Gautama Siddhartha was one of humanity's wisest teachers who taught a message of compassion and universal love. The message spread to all corners of Asia and shaped the culture of a continent. Buddhism continues till today, as one of the great religions of the world, with millions of followers.
This hook covers the vast spread of Buddhist philosophy across Asia in ancient times, over formidable geographical barriers and great distances. The photographs of this book have been taken across India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Tibet, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Siberia, Kalmykia in European Russia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mongolia and Japan.
The title adds yet another feature to Publications Division's repertory - a rare book covering the immense range of Buddhist heritage.
Benoy K Behl, the author and eminent photographer is known to be the only person who has traversed the entire continent of Asia and photoghed its heritage.
Benoy K Behl is a culture historian, film-maker and photographer who is known for his tireless and prolific output of work over the past 41 years. He has taken over 50,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made a hundred documentaries on art history and his exhibitions have been warmly received in 58 countries around the world.
His films, including 26 documentaries on 'The Paintings of India' and 26 documentaries on 'The Sculpture of India' have been nationally telecast on prime time in India, as well as repeat telecasts. These have also been screened at scores of universities and museums in several countries around the world. Behl's films have won numerous awards at international film festivals.
In January, 2008, National Geographic magazine carried an 18-page story about ancient Indian art revealed through Behl's photography to the world. BBC World News have also carried three major stories about Behl's pioneering work in India and Vietnam.
The vastness of Behl's documentation presents a wide and new perspective in understanding the art of India and Asia. His photography of ancient murals in remote places has clearly established the continuous tradition of painting in India, from ancient times through the medieval period. His books 'The Ajanta Caves' and 'The Art of India' are widely acclaimed. Behl has photographed and researched the Buddhist heritage of 19 regions in 17 countries. This book presents the vast perspective which is the result of his dedicated and widespread documentation.
The year was 1996 and the National Museum of India commissioned me to produce an exhibition of my photo-graphs c f 'Buddhist Sites and Art Heritage in India'. The exhibition was to be held in November that year, as part of the `Festival of India' in Thailand. 1 was given the assignment based upon the work I had previously done in photographing the Buddhist heritage of the rock-cut caves of Western India, including the great paintings of Ajanta. This work had been acknowledged in India and across the world and had put me in touch with the leading scholars of Indian art history. BY then, I was also doing considerable work to document the Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh.
This assignment of the exhibition gave me the reason to travel across the plains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, to the most important sites of Buddhist heritage: Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Kushinagara, Vaishali, Rajgir, Nalanda, Sravasti, Lumbini in Nepal and so many others. This was the first out of many such trips to visit these sites, which I made over the next twenty years.
In the meantime, I also made repeated trips to the monasteries of Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Western Tibet. Those were wondrous journeys in their own right. The monasteries were located at high altitudes, ranging from 10,000 feet to over 14,000 feet. The trans-Himalayan landscape is a stark, cold desert, where very little grows and life is difficult. The oxygen is short in the air and we people who travel up from the plains, need considerable time to acclimatize to it. One cann ( it exert too much, or even eat as much as one normally does, as it requires much oxygen to digest the food.
Some people's bodies take longer to acclimatize than others. I am one such person and, in each documentation visit it took me considerable time to get used to the altitude. Some monasteries had no motorable roads going to them and Often I had to walk uphill. In a few places, where the distance to walk was very long and arduous (consequently dangerous in conditions of low oxygen), I somehow managed to arrange a horse to take me up. I will never forget the marvelous journey of four days going and coming back from the Phugtal Monastery in sanskar, in Ladakh. I did not know how to ride a horse, but the gentle and intelligent sanskari pony seemed to understand and took me very carefully up and down the steep mountain sides. By the end of the journey, we became great friends and it was a sad parting for me.
