William Dalrymple in the NYRB (photo from Bridgeman Images):
Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held two remarkable but quite separate shows that, along with their catalogs, reflected this conceptual division. The northward thrust of Indian influence was examined in a small but fascinating show entitled “Buddhism Along the Silk Road: 5th–8th Century,” which was mounted in the Indian department of the museum between June 2012 and February 2013. The visual legacy of the diffusion of Indian art to Southeast Asia was the subject of a far more ambitious exhibition held at the Met a year later, in the summer of 2014, entitled “Lost Kingdoms.”
Both exhibitions were beautifully mounted and brilliantly curated. Yet to tell the diffusion of Indian influence at this period as two separate processes partially obscures a still more extraordinary story. For it is now increasingly clear that between the fourth and twelfth centuries the influence of India in both Southeast and Central Asia, and to some degree also China, was comparable to the influence of Greece in Aegean Turkey and Rome, and then in the rest of Europe in the early centuries BC. From the empire of the Gupta dynasty in the north and that of the Pallava dynasty in the south, India during this period radiated its philosophies, political ideas, and architectural forms out over an entire continent not by conquest but by sheer cultural sophistication.
On a bright, cloudless day last spring, I drove out of Kabul with a party of French archaeologists. We headed warily south through Logar province, past a succession of fortified mudbrick compounds surrounded by barren stripfields and sheltered by ragged windbreaks of poplar. After an hour, we turned off the road onto a bumpy mud track and headed up, through a succession of Afghan army checkpoints, into hills that were still, in April, etched with drifts of snow. At the summit, we crossed onto the high-altitude plateau of Mes Aynak, twenty-five miles southeast of Kabul.
The landscape could not have been more bleak or remote, yet in the sixth century this was the site of one of the most important Buddhist trading cities in Central Asia, a major stopping point for caravans of Indian traders and pilgrims heading toward China, and an important center for the northward diffusion of Indian culture, philosophy, and ideas. It was also a major stop for Chinese monks like Xuanzang heading southeast to the Indian cities of Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, and the great Buddhist university of Nalanda in northeast India, then the greatest repository of learning east of Alexandria.