Friday, 25 May 2012

Victor Mair, the Indiana Jones of China

On POPUP Chinese a discussion with Victor Mair, available on Podcast

To listen to this podcast: click below:

After his controversial involvement with the Tarim mummy excavations in Western Xinjiang, Victor Mair might just be the closest thing Sinology has to Indiana Jones, assuming the fictional Spielberg character was a renowned linguist, translator and popular blogger in addition to his standing as a historian/archeologist. So it can be no surprise that we're delighted to be joined by Victor today for a discussion that delves from the origins of well-known Buddhist texts to digressions on ancient migration patterns, and even a bit of myth-clearing on Chinese romanization.

In addition to Victor Mair, joining Sinica hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn for one of the most wide-ranging shows we've done to date is David Moser, a close Sinica friend and Director of the CET immersion program in Beijing. Everyone is very much on their game, and this is a great show for anyone with an interest in Chinese history.

New facsimile of Buddhist sutra unveiled

A new Indian facsimile edition of the Gilgit Lotus Sutra – an important document of Mahayana Buddhism – written in Sanskrit has brought the last teachings of Gautama Buddha before his death to researchers and lay people. Known as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra – or the teachings of the white lotus and sun – the sutra is the basis of the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. Transcribed by monks for over 100 years between the 5th and 6th century AD, they are possibly the only body of Buddhist manuscripts discovered in the Gilgit region and probably compiled there as well, scholars say. The facsimile was launched Thursday in the capital by secretary of culture Sangita Gairola at the India International Centre. The facsimile edition of the Gilgit Lotus Sutra is a collaboration between the National Archives of India, Institute of Oriental Philosophy (IOP) and Japanese Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. Unveiling the edition, Gairola said “much work was going on in cultural thought both in India and abroad. It is fitting therefore that in India we take care to preserve, promote and disseminate all forms of culture. We have entered into cultural agreements with several foreign countries”. Leading Buddhist scholar Lokesh Chandra, who had suggested the publication of a facsimile edition of the sutra to the National Archives, said: “The Gilgit manuscripts found in three stages by cattle grazers in 1931 in a circular chamber within a Buddhist stupa.” Found in a wooden box, these manuscripts survived for centuries partly because they were written on the bark of the bhoj tree that does not decay or decompose, Chandra said. The icy weather of the Gilgit region also helped it survive. After they were discovered, the manuscripts were taken to Srinagar where archaeologist Aurel Stein announced their discovery. Chandra, who has grown up with the Lotus Sutra, recalled that an army captain brought the box of Buddhist manuscripts to his father (noted Sanskrit scholar Raghu Vira) in the early 1930s. “The army officer was posted somewhere in the Gilgit region. He wanted my father to buy the papers but they were very expensive. He asked several institutions, but no one wanted to buy the manuscripts. The manuscripts went different ways – a part of it went to the former Maharaja of Kashmir while the rest went to Germany and Britain. The original manuscripts – small portion which remained in India – are now at the National Archives,” Chandra said, addressing an the audience at the launch. “The manuscripts are about the beauty of the human mind – purity and light – as expressed by the white lotus. The white lotus sutra has given a value system to Asian nations for the last 1,600 years,” Chandra said. One of the Lotus sutras, “the Shri Mala Devi Simha Nanda Sutra, was a great feminist text – and probably the earliest one”, he said. Historian Kapila Vatsyayan, one of the guests of honour, said Indians were losing the power of reading ancient epigraphical inscriptions and one of her studies showed that the country had only 61 inscription scholars. “It might lead to a generation of Indians who may keep all ancient papers in satin textiles but not be able to read them,” she said, recalling how Lokesh Chandra’s father was sent to China to bring back Buddhist manuscripts during the regime of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “I was a young education department employee when Raghu Vira promised to bring donkey loads of papers from China,” she said. Director of National Archives Mushirul Hasan said the extra pennies given to the archives by the government might be useful for preserving more ancient manuscripts and developing the repository.

