April 2008

Vol 7 - No. 10
























Arts and Culture | April 2008



The Arts of Kashmir
Exhibition was held October 3rd - January 6th at Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Ave, New York

The 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.

Kashmir 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.

The 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.


Early 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.

By 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.

In 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.


The 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.

Buddhist 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 also popular.

Monks 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.


Rinchana (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.

The 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 elite.

By 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.

Decorative Arts and Textiles

Since 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.

The 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.

The 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 combination.


Architecture 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.

Though 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.

The 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 Kashmir's landscape.

[Source: Asia Society]


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