and the oppression of the Hazara people of Bamiyan. In a strange twist, the Hazaras―descendants of the conquering Mongol hordes who stormed Bamiyan in the thirteenth century―had come to venerate the Buddhas that once dominated their valley as symbols of their very different religious identity. Incorporating the voices of the holy men, adventurers, and hostages throughout history who set eyes on the Bamiyan Buddhas, Morgan tells the history of this region of paradox and heartache.

Jongeward Reliquaries cover artGandharan Buddhist Reliquaries by David Jongeward et al. University of Washington Press, 2012.

Gandhara, the ancient name for the region around modern Peshawar in northern Pakistan, was of pivotal importance in the production of Buddhist texts and art in the first centuries CE. Since the mid-nineteenth century, excavations of Gandharan monastery sites have revolutionized the study of early Buddhism. Among the treasures unearthed are hundreds of reliquaries―containers housing relics of the Buddha. This volume combines art history, Buddhist history, ancient Indian history, archaeology, epigraphy, linguistics, and numismatics to clarify the significance and function of these reliquaries. The story begins with the Buddha's last days, his death and funerary arrangements, and the distribution of the cremated remains, which initiated a relic cult. Chapters describe Gandharan reliquary types and subgroups, the archaeological and historical significance of collections, and the paleographic and linguistic interpretation of the inscriptions on the reliquaries. The 400 reliquaries illustrated and surveyed are from museums and private collections in Pakistan, India, Japan, Europe, and North America. Stone is the primary material of construction, along with bronze, gold, and silver. Shapes range from spherical and cylindrical to miniature stupas, a configuration that provides valuable information about the history of this Buddhist monumental form.


Ghose Kizil cover artKizil on the Silk Road: Crossroads of Commerce and Meeting of Minds, edited by Rajeshwari Ghose. Marg Publications, 2008.

The Kizil complex - on the banks of the Muzat River, in the Xinjiang province of China - comprises more than 230 Buddhist rock-cut caves, and was once an important conduit of commerce and intellect along the Silk Road. This work is a lavishly illustrated volume that brings together a collection of essays by a number of renowned scholars that explore the unique history of the caves, and offer unrivalled insights into the beautiful Buddhist artifacts that remain there, as well as those scattered in museums and private collections the world over.

Brancaccio & Behrendt cover artGandharan Buddhism: Archaeology, Art, and Texts edited by Pia Brancaccio & Kurt Behrendt. University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

The ancient region of Gandhara, with its prominent Buddhist heritage, has long fascinated scholars of art history, archaeology, and textual studies. Discoveries of inscriptions, text fragments, sites, and artworks in the last decade have added new pieces to the Gandharan puzzle, redefining how we understand the region and its cultural complexity. The essays in this volume reassess Gandharan Buddhism in light of these findings, utilizing a multidisciplinary approach that illuminates the complex historical and cultural dynamics of the region. By integrating archaeology, art history, numismatics, epigraphy, and textual sources, the contributors articulate the nature of Gandharan Buddhism and its practices, along with the significance of the relic tradition. Contributions by several giants in the field, including Shoshin Kuwayama, John Rosenfield, and the late Maurizio Taddei, set the geographical, historical, and archaeological parameters for the collection. The result is a productive interdisciplinary conversation on the enigmatic nature of Gandharan Buddhism that joins together a number of significant pieces in a complex cultural mosaic. It will appeal to a large and diverse readership, including those interested in the early Buddhist religious tradition of Asia and its art, as well as specialists in the study of South and Central Asian Buddhist art, archaeology, and texts.

Salomon Ancient Buddhist Scrolls cover artAncient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara: The British Library Kharosthi Fragments by Richard Salomon. University of Washington Press, 1999.

As the Dead Sea scrolls have changed our understanding of Judaism and early Christianity, so a set of twenty-nine scrolls recently acquired by the British Library promise to provide a window into a crucial phase of the history of Buddhism in India. The fragmentary birch bark scrolls, which were found inside one of a set of inscribed clay pots, are written in the Gandhari Prakrit language and in Kharosthi script. Dating from around the beginning of the Christian era, the scrolls are probably the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever discovered. The manuscripts and pots come from a region known in ancient times as Gandhara, corresponding to modern northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. At the peak of its influence, Gandhara was the capital of a series of wealthy and powerful dynasties and became one of the world’s most important centers of Buddhism and the gateway through which Buddhism was transmitted from India to China and other parts of Asia. Gandhara was also a principal point of contact between India and the Western world. Despite abundant archeological evidence of Gandhara’s thriving culture, until now there has been virtually no documentary evidence of its literary and religious canon. This volume introduces a groundbreaking project to decipher and interpret the Gandhäran texts. It provides a detailed description of the manuscripts and a survey of their contents, along with a preliminary evaluation of their significance. Also included are representative samples of texts and translations. This discovery sheds new light on the regional character of early Indian Buddhist traditions, the process of the formation of standardized written canons, and the transmission of Buddhism into central and east Asia.