Central Asian Buddhist Art

Topic 3: Central Asian Buddhist Art

  • The religion of Buddhism emerged in northern India in the fifth century BCE and spread widely through Central Asia; it would have a more lasting influence there and in East Asia than in its native India. Unlike Islam, Buddhism makes extensive use of images, especially of human figures, whether painted or sculpted, and Buddhist cultures produce great quantities of figurative religious art. The areas of Central Asia in which Buddhism established itself were home to other religions - Manicheanism, eastern forms of Christianity, and forms of animism - which also made extensive use of imagery.

  • The westernmost areas of early Buddhist influence, which lie in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, also lay on the eastern edge of the Hellenistic world, and their Buddhist art reflected Classical Mediterranean influence. The style of Buddhist art developed in this area, known as Greco-Buddhism, would spread eastwards along with Buddhist doctrine. The Bamiyan Buddhas, monumental stone figures carved into the rock along the Silk Route in what is now Afghanistan (and destroyed in 2001), were examples of Greco-Buddhist art. Originally part of larger painted and sculpted complexes, they were created by Buddhist monasteries once located there.

  • The Himalayan country of Tibet became one of the most important centers of Central Asian Buddhism. A figure of the Buddha known as the Jowo Rinpoche, which is believed to have been brought to Tibet from China in the seventh century CE, and since housed in a temple in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, continues to attract Buddhist pilgrims. The figure is said to have originated in northern India, then been taken to China before being brought to Tibet by the Chinese Buddhist bride of a Tibetan king; this origin story reflects the complex blend of influences that shape Central Asian art.

Related Links:
West & Central Asia Quiz
Middle Eastern and Islamic Art
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes