Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Building Boom as Chinese Art Rises in Stature

Dunhuang Academy
The Dunhuang Visitor Center under construction on the edge of the Gobi Desert. More Photos »

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After years of fevered activity, museum building and expansion in the United States have slowed to a crawl under a low-lying economic cloud. In Europe, where the climate is even stormier, venerable state-financed institutions go begging for cash.
In China, by contrast, the fiscal sun shines.
Museums — big, small, government-backed, privately bankrolled — are opening like mad. In 2011 alone, some 390 new ones appeared. And the numbers are holding. China is opening museums on a surreal scale.
Many are multipurpose affairs, mixing history, ethnography, science, politics, art and entertainment. The museum devoted only to art is a relatively novel concept in China. Models for it, most of them Western, are still being sorted out, though they tend to line up at either end of the temporal spectrum, focusing on the very new or the very old.
Until recently, museums of contemporary art in China had been privately run, either as corporate entities or as the vanity showcases of rich collectors. Last October, an important precedent was set with the opening of the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum, the country’s first government-supported museum of up-to-the-minute work.
If official acknowledgment of the importance of Chinese art’s international stature was long delayed, it was fairly bold when it arrived. The Shanghai museum, popularly known as the Power Station of Art — it’s in a converted 19th-century power plant — is physically spectacular. It opened with a major globalist bang in the form of the 9th Shanghai Biennale, which filled the capacious interior and spread out into the surrounding city.
The Biennale still has a little time to run; it closes March 31. Meanwhile, some 1,600 miles west of Shanghai, at the oasis city of Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi Desert, another museum, or something like a museum, far less conventional than the Power Station, is under construction. Its purpose is not to attract crowds to new art, but to keep them away from damaging contact with old art, specifically the ancient and rapidly deteriorating Buddhist murals that cover the interiors of hundreds of caves in the Dunhuang area.
Painted between the fourth and 14th centuries at a central point on the Silk Road, the caves constitute a virtual museum of cosmopolitan Chinese culture spanning a millennium.
As different as they are, the Shanghai and Dunhuang museums share one quality typical of China’s new cultural institutions: ambitiousness. Often this is simply measured in size.
When the revamped National Museum of China opened in Beijing in 2011, much was made, officially, of its being, square foot for square foot, the single largest museum of any kind in the world, even though the history of China it told was strategically truncated.
The taste for gigantism was evident again in Shanghai last fall. On the same October day that the Power Station opened, so did a second state museum in Shanghai, the China Art Museum, sometimes called the China Art Palace. Dedicated largely to 20th-century Chinese modernism, and housed in a zany lacquer-red structure originally erected for the 2010 World Expo, it advertised itself as the biggest museum of new art in the country. So it is, though anyone could see that its exhausting display would benefit from serious editing.
But Shanghai’s two state museums are only the tip of the city’s new-art iceberg, with smaller institutions making up in sheer numbers what they lack in size. Most of the smaller museums are privately owned and financed. At least two, the Minsheng Art Museum and the Rockbund Art Museum, have solid reputations.
The Minsheng, supported by a banking corporation, specializes in contemporary Chinese art. Under its deputy director, Zhou Tiehai, himself a well-known artist (his satirical “Joe Camel” paintings made the international rounds a decade or so ago), the museum has organized valuable retrospectives for midcareer artists who have been influential in China without being well known abroad.
The Rockbund, which opened in 2010, operates as a kind of kunsthalle, with rotating shows and no collection. It is notable for highlighting non-Chinese art, a trend that has spread to larger museums. When the China Art Palace opened it featured a special show, “Congratulations From the World,” of premier odds-and-ends loans from the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Power Station recently played host to Surrealist surveys from the Pompidou Center in Paris.
An international mix is the rule in the proliferating number of vanity museums created by private collectors.
Late last year, Liu Yiqian, a billionaire Shanghai investor, and his wife, Wang Wei, opened their Dragon Museum (also known as the Long Museum), with holdings that included ancient bronzes, Mao-era paintings and contemporary works. The couple’s attention is now focused exclusively on the new and, being ardent shoppers, they have plans for a second museum in the city.
That will be joined by yet another museum, to hold the collection of Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur who in 2011 made the Art & Auction list of the 10 most powerful figures in the international art world. At the time he had been buying for a scant six years but had already established a museum in Jakarta. Now, thanks to a Chinese government deal, he has at his disposal a building, an old airplane hangar, ready to be renovated and expanded for a museum in Shanghai.
Given the current trophy value of new art in China, and the fact that the country has, according to Forbes, the world’s second-highest number of billionaires, the prospect of further private museums seems endless. How those museums will shape up, though, is a question. Building walls is one thing; gathering significant work is another.
Many private collections now are simply products of what the global market pushes: the same three hot Chinese artists, hot European artists, and so on. But while museums for such collections proliferate, China still has no museum offering anything like a comprehensive historical view of the country’s contemporary art over the last 30 years. And features that are taken for granted in museums elsewhere — scholarship, educational outreach, overarching curatorial perspectives — are absent or in a nascent stage in many of China’s institutions of new art.
Without knowledgeable administrative oversight, what is to prevent future state-sponsored museums of new art — and surely there will be more — from mindlessly going the bigger-is-better route? What is to prevent private museums from being glorified storage facilities — places for collectors to park art, with no higher purpose than to flaunt personal power through material accumulation?
Higher purpose is precisely what the Dunhuang project has going for it. Or maybe higher purposes: to preserve the past, but also, symbolically, to right past wrongs.
Buddhist caves are found in several sites around Dunhuang, but a large majority, some 700, are carved into long cliffs at a place called Mogao several miles outside the city. According to legend, in the fourth century a wandering monk was drawn to Mogao by a vision of flashing lights. Believing the place holy, he scooped out a cave from the cliff and stayed.
Other monks came. More caves were excavated as temples and meditation halls, and their walls covered with paintings. Stucco sculptures of the Buddha, some very large, were created and painted to produce total decorative environments. The site became a magnet for pilgrimages, and a major center of learning with a vast library of handwritten manuscripts gathered from imperial China to the east, and India and beyond to the west.
In the 14th century, as trade shifted from land to sea routes, traffic dropped off; the number of monks diminished. At some point, a library of some 50,000 manuscripts was sealed up in a single cave for safety. Mogao’s existence was forgotten. In the late 19th century, it was rediscovered, and starting in 1900 a succession of explorers — from Europe, Russia, Japan, the United States — arrived on the scene. They chipped paintings off walls and sent them home. They found the sealed library, divided it up and shipped most of it out. The Qing dynasty did nothing to prevent any of this.
It was only long after that, in the 1940s, that China fully reclaimed the caves and began restoring them. Over time, their mystique grew. In 1979, the year they were opened to the public, 20,000 visitors came. By the late 2000s, the annual count had soared to 800,000. By this time, the threat of damage to the paintings, through exposure to human-generated humidity and carbon dioxide, had become severe. Today, almost all the caves are closed.
To preserve Mogao as both a work of art and a tourist goal, archaeologists in charge of the site submitted a proposal to the Chinese government for a visitor center that would let people experience the caves with minimal access. The plan was approved. The visitor center, designed by the Beijing architect Cui Kai as a group of futuristic, dunelike domes, will open this year.
The operation will be carefully regulated. Visitors will come to the center, be shown a short film on the Silk Road history of Dunhuang, and then see immersive digital projections of several of the most elaborate cave interiors. They will then go a few miles by bus to Mogao, where they will see several real caves and spend time in a museum of Mogao artifacts — portable sculptures, textiles, handwritten scrolls — before returning to the center.
selection of such objects will be at the China Institute Gallery in Manhattan beginning April 19 to kick off “The Year of Dunhuang,” a series of events geared to attracting Western attention, and dollars. Of the $52 million that the center will cost, $33 million is from the Chinese government; the rest must be raised independently.
This project is by no means the only example of digitally assisted conservation in China. A similar one was documented in a show called “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan,” which was organized by the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago in 2010. But Dunhuang holds a special place in China’s cultural imagination. To care for it is to make amends for past neglect. Perhaps most important, to see the art of those caves in place at the desert’s edge is a deep experience.
Will that experience be as intense with some digital intervention? And if so, how much is acceptable? As in matters of contemporary culture, China is asking questions, about both the nature of art and the function of museums, that we rarely consider. But with money for our own cultural institutions hard to come by; with billionaire vanity museums on the rise here too; and with a 21st-century museum audience addicted to seeing art through cellphone screens, China’s long museological learning curve has much to teach us.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Dongba culture linked to Neolithic cave paintings

