Tibetan Art

Nicholas Roerich, 1928

The red door, aglow with the gold of ornament, slowly opens. In the twilight of Dukhang, the gigantic image of Maitreya majestically rises into the height. Through the velvety patina of time, one begins to discern upon the walls the delicate silhouettes of images—a whole series of stern Bodhisattvas, guardians and keepers… Powerfully they stand, outlined by a firm hand. Time has enriched the colors and mellowed the sparks of gold. They transmit an unforgettable impression of exalting joy!

The entrance is blue-white, like old Chinese porcelain. There is a tiny door and a high threshold. Like old banners of the great spiritual battles, rows of Tankas hang from the carved balustrade. Numerous paintings glow with a multi-form variety of themes. Golden and purple riders gallop against a black background. The golden filaments of clouds and edifices are interwoven into a scroll of inexhaustible imagination. Upon them are depicted hermits taming the elements. Teachers are ascending the perilous paths. The dark forces are humbled. Hosts of the righteous as well as sinners are thronging around the thrones of the Blessed Ones. On white hatiks — ceremonial scarfs — travelers cross the abysses of life. And the Blessed Tathagata, in the circle of chosen Arhats, sends His Blessings to the approaching ones who are un-fearful of the Great Way. We shall not forget this shrine of precious banners. It shall always fill us with a strength as for battle.

There is another carved entrance. Above the broad steps, in full power, stand the Dharmaraja—the Rulers of all lands. They guard the gates to the great Mother of All Being. The multiple-eyed, omniscient Dukhar, surrounded by resplendent Taras—these are the self-sacrificing guardians of mankind. The gold surface has not yet been completely subdued by the noble covering of time. But dampness already weaves its pattern on the walls. High above the Taras is the Mandala of Sham-bhala. The indefatigable ruler Rigden-jyepo keeps vigilance on the tower, in the sacred circle of the snowy mountains. The warriors are gathered together. We shall not forget this great symbol.

Now we are on remote mountain passes. The snows are already nearby. On this pathway of antiquity appears a gigantic image of Maitreya carved on a rock, bestowing blessings upon the travelers. Not by an average hand was the surface of the rock transformed into this mighty, monumental image. The fire of achievement, a strength of touch, and an indefatigability of labor summoned human forces to the creation of this image upon the now-deserted path. Verily, this is great and significant in thought and in expression, and impelling in masterly craftsmanship. A great art!

The black and gold banners are of Chinese origin. The character of the design and composition is apparently reminiscent of China. Dukhar and Taras—they are the Mother Kali of Great India and the Blessed Kwan Yin of hoary China; they have come from afar to this Tibetan Dukhang. Maitreya recalls the Bodhigaya of India. The Image of the Blessed One directs your thought to Sar-nath; the Hindu origin of the image is even pointed out to you. The mighty Maitreya on the rock was carved by some hand in the Sixth or Seventh Centuries—one which knew of great India. You recall the technique of the Trimurti of Elephanta. You are transported to the sculptures of Mathura, to the frescoes of Ajanta, to the fairy tale of Ellora, to the majestic ruins of Anuradhapura, to the picturesque masses of Rangoon and Mandalay.
Everything that we see in Tibetan temples inevitably evokes reminiscences of India and China. The flow of the water-fall recalls its source!

Four years of wanderings through all the Buddhist countries have permitted the accumulation of many impressions. From the unforgettable fairy-tale of the cave temples of Central Asia to the Ten Thousand Buddhas recently ordered by Buddhists of Mongolia from Polish factories (as if the East had become depleted to such an extent!); from the impoverished monastery comprising a transportable yurta of the steppe, to the painting of Sham-bhala carried by the wandering lama—we have seen all.
Of course, everywhere we have been astonished by the distinction between the old and modern images. The powerful conception of ancient temples, their grandeur and proportions, their discriminately chosen sites and the lavishness of their construction, speak to us of quite a different spiritual condition in their creators. The meager proportions, indifferent choice of sites, instability of construction and ornamentation make some of the new Tibetan temples unconvincing. Those who lived as eagles upon the heroic rocks, have passed away. The Tibetans themselves stress the advantages of the ancient work, and the importance of the site in view of its antiquity. And this is not the mirage of antiquity; it is simply reality, and an evident difference in the quality of the creation.Certainly, time with its inimitable accumulations adorns all things. We know how ennobled by time are the Primitives of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. The Persian merchants spread their carpets under the feet of the bazaar crowds in order to obtain the precious patina. So we may attribute a great deal of the attractiveness of old Tibet to the lure of time.