Source: Hindustan Times, May 25, 2012

Time travel tourism to the Ghandhara civilisation

Published: May 3, 2012
The Amlook Dara stupa is vulnerable to natural decay and looters. PHOTO: EXPRESS
It is often said that Pakistan, particularly the north, is a tourist paradise waiting to happen. As soon as the terrorists, the corrupt and the unimaginative are swept away, a tourist boom is inevitable.
Perhaps – but not if ancient relics and sites are left to vandals, looters and natural rot.
Two beautiful archaeological sites, the Amlook Dara stupa and Balokaley Gumbat, serve as examples. Fortunately, they have once again started to attract historians, local authorities and tourists, who enjoy the peaceful surroundings and the glimpse into the wonder of the Ghandhara civilisation.
The Amlook Dara stupa is two kilometers from the main road which travels from Barikot to Buner. Even the most urban of souls can’t help but be moved by its setting in a lush green valley.
Sheltered by the great Mount Elum, the stupa stands with ancient majesty and can be seen from the surrounding mountains. “The location is so calm and serene that one forgets every misery of the world,” says Habib Nawaz, a tourist from Gujranwala. The visitor is evidently transfixed: “The sound of the gushing stream just in front of the stupa and the sweet chirping of birds from the surrounding mountains enthrall visitors.”
Another tourist, from Mardan, wants outside help for the site. “It could become a very attractive tourist spot if the government tries to bring it to the eyes of the world,” he says.
The stupa was first discovered by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein in 1926. It was later studied by Domenico Faccena in the 60s and 70s. Archaeologists are now returning to the area.
“It is possibly the largest stupa in the Swat valley, built upon a 34m-wide podium,” Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, the Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, tells The Express Tribune.
Its chronological history is not clear, though further excavation will bring us closer to an exact date of construction, but those who have studied the stupa agree it is probably from the Ghandharan era in the third or fourth century. “It seems that the stupa and its environs were inhabited until the ninth century, as evidenced by a Hindu Shahi watchtower constructed a few metres from the stupa,” Dr Olivieri says.
The site needs constant vigilance. In February, a Bodhisattva statue worth millions of rupees was recovered by police, after they received a tip-off regarding illegal excavation of the stupa.
Another archaeological site, a masterpiece of ancient architecture, is located in the small village of Balokaley in the Kandak valley, Barikot. With its high location, the sight is visible from far away. According to archaeological scholars the site was also discovered by Stein and was then hastily excavated in 1938. Though the site is protected, it has been looted for almost a century by vandals and smugglers.
“The site is now protected and has been restored by the Archaeology, Community and Tourism project,” Dr Olivieri says. “The excavations revealed an artificial terrace marked by three major aligned monuments. The central one is still preserved till the top of its dome. The other two were possibly a stupa and a shrine. The central one is a famous monument in Gandharan architecture for its double-dome. The stupa terrace was constructed in the second century CE and lasted for approximately three centuries.”
Amjad Ali, a local activist, appeals for stronger help from outside sources. “I hope the international community, like the Italian Archaeological Mission, would step forward to protect all the archeological sites of the great Ghandhara civilisation, which are fading fast due to vandalism and looting. This could rub out our rich cultural heritage from the Swat valley. It would really be a big loss for the country.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2012.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan – review

