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Nalanda and the Southeast Asian connection

If you’re in Singapore between now and March 2008, don’t miss a unique opportunity to drop by the Asian Civilisations Museum for a special exhibition called On the Nalanda Trail, which showcases Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia and traces the pilgrimages of three Chinese monks as they travel to India and back. I’ve written about the exhibition’s focus on China and India at yesterday.sg; here, I’ll write about the exhibition in relation to Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Nalanda Trail - SEA section

We start at the mid-point of the exhibition, which brings us to Nalanda, the ancient university and centre for Buddhist learning between the 5th and 12th century. Nalanda was one of the earliest residential universities, with dormitories for students and at its height saw some 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers learning a variety of disciplines from Buddhism to astronomy and mathematics.

Nalanda University, cc image by dorje-d
Creative Commons photo by dorje-d

One of the exhibition’s highlights is this copperplate inscription from Nalanda University, which has a strong Southeast Asian connection:

Nalanda Copperplate

The inscription, dated to 860 AD and written in Devanegari and proto-Bengali script, states that a king of Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra) names Balaputradevi gave an endowment for Nalanda. The inscription also notes that Balaputradevi was part of the Sailendra dynasty in Javabhumi (Java, to the east).

Notice the crest of Nalanda, which is a wheel flanked by two deer:

Nalanda Crest

Nalanda Crest

Nalanda became the brewing pot of several flavours of Buddhism, notably Vajrayana Buddhism, which is now commonly known as Tibetan or tantric Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism which was widespread in Southeast Asia until Theravada Buddhism became dominant in mainland Southeast Asia after the 11th century.

On the Nalanda Trail features an impressive collection of artefacts, many on loan from the National Museum in New Delhi, India as well as some other museums in the region. In my post about Bujang Valley in Kedah, I had focused more on the later-period Hindu ruins and artefacts. Now I know I featured so few Buddhist artefacts – they were all on loan to this exhibition!

The first picture is some of the items found in the reliquaries that were buried in the candi at the Bujang Valley. The second is one of the many clay votive tablets that were found in the Buddhist ruins:

Nalanda Trail - Bujang Valley reliquary items

Nalanda Trail - Bujang Valley votive tablet

The third monk featured in the Nalanda Trail is another aspect of this exhibition that has strong Southeast Asian connections. Unlike the other two monks Faxian (399-414) and Xuanzang (629-645), Yijing (671 – 695) made the journey to India via the sea route, passing through Champa and Srivijaya enroute to Nalanda where he spent 10 years.

On his way back to China, Yijing spent six months in the Srivijayan capital (probably Palembang) where he learned Sanskrit, where he also commented and recommended future pilgrims to make a stop there because of the high quality of education. In fact, Yijing’s account is one of the earliest ones to identify Srivijaya in historical records.

On the Nalanda Trail is a great, not-to-be-missed exhibition. I’ve focused solely on Southeast Asia here, but I haven’t even scratched the surface on the remarkable specimens of Nalanda International Style of art that made its way to Southeast Asia, and of course the other highlights of the exhibit including rare Dunhuang paintings and even bone relics that are closely associated to Buddha himself! These footprints here are some of the earliest representations of Buddha – that’s right, they are aniconic.

Nalanda Trail - Budda footprint

SEAArch would like to thank the National Heritage Board of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum for the permission to shoot and publish these images online. On the Nalanda Trail is on from now until March 2008. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens.

Related Books:
- Buddhist Art: Form & Meaning by P. Pal
- Reading Buddhist Art by M. McArthur
- The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (Suny Series in Religion) by D. K. Swearer
- Sriwijaya: History, religion & language of an early Malay polity by G. Coedès and L. Damais

No comments yet to Nalanda and the Southeast Asian connection

  • N.

    excellent! wish i were there to see this for myself. maybe it’s time for me to go back… :) you sound like you’re having fun! and keep up the good work!

  • thanks! glad you liked it. there’s another exhibition on Indian art at the National library, so hopefully I can make it there and write something about it as well. yeah, you should come back! the Nalanda Trail is going to be on until March!

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