Collection of South, Southeast, and Central Asian Art

The Collection of South, Southeast, and Central Asian Art contains one of the most important holdings in the world of art from the Indo-Asian cultural region, dating from the 4th century BC up to the present day. This vast geographical region encompasses India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang of the People’s Republic of China, the southeast-Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Indonesian archipelago.

The collection at a glance

Indian art is nearly entirely religious in character. The three main indigenous religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – are reflected in the collection’s magnificent stone sculptures and reliefs, bronzes, and terracottas. The Berlin collection is probably the richest outside India in terms of the exceptional iconographic quality of the images of deities it contains. The oldest artworks in the collection originate from Buddhist and Hindu places of worship dating from the first few centuries of the Common Era. The collection’s Jain art and the majority of its Hindu sculptural works, on the other hand, originate from temples constructed from the classical period up to the Middle Ages, around the 13th century AD. The permanent exhibition was redesigned in 2000 and now features examples of the round stupa and rectangular temple – the two most important elements in Indian sacred architecture.

In the 12th century, Islam joined the other main religious faiths in India. During the period of Islamic rule in India, craftwork flourished. A wealth of metal objects, ceramics, wood carvings, ivory and jade works, as well as precious textiles bear vivid testimony to this time of great flourishing. Sumptuously coloured miniatures from the Mughal period round off the exhibition. In addition, the extensive collection of book art features illuminated manuscripts and miniatures representing all four of India’s major religions.

The art of the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Tibet is represented by paintings on cloth, (known as thang-khas), wood sculptures, and bronzes. A characteristic feature of late Tantric Buddhism are the images of demon-like patron deities from the 18th century that adorn such objects.

The Southeast-Asian collection includes stone and bronze figures, glazed clay reliefs, as well as tomb finds from prehistoric times (3rd to 1st millennium BC), such as ceramic vessels and bronze and glass jewellery.

The magnificent centrepiece of the exhibition, in terms of both the rarity of the objects themselves and the architectural setting in which they are presented, is formed by the world-famous Turfan Collection, named after the first of four royal Prussian expeditions conducted between 1902 and 1914 to the northern Silk Road, in particular to the city of Turpan (in the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang of the People’s Republic of China). The Turfan Collection’s murals, paintings on fabric and paper, clay and wood sculptures of the 3rd to 13th centuries originate for the most part from Buddhist temples. The focal point of this section is the full-scale reconstruction of a square temple decorated with the original murals from Cave 123 at the oasis of Kucha.

Systematic collecting activity in the area of Indo-Asian art began as early as the 19th century, initially under the direction of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum). It was not until the period between 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War, however, that truly outstanding artworks were acquired by the Berlin museums. This coincided with a growing interest in Indian culture that followed in the wake of significant contributions to Indology made by German scholars. The Indologist Albert Grünwedel and the Turkologist Albert von LeCoq – researchers at the Ethnological Museum’s Indian department (set up in 1904) carried out four expeditions to the northern Silk Road between 1902 and 1914. They returned to Berlin with an array of unique objects that went on to be known as the Turfan Collection. These artefacts provided a vivid impression of the little-known religious and cultural life of the remote regions of eastern Central Asia in the first millennium AD.

The First World War put a stop to any further expeditions to the Silk Road. The collection’s expansion was thus not only curtailed; the consequences of the Second World War some twenty years later put the collection itself in jeopardy. Considerable losses were suffered in the Indian department’s collection as a result of the war. (Over 2100 inventory numbers are still listed as artworks lost during the war, with many of those inventory numbers representing several objects at once.) The artefacts were removed for safekeeping but were subsequently seized by the invading troops. The seized objects that were held in the American and British zones of occupation were returned to the department in 1956/57. A portion of the artworks confiscated by the Red Army and taken to the Soviet Union after the war were eventually returned to German soil in 1978 when they made their way to the Grassi Museum in Leipzig. They were returned to the Berlin museum in 1990. In 2002, permission was granted for the first time to view around 20 per cent of the collection’s missing holdings, in the storerooms of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where they have been held since the Second World War.

In 1963, the Indian department became an art museum in its own right. The move was a reflection of the growing recognition of the importance of Indo-Asian civilizations as world cultural heritage and resulted in the creation of the first independent institute in Germany exclusively dedicated to the scholarship of Indo-Asian art.

After the construction of a new museum complex at Berlin-Dahlem, the Museum für Indische Kunst was able for the first time to present its collections in an exhibition space of its own. Since then, new accessions to the collection have come in the form of acquisitions, donations, and loans from private collections. The permanent exhibition was radically overhauled in 2000 and now presents a selection of around 400 exhibits from a collection totalling nearly 20,000. The use in the presentation of grey quartzite imported from India corresponds to the exhibits’ origin. This visual 'anchor' is strikingly reinforced by the examples of Indo-Asian sacred architecture that have been integrated into the exhibition layout: the round stupa and rectangular temple.