The story of two Afghan sculptures, destroyed after a millennium and a half

Afghan girls walk past the empty seat of one of the Buddhas in Bamiyan
Afghan girls walk past the empty seat of one of the Buddhas in Bamiyan. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
In 2001, in a violent attempt to advance the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, a clutch of men empowered by the Taliban brought down a titanic pair of structures that loomed over their skyline. No lives were lost. The few people living near the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, were cleared out first, before anti-artillery weapons were trained on the sculptures, carved out of the russet cliffs of the Bamiyan valley. "These statues have been and remain shrines of unbelievers," a February 2011 edict from Mullah Omar had proclaimed. Their destruction was carried out with a rare and perverse vim. Failing at first to pulverise the Buddhas, the Taliban called in Pakistani and Arab engineers to finish the job. In The Places in Between, Rory Stewart observed that the Taliban had scorched a fresco on the ceiling of one of the caves that honeycomb the cliffs and then stamped boot-prints over the patina of soot. "This must have taken some effort, as the ceiling was 20 feet high."
  1. The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Wonders of the World)
  2. by Llewelyn Morgan
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The Buddhas had stood for a millennium and a half; the smaller figure, 38m tall, was built around AD550, and the larger – at 55m only a little shorter than London's Monument – around AD615. In The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Llewelyn Morgan, a lecturer in classics at Oxford University, explores not so much the heartbreaking demise of the statues as their remarkably long lives. How and why did the Buddhas survive more than a dozen centuries of an Islamic Afghanistan, only to meet their end at a particular political moment in 2001? The final downfall of these sculptures – their arms already snapped off, their surfaces pitted by erosion and minor vandalism – represented the nadir of a long and complex process of civilisation. In the plangent words of the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, perhaps the Buddhas could take no more: "Even a statue can be ashamed of witnessing all this violence and harshness happening to these innocent people and, therefore, collapse."
The story of Bamiyan, Morgan suggests, is really the story of Afghanistan itself – of a fractured land with the misfortune of being one of the world's great crossroads, the benefits accruing to it from trade and commerce rubbed out by the curse of being coveted for its strategic location. Bamiyan lay on a branch of the silk route that cut efficiently through the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, providing both merchants and soldiers access to the Indian subcontinent, to China, to central Asia and thence to Europe. It has hosted a multitude of nationalities, religions and armies, a tinder-dry mix ever primed to be set afire: Greek stragglers from Alexander's campaigns; Hazaras descended from Genghis Khan's troops; Indians and Pashtuns and Persians and Turks; Buddhists and Christians as well as Shia and Sunni Muslims; the forces of the British Raj, the Soviet Union, the Taliban and Nato. Incredibly, through this tumult, Bamiyan managed to retain an air of pacific calm; the historian Arnold J Toynbee, visiting in 1960, wrote of "peace in the glistening white poplar-trunks … peace in the shadowy shapes of the Buddhas and the caves".
Buddhism arrived in the Bamiyan valley in the first or second century AD. This was as far west as the religion would advance, but it flourished here; archaeologists have discovered the remains of a great stupa – a domed home for Buddhist relics – and the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who passed through Bamiyan in AD629, wrote of "several tens" of monasteries with "several thousand monks". An uncommon stability prevailed in Bamiyan at the time, the result of a delicate balance of regional powers. Morgan proposes that Buddhism benefited from this stability, but also from Bamiyan's nature as a hub of commerce. The town's monks, Xuanzang noted, shrewdly charged visitors to see their relics, and their monasteries functioned as dormitories, bazaars and banks for merchants. Out of such unexpectedly mercantile zeal were Bamiyan's giant Buddhas funded.
Nearly all of Morgan's material is distilled from the recorded impressions of travellers such as Xuanzang, journeying through Bamiyan en route elsewhere. In the book's latter sections, which draw on the writings of surveyors, soldiers and antiquarians of the Raj, these sources tell us little that is new or noteworthy about Bamiyan or Afghanistan. But similar texts by Muslim travellers allow Morgan to parse the surprising malleability, over the ages, of Muslim attitudes towards this Buddhist iconography.
The contrasts between these attitudes is striking evidence that the Taliban were by no means acting in a "typically" Islamic manner in razing the statues. The emperor Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty and ordered several Indian idols to be destroyed, didn't mention the Buddhas in his accounts of his travels through Bamiyan. Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, a Pashtun and a 20th-century freedom fighter in India, called the Buddhas "an unparalleled example of perfection in the art of sculpture". In 1842 a British prisoner of Afghan soldiers recalled his captors firing idly at the statues and "cursing them as idols"; on the other hand, a 12th-century Islamic text titled The Wonders of Creation marvelled at these "talismanic" images and declared that "the Creator gives divine inspiration to His subjects to make such wonders". Tellingly, a member of a delegation of 11 Muslim clerics who pleaded with Mullah Omar to cancel the demolition, would later say that the Taliban "had no knowledge about Islam. They are so naive, they really can be influenced."
This textured response of Islam to Bamiyan's Buddhas – and even, on occasion, the projection on these statues of Islam's own folkloric figures – protected them from significant harm until the 21st century, Morgan argues. Surprisingly, he misses another crucial part of the explanation. While Sunni doctrine is rigidly iconoclastic, the Shia branch of Islam – long dominant in the Bamiyan valley – has been considerably more tolerant of imagery used in the service of religion. This remains true even today; how else to explain, as the scholar Jytte Klausen noted in a 2009 paper, the depiction of the Imam Ali and members of the prophet Muhammad's family in "the posters and wall hangings for sale in the bazaars of Tehran and Istanbul"?
For hundreds of years, the Buddhas of Bamiyan managed to be simultaneously featureless and eloquent; their faces had been rendered blank. "No statue which has had its face removed can express justice or law or illumination or mercy," the poet Peter Levi wrote in 1970, "but there is a disturbing presence about these two giants that does express something." The Buddhas continue still to communicate presence through absence, their empty niches in Bamiyan's ochre cliffs speaking to mankind's distressing tendency to discard the very qualities Levi cited: justice, law, illumination and mercy.
• Samanth Subramanian's Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, will be published by Atlantic this summer.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Masks of the Afterlife

