Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nalanda Srivijaya and Beyond: Re-Exploring Buddhist Art in Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nalanda Srivijaya and Beyond: Re-Exploring Buddhist Art in Asia

Article excerpt

Nalanda Srivijaya and beyond: Re-exploring Buddhist art in Asia


Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017. Pp. 296. Maps, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index.


This book is a result of an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, On the Nalanda trail, which was accompanied by a conference focused on 'Interaction and Practice'. The essays in this book attempt to offer some new insights into the patterns of exchange and textual-image correlations between the Nalanda tradition and the arts and artefacts of Southeast Asia. This volume has ten essays. Each essay is well argued in its particular sociopolitical, art historical or architectural context; nonetheless, the intellectual tradition of Nalanda itself and its ancient connections with Southeast Asia are not adequately dealt with.

The editor, Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, starts her introductory essay by highlighting the problematic colonial constructs of Buddhism-Hinduism. Her argument is supported by the theory of Indianisation, which is somewhat problematic because of its normative structure and over-generalisation. The early Buddhist Nikaya schools are mistakenly identified as Theravada, and the Mulasarvastivada School is described as 'a school of Theravada' (p. 19). The essay outlines Gupta and post-Gupta period styles and how this legacy was carried forward in Southeast Asia.

Frederick M. Asher's meticulously researched chapter on 'Xuanzang at Nalanda' stands out in this collection. It dwells on the enigmatic historicity of the monastic university of Nalanda. His essay questions the colonially constructed Buddhist historiography of British India and notes how Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, 'manipulated the evidence to make it suit what he wanted to show' (p. 28). Asher's essay also points to the obscurity of Xuanzang's writings and cautions readers against accepting those accounts as historical reality.

Suchandra Ghosh's chapter on Mainamati presents a broad survey of the Buddhist archaeological remnants of southeastern Bangladesh. The findings in this chapter underscore the large presence of Mahayana Buddhism in the Comilla area of Bangladesh. However, Ghosh repeats pervasive stereotypes--for example, linking Buddhist tantra to aboriginal and Brahmanical practices--which does not do justice to a book that sets out to 're-explore' the Buddhist art of Asia.

The chapter by Peter Skilling can be considered as the gem of this volume. Skilling explores the relationship between writing and material culture through text-image-inscription correlation in his essay, and posits the widely prevalent practice of inscribing dharani (incantations) as the formalisation of the act of merit. His chapter contextualises the artefacts and asserts that these 'images were not manufactured as autonomous art objects; they were tailored to suit a variety of ritual needs' (p. 59). He also discusses some of the peculiar technical terms and formulas found in the inscriptions.

The next chapter, 'Buddhism in the Bujang Valley, Kedah' by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman, provides a good descriptive account of the excavatory investigations conducted during the last 25 years in Bujang Valley and in the plains of Merbok in peninsular Malaysia. It connects the architectural details of the minor Buddhist monuments uncovered with those of Yaran in southern Thailand. Unlike Skilling's essay, however, the findings are not contextualised, nor is there any further attempt to point out the linkages of the findings with Nalanda.

John N. Miksic's essay notes that the Malays are oblivious to their Buddhist heritage. It posits that the Buddhist heritage of this region prior to the Srivijaya Empire dates back to the fifth century CE. Miksic notes that 'one of the last Malay kingdoms was located in Singapore' (p. …

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