Meanwhile, the photography and research of Buddhist sites in the other countries of Asia was taken up. One of the most exciting journeys was two months across the length of China and from Central to Western Tibet. For long, I had heard about the Kizil Caves, next to kucha, on the Northern Silk Route in Western China. Kucha is where Kumara-jiva was born to Princess liva and the kashmiri Pandit Kumarayana. He was taken to Kashmir for thirteen years by his mother, where he learnt Sanskrit and studied Buddhist scriptures. On his return, he became the most famous translator of Buddl‘Ht scriptures in Kucha. It is said that China attacked and annexed Kucha because of the importance of Kumarajiva. Today , there is a modern statue of Kumarajiva in front of the Kizil Caves. The art of the caves displays the influences coming from India in the First Millennium CE.
In Tibet, the journeys were across very high altitudes and extremely remote places. Seeing the ruins of the castle at Guge was like a long- waited pilgrimage. This was the spot from where King Yeshe Od directed the construction of a legendary chain of 108 monasteries, across Western Tibet, Ladakh, LahauleSpiti and Kinnaur. The making of the monasteries was supervised by the Great Translator Lhotsava Rinchen Zangpo. The paintings and sculptures inside the monasteries were made by artists who were invited from Kashmir for the purpose. This is among the greatest bodies of the art of mankind. It is full of lyrical grace and joy. The exquisite paintings are also of special value, as those which were made in the valley of Kashmir in the ancient period have all been lost. My film assignments from Doordarshan and from the Ministry of External Affairs gave me many opportunities to visit the countries of South and South East Asia, which made it possible for me to take many of the photographs which are in this book. Research fellowships very kindly given to me by the Maulana Abul Kalam And Institute of Asian Studies made it possible for me to explore and document the northern spread of Buddhism from the Indian sub-continent.
Among the most fascinating of the journeys of photography, was the one in which my colleague and partner Sujata Chatterji, Sanghamitra Ghosh and I travelled across Afghanistan and then drove from there into Uzbekistan. The journey in Afghanistan was not easy and there were at least two occasions when our lives were at considerable risk. Driving into Uzbekistan, near Termez, was a most interesting experience. The people manning the border checkpoint knew no En-glish and we did not know their language. Moreover, they seemed to have never seen Indians before. Among the things which they examined very carefully (and even kept for detailed scrutiny) were the newspapers which had been used to wrap different objects in our bags. We were at the checkpoint for more than two hours. However, the rest of the journey across Uzbekistan was fascinating and we enjoyed meeting the most friendly and lovely people.
From Uzbekistan, the next leg of the journey took us to Kalmykia, the only part of Europe which has a Buddhist heritage. Elista in Kalmykia has a most impressive Buddhist temple and many statues of the Acharyas of Nalanda made around it, such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and Atisa. It was Lamas from Ladakh who were conducting the prayers inside and blessing the European Buddhists. They were very happy to see us and it gave them an opportunity to speak in Hindi!
This book is based upon my two photographic exhibitions on The Path of Compassion: The Buddhist Heritage of India' and on The Buddhist Heritage of the World'. These exhibitions have been very warmly received and held by about two hundred and fifty major cultural institutions in forty countries around the world. The exhibitions have been on display for months at a time at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, the Dunhuang Caves in China, the Tooth Relic Temple in Sri Lanka, the Lumbini site in Nepal, the Ryukoku University in Kyoto, the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Brazil and in other places.
This book is also based upon a series of articles which were published over the years in Frontline magazine. My grateful thanks are owed to Mr. N. Ram Editor-in-Chief of Frontline who warmly appreciated my work and encouraged me considerably. I am also extremely thankful to Mr. R. Vijaya Sankar, Editor of Frontline, who guided me through the years of my writing numerous articles for the magazine. The suggestion for this book was made by Dr. Umakant Mishra, a Former Director General of the Publications Division, Government of India. He suggested to Dr. Sadhana Rout, the present Director General of the Publications Division, that this book should be produced. Dr. Sadhana Rout responded very warmly and gave me the greatest encouragement to write this book at an early date. She also energized her marvellous team at the Publications Division to work with me to produce a book of the highest quality. I am deeply grateful to her and her excellent team for their efforts to produce a special book on this important subject.
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