Drawing together objects from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the western reaches of Central Asia—regions connected in the sixth century A.D. through trade, military conquest, and the diffusion of Buddhism—the exhibition illuminates a remarkable moment of artistic exchange. At the roots of this transnational connection is the empire established the end of the fifth century by the Huns (Hunas or Hephthalites) that extended from Afghanistan to the northern plains of India. Although this political system soon disintegrated into chaos, over the next century trade routes connecting India to the western reaches of the Central Asian Silk Road continued to link these distant communities, facilitating ideological exchange and financing the production of Buddhist imagery of great artistic sophistication.
By the fifth century, Buddhism had been thriving in Gandhara and the Swat Valley (northern Pakistan) for six hundred years, financed by the extensive trade that flowed through the Khyber and Karakorum passes. Trade with the Mediterranean began with an overland route established by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. By 50 B.C. maritime routes allowed merchants to sail down the Red Sea and to take advantage of monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea and reach ports along the west coast of India. Trade goods were transported along the Indus River up to Gandhara and then to China via routes passing through Afghanistan or over high Himalayan passes and then through Central Asia.
Between 450 and 520 this trade pattern was disrupted by an invasion of nomadic people from the Central Asian Steppes. They swept through Afghanistan, Gandhara, the Swat Valley, and Kashmir, eventually reaching the plains of north India. The invaders probably comprised several Hun groups known by various names—notably the Hephthalites in Gandhara and the Hunas in India. They ruled briefly in Gandhara and Kashmir and fought battles in north India that destabilized the Gupta Empire. Of great significance, these invasions brought north India in contact with Kashmir, Gandhara, and, ultimately, Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Gupta artistic style of north India pervaded the Buddhist art of Kashmir and the Swat Valley, reaching as far as Afghanistan.
These invasions also appear to have forced Gandharan monks into Afghanistan and western Central Asia, and a corresponding taste for Gandharan classical forms became important at Buddhist centers in these areas. In Central Asia, prosperous Buddhist complexes were established at oases and urban centers that served as way stations for traders crossing the vast deserts. This exhibition focuses on the western regions of Central Asia in the Tarim basin—sites such as Kizil, Turfan, and Khotan—where contact with Afghanistan and, by extension, Gandhara and ultimately north India is evident. The sites around Khotan are especially interesting, as they sit at the mouth of a pass that crossed the high Himalayas to reach Gandhara and the Swat Valley.
The trade systems extending down into India and overland as far as Iran and Iraq affected the lives of nomadic peoples living in the vast expanse of Central Asia. Elite goods such as textiles provide a glimpse into the nature of this trade, and prestige items such as gold ornaments give us a sense of the tastes of these prosperous nomadic communities. These nomads are often overlooked, as they did not build cities or temples, but they were both wealthy and militarily powerful and played an important role in the artistic development of the Central Asian community.