France: Musée Guimet and the Greek Buddhas of Gandhara

What? 
The biggest, and perhaps the best, collection of Asian art in Europe. 

Why visit? 
Yep, Paris has the holy trinity of the Louvre, the Orsay and the Pompidou, but those in the know cherish the Guimet.

Officially known as Le musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, it contains what's perhaps the best collection of Oriental art in the Occident.

Among the various outstanding collections, the collection of Gandharan art, which offers a fascinating mash-up of Greek art and Buddhism, stands out as a highlight.

Where? 
Smack in the center or Paris, midway between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Map. 


LIKE SEVERAL OTHER museums in Paris, the Musee Guimet started from the vision and collection of one man, in this case Émile Guimet, whose family made a fortune making artificial blue dye (apparently there was lots of money to be made that way in the 19th century.)

Guimet was fascinated by Asia and made numerous trips to the continent, several of them on an official government mission to study the 'art and religions of the Far East' (hey, where does one sign up for a job like that?) The enormous collection he built up ended up in the museum named for him, which opened in its current location in 1889, the same year Eiffel's eponymous tower went up. 

If you came to Paris to see the 'must-see-Tripadvisor-Top-10-Tourist-sites', you'll probably end up with 1000s of other tourists at the Louvre, Pompidou or the Orsay. But none of these museums can match the Guimet's outstanding Asian collection, which is also remarkably quiet for a museum that is, by any objective standard, world-class. 
The Guimet's main hall on a busy Sunday afternoon. 
France's colonial history hits you upfront as you enter the main hall: Indochina, in particular Cambodia, is well represented with various pieces, including some stunning works from Angkor. The Indian Subcontinent makes a significant contribution too, with some voluptuous Hindu goddesses and various stone gods. If you like your art solid and heavy (and Minor Sights does!), you'll dig the heavy stone pieces carved out of gigantic rocks that Guimet schlepped back from his many trips. 
Indian goddesses invariable sport a cup size E.
But Minor Sights' undisputed favourite is the collection of art from Gandhara, the largest outside Asia. 

You may check Google Maps, but you won't find Gandhara on it. This ancient kingdom, located in what's now the borderlands between the popular tourist destinations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, had its heyday in the first centuries of our era and has long since been wiped off the map.

Even if you haven't heard of Gandhara, you're probably familiar with Alexander the Great. This Greek (or Macedonian, but let's not get into that now) conquistador burst out of Southern Europe and went on an epic backpacking trip that brought him to the Indian subcontinent around 330 BC. As was his custom, he left behind some trusted sidekicks to lord it over the natives and as a result Hellenistic civilization flourished around modern-day Pakistan for several centuries.

Gandhara is the best-known source for what must have been the world's first fusion art: a bizarre but beautiful mash-up born out of the peaceful collision of Indian Buddhism with classical Greek art. The result is an art style that shows the Buddha dressed up as a Greek or Roman soldier, combining Classical European imagery with Asian mythology.
Ready for a toga party- another Roman Buddha. 
A Greco-Buddhist flower spirit, waiting to pelt the Buddha with petals. 
There are stunning statues, often made of delicate plaster, that would not have been out of place in an Italian or Greek archaeological museum. The only difference is that they show stories of the Buddha rather than Aphrodite or Hercules and that were found a few thousand kilometers east of the Levant.  
A fairly standard Greek Corinthian column capital- sporting a meditating Buddha in the center. 
Gandhara didn't last long, and it's a place that not easily visited. Some of the current inhabitants would prefer to blow up any remaining Buddha statues rather than put them in a museum. So the only way to enjoy this wonderful and rare historical art is to visit some of the museums that managed to snatch these works and whisk them out of the region well before the Taliban took over. Like the Guimet. 


Getting there: 
The Metro will take you straight to Iéna station on Line 9, which happens to be walking distance from Trocadero (for that famous Eiffel Tower view) as well as the Champs Elysees. 

Useful links:
Musee Guimet on the web.
Cultural links between India and the Greco-Roman world

4 comments:

  1. Interestingly I came across Buddhas from Gandhara - which may very well be Greek - in the Government Museum in Bangalore.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Ansh, I didn't know there were Gandharan Buddhas in Bangalore- had I known about them I would have made a point of visiting them! Next time...

      If they were labelled 'Gandhara' they must have had a Hellenistic influence- like the ones mentioned above, they weren't made in Greece or by Greeks either.

      There are a few Gandharan pieces in Bombay in the former Prince of Wales museum and apparently there's a good collection in Delhi as well. Let me know if you see any more!

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  2. Fascinated to learn about artefacts which a revisit to the government museum at Bengaluru will satisfy my curiosity aroused by the article in question relating to Paris's "Musse Guimet" gallery! Courtesy: 'monorsights'👉 vintage places least visited but not far from an overcrowded tourist spots!

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