Ancient Buddhist art of India pulsates with life in Seoul

A visitor looks at a third-century stupa drum slab honoring the Buddha as a flaming pillar, found in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. The musuem is presenting, “Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India,” a monumental exhibition co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Yonhap

Buddhism has come a long way since the prince-turned-ascetic Siddhartha Gautama first attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree more than 2,500 years ago.The religion, which reached its zenith of influence in India in the following centuries, eventually spread to Southeast Asia and China, before making its way to Korea and Japan.In Korea, temples and relics enshrined within became the cultural bedrock on which Zen Buddhism bloomed since its arrival in the fourth century.But how well do we know the religion, which has long seeped into our daily lives and vernaculars, during its formative years in India?This is where the National Museum of Korea (NMK)’s “Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India,” co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comes in.It’s a truly monumental exhibition, featuring nearly 100 ancient stone panels and sculptures from southern India dating from 200 BCE to 400 CE, and a rare one at that.In fact, almost half of the artifacts on display had never left their home since their excavation until they were exhibited at the Met earlier this year. The NMK’s presentation, a tweaked and reimagined version of the U.S. show with several immersive digital displays at hand, begins by dropping visitors in the heart of a vibrantly pulsating forest of southern India. It was the forest populated by indigenous nature spirits and deities that Buddhism, originating from the Ganges Basin in northern India, encountered upon reaching the south.The local spirits — “yakshas” for males and “yakshis” for females — inhabiting the trees and the earth, as well as mythical creatures like “makara” — part crocodile, part elephant, part fish — and the “naga” serpent, gradually underwent transformation under the newly introduced Buddhist view of nature, eventually assuming new roles as bodhisattvas and guardian deities in its art.

One prevailing theme throughout the second part of the show is the “stupa,” a domed monument that housed the relics of the Buddha, including cremated ashes, pearls and other precious gemstones — known as “sarira.”It was through sarira that the religion was introduced to southern India in the mid-third century BCE, when King Asoka of the first pan-Indian Mauryan Empire ordered the construction of at least 84,000 stupas — derived from the original eight — across the nation and redistributed the Buddha’s ashes and gemstones among them all.On view at the museum are 2,200-year-old jasmine buds, washed pearls and particles of gold flowers laid out in a stunning mandala design, as well as the fragments of stone panels and pillars that once adorned the many stupas. (Most of these colossal monuments in the country have crumbled with the passage of time.)Interestingly, throughout the early centuries of Buddhism, the Buddha himself rarely appeared in sculptural reliefs and other art forms at stupas. In fact, during this period, typically referred to as the “aniconic” phase, he existed only in the form of sacred symbols — a pair of footprints; a riderless horse; the wheel of Dharma; an empty throne under a Bodhi tree; or a flaming pillar, which was a unique symbol found in southern India.The reluctance to represent the Buddha in human likeness in those early days may have stemmed from the belief that he, having achieved nirvana, transcended the corporeal form.

Although it remains a topic of debate, human representations of the Buddha began to appear around the first century, following increased sea trade between Rome and the subcontinent, particularly in the northwestern region of Gandhara. The existence of this trade is evidenced by the exhibit’s inclusion of a bronze Greek figurine of the sea god Poseidon and a jug handle adorned with patterns of Cupid, both of which were discovered in Western India during a 1940s excavation.Anthropomorphic visual elements from the Hellenistic world became combined with symbols of Indian Buddhism to birth the image we know well today — a figure with a wisp of hair on his forehead (“urna”), tight ringlet curls, a cranial bump (“ushnisha”), distended earlobes and a draped robe reminiscent of a Roman toga. Such a tendency to depict the Buddha in bodily form eventually traveled to southern India as well.The last section of the show is filled with the Buddha’s dynamic life stories — including his myriad past lives led before his princely incarnation as Siddhartha — featuring his human form, told in a theater-like stage.“As you traverse the colossal stupas of southern India, a vivid tapestry of the Buddha’s life unfolds before your eyes. Each monument becomes a stage, portraying distinct episodes 메이저 from his journey,” NMK’s curator Ryu Seung-jin said of the reason behind the section’s spatial design.“Tree and Serpent” runs through April 14, 2024 at the NMK.

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