Arts of Kashmir
3rd - January 6th at Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Ave, New York
Arts of Kashmir is a major international loan exhibition of objects of
exemplary quality devoted to the rich artistic tradition of Kashmir. For
centuries the Kashmir valley has been a burgeoning arts center and
cultural magnet. Covering the fourth century to the twentieth century,
this exhibition is the first ever to be devoted to the extraordinary arts
of this highly lauded location. Premier examples of Kashmir's little-known
works of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic art, along with famed craft works
ranging from furniture and papier-mâché to carpets and embroidery, will
be included to provide a sense of the broad artistic production of this
region. The 136 works in the exhibition come from collections in the
United States, Europe, and India. The highly respected curator of The Arts
of Kashmir, Pratapaditya Pal, has been engaged with the art of Kashmir for
more than thirty years.
has existed as a major artistic and intellectual center since the early
centuries of the Common Era. The Kashmir Valley was a destination for both
Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims and several esoteric strains of the two
faiths, including Tantrism and Vajrayana Buddhism, were practiced
throughout the region. Although most early Kashmiri kings were Hindus,
they patronized Buddhist monasteries. Some rulers were great patrons of
the arts and funded the development of music, dance, and poetry, as well
as religious and secular architecture.
Kashmiri poet and historian Kalhana has provided us with an account of
twelfth-century Kashmir in the Rajatarangini, his chronicle of
kingship. Through Kalhana's narrative, we know that Muslims were settled
in Kashmir and had positions in the Hindu royal court from at least the
eleventh century. Islamic dynasties ruled over the region from the
fourteenth century to the nineteenth century. During the Islamic period,
Kashmir's artistic traditions in textiles, painting, and book production
were given a great boost as artistic needs shifted to accommodate the new
tastes and visual traditions of the Islamic rulers. The sculptures,
paintings, textiles, metalwork, and other decorative arts featured in this
exhibition are a living testament to the cosmopolitan nature of Kashmiri
society and the peaceful co-existence of multiple religious faiths.
Kashmiri sculpture reveals stylistic and iconographic links with art from
the neighboring region of Gandhara (present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan).
By the seventh century, however, the distinct theological trends and local
artistic traditions in Kashmir had resulted in unique sculptural forms.
the early centuries of the Common Era, the Kashmir Valley became home to
devotees of the Hindu deities Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi. Shaivism, the
worship of Shiva, dominated Kashmir's religious landscape and had a large
community of followers. Many of the stone sculptures in this exhibition
were originally associated with temples dedicated to these gods. To
devotees, the sculptures were not only representations of the deities, but
were actual manifestations of the spiritual as it was envisioned through
verbal chants and meditation.
Kashmir, emphasis on particular deities and aspects of faith made local
practice unique. This exhibition features a number of sculptures that
demonstrate specific local attachments to the goddess Durga, a
manifestation of Devi, and the god of love, Kamadeva.
abundance of Buddhist sculptures in Kashmir testifies to the faith's
importance from the early centuries of the Common Era until the thirteenth
century. One of the earliest sites associated with Buddhism is Harwan
(about 3rd–5th century). Among the notable finds from Harwan—some of
which are on display in this exhibition—are stamped terra-cotta tiles
with figural and symbolic forms.
sects flourished in the Valley alongside early Shaiva and Vaishnava
practices. Vajrayana Buddhism was one of the most popular sects and may
have originated in Kashmir. Apart from the Buddha who was the principle
focus of Buddhist piety, the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Tara were
from Kashmir played a major role in the spread of Buddhism into Tibet,
central Asia, and China. When Buddhism declined in Kashmir, large numbers
of portable sculptures were taken out of the Valley and placed into
monasteries in nearby regions, especially Tibet. The dissemination of
these sculptures ensured that the techniques and styles that were refined
in the Kashmir Valley had an enormous impact on other Buddhist communities
in what is now Pakistan, Ladakh, Western Tibet, and the Indian
subcontinent long after Buddhism ceased to be important in Kashmir.
(r. 1320–1323) was the first Muslim king in the Kashmir Valley. He was a
Ladakhi Buddhist prince but then converted to Islam after meeting with the
Suhrawardiya Order of Sufis, a sect of Islamic mysticism. After the rule
of Rinchana and his widow, there were three Sultanate dynasties in the
Valley until the Mughals gained power and ruled from the sixteenth until
the nineteenth century.
dominance of Islam in Kashmir created a new artistic and architectural
ferment. In addition to secular structures, mosques and tombs were built
using brick and wood—materials that were, until this time, more common
in West and Central Asia than in Kashmir. The artistic tastes of the
courts inclined towards Persian traditions. Manuscript painters and
textile artists accordingly adapted the foreign forms to fit local needs.
Persian music, poetry, and calligraphy were also valued skills of the
the Mughal period (1526–1858), all signs of Buddhism had vanished and
only small groups of Hindu priests maintained their faith and customs.
Today, a large part of the population remains Muslim.
Arts and Textiles
the nineteenth century, Kashmir has been best known for painted, carved,
or lacquered wood, papier-mâché objects, chased and enameled metal
wares, and textiles. Although shawls have received the most attention in
the modern era, the traditions of elaborate metalwork for domestic and
ritual paraphernalia extend back at least to the eighth century. Kashmiri
artists were also quick to adapt enameling and papier-mâché techniques
introduced from abroad to their native resources and tastes.
Kashmir Valley has long been celebrated for its fine pashmina wool from
the domestic goat. The special qualities of Srinagar’s Jhelum River were
legendary for producing the softest shawls and carpets in the world. The
Mughal emperors established Lahore (in present-day Pakistan) and the
Kashmir Valley as weaving centers where thousands of looms were
constructed to supply both domestic and international markets.
presence of unique local motifs is found across mediums. Common designs
such as the chinar leaf and the poppy pattern reflect the region’s
natural elements. Floral motifs like the rosette or coriander flower have
also remained staple decorative designs in Kashmir and can be found in
metalwork, papier-mâché objects, and textiles in endless variety and
in Kashmir was inspired by the Buddhist structures of neighboring Gandhara.
Local artisans, however, adapted the foreign forms and developed a unique
style with regional characteristics. In the early centuries of the Common
Era a typical Kashmiri temple consisted of a tall, sturdy stone building,
set upon a high plinth facing east. The temples often included Greco-Roman
architectural elements including rounded arches, triangular pediments, and
most notably Classical Greek fluted columns.
only stone structures survive from early Kashmir, most early buildings
were made of wood. No Buddhist structures have survived, although there is
textual evidence of stupas in the region until the seventh century.
Terra-cotta tiles excavated from the Buddhist site at Harwan are decorated
with images of stupas.
Islamic dynasties from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century introduced
the dome to Kashmiri architecture. They also introduced structures such as
tombs and mausoleums. The Islamic emperors created beautiful gardens in
Kashmir that are still renowned today. Gardens held a special meaning in
the Islamic understanding of paradise and emphasized the beauty of