Academics from Britain and China claim to have found links between Neolithic cave paintings and the Dongba religion of Yunnan Province. The latest research establishes a pattern that reveals the origins of Dongba writings going back 7,000 years. This crucial evidence is now on display at the UK’s Northhampton University.
For thousands of years, locked away in the mountainous province of Yunnan, Dongba has been the main religion of the Naxi people. Even today it uses an ancient pictograph–based language to document its culture – the world’s only surviving form of such a writing.
Now studies of Neolithic cave paintings in the Jinsha River Valley reveal a critical social link. Suggesting fluidity of the 7,000 year-old paintings were the words of an elite religious class among the cave dwellers. The new research findings on show at Northampton University in the UK.
Paul Middleton, University of Northampton, said, "So when we’ve looked at the Dongba pictograph we’ve found that they’re made in the same way, the very fluid marks that are obviously predetermined and planned and not everybody can do it. So those people who have those skills are going to be revered in their society."
Artists not scientists have been used to understand the cave paintings tracing similarities in Dongba art.
He Pinzheng, Dongba artist, said, "I’m very proud that it’s here in Northampton. It’s great to see it."
Such was the mountainous terrain of Yunnan – between Tibet and South East Asia – life there continued largely divorced from the outside world till the middle of the 20th century. The images of Dongba art work are dominated by the creatures that would have lived in the mountains and jungles surrounding the Naxi people. Perhaps that very geography, which constrained the expansion of Dongba culture.
Professor Yan Junqi, Beijing Communication University, said, "You’re absolutely right, the geological restrictions contributed a great deal. Before the fancy modern communications, the tools of modern technology available, how do you get your message out – by person, by the messenger."
The project has made unlikely bedfellows of Beijing Lijiang and Northampton in middle England as the Dongba Evidence tours Britain.
The latest research establishes a pattern that reveals the origins of Dongba
writings going back 7,000 years.
The latest research establishes a pattern that reveals the
origins of Dongba writings going back 7,000 years.
The latest research establishes a pattern that reveals the origins of Dongba
writings going back 7,000 years.
The latest research establishes a pattern that reveals
the origins of Dongba writings going back 7,000 years.

Related stories

Editor:Zhang Jingya |Source:

Friday, 29 March 2013

The best and the brightest - Part I

From the Friday Times (Pakistan) by Salma Mahmud

At the very heart of the old Punjab, thousands of years ago, lay a dreamland beyond compare. It had a veritable fairytale setting, with a unique location and inhabitants. It stood upon a series of hills, shaded by forests immersed in melodious birdsong, perfumed by exotic scents, with the soft buzzing of honeybees, the apis cerana, 30 million years old, creating a soporific mood. It eventually became the capital of the mighty Gandhara kingdom, the land of flowers, with breathtaking stupas, monasteries and sculptures of Indo-Greek origin spread all over the landscape. Its worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and love, is evident from some of its later sculptural remains, but Takshashila was an early site for Naga worship, as well as for the worship of Surya, the supreme solar deity in Hinduism, the Supreme Light, also referred to as Mitra or Friend, whom Pingala the mathematican worshipped. In fact, one of the aspects of Surya is Pingala:

'His bright rays bear him up aloft, the God who knoweth all that lives,

Surya, that all may look on him.

The constellations pass away like thieves, together with their beams,

Before the all-beholding Sun...

Swift and beautiful art thou, O Surya'

Rigveda, Book I, Hymn 50
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Remains at the site of the Double-Headed Eagle shrine at Taxila
Remains at the site of the Double-Headed Eagle shrine at Taxila
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The Double-Headed Eagle shrine was built by King Gondopharnes, the first Indo-Parthian ruler, in 30 AD

But fairy tales often have terrifying layers in their depths. Takshashila, the world's first university, home to great intellectual endeavour, also produced certain villainies which sat ill on its generally calm exterior. And then among the flora and fauna of its idyllic surroundings we read of sacred serpents softly slithering along its forest paths, 'earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth', while ferocious lions and crocodiles, tigers and wild elephants wandered through its environs, sometimes attacking faculty members who are recalled even today as harbingers of excellence.

It is tempting to imagine villainous Komodo dragons plunging into the waters of the Indian Ocean, swimming valiantly from the Indonesian islands towards the subcontinent and reaching Potohar through secret shaded riverine ways, but I am informed very definitely that such a scenario could not possibly exist. However, giant monitor lizards certainly have inhabited the area for millenia, and they could easily manoeuvre their way along to the vernal woods of Takshashila. They, along with their larger cousins to whose genus they belong, are good swimmers.
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The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro
The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro
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As far as snakes were concerned, the oldest rulers of Takshashila were the Takshakas, whose modern descendants were the Taka tribe, worhipping Takila or serpents. The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro. Nagpanchami is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight during July/August, and snakes are worshipped on this particular day, Lord Subramanyu being the Lord of Snakes. The thousand-headed Sheeshnag who symbolises Eternity is the couch of Lord Vishnu, where he reclines during the time between the dissolution of one universe and the creation of another, and thus Hindus believe in the immortality of snakes. And don't forget that 2013 is the Year of the Snake.

Snake worship at Takshashila

We are priviliged as Punjabis to be heirs to one of the most complex and colourful cultures of all time. Takshashila stands there, spread out over a series of hills beneath which lie buried centuries of knowledge and history. One of the many meanings for its name is City of Cut Stones, and it was created out of stones that were images of enchantment. From this very fine bluish-grey schist material were carved the Double-Headed Eagle shrine built by King Gondopharnes, the first Indo-Parthian ruler, in 30 AD, and the Fasting Buddha among hundreds of others, so enticing in their glory that the eye cannot rest on them for very long. Incidentally, The Fasting Buddha in the Lahore Museum belongs to the Gandhara region, not to Takshashila itself, but Takshashila was the capital, and this particular piece of sculpture epitomises the grandeur and beauty of that era.
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The Battle of Kurukshetra
The Battle of Kurukshetra
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This Double-Headed Eagle shrine is of Scythian origin, imbued with Bactrian Greek influences, which were brought to the area by Alexander the Great's armies. The sublime Fasting Buddha that reduces the viewer to tears with its mystic beauty is also from the 2nd - 3rd century, the date of Bactrian Greek rule in India. It was excavated in 1902 from Sikri village in the Jamalgarhi area near Mardan and brought to the Lahore Museum. The base on which it stands reveals Persian-Zoroastrian influences, and the sculpture is so exquisite that Japanese visitors to the museum regularly do darshan in front of it. (It is insured for millions of dollars.)