Besides, it is entirely evident that the mastery of old artists of Tibet was finer and keener. Their spiritual striving gave them an inspiration which passed beyond the boundaries of the conventional mechanical canon.

Dalai Lama the Fifth, called the Great, who was responsible for the Potala, the only significant structure of Tibet, knew how to strengthen the nerve of spirit. Several of the Tashi Lamas knew how to encourage talent.

It is significant to note how everywhere the inner stimulus establishes the quality of production. It lights or extinguishes the fire of creation, of all the productions of a nation. The true history of a nation could be written by the monuments of its creation and production. Now, after the departure of the Tashi Lama, Tibet is somewhat lowered spiritually and in the expressions of its art.

The entire literature of the Buddhist teaching emanated from India and China. It is pointed out that Tibetan translations from the Sanskrit are stereotyped because of the paucity of expression in the Tibetan language and fail to express many of the subtleties which evolved from the wisdom of India.

Of course, in addition to India and China, Tibet has more ancient heritages. On the rocks we found old drawings. Out of the vastness of antiquity, the Swastika summons us—this sign of the fiery cross of life. Since the periods of ancient migrations there remain in Tibet some typical forms of handicraft. But the art of the great wanderers is entirely forgotten by modern Tibetans. True, that up to now, the swords of Tibet remind you of the Gothic tombs. Fibulae and buckles reveal to you the Goths and Alans. One recalls the unexpected information from the chronicles of Catholic missionaries, that the site of Lhassa is somewhere called Gotha. In the Doring district, in the Trans-Himalayas, we found an old buckle with the double-headed eagle, so much like our discoveries in the South Russian steppes and northern Caucasus. In the same locality we discovered ancient tombs entirely like the tombs in Altai where the Goths passed.

The women of this district wear a head-dress of the form of the Kokoshnik—so typical of the Slavonic countries of Europe. At an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, we also found ancient stone sanctuaries like those of the Dru-idic sun-cult—but of this we shall speak later in detail. Hence, when we, freezing in Chunargen, called Tibet jestingly the Land of the Niebelungen, we were closer to the truth than we could have foreseen. Recalling all the assimilations and imitations of Tibet, it is really impossible to speak about Tibetan art. Really it is difficult to recall architectural, sculptural or pictorial monuments which do not find their source in the refined treasures of India and China.

Let us also not forget the technical influence on Tibet on the side of Nepal. Nepal itself has not created original forms and was nurtured by the influence of India. In paintings, Nepal is without distinction, but good Nepalese metal workers and goldsmiths from time immemorial, carried into Tibet a specific form of technique.
Just before me I have two excellent images of old Tibet: the image of Buddha in which you immediately discern the Hindu type and Hindu influence. Another of very fine work, is an image of Dalai Lama the Fifth, justly called the Great. This image recalls the fine Chinese work and probably came from Derge. Now Tibet does not make images of such perfection.

Authorities say that the best Sino-Tibetan objects are to be found through China. And that is so. Again, the Nepalo-Tibetan images can easily and justly be attributed to Nepal and India.

A collector once hearing my opinion that an original Tibetan Art did not exist, became worried, and asked me whether it was at all worth while to collect this art. To this I replied: “Of course it is worth while. Surely you do not love and value these images for the sake of Tibet as such. Be it a Chinese or Nepalese hand that made them, is this not immaterial to you? You are interested in the results of craftsmanship. And whether you place the object in the Chinese section of your collection or whether in the Indian-Nepalese one, does not influence the characteristics of craftsmanship nor does it diminish the value of iconographical symbology.”

