A Seated Buddha from Tumshuk
By LIZ HAGER
The end of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century CE ushered in three centuries of unrest in China and its Western territories. After a series of weak Emperors, the Huns (“barbarians”) ruled for centuries, although reunification of the Northern and Southern Dynasties did not happen until the Sui Dynasty took power in 580. It was during these chaotic centuries that Buddhism established its foothold in China. Under the aegis of Ashok the Great, Buddhism pushed north and east out of India, first into Central Asia, and from there east into China along the Silk Route. Perhaps the Chinese embraced it for the stability it brought to their lives.
Buddhist monks established early outposts in the oasis towns of Central Asia—Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang, Turfan. During the 4th and 5th centuries these settlements grew into bustling centers of religion and commerce. Conversely, Chinese monks, seeking to study the Buddhist scriptures, passed through these towns en route to India. In the oases, cultural and artistic traditions—Buddhist, Chinese, Persian, Bactrian, Turkic tribes—mingled freely. Some 1500 years later in the monastery caves outside these towns European archeologists Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq excavated the exquisite artifacts produced by unique Buddhist societies.
The 6-inch high treasure above was uncovered by Albert von Le Coq in the caves at Tumshuk (just east of Kashgar, now in Xinjiang Province, China). Statues of this type and small size are thought to have been votive offerings from pious Buddhists.
This Buddha assumes the classic dhyanasana position, a posture of meditation, in which the legs are locked in full-lotus position with the soles of the feet turned upwards so as to be visible. In unusual style, he wears a smooth and unwrinkled robe, and its lack of embellishment emphasizes the serenity of the pose. Traces of polychrome suggest that the sculpture was once entirely painted; the brilliant pigments of the various cave wall paintings suggest that the original colors of this Buddha would have been stunning.
In general form this seated Buddha displays attributes of the Gandharan style, in which Hellenistic or Greco-Roman artistic techniques (first brought to the Gandhara, now the borderlands of Afghanistan/Pakistan, by Alexander) blended with Indian Buddhist iconography. In keeping with their desire to depict the Buddha as a man, not a deity, Gandharan artists employed naturalistic modeling and realistic detail.
Similarly-dated artifacts of many different styles fill the caves; unfortunately this statue offers no clue as to the reason for its form. Did the sculptor bring artistic traditions with him from Gandhara to Tumshuk? Or did he become infatuated by the down-to-earth simplicity of another artifact?
There are many possibilities. Buddha does not reveal all secrets.