Pakistan's pre-Islamic art on show in Paris

20th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pakistan's pre-Islamic heritage is showcased in Paris from Wednesday in an exhibition of ancient Buddhist art that offers a fresh perspective on a country fraught with violence and religious unrest.

The Guimet Museum of Asian Art has gathered 200 works dating to the first to sixth centuries from Gandhara, an ancient kingdom that covered modern day northwest Pakistan but whose cultural influence reached India and Afghanistan.

Gandhara became more widely known in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed what were then the world's biggest statues of Buddha, giant figures carved out of a cliff in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The Paris exhibition includes pieces that are among the earliest human representations of the Buddha, the "Enlightened One", who had previously been worshipped through symbols.

The exhibition's impressive main stupa -- a type of tower for housing a Buddhist shrine -- depicts in detail the stages leading to the Buddha's spiritual enlightenment in 36 reliefs intricately carved out of stone.

Ornate schist and stucco reliefs, stupas, sculptures and gold jewellery mostly depict the life of the Buddha, but the show reveals the art of Gandhara was influenced by other cultures and was home to various non-Buddhist deities.

Alongside the Buddhas are features familiar from the Greek and Roman era, when Mediterranean culture left its mark on the vast territories conquered by Alexander the Great.

Sculptures of the Greek gods Athena and Aphrodite share space with Hindu goddesses and carved depictions of nature spirits, winged angels and demons.

Carvings of garland bearers are sculpted into scenes divided by Corinthian columns and symmetrical archways, in reliefs framed with decorative bands and floral motifs.

The period saw a melding of Greek, Persian, Hindu and Buddhist cultures, with statues of Buddha done in the style of classical Greek sculptures and sometimes even inscribed with Greek letters.

"The kingdom was at the crossroads of the world," said the show's curator Pierre Cambon, referring to Gandhara's position along the silk trading route that linked the Mediterranean, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East.

"The exhibition reflects the different historical themes from each culture, so there is something relevant in their art to everyone today," he added.

According to the curator, the varied cultural influences incorporated in Gandhara art show "a certain common heritage that can bring about communication and understanding."

That the show comes at a difficult time in Pakistan's history "is useful, so the country does not feel imprisoned by its problems," Cambon said.

"Pakistan -- Land of encounters -- the art of Gandhara" was to be inaugurated by Pakistan's Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, but ash from the Icelandic volcano stopped him from travelling. The show runs to August 16.

© 2010 AFP

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