The specialness of this land goes back to the Neolithic burial mound of Saraikala in the New Stone Age. Then we see the ramparts of Sirkap in the 2nd century BC, and from thence to the city of Sirukh in the 1st century AD, finally disintegrating in the 5th century AD, never to rise again.

It is believed that the epic Mahabharata was first recited here

As a city Takshashila may date back far earlier than the 6th century BC. It is said to be named after Taksha who ruled a kingdom called Taksha Khanda. The Kuru king Parikshat, grandson of the great hero Arjun, was enthroned here. It is traditionally believed that the epic Mahabharata, consisting of 100,000 couplets as well as long prose passages, was first recited here by the great sage Vaishampayana at the behest of the legendary poet Rishi Vyasa, who may have composed this great work here. Tradition says the poem was recited at a grand snake sacrifice in the presence of King Janemajaya, the great grandson of Arjun, and it began thus:

'Wrathful sons of Dhrita-Rashtra, born of Kuru's royal race,

Righteous sons of noble Pandu, god-born men of godlike grace...'

And so the grand battle at Kurukshetra was joined...

Up to 10,000 students studied here at one time

When the Mahabharata was first recited there must have been paatshalas or centres of learning at Takshashila, but from the 6th century BC onwards the university was a fully functioning institution. Consider the ambience of this ancient world's MIT if you will, where upto 10,000 students studied at one time. They came from all parts of India as well as Mesopotamia, the Far East and China. For several hundred years, Greek teachers were part of this distinguished faculty and were treated with great respect by their colleagues.

The wooded hills and groves of Potohar, the budding blossoms, the chirping of birds and the sparkling streams must have lent an ideal backdrop to the intensive studies that were conducted here under the supervision of brilliant teachers. Richly endowed monasteries and stupas containing immense wealth dotted the landscape, and after the Vedic period and until the 2nd century AD it remained a focal point of Buddhist scholarship.
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The magnificent view stretching out metaphorically towards Central Asia, the beautiful architecture as embodied by the great stupa of Dharmarajika established by Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC, surrounded by a series of small chapels, and containing relics of the Lord Buddha - all are evidence of Takshashila's grandeur. What could be more conducive to fruitful thought and meditation than such surroundings for those students who were fortunate enough to be accepted by the faculty after gruelling interviews?

At the height of its power, Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes. These were Emperor Chandragupta's Uttarpatha, linking Pataliputra with the main areas of northern India; the Northwest routes through Bactria, Kapisa and Pushkavalati; and the Indus route from Kashmir and Central Asia via Srinagar, Mansehra and Haripur towards the Silk Road in the north and the Indian Ocean in the south. These grand links tied one city to enormous vistas of space and time.

The courses of study at Takshashila are worth a detailed look. They comprised over 64 different fields such as the vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, hunting, elephant lore, astronomy, commerce, futurology: a search for grand patterns of social change, music, dance and sculpture, and of course Greek. Some curious subjects included espionage, magic, the art of discovering hidden treasure, the reading of encrypted messages, and bringing the dead back to life. There was also a spell for understanding the cries of animals.

The Persian occupation resulted in the replacement of the ancient Brahmi script by Kharoshti

The range of subjects shows the rigours of this system, which trained young men to emerge from their cloisters into the outside world. They entered the university at the age of sixteen or thereabouts, and after eight years of intensive study they became fully rounded and sophisticated young adults, able to assume their roles in life and perform these to the best of their abilities, whether they were to become rulers, administrators, academicians, thinkers, or businessmen and entrepeneurs. One single class of a hundred princes was known to study archery. The university's schools of Law and Military Science were as renowned as its school for medical studies.
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From the 3rd century BC onwards, India was home to a variety of fighting styles, including the knowledge of swordfighting, as the martial arts were one of the eighteen branches of applied knowledge at that time. Indian epics contain accounts of combat, both armed and bare-handed, as in the Mahabharata there is a prolongued battle between Arjuna and Karna, the two greatest warriors of this epic, using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists. Karna fired snakes as arrows at Arjuna during this fight:

'Pouring from their poisonous tongues

Liquid fire like lighning bright,

Countless winged serpents

In the blue vault took their flight...'

Wrestling, chariot-racing, horse-riding, boxing and of course archery were a part of the military training imparted here, and a number of the fighting styles remained closely connected to yoga, dance and the performing arts. This gives some indication of the totally integrated holistic world of the students at Takshashila. (It is worth noting here that before becoming the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama himself was a champion of swordplay, wrestling and archery.)
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Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes
Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes
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The list of great teachers and students at Takshashila is mind-boggling, starting with the great grammarian Panini and his mathematician brother Pingala, who were preceded by experts and scholars whose names are now lost in the mists of antiquity. Along with these two brothers we learn of Jivaka, the physician of the Buddha himself, son of a courtesan who threw him away after his birth onto a garbage dump from where he was rescued by Prince Abhaya, son of Bimbisara King of Magadha, and brought up as the prince's adopted son. Jivaka studied medicine at Takshashila, whose museum today displays a chair used by surgeons for performing operations. Chaitinya the great teacher learned his medical skills here so that he was able to deliver King Bindusara through the world's first recorded Caesarian operation.

Then there was Atrya the sage, as well as Pasenadi of the royal family of Kosala who became a close companion of the Lord Buddha. Also there was Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of Yoga practice. Last but not least, in fact foremost, was the brilliant Kautilya, the economist and political scientist par excellence who helped his protege Chandragupta Maurya in forming the first true empire in India, spreading over vast territories in the North.

The city was invaded first by the Persians, who brought Zoroastrian influences with them. (And hence Kautilya is said to have had leanings towards this system of belief.) After Alexander's invasion came the Greeks, and this affected the curriculum of the university. The Persian occupation resulted in the replacement of the ancient Brahmi script by Kharoshti, which was an adaptation of the Akhaemenian script, the court script of the Persian emperors, to the needs of the Sanskrit language. Following this, the Indo-Bactrian kings were inheritors of a rich Greek civilisation, and their rule extended for over a century and a half in Takshashila. This must have made a definite impression on its educational system, as Greek was taught here. To acquire this foreign language would facilitate students in being appointed to government service under Greek administration. Among the arts taught at the university must have been training in Greek processes of coinage and sculpture. Perhaps Greek dramas were performed in the courts of some of the princes who held sway there. Were Euripides and Sophocles witnessed by local Greek men of influence? Did Oedipus's terrible cry echo through the hills and groves of Potohar as he blinded himself in despair?

'O light-now let me look my last on you! I stand revealed...'

(Greek was the language of the conqueror, and so a working knowledge of it must have been essential for several classes of Indian society.)

Takshashila did not possess any college or university in the modern sense of the term. It was a centre of education as Dr. A.S. Altekar, Professor at Benares Hindu University describes it, with many renowned teachers to whom students came from far and wide. Each teacher, assisted by his advanced students, formed his own institution or study group. He could admit as many students as he wished to his course of study. There were no degrees or diplomas. Most students lived with their teachers, but the wealthier ones had their own private establishments, such as prince Junha, son of the king of Kashi, which was a thriving kingdom during the Buddhist era but was also a centre of Brahminism.

We should observe the manner in which students were inducted into this unique centre of learning. It was in the form of an act of worship, indicating the profound respect for knowledge held in the hearts of students and faculty alike... a classic guru-shishak ritual.

We should witness Tale 252 of the Jataka series of cautionary Buddhist tales, in which we are told of how the King of Benares sent his son Brahmadutta to faraway Takshashila to imbibe learning from a great guru. When you consider the distance between Benares and Potohar, you can gauge the value placed upon acquiring knowledge in those times. Here princes learned to quell their pride and arrogance, endured heat and cold and became acquainted with the ways of the world.