One consequently observes the very curious fact, that east of Lhassa, China, in certain respects, begins at once; whereas to the west there is the influence of Nepal, although even in some monasteries of Ladak we noticed Tankas of a comparatively recent date and of decidedly Chinese meaning and expression. There is also much Chinese influence in Sikhim. Visiting monasteries, one often meets typical Chinese images in gold on black backgrounds, and statues of Chinese dragons and lions. In the Sikhim monasteries one observes incidentally, a custom which certainly merits praise. None of their sacred objects are for sale, and they are all entered into special inventory lists; which indicates already a certain degree of cultural self-consciousness. In Tibet and in the western provinces of China this rule unfortunately does not yet apply.

An interesting instance of western influence, we saw in Tibet where we found a peculiar coin minted in Unan, representing Queen Victoria in Chinese garments. The popular appreciation of silver Indian rupees produced this strange imitation in which is seen the unique spell that the name of Queen Victoria cast throughout the expanses of Asia.

After mentioning the interpretive arts, such as painting, sculpture, wood and metal work, one cannot omit also to refer to the condition of Tibetan architecture. Of architecture in Tibet one may say about the same as of the other arts: It is based on the Chinese. In the old constructions one may notice a considerable solidity and a certain sweep of fantasy. Looking at them, there involuntarily comes to mind that it would not be difficult to furnish these monumental many-storied structures and their effective balconies, terraces and cornices with the latest innovations of the American skyscrapers. But this strikingly decorative quality is to be found only in ancient constructions, where the large architectural planes are set into beautiful proportions by elaborate multicolored ornaments. All the new houses, however, having lost in constructive grandeur, also lose the sharpness of accurate craftsmanship. As often happens, a misguided emulation of “civilization” destroys the most characteristic parts and the Tibetan house of to-day resembles rather a clumsy badly built box in its construction.

As regards temples, one must say that voluntary contributions have apparently become rare and, whereas in old temples one sees work of wrought-gold and finely carved ornaments, in the more recent temples only shoddy gilt clay images, cheap tin and poorly carved wood-work are to be found.

One still sees the curious Tanagra-like pottery, which in its proportions reminds one so much of the antique amphoras. The appearance of the clumsy, heavy Tibetans of to-day seems to have little in common with these fine and elaborate lines. These forms were certainly created in the past under the effect of a different psychology.
The same thing is apparent, also, when you compare the new swords with the ancient ones, or when comparing the present-day headwear with the family heirlooms inherited from their grandmothers.

Among the artistic handwork and ornaments, the so-called “dzi” beads have quite a special place. They are considered as sacred objects and many legends and beliefs have gathered about them. Some say that these stones are of natural origin, like the onyx. Others say that they are found in the excrements of cranes and also in the dung of yaks. Others say that they are found during the field work and that they spring out of the grass with a special cracking sound. And the people add that if one dzi springs out, others may usually be found near that place.

In view of the sacred and guarded peculiarities of the dzi, the price for them has risen to fifteen hundred rupees, depending on their properties. An oblong bead with one white eye is high in price, but still higher is the dzi with nine eyes. For some strange reason the seven-eyed dzi is completely unknown.
Naturally in view of the great value of the dzi, which brings health, wealth and good fortune, there have appeared many imitations in China. But the Tibetans and the Sikhimese easily discern them from the old ones. Incidentally, this is not very difficult, for the present day dzi is much coarser and sharper in line, and is devoid of that special transparency, which is so typical of the old dzi.

In view of the definitely outlined designs, the possibility of a natural mineral origin of the dzi must be absolutely rejected. Of course, they are the handiwork of very old times. The story that dzi are found when working the fields and usually several dzi together, would lead to the same conclusion. Only one question remains unsolved: From where did the dzi originally come into Tibet, and to what people did they belong?

As is usual in many countries, objects brought into a country by foreign travelers are considered to be of heavenly origin and a sacred meaning is attached to them… Maybe the excavation of ancient burial places in Tibet could afford a solution to this question, which is almost unmentioned in literature, but to which such importance is attached in Tibet itself. Already the unprecedented high prices and the specially designed imitations indicate what attention the local population gives to the dzi beads.

