Buddhist art continues to link China, South Asia and beyond
By Sudeshna Sarkar | NO. 49 DECEMBER 8, 2016
Two conferences in four years changed Sanjay Garg’s professional focus, making him part of a movement that is seeking to bring to light a rich heritage shared by China and South Asia.
The first was in 2010 when Garg, currently deputy director of the National Archives of India in New Delhi, went to Vienna on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art. “It was amazing,” he said. “The entire who’s who of South Asian art and archaeology were there. I asked myself, why do we have to come to European countries to discuss our art?”
It was because, he explained, there was a “total disconnect” in the exchange of information and experiences about major discoveries in post-colonial South Asia after the work of primarily British archaeologists like Alexander Cunningham, the first director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who excavated Buddhist sites in famed pilgrimage centers like Sarnath in India; John Marshall, the 19th-century ASI director general who led excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, relics of the Indus Valley Civilization; and Robert Wheeler, who conducted excavations in India and Britain.
“Ask an Indian archaeologist what has been happening in Pakistan in the last 15 years and the chances are he won’t know. Ask a Sri Lankan about Bhutan and you will find the same thing,” Garg said.
The thought was reinforced when he went to Dazu District in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality two years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for rock carvings created between the 7-13th centuries.
“I was amazed by the in-depth research going on in China that we are not aware of, principally because of the language barrier,” he said. “One common thread runs between China and South Asian countries. That’s Buddhism. So the best way [of connecting] is to build a platform where research could be exchanged.”
Other Buddhist scholars were also thinking along similar lines and in 2014, when Li Chongfeng, professor of Buddhist art and archaeology at Peking University, and Kamal Sheel, professor of Chinese studies at the Banaras Hindu University in India, proposed establishing such an organization at the 2014 International Symposium on Dazu Studies in Dazu, it was met with enthusiasm. That is how the Society for Buddhist Art and Archaeology (SBAA) was founded.
Since then, the SBAA meets alternately in China or a South Asian country every year to discuss new discoveries based on a specific theme. Last year, the inaugural conference in New Delhi was about the Buddhist monasteries in China and South Asia. This year, the SBAA together with the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology, held the second conference in Beijing on November 26-27. The International Conference on Buddhist Archaeology in China and South Asia discussed Buddhist archaeology in the region, especially rock and cave archaeology and art. Pakistan has been proposed as the host country next year when the conference will be themed on Buddhist art schools of South Asia and China.
The papers presented in 2015 were released as a monograph, Buddhist Monasteries of South Asia and China, this year, and this year’s papers will be collected in a volume to be released at the 2017 conference. Continue reading