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The Silk Road Fabrics (The Stein Collection in the National Museum of India)

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Item Code: NAP935
Author: ArputhaRani Sengupta
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2018
ISBN: 9788124609217
Pages: 294 (Throughout Color & B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 11.50 X 9.50 inch
Weight 1.60 kg
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About the Book

During the Roman Empire when pure silk was valued like gold, burials in Han China and Central Asia were furnished with luxurious fabrics. Application of Western motifs and designs in the newly developed Chinese silk technology led to the emergence of a unique patterned silk. Silk fabrics connecting the Mediterranean with inmost Asia allowed transmission of knowledge across the world of ideas and beliefs. Archaeology in the Age of Discovery unearthed the exceptional Silk Road Fabrics from graves and shrines spanning several centuries and across the vast continental expanse of Central Asia, Egypt, Europe, China, and Japan. To Sir Aurel Stein (1856-1935) and others the various types of textiles excavated from the sand dunes of Central Asia were worth the risks. The burial silks offer a window to the history of a lost civilization revealing how the complex thread of interconnections linking East and West helped to shape new civilizations along the way.

About the Author

Arputha Rani Sengupta is Professor of History of Art, at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, Stella Maris College, Chennai, and Lasbrey Teachers Training College, Owerri (in Nigeria). She is best known for the cultural history of ancient India focused on Greco-Buddhist reliquary cult intersecting Imperial cult of Rome and fledgling funerary cults across Eurasian Steppe and Han China. Besides contributing to several publications, Sengupta has written and edited books on cult and cultural synthesis in early Indian art and culture. She has authored Indus Valley Seals Navigate Sundarbans Tiger (2016), Buddhist Art and Culture: Symbols & Significance, 2 vols (2013), Kailasanatha Temple: The Realm of Immortals (2009), Manimekalai: Dancer with Magic Bowl (2005), and Art of Terracotta (2004). Corollary to investigative archaeology and art history is the forthcoming Jewellery in Buddhist Reliquary Cult.


THE very notion of silk was shaped by China's adventure with sericulture. It profoundly affected the economic and cultural development of the ancient world. The rarity and antiquity of textiles from Sir Marc Aurel Stein's three expeditions are best conveyed by Stein's assistant Fred Andrews who in his article in The Burlington Magazine (1920) stated that "the first impression of a casual examination of the specimens was the absence of general resemblance to anything in textiles with which we are familiar". Commencing from Stein's crucial discovery of burial silks in the Tarim Basin in 1913, over 2,000 textile fragments have been recovered during three of his expeditions in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Sir Stein's gigantic contribution to Central Asian archaeology was due to his amazing stamina, courage, intuition, and luck. The varieties of textile excavated by him span several centuries, from the first century BCE to the eleventh century CE. Classified by the sites of their discovery, relics from Loulan and Astana constitute the majority. The exotic fragments were shared between the museums in London and New Delhi. Parts of the Stein Collection in London include those in the British Museum and some 700 textiles on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The importance of over 600 textile pieces in the National Museum at New Delhi cannot be underemphasized. The deliberation on the high quality and artistic value of the Stein Collection in India is intended to fill a lacuna and realize at least in part the worldwide interest to study a significant segment of the Stein Collection not in view. This was made possible by the liberal consent of Kuniko Ono, the publisher of Shikosha Artbooks. First published in Japan in 1979, the reproduction of the Stein Collection in Fabrics from the Silk Road in the National Museum of India has helped to exemplify Sir Stein's Central Asian expedition in the four volumes of Innermost Asia published in 1928.

Besides Stein's assemblage, Central Asian burial textile in the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad is a major collection. Our knowledge of antique textile comes mainly from these museum pieces. Archaeological textile studies are an important source of information for anthropological and technological inquiry. At Copenhagen John Becker's reconstruction of Han Pattern and Loom resulted in the instructive A Practical Study of the Development of Weaving Techniques in China, Western Asia and Europe first published in 1986. Moreover color is the single most remarkable quality of any Central Asian textile. The sources of natural dyes and method of fixing hold a number of clues. The discovery of heritage textiles from Central Asia and China is comparatively recent. Even so, the admirable work of scholars and ever-growing demand in a collector's market have increased the number of publications on ancient textiles in museums and art galleries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cleveland Museum of Art came together and held an exhibition of the Asian textiles dating from the eighth to the early fifteenth century CEo The catalog When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles published in 1997 by the collaborating museums admirably fulfilled a function in this category. Since 1950 the second period in archaeological excavation of textiles was undertaken by the People's Republic of China in well over 100 burial sites in south central China, Mangolia and Central Asia. In collaboration with worldwide institutions The Silk Road International Dunhuang Project documentation makes research in this area infinitely expandable.