In the technical tradition it is very interesting to trace the same methods which are characteristic of the medieval Ikon paintings which were used until recent times by the professional Russian rustic Ikon painters. Watching the work of lama Ikon painters, I recognized a method of work completely like the work of the Russian provincial Ikon painters. In the same way the wood or canvas is prepared. In the same manner the “levkas”— that is chalk and glue—is prepared for the background. Similarly is the prepared wood and canvas polished by a shell or horn. In the same way is the stencil transferred and colored with very fine brushes. The only difference is that the Russian Ikon painters cover the Ikon with oil varnish. They carefully preserve the formula of this varnish and are proud of the durability of the work. Russian Ikon painters often have manuscripts in script about the technique of Ikons and these are sometimes written in a secret symbolical code. Such manuscripts are preserved in families and only handed down from father to son. Of such manuals I have never heard in Tibet. One more resemblance between Tibetan and Russian Ikon painters: Both chant during their work and often the Russian Ikon painters intone the old chants about Yosephat Tzare-vitch, not suspecting that they sing of the Blessed Buddha. Yosephat is the altered pronunciation of Bodhisattva.

Another circumstance indicated the close influence of China on the art of Tibet. The best Tibetan Ikon painters come from Kham. The best images are molded in Derge, and there also the printing is best. Tibetans themselves say that they cannot imitate the perfection of the Chinese work. The Maharajah of Sikhim possesses a group of very colorful Tankas of apparent Chinese quality. Certainly the series must be from Kham. Some good works are also to be found in Tashi lhunpo as befitted the residence of the spiritual head of Tibet.

One may find, however, many touching details of ikon-ographic work. There still is left to us the interest in ikonography and the symbolism of images! To study it is highly instructive. You may find many forgotten occult laws. Pay attention to how the auras are depicted. Look on the magic mirrors. Study the meaning of the magic circle of Mandala of Norbu-rinpoche. But the contemporary artists know less of these laws. The Kalachakra, brought from India by Atticha, is repeated without application to life. But “will everything which has fallen—not rise again?” In the future there will be a new Tibetan people ..iid a Tibetan art. But when and how?
“With fire is the space filled. Already the lightning of Kalki Avatar—predestined Maitreya—flashes upon the horizon.”
The regeneration of Tibet will come. There were moments when after cataclysms the consciousness was awakened in full vigor by these explosions of spiritual accumulations. Entire vivid epochs were created. Some people may still remain immovable, devouring raw meat, losing their teeth from scurvy, from an unhealthy life and rotting in unchanged germ-ridden skins. In Lhassa it is temporarily forbidden to have electric lights on the streets. Moving pictures are forbidden. In all Tibet the laity is forbidden to shave its hair and has again been ordered to garb itself in long khalats, and in Tibetan-Chinese shoes. All these symptoms are not ordained by the Blessed One. Because each teaching foresees the possession of possibilities and the evolutionary movement. These Tibetan forbiddances are revealing mechanical superstitious worship of the past. But we shall ask: “Which past do you worship? To which of your grandfathers do you wish to pay homage?” In retrogression one can go back even to the inarticulate sounds of his forefathers. The past is good as long as it does not impede the future. We love and value all the beauty and charm of the past. We confirm that “from the stones of the past may be erected the steps of the future.” But from the stones, let us lay out the complete majestic steps of new beauty and knowledge. And what can evolve, if the death of the past has occurred and the future is forbidden?

* * *

But from where shall Tibet now accept the teachings? Yet in the midnight, into the tent a lama comes and cautiously peering about, speaks of the purification of the entire teaching. Such lamas do not live in Lhassa but on the heights.
Out of the desert distances a rider rushes from unknown friends. He whispers friendly advice—arranges his gold-woven kaftan and disappears into the twilight of the desert.
Whence art thou, messenger? Whence is thy smile?
Shekar Dzong, 1928.

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Nicholas Roerich

Follow your bliss

1874 – 1947

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