Young Brahmadutta was a mere sixteen years old when his father summoned him to his side and gave him a pair of one-soled sandals, a sunshade made of leaves, and "a thousand pieces of money", presumably silver coinage, and said to him, "My son, get you to Takshashila and study there." The one-soled sandals implied that the prince was expected to make the long journey on foot, protected by a fragile sunshade, facing the roars of fierce lions and tigers and the trumpeting of wild elephants along the way, not to mention the deadly hissing of poisonous snakes, since Chandragupta Maurya's Uttarpatha, the early Grand Trunk Road had not yet been developed. However, he was presumably part of a group of travellers, while other princes traveled with their own personal escort. Brahmadutta arrived at Takshashila alone, waited for his guru to finish his lecture, took off his shoes, closed his sunshade and greeted his guru with the utmost respect. As a paying pupil he was treated like the eldest son of the house, and was taught "on every light and fortunate day."

Non-paying students attended on their guru by day and were instructed at night. All students, regardless of which class of society they belonged to, had to gather firewood every day from the nearby forest.

As time passed, the prince did not attain sufficient moral stability and displayed disobedience towards his guru, for which he received physical chastisement. Inwardly he vowed to kill his teacher when he had the chance. Once he became king he sent a message to his guru to visit him at Benares, and his teacher understood his intention, for he had seen the bloodshot glare and rage in the pupil's eyes when he had punished him for indisciplined behaviour.

The guru was verbally threatened with death when he arrived at Benares, and he replied thus:

"The gently born who uses blows ungentleness to quell-

This is right discipline, not wrath; the wise all know it well."

He then calmly explained to the king that had he not been chastised as a student, he would have deteriorated morally. Brahmadutta then recognised his guru's greatness and offered him his kingdom as penance, and later made him his royal priest and treated him like a father. Thus were even the most powerful of pupils treated at Takshashila, for they were expected to revere learning and self-discipline above all else.

Conversely, there is the story of a Brahman boy from Benares, Jotipala, who was sent at the expense of the king (not of course Brahmadutta), to be educated in archery at Takshashila. When Jotipala had finished his training he was honoured for his exemplary skill and aptitude by being presented with his guru's own sword, a bow and arrow, a coat of mail, and a diamond. The guru then asked Jotipala to take his place at the head of five hundred pupils to be trained in the military arts, as he felt himself to be too old and wished to retire. Jotipala was eventually appointed Commander-in-Chief to the holy city of Benares.

As far as women were concerned there are records of many Buddhist nuns receiving their education here, but basically it was a male-dominated institution. There are, however, records of women teachers, as well as women students of Vedic Saakhaas and the Rigveda as described by Panini. Patanjali indicates that women were admitted to military training (he mentions female spear bearers). The Amazonian bodyguard of armed women which the Greek diplomat Megasthenes noticed in Chandragupta Maurya's palace came from the forests where the king was supposed to have grown up. These had nothing to do with Taxila, but the tradition of warrior women existed in no uncertain terms during those times.

These are brief glimpses into the vibrant life of a grand educational community that moulded the intellectual life of the whole of India.

[To be continued...]

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Ibn Battuta: A legendary traveller

Voyager’s irrepressible desire to see the world was matched by his finesse in deal-making with his hosts and securing their generosity

