The National Museum, New Delhi

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Early non-Buddhist Art Early Buddhist Art (Kushan/Gandharan) Buddhist Art Painting Mughal Painting Miscellaneous

The Aurel Stein Collection:

The National Museum, which contains an outstanding collection of early Buddhist sculpture and significant portions of the materials Sir Aurel Stein brought back from Chinese Central Asia, has begun to display on the Internet selected images of works from its collection. The images are really too small though, and not accompanied by explanatory text.

The collections of early Indian scupture in the museum are quite rich; the focus in the photographs here is on the Kushan era Gandharan materials, especially the Buddhist ones. I have included as well some images of Mughal painting and other later works.

When Aurel Stein undertook his archaeological expeditions to Central Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, he was in the employ of the British Indian Government. The agreement was that in return for his having been provided government funding, the results of his expeditions would be divided between British and Indian collections. While the largest portion of what he acquired ended up in the British Museum in London, a sizeable number of objects, some of them of great interest, are in New Delhi. Noteworthy items in the collection include the rather well-known paintings from Balawaste and Miran, the clay minqi or tomb figurines from the Astana cemetary, and the less well known but to my mind quite extraordinary wooden sculpture from Khotan and terracotta flask from Yotkan. For all of the problems with the way the collection is displayed in the Delhi museum, the selection there is in fact quite generous. In contrast, in London the enthusiast for the Stein materials finds the rather limited display of them in the British Museum frustrating. Naturally any museum can display at one time only a fraction of what it owns.

The photographs here were taken in 2001 using for the most part ASA 1600 film, which was barely adequate for getting a reasonable exposure. The results therefore are often quite grainy. While the early Indian sculpture sections of the collection are generally well lighted, the Stein Collection materials and painting from the Mughal period and later at that time were not. The lighting was flourescent of the worst type and often reflection on glass meant some of the most interesting of the objects on display could barely be seen, much less photographed. It is particularly unfortunate that only select details of a few of the painted banners can be shown. While the Museum website indicates that photographs of the whole collection have been made, we are still needing proper, modern publication of the results. Images of many of the items shown here have been published, for example in Stein's own detailed reports of his expeditions. However, I have not yet attempted to include the relevant citations. I do provide a few references to analogous items in the British Museum's Stein collections, as depicted in Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese art from the Silk Route (NY: George Braziller, 1990). The captions are from those in the museum displays, modified somewhat to correspond to the descriptive formulae of Whitfield and Farrer.