Sovereign Power and Protection (Hindu and Buddhist Art from Lost Kingdoms of Southeast Asia)

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Went to see “Lost Kingdoms,” the blockbuster exhibition of awesome, awesome Hindu and Buddhist mostly sculpture from now vanished and forgotten kingdoms in southeast Asia dating from the 5th through 8th centuries. Holland Cotter’s review in the NYT  describes the export-migration of religious cultures and their arts out India into Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanamar (Burma).

The exhibition is broken up into seven sections: imports, nature cults, the arrival of Buddhism, Vishnu and his avatars, state art, and savior cults.

Walking through the exhibition galleries, what struck me was the massive roundness of so many of the figures, the imbrication of aesthetic and political power, and the distinct smell of sandstone in a dark room. Massive things meant to impress, they must have cost fortunes to produce. Cotter situates them “[emerging] from, and no doubt [advertising], potentially rivalrous urban cultures.”

The Vishnu figures, in particular, stand up as sustaining emblems of sovereign power. Cotter writes, “They maintained a lordly identity that made them natural models for ambitious earthly counterparts. What ruler would not want to resemble the marvelous South Vietnamese Vishnu — buff, impeccably dressed, four arms strong, posture perfect — who stands enshrined on an elevated plinth in a gallery devoted to this god?

A little disoriented, I was surprised by what seemed to be the sense that none of the figures looked you straight in the eye. Unlike the glance in modern portraiture, the look of the figures here was off to the side and downward. MK reminded me that the downcast glance was most likely meant to catch the eye of a supplicant from a position lower down looking up towards these figures of power and protection.

You can see online all of the objects online at the Met, My two favorites ones were:

–The Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover. It’s a “sandstone slab was found in situ at the Khin Ba stupa, where it served as the cover of the brick-lined relic chamber, its relief-carved surface facing downward toward the relics. The chamber’s contents of sacred objects largely date from the sixth century. The relief depicts a tall cylindrical stupa of the type still preserved at the ancient Pyu city of Sri Ksetra. This panel is important for documenting the original form of Pyu-era stupas and their affiliations with Buddhist centers in southern India, where this cylindrical stupa type prevailed in the third and fourth centuries” (Met online). What immediately caught my eye was what for me was the unusual large bell shape the stupa hanging over the diminutive, sandy figures whose face and shape have begun to fade with the passage of time.

–The Krishna Govardhana, from the pre-Angkor period, early 7th century. southern Cambodia, also made out of sandstone. “As described in the Bhagavata Purana, the youthful Krishna miraculously raises Mount Govardhan, near Mathura in northern India, to protect the villagers and cowherds from a great rainstorm sent by Indra. The sculptor of this image, active in the Phnom Da workshops, clearly understood the essence of his subject. It is evident that this sculpture evolved from a long-standing local tradition, which, by the seventh century, had surpassed any Indian prototypes that were remembered” (Met online).  I was struck how the large surviving fragments were reassembled and hung in the exhibition. You don’t see it so much from the photograph, but in the gallery, you look up from below towards the protection of the towering figure holding over you the idea of a mountain.

Serene not gentle, these are the gods and their avatars, models of sovereign power as they flash up from the forgotten past.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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