By Joseph A. Kechichian  SeniorWriter

March 14, 2013

  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Ibn Battuta in Egypt, a 19th-century lithograph by Léon Benett
Abu Abdullah Mohammad Bin Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is probably one of the greatest travellers of all time. At a time when few could afford, much less muster the courage, to embark on long voyages, the Moroccan, born in Tangier, accomplished the rarest of feats: he visited no less than the equivalent of 100 countries on three continents.
Beyond the required courage, he was undoubtedly motivated by curiosity, a love of adventure, as well as the eternal quest for knowledge. His pilgrimage to Makkah, which opened key doors to his exploits, led him to devote the better part of his life to journeys that lasted, on and off, nearly three decades. From North Africa, Egypt and the Swahili coast to the Arabian Peninsula, passing through Palestine and Syria, he swung by Anatolia, Persia and Afghanistan, crossed the Himalayas to India, then Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and reached the eastern coast of China before turning around and zigzagging all the way back to Morocco. He even outpaced Marco Polo, though unlike the Venice merchant who travelled for business, Ibn Battuta wanted to see the world. A trained qadi (judge), he probably understood that to deliver justice one needed to know something of human nature, which could only be acquired through extensive contacts with, and observation of, fellow human beings.
Ibn Battuta was born into a family of legal scholars in Tangier, drew on his Berber ethnicity to stand out and lead the life of an inquisitive mind. He studied at a Sunni Maleki school and at the age of 21 set off on the Haj to Makkah in 1325, at that time a journey that often took two years. He returned to Morocco 24 years later. How could a young man stay away from family and friends for so long at a time when communication was slow is difficult to appraise save for an innate motivation to discover the world. He was a raconteur, dictating his observations to a young scribe upon his returns, which were published in a journal.
Off to Makkah
This first land trek introduced him to Tlemcen in today’s Algeria, then a true centre of learning as it housed well-known madrasas, Catholic churches and synagogues. It was without a doubt the principal intellectual centre of the Maghreb. Travelling with caravans for protection, he then went to Tunis, where he stayed for several months. He married a woman in Sfax, the first of several marriages, although little is known of his family life. By early spring 1326, after a journey of more than 3,500 kilometres, Ibn Battuta arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, which he found enchanting; he then trekked to Cairo, controlled by the Mamluks; and about a month later, embarked on a few side trips all the way to Damascus and south to Upper Egypt.
On the way to Makkah, Ibn Battuta visited the other holy places, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Once in Makkah and after completing the rituals, rather than returning home, Ibn Battuta decided instead to head towards the Ilkhanate at a time when much of Central Asia and Persia were Mongol territories.
Starting in mid-November 1326, Ibn Battuta went north to Baghdad, and from there to Persia, with stops in Isfahan, Shiraz. In each city he marvelled at his discoveries and met many people. He returned to Basrah and Baghdad, which was still in ruins less than three decades after Hulagu ravaged the jewel city that lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Why he went back to Baghdad remains unclear, although he may have sought financial support from the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate before heading north on the Silk Road to Tabriz. Whether he earned sorely needed income through these side trips by “facilitating” discreet exchanges among rulers is not known, even if Kurdish mystics gave him some silver coins along the way. He returned to Makkah where he probably stayed from September 1327 until autumn 1330. While in the holy city he may have honed his legal skills, with future employment opportunities in mind.
In either 1328 or 1330, he embarked on his first sea voyage, leaving from Jeddah to Yemen, where he met with the ruler of Ta’iz, King Mujahid Noor Al Deen Ali Al Rasuli. From Ta’iz, he made his way to Aden, and from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula he entered Africa through the Somali coast. Ever the intrepid traveller, he devoted a few weeks to each stop as he reached Mogadishu, then a pre-eminent city of the Balad Al Barbar, the medieval Arabic term for the Horn of Africa. In 1331 Mogadishu was prosperous, and Ibn Battuta spoke of “an exceedingly large city” with wealthy merchants who exported high-quality fabrics and other manufactured goods. It was in Somalia that Ibn Battuta acquired the skills to describe the system of government in place, providing valuable data on the sultan’s retinue of ministers, legal experts and commanders, along with the entourage that filled the court.
From Mogadishu, Ibn Battuta went to the islands of Mombassah and Kilwah, both of which would eventually play critical roles in the Omani Empire that ruled over Eastern Africa. Everywhere he stopped, Ibn Battuta provided elaborate descriptions, commenting on how well cities were built, whether they adorned places of worship (mosques, churches, synagogues), if rulers lived in majestic palaces, and how rulers were perceived by their subjects. He provided details on local attire and other mundane features.
Ibn Battuta sailed back from Arabia, first to Oman and the Straits of Hormuz, then to Makkah not only to perform his third Haj but also to regroup as he stayed there for at least a full year (1332).
India and China
Though impossible to verify, Ibn Battuta picked up several languages during these travels, which meant that he could earn a living translating for sovereigns. It was in Makkah that he learnt of an employment opportunity with the sultan of Delhi, Prince Mohammad Bin Tughluq, and set out towards Anatolia to join one of the caravans that went from there to India. Roaming through the region, Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople where he saw the then great church of Hagia Sophia, which became a mosque from 1453 until 1931 (and a museum after 1935), and briefed his hosts on his travels to Jerusalem. On his way back to Astrakhan, he briefed Sultan Mohammad Uzbek on what he saw in Constantinople. For his observations, he received ample compensation on both ends. He then continued past the Caspian and Aral seas to Bokhara and Samarkhand, both of which mesmerised him. From there he journeyed south to Afghanistan, then crossed into India via the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, all the way to Delhi.
Armed with knowledge acquired in Makkah, Ibn Battuta received a lucrative appointment as a qadi from the sultan, though his jurisdiction was fairly limited. India was enchanting then as now and the traveller described it vividly over the course of six tumultuous years as he enjoyed the sultan’s largesse and suffered his erratic moods. When the ruler asked him to become his ambassador to the Yuan dynasty in China, Ibn Battuta considered it a good omen: the Moroccan wished to leave his prince and see some more of what else was out there.
Wherever he landed, Ibn Battuta served as a qadi, given the paucity of individuals with his skills in remote spots. In the Maldives, for example, he was made the chief judge and married into the royal family, but his poor decisions embroiled him in local politics, threatening his life. Then, through various mishaps, he reached the port of Chittagong in modern-day Bangladesh. He arrived in Sumatra in 1345, and through Malacca, Vietnam and the Philippines, he eventually reached Quanzhou in China. Impressed by local craftsmen, Ibn Battuta brought back rare insights into Chinese workmanship, including his incredulous discovery of paper money, then unknown elsewhere. He visited well-known monks and their monasteries.
Ibn Battuta’s tenure as ambassador lasted merely a year, and he began his journey back to Morocco in 1346, skipping India for fear that the sultan of Delhi might not approve of his hasty and unauthorised return, and headed towards his beloved Makkah. In 1348, Ibn Battuta arrived in Damascus with the intention of retracing his caravan route to the Arabian Peninsula, but learnt that his father had died 15 years earlier. As the European “Black Death” pandemic reached the Arab world, going on to kill nearly 400 million people across three continents, Ibn Battuta decided to return to Morocco. This time he went by sea to Sardinia and on to Tangier via Fez in 1349, only to discover that his mother had also died a few months earlier. With little holding him in his native land, the fearless traveller went to Spain, ostensibly to defend Gibraltar, although the pandemic devastating Europe meant that no army could survive, much less launch such an attack. He saw parts of Spanish Al Andalus and explored his native Morocco, marvelling at Marrakesh and Fez. His penultimate trip was deep inside Africa, visiting Mali and Timbuktu, where he discovered that local merchants relied on salt and gold to acquire wealth. Ibn Battuta travelled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (though it was Niger), until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire, where he met the king, whom he served for nearly a year. He eventually left for Timbuktu, but the sultan of Morocco, Abu Aynan Al Faris, summoned him to return home, where he arrived in 1354.
The ruler asked Ibn Battuta to dictate an account of his journeys to Ahmad Ibn Al Juzayyih Al Kalbi, a scholar whom he had met in Granada. Thus was born Al Rihlah, the only record of his numerous adventures, and though contemporary scholars insinuated that some passages were copied from other travellers’ notes, the feat was nevertheless remarkable for the 14th century. Appointed a judge in Morocco, he died in obscurity in 1369. According to Ibn Juzayyih, Ibn Battuta stated: “I have indeed — praise be to God — attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.”
His legacy extended beyond Arabs and Muslims, as Ibn Battuta invented the art of travel writing which has served mankind well. Even if he did not visit the nearly 100 countries that are described in his opus, Ibn Battuta became one of history’s greatest itinerants, someone who wished to know about others, understand them, see nations in action and report back through stories to the less fortunate, thus enriching their minds.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).
This article is the 11th of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The World’s Oldest Pornography

It’s at least 3,000 years old, and it’s bi-curious.

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs
The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

Courtesy of Jeannine Davis-Kimball.
Prudes shouldn’t go into archeology. The patina of antiquity may make a carved ivory phallus, Venus figurine, or vulva painting on a cave wall priceless, communicating to us from a mute, distant past. But transplant those images to the modern world and you get dildos, Playboy, and Georgia O’Keefe. Still, most prehistoric erotic art is abstract, disembodied. It doesn’t explicitly depict sex-crazed ancients screwing their brains out for fun and fertility.
But one little-known, mysterious archaeological site does. The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs are bas-relief carvings in a massive red-basalt outcropping in the remote Xinjiang region of northwest China. The artwork includes the earliest—and some of the most graphic—depictions of copulation in the world.
Chinese archeologist Wang Binghua discovered the petroglyphs in the late 1980s, and Jeannine Davis-Kimball, an expert on Eurasian nomads, was the first Westerner to see them. Though she wrote about the carvings in scholarly journals, they remain obscure. Google retrieves only a few results, depending on the spelling. The petroglyphs deserve more attention.
The cast of 100 figures presents what is obviously a fertility ritual (or several). They range in size from more than nine feet tall to just a few inches. All perform the same ceremonial pose, holding their arms out and bent at the elbows. The right hand points up and the left hand points down, possibly to indicate earth and sky.
The few scholars who have studied the petroglyphs think that the larger-than-life hourglass figures that begin the tableau symbolize females. They have stylized triangular torsos, shapely hips and legs, and they wear conical headdresses with wispy decorations. Male images are smaller triangles with stick legs and bare heads. Ithyphallicis archeology-talk for “erect penis,” and nearly all of the males have one. A third set of figures appear to be bisexual. Combining elements of males and females, they are ithyphallic but wear female headwear, a decoration on the chest, and sometimes a mask. They might be shamans.
The tableau is divided into four fully-developed scenes beginning at a height of 30 feet and progressing downward. In the first scene, nine huge women and two much smaller men dance in a circle, seemingly admonishing their viewers. This is the only scene without ithyphallic men—though to the side, a prone bisexual has an obvious erection. Two symbols near the center look like stallions fighting head to head.
The second scene is packed with weird happenings. Women and men dance in a frenzy around a large ithyphallic bisexual about to penetrate a small hourglass female with an explicit vulva. His breastplate depicts a female head, with a conical headdress just like his. On the left, a second bisexual in a monkey mask is about to penetrate a small, faceless female. Nearby, a pair of striped animals lies prone amid bows and arrows, while at the other end, a giant two-headed female seems to lead the ritual. Disembodied heads abound, perhaps indicating spectators.
The next scene is smaller and cruder. A chorus line of infants emerges from a small female being penetrated simultaneously by a male and a bisexual while three more ithyphallic males await their turn. Another figure holds a penis longer than he is tall, pointing it at the sole large woman in the scene. She stands in front of a platform on which a faceless body lies prone, wearing what looks like the striped animals’ fur. The body resembles the females copulating in this and the previous scene. It is the only figure shown with its arms lowered, probably indicating death in a ritual sacrifice. A small dog is also at the center.
The last full scene contains no obvious women at all, though the floating bodies on the upper right may be female. Ithyphallic males and a bisexual take part in a frenzied dance. One male seems to have his arm around another while a loner near the bottom seems to be masturbating as a parade of tiny infants streams from his erection. It looks a lot like a frat party.
There are four additional scenes that seem more like sketches. Two include a pair of dogs and another depicts male and female torsos with multiple heads. The last figure has a very long penis but the body of a woman and seems to be wearing a conical hat. I think of it as the artist, though no artist could have carved such a large, complex, and detailed tableau in a single prehistoric lifetime.
Petroglyphs in Hutubei, Xinjiang province, China.
Petroglyphs in Hutubei, Xinjiang province, China.

