During Emperor Ashok’s (in the 3rd century BCE) era, Buddhism spread not only to all corners of India but also throughout Asia. The religion and the art associated with it had a transforming effect on the countries which it reached and, till today, Buddhism flourishes all over the continent.
Emperor Ashok was the first great royal patron to honour Buddhist sites. The great stupas which he built, his commemorative pillars and sculptural railings are some of the most beautiful and oldest surviving architecture and art of the Indian subcontinent, said Benoy K. Behl, 62, a prominent Indian filmmaker, art historian and photographer.
“The sites are held sacred by more than 353,141,000 Buddhists and depicted extensively in the films. Even today, pilgrims come to these sites from all the Asian countries,” he said.
In conjunction with Wesak Day on May 19, Behl will share 60 of his photos and 10 documentary films at The Buddhist Heritage Of The World exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. Behl and assistant director Sujata Chatterji will be in KL from May 18-27.
Vice-pesident and organising chairman of the exhibition Prematilaka KD Serisena said he contacted Behl in mid March to work together on the exhibition for this Wesak Day, and Behl confirmed he was available.
“With the blessings of my management committee, the wheels were set in motion to make The Buddhist Heritage Of The World exhibition possible,” he said.
This exhibition is significant because Behl has traced the birth and spread of Buddhism across 19 regions in Asia. The world had benefited from the beautiful structures, art works and monuments influenced by Buddhism and Behl has captured some of these in his photos and films.
A world renowned authority on Buddhism, Behl’s book, The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings Of Buddhist India (1998), is studied in many countries. His recent book, Buddhism: The Path Of Compassion (2018), covers the Buddhist heritage in 19 regions of the world.
At the exhibition, Behl’s 10 documentary films cover the four great Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Lumbini (in Nepal), and Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar in India.
Behl has taken over 52,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 142 documentaries which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide. His photo exhibitions have been warmly received in 72 countries. He holds the Limca Book of Records for being the most travelled photographer and art historian.
In the early days
In the 1st century CE, Behl said, the Kushan king Kanishka gave royal patronage to Mahayana Buddhism.
“Thereafter, the Mahayana tradition, which later developed into the Vajrayana tradition, became dominant in India. This form of Buddhism also travelled northwards from Kashmir to the trans-Himalayan regions and to China, Korea and Japan,” explained Behl.
In the early days of Buddhism, the image of the Buddha was never made. However, from the 1st century CE onwards, Buddhists began to make and worship his images, said Behl.
“Earlier Buddhism concentrated solely on self-discipline as a means of striving for enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism brought the new concept of helpful Bodhisattvas.”
In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is any person who is on the path towards Buddhahood but has not attained it yet.
Behl further explained these beings delayed their own salvation to help others on the path. It is also believed in Mahayana Buddhism that they could be prayed to for help.
In the meantime, Sri Lanka became the centre of the earlier Theravada order of Buddhism. From here, the Buddhist tradition travelled to South-East Asia.
Behl said the qualities of the Buddha and those which led to enlightenment were studied in great detail at the universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila. These were personified in a pantheon of deities which was created.
“The devotee was to meditate upon the deity till he fully imbibed the grace and qualities which were presented. Then he had become the deity. Such deities were widely represented in sculpture and paintings, which were aids to meditation,” he said.
Behl’s photos tell of the Buddhist heritage in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Mongolia, Siberia, Uzbekistan, Kalmykia (in Russia), Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. It shows the birth and the development of different schools of Buddhism in India and their spread to the rest of Asia.
“The photographic exhibition shows the deeply shared Buddhist traditions of the whole of Asia. It is a journey through Buddhist history and culture, from the time of the life of the Buddha, through the development of Vajrayana and other Buddhist deities in Eastern and Western India, to the spread of these traditions across Asia,” said Behl.
The exhibition, he felt, “is unique as even a fraction of this wide coverage of the Buddhist heritage of so many countries has never been attempted before.”
Travel and perspective
Behl said that shooting the films about the spread of Buddhism was a wonderful experience.
“The many beautiful stupas and Buddhist paintings of Sri Lanka left a deep impression on me. The exquisite sculptures and grand stupas of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and other countries were wonderful to visit. The aesthetics of Japanese Buddhist temples take one to a very special place of peace, that we can find within ourselves,” he said.
On his films, Behl said: “I become conscious of the enormity of my travel and shooting over the past 43 years. It seems like almost a dream! I have been very fortunate that I have always conducted my research first-hand, by going to the sites and monuments. There is nothing in life quite as good as travel. You learn so much and your perspective becomes wider and warmer.”
One of Behl’s most memorable films is Sacred Buddhist Dance where one is spirited away to a magical land to watch “the dance of liberation of the lamas”.
“We went across the great Himalayas to the high-attitude cold deserts of Ladakh and Spiti. Here oxygen is scarce in the air. We had to lie down for at least a day to allow our bodies to acclimatise,” he said.
Life is difficult in those places.
“The Buddhist faith imbues the lives of the people here with patience and understanding, with a vision which is born out of the love of all creation – a vision which always looks to the eternal,” said Behl.
The people in these regions, he said, believe that Padmasambhava (an 8th-century Buddhist master from the Indian subcontinent) brought with him the Cham or ritual dance. With this, he scared away negative forces and prepared the mountainous regions for Buddhism.
“When he consecrated the first great monastery of Tibet at Samye, it is believed that he rose up into the air to dance. Where his shadow fell, the land was made pure and this became the boundary for the sacred space of the monastery. Till today, the Cham is performed across the mountains to keep the land blessed for Buddhism to prosper.”
In 2004, Behl and his film crew members Sanghamitra Ghosh and Ramesh Prajapati were in the key monastery high on a towering hill in the heart of Spiti.
“Here, the Cham is performed on a summer’s day. The lamas spend many days in preparation for the Cham. They have each selected a deity whom they want to be. Then, they meditate to lose their own identity and to become that deity. For on the day of the Cham, it is not the lamas who will dance but the deities who will be on the sacred ground,” he explained.
The Buddhist Heritage Of The World exhibition (May 18-26) will be held at the Puja Hall Level I, Wisma Dhamma Chakra, Buddhist Maha Vihara, Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition will be launched on Saturday at 8pm. Viewing times: 9am-10pm (May 19); 11am-9pm (other days).