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.

Southasia - - Contents Cover Story - By Kinza Mu­jeeb

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.

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