Courtesy of Jeannine Davis-Kimball
While fascinating in themselves, the petroglyphs also reveal a great deal about the earliest human settlement in China’s westernmost region. The intricately carved faces all display the long noses, thin mouths, and defined eye ridges of the Caucasian face. The people in the petroglyphs came from the West
While unprecedented in Central Asia, the iconography echoes images far to the west. Triangular female figures with the arms held like those in the petroglyphs often appear on Copper Age pottery from the Tripolye culture in what is now Ukraine. The dog symbols are also strikingly similar.
Could the cultures be related despite a distance of 1,600 miles and an untold number of years? The answer depends on who created the petroglyphs. While Chinese scholars attribute them to nomadic cultures from 1000 B.C., Davis-Kimball points out that nomads generally create portable art and not huge tableaus. The makers of the petroglyphs had to have been a sedentary people, since the elaborate artworks appear to have been carved over a period of centuries. This narrows the potential candidates down considerably. The only time in prehistory when sedentary people are known to have populated the region was during the Bronze Age, the millennium prior to 1000 B.C.
The faces of these settlers are known to the world from desiccated corpses, perfectly preserved down to their eyelashes and the weave of their clothes. These mummies have been excavated by the hundreds from Xinjiang’s dry and salty desert sands since the 1980s.

The oldest and most intriguing bodies came from a 20-foot-high, man-made sand mound about 300 miles south of the petroglyphs. Known as Xiaohe, or Small River Cemetery No. 5 (SRC5), it was found in 1934 but then forgotten. The site is in a remote, restricted desert where China conducted nuclear tests. Rediscovered in 2000, the site had to be completely excavated in the following years to protect it from looters. Under the sand lay five layers of burials, from which 30 well-preserved desiccated corpses were recovered, the oldest dating to 2000 B.C.
The discovery proved politically explosive because most of the Bronze Age SRC5 mummies had long noses, eye ridges, and red and brown hair, none of which is typically Chinese. The Caucasian features seemed to contradict the official government view that the Han Chinese had the oldest historical claim to Xinjiang, dating to the second century B.C.
The question of which ethnic group lived here first is a serious issue today. Most of Xinjiang’s inhabitants are not ethnically Chinese but Uyghur—they belong to a Turkic-speaking, Muslim nationality that numbers 9 million and gives its name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They are indistinguishable from typical Europeans, and their ancestors first settled in Xinjiang in the ninth century. Uyghur nationalists, who want greater religious and cultural freedom and more autonomy from China, latched onto the ancient Caucasian mummies to claim deeper historical roots in the region.           
The cemetery where the mummies were found was unique in the world for its time. The site bristled with nearly 200 poplar posts, up to 12 feet high, and it required extravagant amounts of lumber. Some of the posts, painted black and red, were either torpedo-like or resembled oversized oars. The bodies lay on the sand, covered with boat-like coffins wrapped in cattle hides.
Viktor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost experts on the mummies, writes that SRC5 was “a forest of phalluses and vulvas … blanketed in sexual symbolism.” The torpedoes were phallic symbols marking all the female graves, while the “oars” marking the male burials represented vulvas. Many female burials contained carved phalluses at their sides, and the mound also contained large wooden sculptures with hyperbolized genitalia. “Such overt, pervasive attention to sexual reproduction is extremely rare in the world for a burial ground,” according to Mair (pdf).
DNA from the male corpses shows Western origins, while females trace to both East and West. Mair and other scholars think that the mummy people’s ancestors were horse riders from the Eastern European steppe who migrated to the Altai in Asia around 3500 B.C. After 1,500 years, some of the Altai people’s descendants, herding cattle, horses, camels, sheep, and goats, ventured south into what is now the Xinjiang region. Squeezed between the Tien Shan Mountains and the hot Taklimakan Desert, it is one of the world’s most hostile environments—a place so harsh that the Silk Road would later detour north or south to avoid it. But satellite photographs show ancient waterways in what is now barren desert, allowing those pioneers to survive in green oases in 2000 B.C.
It must have been a precarious existence, with staggeringly high infant and juvenile mortality. Perhaps that explains the exaggerated attention to sex and procreation at the cemetery and the high status of certain women. The largest phallic post at SRC5 was painted entirely red and stood at the head of an old woman buried under a bright red coffin. Four other women were buried in rich graves that stood apart from the others.
The fact that the world’s most sexually explicit graveyard was located a few hundred miles from the most sexually explicit petroglyphs can’t have been a coincidence.
Close-up of figure from petroglyphs in Hutubei, Xinjiang province, China.
Close-up of figure from petroglyphs in Hutubei, Xinjiang province, China.
Courtesy of Jeannine Davis-Kimball
When I asked Mair if the petroglyphs could have been created by the people who buried their dead in SRC5, he said it was plausible. Perhaps the new immigrants carved the scenes to record their most important rituals for posterity.
Mair also noted that Caucasian features and a cultural obsession with sex aren’t all that linked the two sites, both of which are in the areas of Bronze Age settlements. Almost every one of the SRC5 mummies—as well as Bronze Age mummies from other locations—was buried with a flamboyant conical hat, made of felt and decorated with feathers. Though stylized in the petroglyphs, the headdresses on the female figures are also conical with wispy decorations that could be feathers.
The implications are tantalizing. Could the earliest scenes in the tableau represent fertility rituals originally brought from Europe by the migrants’ ancestors in 3500 B.C.? Do the large females represent high-status women like those buried in SRC5’s richest graves? Does the smaller size of the copulating females signify lower rank? If the two sites are indeed linked, why are men bare-headed in the petroglyphs but all wearing hats in the graves? Could they have been the bisexual shamans in the tableau? Or, as one Chinese scholar has suggested, were penises added to some of the female figures later, possibly signifying the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy? And is the iconography really linked to the Tripolye culture in the West or is it just parallel cultural evolution?            
These are just some of the mysteries surrounding the Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs. Hopefully, now that the political pressures have abated, the site will receive deeper study. But whatever the answers, if any are ever found, the tableau is at the very least a spectacular demonstration of sex as one of the driving forces behind the creation of art.

Le plus vieux porno du monde a au moins 3000 ans et il est loin d'être hétéro-normé

L'étude des pétroglyphes de Kangjiashimenji, bas-reliefs du Xinjiang, au nord-ouest de la Chine, est passionnante. Cette œuvre d'art fait partie des représentations copulatoires les plus primitives –et les plus crues– au monde.

