Both India and China preserve ancient Buddhist grottoes, or caves, demonstrating the deep history of China-India cultural exchanges and representing different Eastern philosophical modes of thought.
Cultural exchanges between China and India go back thousands of years. One of the most influential is the introduction of Buddhism to China from India, which forms a key cultural tie between the two countries. Both India and China preserve ancient Buddhist grottoes, or caves, demonstrating the deep history of China-India cultural exchanges. China and India share abundant similarities in culture, representing different Eastern philosophical modes of thought.
Dialogue Between Two Civilizations
Dunhuang Academy, an institution responsible for the management and research of the Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, which form a system of 492 well-preserved cells and cave sanctuaries southeast of the center of Dunhuang in China’s Gansu Province. As early as the 1980s, the academy carried out a series of exchange activities and co-hosted academic seminars with Indian cultural and arts centers such as Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA). In 2004 and 2005, exchange visits of scholars from both sides have been successfully conducted. During this period, two scholars from Dunhuang Academy spent one month in India for academic research, and three IGNCA researchers also conducted a one-month academic investigation in China. Later, Dunhuang Academy sent researchers in succession to India to study subjects such as the origin of Chinese Buddhist art. Indian researchers also came to China for academic activities.
In September 2018, Dunhuang Academy and IGNCA signed a memorandum of cooperation. The two sides will carry out cooperation across fields including cataloging, studying, and authentication of Indian documents, comparative studies of Indian and Chinese Buddhist art, joint exhibitions, exchange visits of scholars, book publication, and jointly building “cultural corners.” In November 2018, “From Ajanta to Mogao,” an advanced seminar on Buddhist art, was held by Dunhuang Academy in Mogao Caves, and Indian experts were invited to give lectures. In December of this year, “Dialogue of Civilizations Between India and China” organized by Dunhuang Academy and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU) was successfully held in BAMU, Aurangabad.
BAMU is located in Aurangabad, Maharashtra of India. The city is a tourism hub, surrounded by many historical monuments, including the Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Thus, hosting “Dialogue of Civilizations Between India and China” seminar in this city held great significance. Professor B. A. Chopade, vice-chancellor of BAMU, and Li Bijian, minister counselor of the Chinese Embassy in India, attended the seminar and delivered speeches at the opening ceremony.
This high-level academic seminar also attracted many well-known scholars from both China and India. Quite a number of renowned Indian scholars such as Professor Lokesh Chandra, Professor B. R. Deepak from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Dr. B. R. Mani, director-general of India’s National Museum, made speeches at the seminars. Dunhuang Academy’s art history expert Zhao Shengliang, Su Bomin and Chen Gangquan, experts in grotto cultural relics protection, archeologists Wang Huimin and Zhang Xiaogang, historian Zhao Xiaoxing, Professor Wang Bangwei with Peking University, and Professor Huang Xianian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences participated the event. Chinese and Indian scholars carried out in-depth discussions on the history, culture and art of Buddhist grottoes.
During the seminar, Dunhuang Academy also signed a memorandum of understanding with BAMU. The two sides will establish a communication mechanism to encourage exchange of professionals in history, geography, and archaeology, and to carry out cooperation in the protection and restoration of artistic and cultural heritage, and share experience on cultural relics protection, archaeological excavation, digitization of cultural relics, publishing and education.
Communication, Integration and Evolution
Buddhism used to be the state religion of India. It was in the mainstream of Indian culture from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD. At that time, Buddhism was popular throughout India, and was introduced to China via Central Asia and to Southeast Asia from the southeast of India, becoming the largest religion in Asia. Buddhism came to China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). It began to flourish in the country after Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) and reached its peak during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, profoundly influencing Chinese culture. Over the centuries, Buddhism has become an indispensable part of the traditional Chinese culture. In India, however, Buddhism gradually went downhill after the 7th century AD, and eventually declined. Today, a great number of Buddhist relics can still be found in various places throughout India, such as the Great Stupa at Sanchi, the Mahabodhi Temple, Ajanta Caves, and Ellora Caves. Because of the complexity of religious development, Buddhism actually showcases the exchange, integration and evolution of different regional cultures during its process of development and propagation throughout the world. In Buddhist art from all parts of China, people can not only see the influence of Indian culture, but also cultural elements from Central Asia, West Asia and even Europe. Thus, studying Buddhist culture can illuminate the contacts between the civilizations of India, Central Asia, West Asia, ancient Greece, and China.
The Mogao Caves are the product of cultural exchanges between China and other parts of the world via the ancient Silk Road. Mogao Caves, containing some of the finest examples of Buddhist art in China, were greatly influenced by India from the very beginning. People can see the close relation in such features as architectural form, murals and stone carving between Mogao Caves and Indian Buddhist caves such as Ajanta and Ellora Caves. Caves constructed at Mogao during the 4th to 6th century showed a strong foreign influence. People can find sculptures of Greek and Indian styles, structures of Central Asian styles, decorative patterns such as a honeysuckle design influenced by plant patterns from Mesopotamia (historical region of Western Asia ) and ancient Greece, as well as a linked-pearl pattern and a hunting pattern influenced by Central Asia. In the process of communicating with foreign cultures, Chinese artists constantly adapted these cultures to the Chinese soil and eventually formed a native tradition of Chinese Buddhist art.
Thus, the spirit of Dunhuang art represents a spirit of openness, inclusivity, communication and integration. The splendid Dunhuang art shows that there is no development without communication, and no influence without inclusivity. Without the continuous cultural exchanges via the Silk Road, the glorious achievement of Dunhuang culture would have been impossible. Today, the Dunhuang Academy also adheres to the spirit of openness and inclusivity, striving to promote Chinese culture represented by Dunhuang art to the world, and make Dunhuang culture better understood to the world. The academy spares no effort to make the spirit of the Silk Road play a better role to further the Belt and Road Initiative and promote the exchange and development between Chinese and Indian cultures.
Some Indian scholars at the “Dialogue of Civilizations Between India and China” said that while there are abundant Chinese scholars studying the Mogao Caves, there are too few researchers focusing on Indian Buddhist culture such as the Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves. Indeed, for historical and cultural reasons, the Indian academic community has a relative dearth of research on Buddhist culture. More than a decade ago, when art history expert Zhao Shengliang from Dunhuang Academy visited IGNCA, he found only one scholar there who was studying Buddhist art, while many scholars were studying Hindu culture and art. In recent years, an increasing number of Indian researchers began to focus on Indian Buddhist art, including studies on grottoes, relics, and museum collections. And they are doing quite a lot of work. In 2005, when Zhao visited Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves, he could only find simple leaflets about the caves, with almost no specialized books in sight. Now, books on these caves by Indian scholars, even some in-depth publications, are available. This demonstrates the changes in Indian academic circles. BAMU has opened up courses on Buddhist history and art and has begun to promote research on Indian Buddhist culture as an important research and teaching project. This reflects the fact that India’s local academic and educational institutions have begun to attach greater importance to the study of Buddhist culture.
It is believed that with India’s social and economic development, more and more people will attach great importance to its traditional culture, including Buddhism, and pay attention to the influences that traditional culture brings to modern society.
Buddhist culture is an important aspect of China-India cultural exchanges. India has a large number of cave relics such as Ajanta and Ellora. China also has large-scale Buddhist art heritage such as Mogao Caves and Yungang Grottoes. These cultural heritages and their origins will be important topics to explore for the cultural exchange between both countries.
The author is the vice director of Dunhuang Academy.