Sunday, 12 January 2014

Aurel Stein: A Hundred years on



The Silk Road has become a popular name for the network of long-distance land and maritime trade routes that connected Europe, Africa and Asia from the end of the first millennium BC. This exhibition focuses on the eastern part of these routes, in what is now western China: the Tarim Basin.
The archaeologist M. Aurel Stein (1862–1943) coined the term ‘Serindia’ for this region,
‘which for close on a thousand years formed the special meeting ground of Chinese civilization, introduced by trade and political penetration, and of Indian culture, propagated by Buddhism.’
Stein led four expeditions to western China between 1900 and 1930, excavating at scores of sites and discovering hundreds of thousands of artefacts. His extensive photographic record of over 5000 images is now mostly held in the British Library.
In 2008 and 2011 teams from the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology (XJIA) led joint field trips to revisit and document the sites visited by Stein to record the changes of the past century.
This exhibition shows a selection of historical and modern photographs of farming settlements (first to fourth c.), Buddhist temples (fifth to sixth c.) and Tibetan forts (eighth to ninth c.), as well as something of life today in the towns and villages of the Taklamakan.


The stupa, originating in India in about the third century B.C., was a funerary mound covering relics of the historical Buddha or his disciples. Its function widened over the following centuries: some house objects used by the Buddha or his disciples, some commemorate actions or events in the life of the Buddha and his disciples, while others symbolize aspects of Buddhist theology or are built as shrines on important places. The stupa was a focus for ritual and worship, including circumambulation.
The original form was a dome on a circular base. As Buddhism spread north then east from India, across the Pamir into the Tarim, the stupa developed into several distinctive and more complex new forms. The base became square and stepped, with staircases on one or all four sides. The dome became elongated and more tower-like.
All these forms are seen in the Taklamakan, the earliest probably dating to the second and third centuries (at Miran and Niya), and continuing throughout the first millennium (at Endere and Rawak). They are evidence of substantial Buddhist communities and considerable wealth.


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