HISTORY & SOCIETY
The sub-continent is a veritable showcase of the religions and civilizations that have dominated this large mass of land over millennia. There is much to be learned and imbibed from this rich and timeless heritage.
South Asia enjoys a rich history of ancient civilizations.
South Asia has been a cradle of beautiful poetry, amazing artifacts, and glorious holy sculptures. In a way, the region is like a museum.
The British had rightly described the subcontinent as a ‘golden sparrow.’ Although the coining of this phrase reflected their gluttonous intentions of soaking up all the economic potential of the land, this term seems to be applicable in another sense as well. South Asia is a collage of various cultures, languages and religions. The land is the birthplace of the world’s two major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. In the cultural and artistic domain, the Indus Valley civiliza- tion and Mughal Art and Architecture have prevailed and prospered.
Hinduism, a religion recognized for its diverse, rich and unique festivals and traditions, has always aroused fascination and intrigue. The history of Hindu mythology dates back to 2400 BC, when the Indus Valley civilization of Mohenjodaro and Harappa prospered. Here various deities, without struggling amongst each other to achieve a higher status, exist in harmony and perform different tasks. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Hinduism is considered a colorful religion. Goddess Lakshmi, a divine female, offers them hope and courage by promising them material and spiritual wealth. God Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and God Shiva (the destroyer), form the trinity or Trimurti. Goddess Parvati, the consort of God Shiva, is not only the source of divine (Shakti) energy, but together with her husband, also becomes an eternal symbol of fertility and marital felicity. Goddess Saras- wati on the other hand is an epitome of knowledge and wisdom.
Artistic influences from Rome and Greece fused with Buddhist traditions to form a unique and exquisite heritage, the Gandhara Art. It exists between the west of the river Indus and north of river Kabul. The stupas and statues reflect the life, personality and mission of Buddha. The edicts carved on mountain faces and the images drawn in bronze serve to preserve the halcyon days of Buddhism and initially functioned as a propagation tool.
The religious symbols of this period are a major source of attraction. The most celebrated pose of Buddha was the meditation pos-
ture (Dhayana Mudra), which he assumed during his meditation period under the papal (peepal) tree near the city of Gaya in India, where he gained ‘Enlightenment.’ The Abhaya Mudra or the reassuring pose is symbolic of Buddha’s fearlessness, while the spinning ‘wheel’ encapsulates the spiritual transformation brought about by their leader, Buddha.
To decipher the reality of the Indus Valley Civilization must be the passion of every archeologist. The remains found in the ruins have been the subject of endless fascination. The jewelery carved out of semi-precious stones, bronze, silver, gold and the various statues and pottery speak volumes of the creativity and skill of their creators.
Mughal art resulted from a combination of Persian, Indian and Muslim elements. Emperors such as Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan were great patrons of music, art and architecture. During the Mughal period, artists and artisans thrived. Some of their work still exists and, like the Taj Mahal in Agra, continue to draw worldwide admiration. In the field of music, Tansen, one of Akbar’s nine close companions in the Court or Nauratan, made valu- able contributions to Indian music. A number of other Muslim practitioners of music such as Amir Khasrau and Shah Husain Sharqi of Jaunpur have also made everlasting contributions to Indian music.
The National Museum in New Delhi houses a wide range of paintings from the Mughal era. These include the portraits of Babur, Akbar and Nurjahan. The collection at the New Delhi Museum also include specimens of miniatures, which is a very intricate form of painting. The samples preserved there show Emperor ‘Akbar hunting’, ‘The marriage procession of Dara Shikoh’, ‘Babur crossing the river Sone’ and many more. The artists who created these paintings have captured the very details of the lives of their times for later generations. Although Aurengzeb has often been frowned upon by many liberals for banning music, poetry and painting, which in turn destroyed a major cultural heritage, he should receive due credit for popularizing calligraphy as an art and for promoting artists to create exquisite manuscripts.
An interesting fact that many fail to appreciate is the sharp contrast in the representation of Buddha in India and Pakistan. The statues of Buddha in India show him as an extremely skinny person clad in underclothing. But the statues of Buddha in Pakistan present him as a healthy, elegant person, clad in a shawl. One can trace the influence of Greek sculpture of the statues in Pakistan, especially at Taxila. This is so because the followers of Buddha in this region were the descendants of those Greek soldiers who had come here with Alexander the Great and had decided to settle down here. This form of sculpture is known as the Gandhara Art.
Various museums in South Asia have preserved a mélange of items retrieved from the region’s ancient civilizations. Mohammad Hussain Sherazi’s calligraphic skills, in the form of two pocket-sized copies of the Quran, are enshrined at the Lahore Museum and the National Museum in Karachi. The ‘Priest King,’ recovered from Mohenjodaro and the ‘Diwan Prince Dara Shikoh,’ both are now at the National Museum in Karachi. The National Museum of New Delhi has a splendid collection of miniature paintings from the Mughal and Rajasthani periods, depicting their holy epics, including Mahabharata. The Peshawar Museum of has also preserved many artifacts and statues of Buddha.
It is sad that these museums usually remain empty in terms of visitors and very little public interest is evident. While one must look forward to progress and advancement, it also needs to be remembered that knowledge of the past often proves profitable in the quest for a better future.
According to Plutarch, “To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.”
South Asia has a rich history of ancient civilizations.