Buddhism, Islam & the Arts of West & Central Asia

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, examine the influence of religion in the arts of West and Central Asia. Learn about some of the main characteristics of Islamic and Buddhist art from those regions and discover how religious changes have affected their appreciation.

Definition of Central and West Asia

Long before modern borders were defined, large trade routes crossed Central Asia, allowing for the transport of goods and religious beliefs.

Let's locate ourselves in this part of the world. Central Asia is located south of Russia, west of China, east of the Caspian Sea and north of Western Asia. Today, it is formed by five nations that once were part of the Soviet Union. Historically, Afghanistan and the westernmost part of China were closely related, both culturally and religiously, to Central Asia.

Map of West Asia (blue) and Central Asia (orange)
Map of West and Central Asia

Centuries ago, this region was crossed by the Silk Road, an important trade route that connected China with Europe, and Buddhism was the prevalent religion. Today, most people follow Islam, and the Buddhist population is very small.

West Asia is commonly known as the Middle East. It extends from Iran on the east to Turkey on the west, including the Arabic peninsula and the southern Caucasian nations. This region was the cradle of Islam, and ever since it has been deeply influenced by that religion.

In these regions, the arts of diverse cultures were united by religion. Since its birth, Islam has influenced the arts in West Asia. Art in Central Asia was once focused on Buddhism, but Islam began to shape art after it became more prominent in about the 10th century.

Buddhist Art in Central Asia

Buddhism originated in the Ganges basin of India about the 6th century BCE and entered China via the Silk Road about 2,000 years ago. Monks traveled with the trade caravans and preached their faith. This commercial route also allowed Buddhism to expand into Central Asia.

Buddhist religious art and architecture often adopted the form of cave architecture. Huge sculptures or even entire facades were carved on the rock, often covered in plaster and painted. Inside, the walls were decorated with religious paintings.

Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, western China
Mogao Caves

The Mogao caves in western China, built approximately in the 4th century CE, are a good example. The side of a cliff was sculpted as the facade of a temple and the interior was decorated with plenty of religious art. Closer to the Tibetan plateau, Buddhist architecture developed in the form of stupas and monasteries.

Painting and sculpture were also deeply influenced by Buddhism, and most of the artwork was of a religious nature. It consisted mostly of cave painting, sculptures and also portable art, like ritual objects and canvas with religious figures or mandalas (symbolic representations of the universe).

Painting removed from the Thousand Buddhas Cave in western China
Buddhist Painting

Pilgrimage has been an important practice in Buddhism. One important destination is the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni, also known as Jowo Rinpoche, which is considered the most sacred image of Buddha in Tibet. It is located in the city of Lhasa and plenty of faithful travel to visit it.

Islamic Art in West and Central Asia

Islam originated in today's Saudi Arabia in the 7th century CE. Within one century, most people and kingdoms of West Asia had adopted Islam. The expansion continued, and between the 10th and 11th centuries, large areas of Central Asia were converted to Islam.

Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is the most important place in Islam and a destination to which every Muslim is expected to peregrinate at least once in a lifetime. There rests the Kaaba stone, which is the most sacred relic of Islam. Medina, also in Saudi Arabia, is the second most sacred place because it was the home of the Prophet Muhammad. The third sacred place is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built where the Prophet ascended to the heavens.

The Kabah Stone in Mecca
Kabah Stone

Islam has been a determinant for architecture in these regions. For Muslims, the mosque is the most important religious building. All over the world, mosques usually share common elements. The most important are the mihrab, a niche on the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca; the minbar, a pulpit for preaching; and the minaret, a tall tower that is used for calling to prayer. Most mosques also have a courtyard next to the main prayer hall, allowing them to accommodate a large number of worshipers. Tombs are another type of Islamic religious building.

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