The gold mask in the Jinsha Site Museum is believed to be more than 3,000 years old.(Source: China Daily)

BEIJING, May 20 (Xinhuanet) -- There is a collection of gold masks in Sichuan that tell a tale of rituals past. Huang Zhiling reports from Sichuan. Visitors to the Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu, Sichuan province, never fail to be impressed by a gold mask taking pride of place in the exhibition hall on the second floor. It is only one of many ancient masks excavated from the Sanxingdui and Jinsha Ruins in Sichuan. According to Zhu Zhangyi, the deputy curator of the Jinsha Site Museum, these masks are unique to the area. About 3.7 cm tall and 4.9 cm wide, they are very thin and the gold mask exhibited in the museum is believed to be more than 3,000 years old. "The gold mask was not donned by a living person. Instead, it was affixed to a bronze human head or a wooden human head," Zhu says. Some scholars believe the bronze head represents the soul of a dead ancestor, while others hold the opinion that it is the image of a necromancer and the bronze head is probably that of a high-ranking shaman. Despite the diverse views, the certainty is that the bronze heads were worshipped by ancient Sichuan people, who believed that they were channels to higher beings and would afford protection. It was also an indication of the advanced level of witchery and religion during the Shu Kingdom, according to Zhu. Shu is the ancient name for Sichuan. Masks are closely linked with witchery craft. They are widely used by many ethnic groups in sacrificial ceremonies and holiday celebrations or when they pray for a better harvest. In sacrificial ceremonies, necromancers wearing masks dance to amuse the gods, and work themselves into a trance during which they believe they can communicate directly with the spiritual realms. "Facial make-up in the modern Peking Opera and Sichuan Opera as well as masks in modern masques are related to the ancient masks," Zhu says. As gold masks have been excavated only in Sichuan, some scholars think they might have been influenced by Western Asian civilization. Between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago, a large number of gold ornaments appeared in Egypt and Western Asia. They quickly spread along the Mediterranean Sea to Central Asia and South Asia. It is very likely that gold masks also found their way into the Chengdu Plain through India and Central Asia. Although they adopted some elements of Western Asian civilization, the ancient Sichuan people are said to have made their masks in line with their own cultural heritage in an innovative way. The Jinsha Ruins, where the Jinsha Site Museum is located, cover 4 square kilometers including an area for holding sacrificial rites, residential quarters for the nobility, another residential complex for commoners and a graveyard. Experts hail the ruins as one of Sichuan's most important archaeological finds after the discovery of the San-xingdui Ruins in 1929. Like Sanxingdui, Jinsha was discovered by accident. On Feb 8, 2001, builders working on an apartment construction site in Jinsha village found ivory and jade pieces among the piles of earth. Since then, archaeologists have excavated more than 5,000 precious relics including gold, jade, bronze and stone wares as well as one metric ton of whole elephant tusks and tens of thousands of pottery and ceramic shards. A farmer digging a ditch in his fields also discovered the Sanxingdui Ruins in Guanghan, 40 km from Chengdu. From that site, more than 10,000 relics, some of which date back 3,000 and 5,000 years, have been unearthed. In 1986, six gold human masks and 24 bronze human masks were recovered in Sanxingdui. The excavations have yielded what are considered some of the most significant archaeological discoveries in China in the last century.
(Source: China Daily)

