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Early Hindu, Buddhist Works on View in New York

  • Carolyn Weaver

Few traces remain of the early Southeast Asian societies that produced the Hindu and Buddhist sculptures in a monumental new exhibit opening April 14, 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Five years in the making, “Lost Kingdoms” shows works from the 5th to the 8th century, an era when Hinduism and Buddhism took root in Southeast Asia.

"We're shedding a spotlight on the very early kingdoms of Southeast Asia, almost unknown," said Thomas Campbell, director of the museum. "This is an area from which the corpus is minute: It's only a few hundred pieces,” he said. “And we have essentially brought the greatest pieces here to the Metropolitan, so, for the first time, the public can really see the development, the evolution of culture in this early period in this region of the world."

Most of the 160 works have not previously been seen outside their home countries, he said. They include national treasures lent by Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and, for the first time, Burma, also known as Myanmar, in addition to Western collectors and museums.

John Guy, the curator of South and Southeast Asian art for the Met, said that although Hinduism and Buddhism originated in India, “You could never mistake a single work of art in this exhibition as being made in India. Clearly, there was a strong local aesthetic that emerged very early, and insured that their art was an independent aesthetic tradition.”

Imagery of indigenous nature-spirits blended into Hindu divinities in time, as in a Khmer sculpture of the goddess Durga standing on the severed head of the buffalo-demon Mahisha. A male yaksha (nature spirit) from Vietnam with a coiled, flowering headdress, fairly crackles with earthy energy.

Seventh-century Khmer rulers revered the Hindu god Shiva and his family, among them the elephant deity Ganesha, represented in one of the 20 large-scale pieces lent by Cambodia. Another is an impressively poised statue of Kalkin, the horse-headed avatar of the god Vishnu.

There are stone and bronze Buddhas, standing and sitting, in meditation or preaching. Large sandstone wheels, dharmachakras, represent Buddha’s law. An eight-armed bodhisattva made of bronze, silver and tin was among 200 works buried in what archeologists call a “hoard” of precious objects.

Guy said that such hoards were buried for safekeeping, as Hinduism and Buddhism alternated for supremacy in different regions in early Southeast Asia. Those that were rediscovered are among the few clues to the beliefs and ways of life of vanished societies, whose existence was documented in Chinese tribute records.

“When we try and look at the footprint these early civilizations left behind, there’s remarkably little surviving,” Guy said. “There are very few archeological sites of any substance. We’re surrounded by panoramic photographs of one of the few intact ancient cities dating to the first two decades of the seventh century in central Cambodia, Sambor Prei Kuk, but that’s one of the few. Many others have disappeared from the landscape, or just remain a silhouette that shows up in aerial photography.”
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