The mysterious innovations in silk weaving in Central Asia are astonishing in the light of the fact that the technology was known for centuries in West Asia. Chinese Central Asia without the proto-weaving techniques of twining and plaiting suddenly accomplished sericulture and professional silk weaving. The fully developed and technically unsurpassed figure weaves from a landlocked region defined by its deserts, inhospitable climate and limited rainfall are rather mysterious. The greatest advantage was the native mulberry bush in the rearing of Bombyx mori for the finest and longest of silken thread. The convergence of sericulture and silk weaving had definitive form and function. Exposed to freezing nights and searing heat during the day, graves yielded stunning silk furnishing symptomatic of a drastic change in funerary customs. Ethno- archaeology not only reveals technical excellence in weaving but also offers proof of faith in afterlife. The discovery of these historic fabrics preserved in Japan, Africa and Europe exposes their identity and character. In addition, the textile designs actually have a notable function in Parthian and Greco-Buddhist architectural reliefs in Persia and South Asia. Riboud's discussion on Han dynasty textiles compares the animal style to early Indian sculpture. The shared motifs in mortuary art indicate that a full exploration in this direction is a challenging but a rewarding task. When that cultural context is not acknowledged a great amount of historical realism is also lost. To address this problem consideration of religious symbolism, funerary customs and folklore inherent to the burial silk and artifacts recovered along the Silk Road is essential.

As the most preferred funerary goods silk worth its weight in gold is the most significant factor in the trade along the Silk Road. Caught in the dynamics of history are the geopolitical plot and the emerging distinction between China, Inner Asia and Eurasia in the geographical sense of the term. It was not yet populated by either self- contained or self-defined nationalities. Ethnically and culturally indistinct nationalities intermingled in the Crossroads of Asia. As the carriers of ideas and commodities and also religions, merchants and travelers not only connected Mongolia-China with Syria, Turkey, and Egypt but several of them even adopted new homelands. Commercial contacts have a longer lasting life and an immense potential to cement the bonds between various countries. As a result, the Greco-Buddhist reliquary cult in South Asia flourished precisely due to the lucrative silk trade with Rome. It is in this light that several of the figured textiles will be viewed in terms of their affirmed function. One of the astonishing by-products of the Silk Road is the jade garment. Depending on the station of the person buried, body suits made of pieces of jade are exceptional. These are fashioned mostly with square or rectangular and occasionally triangular, trapezoid and rhomboid plaques knitted together by gold, silver or copper wire. The most fabulous among these is the jade burial suit at the Mausoleum Museum of the Nanyue King in Cuangzhou. The "patchwork suit" is made of 2,291 pieces of jade pieces connected by red silk thread or silk ribbon overlapping the edges of the plaques. The world's oldest textile printing blocks in bronze from this Han tomb are also part of the Nanyue culture. Indicating that Guangzhou in the ancient Silk Route was exposed to diverse influences, the tomb contained in addition to extraordinary Chinese burial goods, five African elephant tusks, frankincense and a silver box from Persia.

Patchwork robe refers to clothing pieced together from bits of precious cloth. It indicates that even small pieces of textile fragments were treasured. Seated Buddha from the Mathura school in north India wears scraps of fabric sewn together. A votive frieze from Amaravati (now in Los Angeles) also depicts patchwork garment with square patches. In philosophic terms the "patchwork robe of salvation" in the Greco- Buddhist cult might be a treasured spiritual vestment or simply a skillful means of teaching (upaya):

Zen master Tongan asked, "What is the business under the patchwork robe?" Liangshan had no answer.

Tongan said, "It is wretched if you don't reach this state. You ask me and I'll tell you."


The main commodity in the international trade was silk produced in China. Seres, the Greek word for silk, became synonymous for China, the land of silk. The Latin serieum is derived from the Greek ser. The adoption of Greek and Latin words for silk is evident in other languages: sieg in Chinese, modern ssu for silk thread, sir in Korean, sirket in Mongolian, seale in Russian, and silk in English. Referring to the ancient overland silk trade routes, the nineteenth-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen first coined the word Seidenstrassen or Silk Road between East and West. Most of the medieval sources refer to the famous highway as Big Route (botshaom targovam puti) or Shawari Caravan (Shahrahibuzurg) and even as Silk Road (Rahiabrasnami) To reach the Syrian markets it had to cross the deserts and mountains of Asia. Along the most dangerous stretches of the route fortified strongholds were built to protect the precious caravans. In the first centuries of the Christian era Hatra in Iraq among the great Parthian cities continued to flourish as a major Arab staging-post. In the chain Hatra linked Palmyra (sacked CE 272) and Dura-Europos in Syria (deserted CE 256), Petra in Jordan (declined CE 235), and Baalbeck in Lebanon, all having the eclectic identity of a mixed population merged with the Greek settlers. Pliny the Elder and others identify Petra, the capital of the Nabataeans, as the center of caravan trade. The caravan route of the Silk Road branched off at certain points for practical purpose. In Bactria the route turned southwards, continuing by sea through the Persian Gulf and then to Alexandria by way of the Red Sea. Thus on its western end the Silk Road began on the Mediterranean coast, in the ports of Alexandria and Antioch. It wound its way through the caravan cities in northern Iran, Chorasrnia and Ferghana, and then through western Turkistan, notably the city of Samarkand in Sogdiana. The arterial route then scaled the Pamir range, the Roof of the World. It then became the T'ien Shan South Road that skirted the Takla Makan Desert, passing through such oasis towns as Kashgan and Kucka along the way. Entering China through Loulan or Dunhuang, the Silk Road finally reached Ch' ang-an, the city known today as Sian (0.1). To the Han the economic factor of silk was significant. A speech by the Grand Secretary to the early western Han Council recorded in 81 BCE proclaims the importance of silk trade with the nomad tribes in the north:

For a piece of Chinese plain silk article several pieces of gold can be exchanged with the Hsiung-nu, and thereby reduce the resources of our enemy. Thus mules, donkeys and camels cross the frontier in unbroken lines; horses, dapples and bays and prancing mounts, come into our possession. The furs of sables, marmots, foxes and badgers, colored rugs and decorated carpets fill the imperial treasury, while jade and auspicious stones, corals and crystals become national treasures.

Above all, the supply of lustrous silk to Rome by way of Parthia and Palmyra filled the coffers of the eastern kingdoms. And as planned, it also reduced the vital resources of their common enemy. The Syrian glass factories established at this time in Central Asia were probably part of the reciprocal exchange between China and Syria. By shifting important local industries from the subject nations, there appears to be a concerted effort to deny Rome the benefits of its imperial power. This ploy made Rome pay exorbitant amounts of gold to buy the luxurious silk and precious gems, cut glasses and crystals, aromatics and medicines, as well as wine from Ferghana it craved for. Pliny complained that the luxury goods were depleting the Roman treasury to the extent of fifty million sesterces annually.' A vital section of the Silk Route was owned by the Parthians and due to concerns caused by the expansionism of Rome, for about fifty years silk intended for Rome traveled through Media, Armenia and on to Colchis and the Black Sea coast. In CE 66 the ploy of crowning the Parthian ruler Trididates in Rome did not yield expected results and the Sasanians who supplanted Parthians continued to resist the advances of Rome and levied heavy taxes on the caravans passing through their territories.

The Silk Route

Roughly the size of Australia, Central Asia covers the immense expanse of the empire of the steppes called Russian and Chinese Turkistan. The overland caravan contact along the southern limits of the region became possible with the domestication of the Bactrian camel in the first centuries of the Common Era (0.2). Following camel trails nomads in the Eurasian Kazakhstan still gallop across the steppes and the high mountain pass. Ancient traditions are kept alive by the craftsmen in the vibrant markets and caravanserais of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Xinjiang. It is a mysterious land of myths and legends in which the Silk Road has left behind ruined cities and tombs. The Chinese autonomous Province of Xinjiang has Takla Makan Desert and Kunlun Mountains in the south sharing borders with Tibet and Pakistan where Gilgit is located on the ranges of Karakoram. The major sites in Xinjiang are Loulan, Astana, Niya, Bezeklik, Taxkurgan and Fiaoche. In Western Kinghay, cultural counterparts of Xinjiang are Sholak Korgon, Koshoy Korgon, Shirdakbek, Lap Nor and Gandhara. Consequent to Alexander's conquest, Sogdiana between River Amu Darya and Syr Darya played an important role in the religious and cultural development of Central Asia. Until the eighteenth century, the merchants who took the hazardous journey were mostly Sogdians, a Greco-Iranian people (0.3). Thereafter the Uyghurs, a Turkic people of Central Asia, took over and established settlements along the way (0.4). Two trade routes were most traversed. One passed through the land from the hilly areas of Gilan to Alburz that came to an end at the Caspian Sea. The Hindu Kush and the Pamirs cut off Inner Asia from India and the Tibetan Plateau. The route went by way of Khurasan and Kabul and entered the Indian subcontinent. The third turned south from Samarkand and went through Bactria toward Gandhara, which is now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By land and sea the Silk Route linked Tamluk on the Bay of Bengal. As a thriving cult center it introduced exotic votive terracotta that glorified the goddess wrapped in splendid gold and diaphenous silk (0.5).

Far from being a monolithic entity like Egypt, China did not have nationalistic lines either in geographical or cultural terms. Chinese territory from the Yellow River to its western frontiers extended towards Afghanistan and north-eastward to the Karakoram Range and the Tian Shan Mountains, which encompass the Tarim Basin. From the Carpathians in the west, grasslands stretch north of the Black Sea across the Dnieper, Don, and Volga rivers eastward to the drainage of the Irtysh River north of Lake Balkash and on to the foothills of the Altai Mountains. The mountain barriers of Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Kuen Lun, and the Western Himalayas did not prevent the merchants and religious zealots in their activities. South of the Kazakh Steppe is the extremely arid Turkistan and its Takla Makan Desert. The far-flung region's survival centered on natural oases on the caravan routes along Samarkand (Marakanda), Bukhara, Khiva, Merv, Kokand, Kashi (Kashgar), Yarkand, and Turpan (Turfan). The Silk Route went through ancient cities in which Chang'an, Dunhuang, Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, Herat, and Almaty linked East and West. The relatively safe overland routes under the Mongols from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean were used later by the Polo Brothers.

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