comments by Francine Sliwka

a propos the exhibition shown at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris until February 19, 1996, and subsequently exhibited in Tokyo from April 20 to July 7 1996.

Serindia, Land of the Buddha.
Ten Centuries of Art on the Silk Road.

detail of map: for full map (109KB), click on map image above

The Greek philosopher Pausanias (c.180 A.D.) referred to the land of Seres - the silkworm in Greek - to indicate China. The term Serindia, which today evokes China and India, was used by the British archeologist Sir Aurel Stein in the twenties to designate a vast territory in Central Asia covering most of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The boundaries of this region are difficult to determine as Serindia was never an official geographical or political entity. The term is mostly used by archaeologists to refer to the oases around the Taklamakan desert ranging from Kashgar to Tunhuang along the North and South roads, often called the "Silk Roads", a term coined by a German scholar, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in the last century (see map).

A major art exhibit "Serinde, Terre de Bouddha" took place in Paris and Tokyo in late 1995 and 1996, which traced Serindian art and culture from the 2nd to the 11th centuries A.D. This gives us the opportunity to raise two points: 1) though of considerable importance, the Gandharan influence cannot be taken for granted in all cases; 2) there is a direct roman-byzantine influence in some of the cave paintings. Before addressing with these two points, let us describe the general cosmopolitan, cultural context in Serindia.


During some 10 centuries, artistic and cultural influences met and overlapped in Serindia because different ethnic groups dwelt in these oases. They were for the most part Chinese, Tibetan and Uighurs, at war or on friendly terms according to the times. Buddhism became a dominant religion and cemented them. Progressively, it gained influence over the local cults of Mazdeism which bound its followers to Iranian culture, Manicheism (a Christian heresy with a Buddhist touch) and Nestorianism (a Christian heresy). Islam consolidated its hold in these regions after the battle of Taras in 751 A.D.

Buddhism originated in India and many monks from China and Tibet traveled to famous Buddhist universities like Nalanda in Northern India to study the Scriptures, walking home along the Northern or Southern "Silk Road". The Chinese monk Faxian (c.400) en route for India tells that Yotkan, a place in the Khotan oasis, was a huge center for Mahayanist studies. He and other monks went back to China by sea through Sumatra and might have brought artistic influences with them. The monk Kumarajiva, Faxian's guru, a native of Karashahr, located between Kucha and Turfan, received his Buddhist training in Kashmir, came home and preached Mahayanist Buddhism in the Kucha oasis. Later, he left for Chang'an (China) where he translated fifty Sanskrit religious works with the help of Chinese scholars. This one monk was familiar with three different civilizations, Serindian, Indian and Chinese. It is important to acknowledge the role of the traveling monks because they knew the texts and were a link between donors and artists. Artistic ideas and styles were therefore propagated from place to place. Around the middle of the 7th century (Tang dynasty) another monk, Xuanzang, comments on the many Buddhist monasteries in Khotan, which remained a large Buddhist center until the 11th century. Some rich art patrons probably imported goods and skills from distant places. Unfortunately the Paris exhibit did not show a piece of silk from Lulan in the New Delhi Museum collection dated from the Han period (202 B.C.- 220 A.D.) and representing lions/griffiths very close in style to the art of Susa; this would have embodied the interpenetration of cultures over great distances. Caravans wishing to trade directly with the Chinese set out from Taxila to the Tarim region carrying with them artifacts from their Greco-Roman cultural world: seals with the figure of Zeus confirming communication between the Mediterranean culture, that of Iran and that of the "Silk Roads". In their eagerness to do business, different populations became masters of certain portions of these "Silk Roads" contributing to the movement of different artistic trends.


Fig. 1

head head
Fig. 2 Fig. 3

The exhibit was extremely confusing. A long carved wooden plaque from Lulan in the Sven Hedin collection representing Buddhas in arcatures shows a late Gandharan influence in its iconography by the number of Buddhas, their meditating postures, their pleated samghatis, and the Indo-Corinthian arcatures. However, for example, the exhibit did not really point out that Serindian art also influenced late Gandharan art in the area of the Ghorband river in terms of technique. Actually, clay figures from Fondukistan were built with a wooden structure inside, a technique borrowed from Serindia. In any case, we are dealing with artistic cross-currents. In Fondukistan a graceful mannerist terracotta figure of a Bodhisattva (fig.1) resembles two Bodhisattvas heads, one from Kizil (Kucha) the other from Tumshuk (fig.2 & 3). These Bodhisattvas heads were made between the 6th and 7th centuries, and the Serindian heads are moon shaped reflecting traits of the local population. They all have extremely elaborate head-dresse s with a small touch of Mathura style in them. The Tumshuk head (fig.3) is perfect, but lacks expression. The Kizil head, originating from further East, shows stronger links with Gandharan and Persian styles in its rendering of the oriental, half closed slanted eyes as well as in the shape of the mustache. Its curly hair is completely stylized, unlike the Tumshuk head.