Source: The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs in the Tien Shan Mountains: A Fertility Ritual Tableau par Jeannine Davis-Kimball
Les pudibonds ne devraient pas faire de l'archéologie. Avec la patine de l'antiquité, un phallus d'ivoire, une Vénus callipyge ou une vulve peinte sur la paroi d'une grotte peuvent devenir des trésors inestimables, comme autant de traces muettes d'un passé millénaire, mais projetez-les dans le monde contemporain, et vous y verrez des godemichés, Playboy ou Georgia O’Keefe. Pour autant, la plupart du temps, l'art érotique préhistorique est abstrait et désincarné. Pas d'images explicites, pas d'orgies d'anciens se mettant la tête à l'envers juste pour le plaisir, ou pour célébrer la fertilité.
Sauf dans un site archéologique, aussi mystérieux qu'ignoré. Dans la région reculée du Xinjiang, au nord-ouest de la Chine, les pétroglyphes de Kangjiashimenji sont des bas-reliefs, gravés sur un imposant affleurement de basalte rouge (sur ce site, vous pouvez voir des photos). Et cette œuvre d'art fait partie des représentations copulatoires les plus primitives –et les plus crues– au monde.

Les pétroglyphes ont été découverts à la fin des années 1980 par un archéologue chinois, Wang Binghua, et Jeannine Davis-Kimball, spécialiste des tribus eurasiennes nomades, a été la première occidentale à pouvoir les examiner. Elle a depuis cité les gravures dans de nombreux articles universitaires, mais elles demeurent mal connues. Sur Google, selon l'orthographe, vous n'obtiendrez que quelques résultats. Ces pétroglyphes méritent qu'on leur accorde davantage d'attention.

Des femmes, des hommes ithyphalliques et des hermaphrodites

A l'évidence, la centaine de personnages présents évoque un (voire plusieurs) rite de fertilité. Certaines effigies font plus de deux mètres cinquante, d'autres, quelques centimètres, mais toutes ont la même pose rituelle: les bras tendus et les coudes pliés. La main droite dirigée vers le haut et la gauche vers le bas, peut-être pour indiquer le ciel et la terre.
Selon les rares spécialistes à avoir étudié les pétroglyphes, les personnages en forme de grand sablier symbolisent des femmes. Leurs poitrines sont triangulaires et stylisées, leurs hanches et leurs jambes bien galbées et leurs têtes ornées de coiffes coniques, avec de fines décorations. Les personnages masculins sont des triangles plus petits, avec des jambes filiformes et des têtes nues.
Dans le vocabulaire archéologique, ithyphallique signifie «pénis en érection» et quasiment tous les hommes en sont dotés. Un tiers des personnages sont visiblement hermaphrodites. Ils combinent des éléments masculins et féminins: ils sont ithyphalliques, mais portent des coiffures féminines, des décorations sur le torses, et parfois des masques. Il s'agit peut-être de chamans. 
Le tableau se divise en quatre scènes, très détaillées, qui se lisent de haut en bas [Cliquez sur les images pour les voir en plus grand].
Dans la première, à neuf mètres de hauteur, un groupe de neuf femmes et de deux hommes, plus petits, danse en cercle, et semble mettre en garde ses spectateurs. Il s'agit de la seule scène dénuée d'homme ithyphallique –même si, sur le côté, l'érection d'un personnage hermaphrodite est manifeste. Près du centre, deux étalons stylisés se livrent bataille, tête contre tête.
La scène 1 isolée
Dans la deuxième scène, on passe aux choses sérieuses. Un groupe d'hommes et de femmes dansent comme des fous autour d'un grand personnage hermaphrodite et ithyphallique, sur le point de pénétrer un personnage féminin plus petit, doté d'une vulve bien visible.
Sur sa cuirasse, on voit une tête de femme, portant la même coiffure conique que lui. Sur la gauche, un second personnage hermaphrodite, portant pour sa part un masque de singe, est sur le point de pénétrer un personnage féminin, plus petit et sans visage. Près d'eux, deux animaux au pelage rayé sont entourés d'arcs et de flèches tandis que, de l'autre côté, une femme géante et bicéphale semble jouer les maîtresses de cérémonie. Quelques têtes sans corps sont aussi dispersées ici et là, symbolisant peut-être des spectateurs.
La scène 2
La troisième scène est plus simple, mais beaucoup plus crue. Une tripotée de bébés sort d'une femme, qui se fait pénétrer simultanément par un homme et un hermaphrodite, pendant que trois autres hommes ithyphalliques attendent leur tour.
Un des personnages est doté d'un pénis plus grand que lui, qu'il pointe vers la seule femme de la scène. Elle se tient devant une estrade, où un personnage sans visage, recouvert visiblement de peaux de bêtes, est couché sur le ventre. Son corps ressemble à celui des femmes de ce tableau, et du précédent. C'est le seul personnage qui a les bras baissés, symbolisant sans doute un rite sacrificiel. On voit aussi un petit chien, près du centre. 
La scène 3
A première vue, la dernière scène est totalement dénuée de femmes, même si les corps flottant à l'extrémité droite en sont peut-être. On y voit surtout des hommes et des hermaphrodites prendre part à cette extravagante farandole. Deux personnages sont bras dessus bras dessous et un troisième, vers le bas, semble se masturber, tandis qu'une ribambelle de bébés jaillit de son érection. On se croirait à un enterrement de vie de garçon.
Ce à quoi s'ajoutent quatre scènes annexes, beaucoup plus rudimentaires. Elles montrent des chiens, ainsi que des torses d'hommes et de femmes surmontés de multiples têtes. Le dernier personnage a un très long pénis, mais le corps d'une femme et un chapeau conique. Pour moi, il s'agit de l'artiste, même s'il est impossible qu'un seul graveur ait eu le temps de s'atteler à une œuvre aussi imposante et complexe, le temps d'une vie préhistorique.

S'ils sont fascinants, en eux-mêmes, les pétroglyphes nous en apprennent aussi beaucoup sur les premiers habitants de cette région extrême-occidentale chinoise. Sur ces bas-reliefs, les personnages ont de longs nez, de fines bouches et des yeux en amandes de Caucasiens. Ils venaient de l'Ouest.
Et cette iconographie a beau être inédite en Asie centrale, elle rappelle d'autres images occidentales. Des personnes féminins triangulaires, avec les bras dessinés comme sur les pétroglyphes, on en trouve sur des céramiques typiques de la civilisation de Cucuteni-Trypillia, datant de l'Age de Cuivre, et dont le bassin de peuplement se situait dans l'actuelle Ukraine. Les chiens, en particulier, sont vraiment symbolisés de la même façon.
Y a-t-il donc un lien entre les deux? Malgré plus de 2.500 kilomètres d'écart, et un nombre indéterminé d'années? La réponse dépend des auteurs que vous attribuez aux pétroglyphes. Pour les universitaires chinois, il s'agit de civilisations nomades, arrivées dans la région dès -1000, mais pour Davis-Kimball, l'hypothèse est peu probable, vu que les peuples nomades fabriquaient en général des œuvres portables, et pas des tableaux aussi gigantesques. Les auteurs de ces pétroglyphes devaient donc appartenir à des peuplades sédentaires, tant ces bas-reliefs semblent avoir été élaborés sur plusieurs siècles. Ce qui réduit, considérablement, le nombre de candidats. La seule époque de la préhistoire où l'on sait la région peuplée par des sédentaires, c'était l'Age de Bronze, soit le millénaire avant -1000.
Nous connaissons les visages de ces pionniers, ce sont ceux desmomies du Tarimdes cadavres desséchés et parfaitement conservés –on peut encore voir leurs cils et les mouvements de leurs vêtements. Depuis les années 1980, des centaines de ces momies ont été exhumées des terres salées et désertiques du Xinjiang.
Les dépouilles les plus anciennes et les plus fascinantes ont été trouvées dans un tumulus de sable, fait de main d'homme, et mesurant six mètres de hauteur. Il se trouve à quelque 480 kilomètres au sud des pétroglyphes.

