It arrived in a massive wooden crate, the size of a twin bed — 724 pounds of sandstone dating from the fourth to sixth century CE. This double-sided stele on loan from the National Museum in Yangon, Myanmar, is one of approximately 70 works of art currently on display at Asia Society Museum, New York, in the spring exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar.
The stele’s discovery and its significance are best described by the exhibition’s guest curator Donald M. Stadtner and catalogue contributor Robert L. Brown in an essay they co-wrote in theBuddhist Art of Myanmar exhibition catalogue:
Discovered within the walled city of Sri Ksetra in the 1970s, this stele has raised more questions than it has provided answers. . . . The stele cannot be tied directly to Buddhism or Hinduism in as much as there are too few defining attributes; also, no convincing parallels are known in the art of India or Southeast Asia. It has been suggested that the empty throne depicted on one side of the stele is an aniconic reference to the Buddha and that the stele should date to the early centuries BCE. It has also been more plausibly argued that the stele should be dated to about the fourth century and that its iconography highlights the connections between India and early Southeast Asia.
On January 29, 2015, when the stele arrived at Asia Society Museum, a team of art handlers and a giant blue crane were required to help lift it into place. An empty pedestal, flanked by two columns on the second floor gallery landing waited in anticipation for the artwork to be hoisted up and put into place. Within minutes the entire floor turned into a hub of activity. Art handlers donned gloves, museum staff members watched with bated breath, and the cameras began to roll. And so began a carefully orchestrated symphony of sandstone and steel. Three hours of meticulous calculations and precise maneuvers later, the stele was finally in place.