standing Buddha Buddha
Fig. 4 Fig. 5

group Buddha
Fig. 6 Fig. 7

Buddha group
Fig. 8 Fig. 9

Although Gandharan influences can be traced a long way East, they should not be taken for granted. The Paris exhibit presented a 5th century limestone Buddha found in Yungang, cave 26 (Shaanxi) (MG EO 2730) (fig.4), one of the earliest Buddhist representations in China. To link it with Gandhara is far-fetched and unjustified except for the nose line which becomes bifid, a Greek convention, in addition to a certain stiffness also found in some Gandharan statues (fig 5). But here the shape and size of the mouth are not Gandharan, nor is the shape of the head. Actually, this Chinese Buddha is very close in style to the piece at the University of Philadelphia (fig.6) representing a donor and his retinue (Northern Wei, dated 525). The physical aspect of this Buddha might have been modeled on local secular costumes. There are better examples of the Gandharan aesthetic in Chinese art; early Chinese bronzes representing Buddhas dated from the 3rd or 4th centuries are very Gandharan. Two well-known examples might have been displayed in this exhibit to support the curators position: the Buddha at the Fogg Art Museum (fig.7) and that of the San Francisco Museum of Asian Art (fig.8), recalling the best Indo-Hellenistic trend in Gandhara art, their meditating postures and the rendering of their pleated robes. The face of the Fogg Art Museum Buddha is similar to the Gandharan representations: the little mustache, the nose line extending to form the eyebrows, the shape of the face itself.


The collection of the New Delhi Museum of Antiquities includes a very important painting from Miran, the earliest Buddhist painting found in Central Asia, dated 3rd or 4th century, showing the Buddha and six disciples in a forest. According to Chhaya Haesner (Serinde, Terre de Bouddha, catalogue entry # 52), only a Gandharan influence is to be seen. Moreover, Ms. Haesner does not specify which Gandharan influence she perceives in this picture although Serindian art does find most of its roots in Gandhara. The art historian Mario Bussagli attributes Gandharan influences in Serindia to a possible artistic diaspora after Shapur I was responsible for the fall of the Kushan Empire in 242 A.D. Gandharan art lasted for more than five centuries in a peaceful cosmopolitan region under Kushan rule. Its art is related to the Romano-Hellenistic world, perhaps to Alexandria in Egypt, more specifically for its stucco figures, or simply to India, its next door neighbor. In the Miran painting, the shape of the Buddha's face, slightly rounder in its lower part resembles those of Gandhara; its fine mustache is a Sassanid element but the eyes of both the Buddha and his followers reflect another artistic tradition in their rendering which is neither Indian nor Chinese. The wide, staring, ecstatic eyes, round and naturalistic with their little folds both on the upper and lower lids, recall the figures of the Roman mosaics found around the Mediterranean. A figure of Neptune (fig. A) in a mosaic flooring dated 220-250 A.D. in the collection of the Sousse Museum in Tunisia shows the same type of eyes. Many other examples of the same period, sometimes earlier, are found in this region and later in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Damas, etc., attesting a long lasting tradition from Rome to Byzance. These wide staring eyes are also found in the Roman funeral paintings of the Fayum in Egypt some of which are dated as early as the 2nd century such as the Lady of Arsinoe in the Louvre. In spite of its location on the Chinese border, Miran shows a direct connection with the Western world, more specifically Rome and its provinces on the Mediterranean sea. The signature of the Miran painter, "Tita", in which some art historians are ready to see an Indianization of the Roman name Titus might further support this stylistic connection.

figure head
Fig. A Fig. B
Between 428-431, the Syrian ecclesiastic Nestorius was patriarch of Constantinople. He and his followers fled to Persia to avoid persecution in the Byzantine Empire after the Council at Ephesus in 431. Missionaries and followers slowly introduced Nestorianism in Afghanistan, India and China. Much later they took refuge and settled in the Turfan oasis, perhaps as early as the 6th or 7th century. This might explain why Byzantine influences are found in the local production in the Kizil caves: the use of bright, contrasting colors and lapis lazuli blue as well as floral backgrounds in the cave above the Largest Cave (7th century) in the Berlin Museum for Indian Art (fig. B). The use of a line with a brown shadow to express volume and the roundness of the flesh can also be traced to Byzantine art. Such is the case in figure B as in most of the 7th century Kizil caves where figures are represented this way (the Middle Gorge Cave, the Cave of the Musician, the Maya Cave). As the years passed, these Mediterranean testimonies slowly disappeared to be replaced by other trends. The late 9th centuries paintings in the Nestorian temple at Kocho in the Turfan oasis reflect Chinese or Uighur naturalism.

Serindia was an extraordinary cultural and artistic meeting ground and was able to use the wide range of influences in its unique and original civilization which spread near and far. For this reason, it is useful and, indeed, necessary, to try and trace certain of its sources, often forgotten.