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Past in Ruins

Bay Ismoyo / AFP
Throughout Asia, historical marvels are being imperiled by threats both natural—floods, earthquakes—and human, as the populations of developing countries expand at an exponential rate. Now the Global Heritage Fund has highlighted 10 archeological sites at imminent risk of disappearing. They are not alone: the sites were ­selected from a list of more than 500 locations where the need to preserve archeological marvels is particularly great and where the funding for preservation is disproportionately low. While the following sites are at serious risk, they possess considerable economic potential; if managed properly, they could provide much-needed jobs to local communities as tourist destinations.
A holy site for both the Buddhist and Muslim faiths, Taxila served as an intellectual center for almost a millennium until its final demise in the 5th century. Situated at the confluence of three ancient trading routes, the site is currently facing a triumvirate of threats: terrorists, grave robbers, and urban development.
Shah Marai / AFP
The ancient Buddhist monastery of Mes Aynak lies on the Silk Road, 40 kilometers south of Kabul. In its 1,400-year history it has served as both a site for prayer and an Al Qaeda training camp. It’s also home to vast copper deposits beneath its hallowed walls. A Chinese extraction company is set to destroy the entire site within two years, in order to access the minerals. A team of French and Afghan archeologists have been scrambling since 2009 to excavate the area, but time is running out.
Courtesy of Global Heritage Fund
The 5,000-year-old site of Rakhigarhi contains evidence of the advanced urban infrastructure of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Currently lacking recognition and protection from the Indian government, local villagers use the deteriorating site to dry and harvest buffalo dung. With Delhi a mere 150 kilometers away, India’s population explosion is also threatening to further bury Rakhigarhi’s unexplored ­areas. To date, much of the site remains unexplored and underground.
Marianne Barriauxo / AFP
Widely considered to be one of the most intact examples of a traditional Islamic city, the Old City of Kashgar is being destroyed at a frightening pace. The Chinese government is currently in the process of reducing 85 percent of the old city to rubble, on the justification that the ­thousand-year-old mud-brick ­residences—which house half the city’s population—are vulnerable to earthquakes and must be razed.
Saeed Khan / AFP
The ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya is known today as “The Venice of the East.” Like its European namesake, it remains vulnerable to flooding, which has severely eroded the foundation upon which many of the 14th- and 15th-century monasteries and temples are built. The most recent floods in 2011 inflicted more damage upon the monuments in six weeks than water damage over the previous three centuries.
Michelle Butalon / AFP
The Intramuros Fortress in Manila serves as a testament to the country’s convoluted past. The stronghold was built by the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century in order to stave off British, Dutch, and Chinese attacks. Heavily bombed during World War II, the site remains underdeveloped. There is also a strong suspicion that the government will destroy its character by commercializing the area.
Jean Marie Hullot
Once a vital religious and commercial hub, Myauk-U was the capital of the Arakenese Kingdom. Here, royals built a stunning collection of pagodas, stupas, monasteries, and temples. Today these structures are threatened by the construction of a railway line through the area, which has irrevocably damaged many cultural sites.
Dating from the 3rd century B.C., Mahasthangarh is the oldest archeological site in Bangladesh, and it’s proving difficult to preserve. Although a legal framework to protect the ancient city was set up in 1920, the law only covers government-owned land. As a result, the lack of residential infrastructure is pressuring the site as Bangladesh’s population continues to rise.
CAMBODIAThe 11th-century Khmer temple of Preah Vihear straddles the hotly contested border of Cambodia and Thailand. Since an international court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, it’s regularly been ravaged not only by annual monsoons and a shifting climate, but also by the bullets and bombs of clashing Thai and Cambodian forces. Although the atmosphere has remained calm since February of last year, the opposing armies remain in place, defying an International Court of Justice ruling that both sides must withdraw from the area.
Thousands of jars litter the landscape at the Xieng Khouang Plateau, an Iron Age site in the country’s north. The megalithic structures, which have lent the area the fitting name of Plain of Jars, were presumably used in the funerary rites of the area’s ancient inhabitants. Carved from limestone, sandstone, or granite, the jars face an explosive threat: thousands of unexploded cluster bombs left over from the Vietnam War. The urns are also vulnerable to urban pressures: due to their shape, local villagers use them to collect garbage, or as chicken coops and animal troughs.