Philobiblon: Filling in the gaps

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Filling in the gaps

Off the subject of women of Paris today and on to Asian history, at the spectacularly wonderful Musee Guimet. Very sensibly in the Forties they brought together the elements of several Asian collections in Paris to make a remarkably complete picture. To get the same in London you'd have to go to half a dozen museums.

There is also material from French colonies and French areas of interest that I've not seen elsewhere. (It is a bit like reading Le Monde and suddenly discovering Francophone Africa, which usually hardly gets a mention in the English-language media.)

There is some lovely stuff from and near Pondicherry, including "kammals", fish vertebrae carved into discs that were used to enlarge earlobe piercings. Some of these have also been found on the Palatine Hill in Rome, dating back to the second century BC. Certainly Rome knew the area well by a few of centuries later - Ptolemy called it "Poduke".

But the piece de resistance in my eyes is the collection from Afghanistan and northern India, covering from the Bactrian period (after Alexander the Great) right through (there's a wooden idol "a knight and his female assistant" from the &çth century utterly unlike anything I've seen before, on the lefthand stairs). This is largely the result of excavations in the Twenties.

This truly was the meeting place of the world: the great Indian monarch Asoka issued his treaties in Afghan territory in Greek, while the Milindapanha contains a dialogue between the Greek King Meander and the Buddhist sage Nagasera;

Han expansion forced the nomads of Central Asia west, and the Yuezhi people, who in would create the wonderful hybrid Gandhara culture, including the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, took over. From Begram, near Kabul, just one area are Greco-Roman bronzes, glasses fro, Alexandria; Chinese lacquers and Indian ivories. And the kings had three titles - in Indian; Iranian and Chinese, just to make sure.

Truly the meeting place of the world.

And it made its own unique items, particularly astonishing delicate glasses, including "flacons icthyomorphes" - fish-shaped flasks with delicate fins and tails. Again I've never seen their like before - and I couldn't find a single picture on the net.

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