New ancient religions exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum

Exhibits in Asian Civilisations Museum's new permanent gallery show the spread of religions from India across Asia

A striking, 58cm-tall statue of a lion-headed female wearing a human skin stands out in the centre of the Asian Civilisations Museum's newly opened Ancient Religions collection.

For devotees, the 18th-century bronze of Simhavaktra from Tibet meant comfort, not fear, as it represented a "sky-walker" who guides followers of Buddhism along the path to enlightenment.

This figure, unique to Tibet, shows how a faith which began in India evolved as it spread in Asia.

Sharing the connections among different countries is the aim of the exhibition in the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery, which opened to the public last Tuesday.

The new permanent gallery, on the second floor of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), occupies a 680 sq m space formerly used by the museum's special exhibitions and South-east Asia gallery.

It houses the majority of the museum's Ancient Religions collection, which features 10 centuries of sculpture and art tracing the spread of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs out of India and into Nepal, China, Sri Lanka and South-east Asia.

Mr Kennie Ting, director of the ACM, says: "We see pieces from China, India and South-east Asia in the same gallery and see how craftsmanship evolved and changed, as well as the flow of trade and goods in the region. We also get to see the universal values of the faiths."

In total, 163 objects are displayed in the exhibition. Of these, 28 major works were newly acquired with the help of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple.

Also featured are seven objects from the national collection that are rarely seen, apart from them being shown at special exhibitions.

These include a 32m-long cotton scroll from Thailand, painted in 1960 with stories from the Buddhist Jataka tales.

  • BOOK IT / ANCIENT RELIGIONS

  • WHERE: Level 2 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place

    WHEN: 10am to 7pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays)

    ADMISSION: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents, $8 for others

    INFO: Docent tours for the gallery run from Mondays to Fridays at 3.30pm. Interested visitors may gather at the lobby before the tour. No sign-up is required.

This Vessantara Jataka scroll would typically be unrolled during festivals. Too long to be displayed in its entirety, it is partly unrolled in a prominent spot in the new gallery to show how an ancient religion is still practised today, with stories handed down over time.

Paintings, shrines and statues also highlight the art of another major Indian religion, Jainism.

It arose in ancient India, like Buddhism, in response to the inequalities of the Hindu caste system. Unlike Buddhism, it never became popular outside the country.

The museum's collections were once housed geographically, with objects grouped in perhaps the South Asia Gallery or Southeast Asia Gallery because of their origin. However, the museum now wants to tell a different story.

"The idea is to show links, connections and that where we are today is because of these influences," says Mr Ting.


This 32m-long cotton scroll from Thailand was painted in 1960 with stories from the Buddhist Jataka tales. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, SEAH KWANG PENG

Since 2014, galleries at the ACM have been reworked to highlight connections and interactions among different Asian cultures throughout history.

In November 2015, ceramics and other treasures recovered from a ninth-century shipwreck became the focus of the first floor's Tang Shipwreck gallery, which shows trade links between China and Arabia.

The associated Maritime Trade collection features works of art which arose from cultural exchanges along ancient trade routes in Asia.

"The vision is to look at Asia through the lens of Singapore," says Mr Ting. "We link the museum more closely to what Singapore is. We're a trading city, also a multifaith society. We felt it was very important in this new incarnation of the museum to highlight this more."

He says that by November next year, the museum plans to open similarly expanded galleries on Christianity and Islam in Asia.

"There aren't many places in Singapore that are a secular space where all these traditions and their arts are presented," he says.

"It's the mission of museums to present intercultural and inter-faith dialogue."

WATCH Kennie Ting introduces the new gallery. http://str.sg/o4uw


New at the museum

The Ancient Religions galleries housed in the Asian Civilisations Museum's Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery traces the development of Buddhist and Hindu art as beliefs spread from India throughout Asia. It also features examples of Jainism, a major Indian religion which never became popular outside the country. However, Jain art is related in style to Buddhist and Hindu art.

Shrine with Jina Sumatinatha, 13th century, from Gujarat or Kathyawar in India


PHOTOS:DESMOND WEE, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

This bronze shrine inlaid with silver and copper dates back to the year 1263 and was made for a temple of the Jain religion.


Monk's ceremonial fan. PHOTOS:DESMOND WEE, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

Jainism has been continuously practised in India since the 6th century BC and arose in reaction to the caste system just as Buddhism did.

Jains avoid harming living beings and revere 24 Jinas, or persons who have attained enlightenment.

This is a shrine to Sumatinatha, the fifth Jina, whose signature animal, geese, are represented on the throne. He is believed to possess miraculous powers to fulfil the wishes of pilgrims.

Monk's ceremonial fan, 18th century, from Sri Lanka

This ornate fan is made of a palm leaf held in place by an elaborately carved ivory holder. The carving is typical of the high standard achieved during this period in Sri Lanka.

Too heavy for everyday use, the fan would have been used by a high-profile monk during Buddhist ceremonies. Devotees presented fans to monks they revered.

Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd century BC and became the dominant religion. A distinctive Sri Lankan style of religious art emerged, which, in turn, influenced Buddhist art in South-east Asia.

Buddha head, 16th century, from Lan Na in Northern Thailand


PHOTOS:DESMOND WEE, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

This head was once part of a larger statue. It was produced in the major bronze-casting centre of Lan Na in northern Thailand and is one of the Asian Civilisations Museum's rare pieces from that kingdom and period.

The soft, oval face and lidded eyes are typical of Thai religious art, but it is also influenced by Sri Lankan styles, thanks to trade relations.

The statue is a gift of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple.

Cover of a linga, 17th century, from Nepal


PHOTOS:DESMOND WEE, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

This 69cm-tall cover of copper and gilding would have been placed over a plain stone linga, the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.

Different aspects of Shiva are represented via the four heads on the cover - for example, his ferocious aspect, Bhairava, and his half-female aspect, Ardhanareshvara.

An inscription, in the Newari language of Nepal, indicates that the cover was commissioned in 1636 and that the Nepalese ruler at the time, King Siddhinarasimhamalla, was present at its dedication in the temple. It also states that this cover replaced an older, damaged one.

Shi Hou Guanyin, 14th or 15th century, from China


PHOTOS:DESMOND WEE, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

The tiny figure of Amitabha Buddha seated in the headdress identifies this statue (below) as the bodhisattva Guanyin, also known as Avalokiteshvara in India.

The bodhisattva is seated on a lion because its roar symbolises the force of enlightenment.

Depictions such as this developed around the 11th or 12th century in India. The earliest Chinese examples, called Shi Hou Guanyin, are dated to the 12th century.

This statue is a gift of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple.

Akshita Nanda

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery, on the second floor of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), occupies a 680 sq m space formerly used by the museum's special exhibitions and the Faith & Beliefs gallery. This is incorrect. The new gallery occupies a 680 sq m space formerly used by the museum's special exhibitions and South-east Asia gallery.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'On the trail of ancient faiths'. Print Edition | Subscribe