Gandhara Exposition, Bonn

15 February 2009
coin of the Bactro-Greek king Antimachus Theos (c.170 BCE). Museum of Taxila.

"Thundering Zeus": coin of Antimachus Theos (c.170 BCE). Museum of Taxila.

At the moment, there is a nice exhibition of Graeco-Buddhist art from Gandhara in the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. My friends Marco and Marlous and I drove 600 kilometers to visit it, and it was certainly worth that effort.

The story starts with Alexander the Great, who opened the road from the Mediterranean to the Punjab, settled many Greeks in Bactria, and destabilized the Indian subcontinent (more…). Order was created by the Mauryan Empire, which helped to spread Buddhism to the Punjab and Afghanistan. A bit later, the Bactrian Greeks crossed the Hindu Kush and settled in Taxila, the capital of the Punjab. A new culture was created, mixing Buddhist and Greek elements; it flourished in the age of the Kushan Empire – the first centuries of the common era.

A Buddha in Jaulian.

A Buddha in Jaulian.

Marco and I visited Pakistan in 2004, and had seen many objects in the museums of Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore. It was certainly nice to be, in some sense, again at sites like Jaulian and Shahbazgarhi. The exhibition hall is a big square, with a circular room in the center of it, which is a bit like a stupa and contains statues of the Buddha and is surrounded by reliefs with scenes from his life. Some of these scenes, like Buddha riding on a ram, are inspired by Greek art and are unknown from outside the Punjab.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

The square that surrounds the circle is divided into several parts dedicated to certain aspects: the Greek conquests, art from the Swat valley, the Bamyan Buddhas, the iconography of the Maitreya. It is not an easy exhibition: you need to keep your mind to it, even though the explanatory signs are excellent. But an explanation of the main tenets of Buddhism would have been helpful.

The time in the Bundeskunsthalle was well-spent, although I stick to my perennial complaint about big exhibitions: that you are not allowed to take photos, and are forced to buy a catalog. The Bonn Gandhara catalog is fine, but as always, it does not contain photos of those particular details you want to study a bit better. Museums that obstruct study, have something to explain.

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

But this is just a minor criticism on a very interesting exhibition, which is really worth a visit. Entry to Gandhara: the Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan is eight euro. The exhibitions lasts until 15 March, and then moves to Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau (9 April to 10 August). The catalog, lavishly illustrated with 400 photos, costs 29 euro.


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