The Religions of India

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

The permanent exhibition on Buddhism, including a standing Buddha (right) on loan from the National Museum of Ireland.

The permanent exhibition on Buddhism, including a standing Buddha (right) on loan from the National Museum of Ireland.

The story of how Chester Beatty came to bequeath his collection of oriental art to Ireland is quite well known by now. Although the American-born mining tycoon had some distant Irish ancestry, his decision to move to Dublin resulted from his dislike of the Labour government elected in Britain after World War II. He spent much of his life employing experts to seek out and acquire art reflecting Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian and Greek culture and religion. Most of his collection was devoted to sacred texts, although a significant part of it came from the Indian Mughal court, of which the miniatures are considered among the finest in the world.

 

‘The Future Buddha as a Flying Horse’ from a mid-nineteenth-century Burmese folding book, in which the horse rescues 500 shipwrecked merchants held captive by she-goblins.

‘The Future Buddha as a Flying Horse’ from a mid-nineteenth-century Burmese folding book, in which the horse rescues 500 shipwrecked merchants held captive by she-goblins.

Originally housed in a purpose-built museum in one of south Dublin’s leafy suburbs, the library has benefited from its move to Dublin Castle, which not only provided the opportunity to redesign the whole exhibition area from scratch but made this internationally significant collection more accessible to Dubliners and visitors alike. It is now one of the top tourist attractions in the capital. The library makes good use of its location, with airy public areas, a shop and a café to complement the two floors of exhibition space. The first floor hosts temporary exhibitions, while the second houses the permanent collection on display, devoted to sacred texts and art of the world’s great religions.

Among the permanent exhibitions in the library is a section on the religions of India. This is located on the second floor, where, although most of the gallery is taken up with the sacred scriptures of Christianity and Islam, the area devoted to other Eastern religions is well worth concentrating on in its own right. Alongside display cabinets devoted to the religions of China and Japan are those devoted to Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, which, along with Islam, constitute the main faiths of the Indian subcontinent.

Buddhism occupies most space in this part of the gallery, reflecting its importance not just in India and neighbouring Nepal and Tibet but also in countries from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. Sacred art and ritual objects are key features of Buddhism, and on display are paintings, holy books and other ritual objects made of bronze and silver. The objects and art are intended to provide a focus for meditation, but even to the non-believer they can be objects of impressive skill and beauty. Among those on display is a stupa, a small religious monument representing an image from Buddhist scripture. In the same cabinet is a small statue of the Buddha and a small altar table, along with other items related to Buddhism such as a prayer wheel.
A painting, c. 1615–20, of ‘A Garden Gathering with a Prince in a Green Jama’ by Bichitr from the Minto Album, on display in the Murraqqa’, Imperial Mughal Albums exhibition, which runs until 3 October 2010.(All images: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin)

A painting, c. 1615–20, of ‘A Garden Gathering with a Prince in a Green Jama’ by Bichitr from the Minto Album, on display in the Murraqqa’, Imperial Mughal Albums exhibition, which runs until 3 October 2010.
(All images: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin)

Art is represented in the holy books of sacred stories and legends that are illustrated with finely executed paintings. Look out for the depiction of ‘The Future Buddha as a Flying Horse’ from the mid-nineteenth century, in which the horse rescues 500 shipwrecked merchants held captive by she-goblins. On the walls are some mandalas. These large paintings depict the Buddhist conception of the universe. Painted on cloth are richly coloured detailed and intricate patterns of squares and circles.

Moving on, you come to a part of the gallery dealing with India proper. Here too the artefacts on display are for the most part sacred texts, paintings and religious objects. One item worth examining in detail is an illustrated scroll of Krishna in the incarnation of a cowherd god. Other texts also contain illustrations of Hindu deities, which are very different from anything being done in western art at the same time. For example, one nineteenth-century painting in ink, colours and gold on paper depicts Varaha the Boar, which is the third incarnation of Vishnu.

The Jains, like the Buddhists, have their conception of the universe. The Jain cosmology is divided into the worlds of heaven, mortals and the damned. Hanging on the wall is a representation of the mortal world painted in geometric patterns of diverse colours. Another cabinet contains scriptures and artefacts of importance to Jainism.

Throughout most of the Chester Beatty Library the display cabinets are complemented by interactive touch-screens that give further information on the objects and allow the viewer to see them from different angles and perspectives. While the area devoted to the religions of India does have information panels that succinctly and clearly explain the religions in question, there is only one interactive touch-screen. Unfortunately this was not working on the day I attended, but hopefully other visitors will have better luck.

The experience, however, is in no way devalued by the lack of hi-tech gizmos. The objects in the display cabinets and on the walls have a fascination of their own. Not only do they provide an insight into other religions and cultures but they also have a beauty that we can all appreciate. One quality that they all possess is intricacy, and almost every artefact rewards close attention. It is literally true to say that the more you look, the more you see.

The Chester Beatty Library is worth visiting for many reasons but sometimes a general tour through all the galleries can be a bit overwhelming. The diverse cultures represented display glamour, intensity and a brilliance that can make the multifarious exhibits difficult to appreciate in one go. That is why choosing a theme can result in a very rewarding visit, even if it is only a fraction of what is on display in the library as a whole. So why not check out the current temporary exhibition, Murraqqa‘, Imperial Mughal Albums, which runs until 3 October 2010? One of the top ten Asian exhibitions in the world, it is back after a tour of America. It focuses on a group of six albums (muraqqa‘s) compiled in India between about 1600 and 1658 for the Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal). Each album folio originally consisted of a painting on one side and a panel of calligraphy on the other within beautifully illuminated borders. Many of the paintings are exquisite portraits of emperors, princes and courtiers in the finest costumes and jewels, as well as images of court life, Sufis, saints and animals.  HI
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