Des implications politiques

Il s'agit du complexe funéraire de Xiaohe ou SRC5 (pour Small River Cemetery N°5 –cimetière de la petite rivière n°5), un site découvert en 1934 et laissé ensuite à l'abandon. Nous sommes dans une zone désertique reculée et protégée par l'armée, un endroit où la Chine a mené des essais nucléaires. Redécouvert en 2000, le site a depuis été complètement excavé pour le protéger des pillards. Sous le sable, ce sont des sépultures sur cinq couches qui ont été exhumées, dont 30 momies extrêmement bien conservées, et datant pour certaines de -2000.
Politiquement parlant, ces découvertes se sont révélées très litigieuses: la majorité des momies du SRC5, datant de l'Age de Bronze, avaient de longs nez, des yeux en amandes et des cheveux châtain ou roux –rien de typiquement chinois. Et ces caractéristiques caucasiennes contredisaient visiblement la théorie officielle du gouvernement chinois, selon laquelle les Han pouvaient revendiquer le peuplement le plus ancien du Xinjiang, depuis le second siècle avant JC.
Aujourd'hui, la question du premier groupe ethnique à avoir colonisé la région est d'une extrême importance. D'un point de vue ethnique, la plupart des habitants du Xinjiang ne sont pas chinois mais ouïghours –ils appartiennent à cette nationalité turcophone et musulmane, de 9 millions d'individus, qui a donné son nom à la Région autonome ouïghoure du Xinjiang.
Physiquement, ils ressemblent à des Européens et leurs ancêtres se sont installés dans le Xinjiang au cours du neuvième siècle. Les nationalistes ouïghours veulent davantage de liberté religieuse et culturelle, et revendiquent une plus grande autonomie vis-à-vis de Pékin: ces antiques momies caucasiennes leur ont donc permis de renforcer leurs prétentions historiques sur la région.
A cause de ce conflit politique, les recherches ont été entravées pendant plusieurs années. Avant que des tests génétiques, en 2010, permettent de prouver que les momies les plus anciennes n'étaient ni han ni ouïghoures. Les deux camps ont abdiqué, et les scientifiques et les universitaires ont pu se remettre au travail, comme de juste.
Pour son époque, le cimetière où les momies ont été découvertes est unique au monde. Le site était hérissé de près de 200 colonnes de peuplier, hautes pour certaines de plus de 3,5m, ce qui a dû requérir une quantité astronomique de bois. Ces piliers, peints en noir et rouge, avaient soit la forme de torpilles soit de pagaies sur-dimensionnées. Les corps étaient entreposés dans le sable, recouverts de cercueils en forme de bateau, et enveloppés dans des linceuls en cuir de bœuf.

Un cimetière sexuellement explicite

Pour Viktor Mair, professeur de langue et de littérature chinoises à l'université de Pennsylvanie, et l'un des spécialistes les plus renommés de ces momies, SRC5 faisait l'effet d'une «forêt de phallus et de vulves (...) drapés dans un symbolisme sexuel». Les torpilles, symboles phalliques, signalaient des tombes féminines, tandis que les «pagaies», sur les tombes masculines, représentaient des vulves. Plusieurs tombes féminines contenaient des figurines phalliques, et le tumulus étaient aussi truffé d'imposantes sculptures en bois, comme autant d'organes génitaux hyperboliques. «Une telle emphase, omniprésente et manifeste, sur la reproduction sexuelle est extrêmement rare dans le monde, pour un site funéraire», écrit Mair (PDF). 
L'ADN des cadavres masculins a révélé des origines occidentales, tandis que les féminins ont une ascendance à la fois orientale et occidentale. Pour Mair et d'autres spécialistes, les momies descendraient de cavaliers des steppes d'Europe orientale ayant migré vers l'Altaï, en Asie, vers -3500. Après 1.500 ans, certains de leurs descendants peuplant l'Altaï –des éleveurs de bovins, de chevaux, de chameaux et de chèvres– se seraient aventurés plus au sud, dans ce qui est aujourd'hui la région du Xinjiang.
Coincée entre les monts Tian, et le désert du Taklamakan, il s'agit d'une des contrées les plus hostiles au monde –si rude que la Route de la Soie cherchera plus tard à la contourner, en passant par le nord ou le sud. Mais des images satellites montrent les traces d'anciennes rivières, qui auraient permis à ces pionniers de survivre dans des oasis, vers -2000.
Mais leur existence a sans doute été extrêmement précaire, avec une mortalité infantile et juvénile très élevée. Ce qui explique peut-être l'attention exagérée portée au sexe et à la reproduction dans le cimetière, et le statut supérieur de certaines femmes. Le pilier le plus phallique de SRC5, entièrement peint en rouge, se tenait près de la tête d'une vieille femme, enterrée sous un cercueil écarlate. Quatre autres femmes, aux luxueuses sépultures, se démarquaient aussi du reste des momies.

Coïncidence? Sûrement pas

Que le site funéraire le plus sexuellement explicite du monde se trouve à quelques centaines de kilomètres des pétroglyphes les plus sexuellement explicites du monde, cela ne peut relever d'une coïncidence.
Quand j'ai demandé à Mair si les pétroglyphes ont pu être conçus par le même peuple qui a enterré ses morts dans SRC5, il m'a répondu que l'hypothèse était plausible. De nouveaux migrants auraient pu graver ces scènes dans la roche, pour la postérité, afin de documenter leurs rituels les plus fondamentaux.
Mais pour Mair, les caractéristiques physiques caucasiennes et une obsession culturelle pour le sexe ne sont pas les seuls éléments qui relient les sites, datant tous deux de l'Age de Bronze.
Quasiment toutes les momies de SRC5 –comme d'autres momies de la même époque, à travers le monde– ont été enterrées coiffées de chapeaux de feutre coniques, décorés de plumes. Si elles sont stylisées sur les pétroglyphes, les coiffes des personnages féminins sont aussi coniques et piquées de fines décorations qui pourraient être des plumes.
Ce qui a de quoi faire tourner la tête. Les pétroglyphes pourraient-ils représenter des rites de fertilité, apportés d'Europe par les ancêtres des migrants, vers -3500? Les personnages féminins les plus imposants des tableaux pourraient-ils correspondre aux femmes enterrées dans les tombes les plus luxueuses de SRC5? Les corps plus petits des femmes en pleine copulation symbolisent-ils des statuts sociaux moins élevés?
Et si les deux sites sont liés, pourquoi les hommes des pétroglyphes sont-ils tête nue, alors qu'ils sont tous coiffés d'un chapeau conique dans leurs tombes? Et qui pouvaient-être les chamans hermaphrodites? Ou encore, comme l'a laissé entendre un universitaire chinois, des pénis ont-ils été rajoutés plus tard sur des personnages féminins, pour symboliser le passage du matriarcat au patriarcat? Et cette iconographie est-elle réellement liée à la civilisation de Cucuteni-Trypillia, ou s'agit-il simplement d'une évolution culturelle parallèle?
Voici quelques-uns des mystères entourant les pétroglyphes de Kangjiashimenji. Espérons qu'avec l'atténuation des pressions politiques, le site soit désormais mieux étudié. Mais quelles que soient les réponses que les spécialistes parviendront, peut-être, à découvrir, ce qui surgit de ces tableaux, c'est la démonstration, ô combien spectaculaire, que le sexe est bien l'une des forces motrices primordiales de la création artistique.
Mary Mycio