Al Khanoum circa 2nd century BCE
Bronze, cast in the lost wax method
Height 11.5 cm
Of all Asia’s mythological creatures, the kinnara and kinnari are probably the most beloved. Benevolent beings half-human half-bird, they watch over mankind in times of trouble or danger. Hindu tradition represents them as celestial musicians and model lovers, ‘eternally husband and wife ... lover and beloved ever-embracing’ (Mahabharata). They also appear in a number of Buddhist texts, including the Lotus Sutra. In Southeast Asian mythology kinnaras are depicted with a human head and torso and the wings, tail and feet of a swan. They are renowned for their dance, song and poetry and symbolise all that is graceful and accomplished.
In the Uzbek language Al Khanoum, where this kinnara comes from, means ‘Lady Moon’. It has been suggested as the site of the historical Alexandria, one of the first cities of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Located in Takhar Province, in northern Afghanistan, at the confluence of the Oxus (today’s Amu Darya) and the Kokcha, it lies on the threshold of the Indian subcontinent. In the past it has been argued that Ai Khanoum was founded in the late fourth century BCE, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, although more recent analysis suggests a foundation by the Seleucid king Antiochus I around 280 BCE is more likely. An eastern bastion of high Hellenistic culture for nearly two centuries, Ai Khanoum succumbed to nomadic invasions around 145 BCE and was abandoned. Between 1964 and 1978 excavations of the site took place, led by the renowned French archaeologist Paul Bernard, until work was brought to a halt by the various occupations and conflicts in the region.
This small but feisty early bronze kinnara has a notably lively appearance. The anthropomorphic head with its large curls evokes portraits of Alexander the Great himself. A wonderful visualisation of the mythological imagination in an early stage of Greco-Asian art, this fine and impressive bronze is one of the very few artefacts originating from Al Khanoum to survive in good condition.
Private collection, the Netherlands.
K. Krishna Murthy, Mythical Animals in Indian Art, New Delhi, 1985, fig. II, 16 and fig. XVIII, 19.
D. Tsiafakis, Life and Death at the Hands of a Siren, Studia Varia from the J. Paul Getty Museum, volume 2, Occasional Papers on Antiquities, Los Angeles, 2001, p. 8, fig. 1.